As surely as water warms in springtime, anglers can expect an annual event that is unsurpassed for pure fun and fishing excitement. It doesn't require long and elaborate trips. Specialty gear is not required. Enjoying it is inexpensive, and it's equally appealing to anglers young and old.
The event? A panfish love fest. The result? A month or more of non-stop action on scrappy sunfish that taste as good as they fight. Spring panfishing offers an angling bonanza that comes at a perfect time to bury winter's slow and dreary days. And it's also arguably the best way to introduce new anglers to the sport of fishing.
In the spring, sunfish are feeding aggressively and can often be easily caught in large numbers.
Panfish is a general term that includes a number of fish species that normally don't grow larger than a frying pan. Technically, it includes fish like crappies, but black and white crappies attract such a following year-round that they command their own category of discussion among fishing circles. Instead, panfishing is usually understood to include small fish in the sunfish family—bluegills, redears, green sunfish, pumpinseeds and related species. These are aggressive feeders, common in most waters, and easy to catch during April and May. In keeping with the name of this group of fish, many anglers stock their freezers with tasty panfish taken during the spring spawning season.
It is these small fish's vast ability to reproduce that makes them abundant and easy to catch. An individual sunfish nest may contain as many as 200,000 fry, and large spawning beds produce enough young to easily overpopulate ponds and other small impoundments. When this happens, the fish become stunted and seldom exceed 6 inches in length. Though trophy specimens should be harvested in moderation, it is actually healthy for a fishery when anglers take large numbers of sunfish for the table. A balanced sunfish population allows fish to grow to trophy size—10 inches or more in length, and weighing more than a pound. Fish of this size make worthy quarry, especially when pursued with ultralight spinning gear.
Fortunately, sunfish can thrive in almost any kind of water except for cold lakes and streams. They are abundant in farm ponds, natural lakes, slow-flowing creeks, large reservoirs and even drainage ditches having permanent water. Due to their popularity, sunfish are often stocked in urban fisheries. Because of this, they are readily accessible throughout most of the United States. Nearly anyone can experience the spring panfish bonanza close to home.
Bluegills are the best known and probably the most sought-after panfish species, given their relatively large size and nationwide abundance. Their life history is typical for sunfish species, so knowing how to catch them is useful when fishing for any of the sunfish group.
Sunfish spawn in circular depressions in shallow water and typically use the same beds every year.
Bluegills congregate in schools and tend to live close to structure such as submerged trees, rocks or weedbeds, docks and even the shoreline. Trophy fish are more solitary and usually stay deeper than their smaller kin. Though bluegills may sometimes be caught through the ice in late winter, they generally do not begin feeding actively until water temperature warms to 50 degrees F. They feed on insects, crustaceans and small fish, relying heavily on scent to help them verify prey items. Especially in cool waters of early springtime, the natural scent of live baits, or adding commercial scents to artificial lures, may increase the number of bites.
As water temperature approaches 60 degrees, bluegills begin feeding heavily in preparation for the spring spawning period. They move into shallow water where sunlight helps warm their environment and jump-starts submerged vegetation growth and invertebrate activity. At this time, bluegills can be caught with insect larvae such as wax worms, on 1/64th oz. jigs, or on wet nymph imitations using fly-fishing gear. Slow presentations are crucial, since the fish are not yet active enough to chase fast-moving lures.
Spawning occurs when water temperature reaches 69 degrees in water 2 to 3 feet deep. It is during spawn that all panfish are easiest to catch. Fish return to the same spawning beds year after year, so discovering a hotspot ensures fishing success every spring. Male fish sweep out circular depressions in sandy bottoms, and then fertilize the eggs when females visit the nests. Males guard the hatching fry for several days, and then leave the young to fend for themselves.
During the spawning period, adult males will attack any lure that comes near the nest. Some anglers use topwater popping bugs in shallow water to enjoy the action of surfacing bluegills. Better yet is the use of small jigs or spinners that work deeper through the nest zones. One tried-and-true method uses live crickets fished under a bobber. However one goes about it, the key is using baits or lures small enough for the tiny mouths of sunfish. When seeking trophy bluegills, minnows or minnow-imitation lures may be most productive.
Equipment need not be expensive. A simple cane pole with attached line has accounted for untold numbers of panfish. Spinning gear, open- or closed-faced, is adequate. Ultralight gear brings out the best battles with sunfish, and therefore is more fun to fish with, yet fly-fishing gear is also ideal. Large bluegills tend to be line-shy, so it's best to use 4-pound-test line (or lighter) that is invisible in the water. When bobbers are used, small pencil models will outperform the plastic ball-shaped bobbers, though both will get the job done. Generally, hooks should be in the range of size 6 to size 10 for best success. Decent panfishing gear can usually be purchased at discount stores for about $25.
Because they are plentiful and fairly easy to catch, sunfish are ideal quarry for youngsters.
Fortunately, panfish spawn in shallow water that’s easily accessed from the shoreline. Boats or float tubes can sometimes be helpful but usually are not essential. Small sunfish may nest in water only a foot deep, but the trophy fish tend to nest 4 to 6 feet deep on sandy or rocky bottoms. Since it takes longer for deep water to warm to preferred spawning temperature, big fish tend to spawn later than their smaller relatives.
Water clarity and depth also affect timing of the spawn. Murky water absorbs heat and warms faster than clear water. Shallow impoundments warm faster than deep, bowl-like fisheries. Knowing these things helps panfish anglers extend their success by moving to different locations at appropriate times.
Generally, daily panfish limits are either absent or very liberal, due to prolific reproduction. In certain fisheries with heavy angling pressure, though, size limits may be imposed to help fish reach trophy proportions. This is especially true in stocked, urban fishing areas. Be sure to check regulations before fishing.
Whether you're a novice or a veteran, a day of panfishing gets the angling year off to a great start. Don't miss out on springtime's great bonanza.