May 12, 2023
By Dr. Jason A. Halfen
One of the annual rituals enjoyed by anglers across the country is the springtime movement of panfish—bluegills, crappies and perch—into the shallow, protected waters of lakes, rivers and reservoirs to form spawning colonies. This can concentrate hundreds of aggressive, protective fish into a very small area, making for some fantastic fishing action.
In many ways, finding panfish spawning colonies may not be more difficult than cruising the shorelines of your favorite body of water, as many fish will bed up in water that is 2 to 4 feet deep with a firm bottom. Hard bottom is preferred over silty substrates, as nests built in the mud and muck tend to fill in quickly from wave action. However, you’re sure to face one significant challenge when looking for bedding panfish along the shorelines, and that’s the crowds.
Other fishermen, pleasure boaters, waders, dock-bound anglers—everyone looking for a quick meal of spring panfish will be beating the shoreline to death. Colonies that pop up over the course of a couple of days get picked clean quickly, with any remaining fish so heavily pressured that they simply don’t bite. There must be a better way—and indeed, there is.
This year, turn your attention offshore to locate unpressured panfish spawning colonies instead of concentrating your efforts near the banks. Look to offshore flats that are connected to shore, with water 6 to 8 feet deep, and featuring some scattered cover like weeds, stumps, rocks or similar.
Because these flats can be expansive, side-imaging sonar technology is helpful for locating the spawning colonies, which have a characteristic appearance on the side-imaging view. These appear as honeycombs, with densely packed depressions in the bottom that are dark in the middle and bright on the perimeter.
Each of these nests has been fanned out of the bottom by a single fish, which will protect the eggs and fry that hatch there. With Humminbird’s ultra-high-frequency MEGA Side Imaging, for instance, it is frequently possible to see not only the nests but also the fish guarding them. When searching watch for a bright spot (the fish), as well as an associated dark spot (the fish’s sonar shadow) hovering above or adjacent to a bed.
Contemporary anglers can leverage additional high-tech advantages when position fishing for spring panfish. Humminbird‘s MEGA 360 Imaging is an exceptional tool for surveying a large area from a stationary position while pinned with a shallow-water anchor or a spot-lock-equipped trolling motor.
MEGA 360 Imaging provides a high-resolution, picture-like image of the water column, the bottom, nearby structure and, of course, fish. The image appears as a circular area centered on the boat, providing a regularly updating image that is very much akin to an underwater radar scope.
Forward-facing sonar, like Garmin’s Livescope, allows anglers to direct a narrow sonar beam in virtually any direction and obtain true real-time sonar images of structure and the water column, a lure being presented and fish reacting to it. Live sonar is an excellent way to fine-tune a panfish presentation, as fish behavior is presented as it happens, with or without a strike being provoked.
PULL OUT THE PLASTICS
With panfish located and presentations honed, it’s finally time to catch a bunch. This season, leave the live bait in the cooler and elevate your game with soft-plastic offerings. Spring panfish are easily fooled by 2-inch-long, slender-profile soft plastics.
This is critically important when fish are on the beds, as a quick, injury-free release—especially for the supersized specimens—is essential for preserving a desirable panfish size structure in our lakes. Soft plastics make injury-free release possible, as they virtually ensure that fish can’t swallow a hook so deeply that they are harmed during the catch.
The new Micro Finesse ElaZtech baits from Z-Man Fishing Products are exceptional choices, as their natural buoyancy slows their descent through the water column. Additionally, their incredible durability also means that a single package of these 21st-century marvels might keep you hauling in spring panfish for weeks.
Rig panfish plastics on a 1/16-ounce jig head. Be sure to use jigs with a wire plastic "keeper" to hold the bait tight to the jig head. Lob panfish lures using a 7-foot, light-power, extra-fast-action rod, rigged with a 1000-series spinning reel spooled with 20-pound-test high-visibility braided line and finished with a 2-foot leader of 6-pound-test fluorocarbon line. Swim and hop the jig back to the boat and enjoy the fun and satisfaction of locating and catching your very own collection of bedding panfish—off the beaten path, while everyone else is glued to the shorelines.