It’s hard to be patient for spring panfish

By Steve Griffin

We haunt Saginaw Bay cuts and Lake Michigan drowned-river-mouth lakes several cold weeks before perch, those striped heralds of spring, arrive. Snow squalls sometimes mock our optimism.

We slip and slide on just-thawed mud at shoreline haunts we know to draw spawning-minded crappies or coax winter-weary outboards to fire up and transport us to river, impoundment or lake hotspots. We’re often a month early for the paper-mouthed fish.

We toss baits into known bluegill gathering spots on ponds and lakes weeks before the sunfish convene in those sun-warmed bedding grounds.
We do it all because panfishing is one — make that several — of the best things of spring. With no set opening day, it begins when we say so. But of course, the fish need to say so, too, and that often comes later than we think, wish or dream.

We’ve no choice, it seems, but to be patient and wait.

It doesn’t help that winter’s last days of ice-borne panfishing can feature hungry fish re-finding their appetites. About the time stronger sunlight burns fall-tossed oak leaves into thick-but-suspect ice, good sense finally keeps us ashore, where we begin waiting for water warm enough to turn them back on.

It doesn’t happen all at once, with each species, lake or portion of lake hitting full spring stride at a different time. It takes a delicate blend of pioneering and patience, but done right, panfishing’s a delicious celebration of spring. (Remember that spring comes differently in Southern Michigan than in the Upper Peninsula; months cited here are in mid-Michigan.)

Perch fishing usually comes first. Argue, if you wish, whether spawning or hunger brings schools of perch to the shoreline or other structure — females’ bellies are distended with eggs, after all. Males drip milt, but on the line, fish of either sex often spit up multiple minnows from an extended stay at the bait buffet. No matter the impetus, spring fishing can bring fast perch action, with a frying-pan payoff in what many call Michigan’s tastiest fillets.

Standard perch gear includes the spreader rig, a two-hook, often bead-decorated set-up with each hook on a short leader held away from the main line on a wire or heavy monofilament arm. You can’t go wrong with a two-inch emerald shiner on each hook. A bell sinker anchors the rig in place, and a tap-tap at the rod tip is the perch’s way of telling you you’ve found the right spot.

Linger at the bait shop where you buy your minnows, and look over the tackle shelves: waters made clearer by zebra and quagga mussels have led many anglers to lighten up, using perch rigs with lighter mono or even fluorocarbon line, often with feathered-jig-style hooks. You won’t need the subtle approach every day, but sometimes it makes a fish-catching difference.

I live a short drive from Saginaw Bay, whose tributary streams, cuts, inlets and marinas draw perch reliably every spring. Lakes called drowned river mouths at Lake Michigan from Manistee southward are perch magnets, too.

It’s a joke between my wife and me now: we stand in our sun-washed driveway, and birds chirp. Soon we’re in the car, headed for some Saginaw Bay tributary rivers and cuts, the back seat filled with cold-weather clothing — that soon proves insufficient. The waters and the land and air surrounding them warm slowly. We start looking for perch in mid-March but most reliably connect with them in mid-April or beyond.

Spring crappie action doesn’t trail the perch bite by much. Among the first moving shallow for spring spawning, they can provide fast action before returning to deep water at spring’s end. Like all the spring panfish, catching one often opens the door to fast action on a school of fish.

Michigan has black and white crappies, the former spotted, with seven or eight dorsal spines favoring clear water and weed beds; the latter bearing vertical bars, six dorsal spines and lurking about river impoundment brush and standing timber. Begin a spring for either in shallow cuts and canals, especially those with dark bottoms. Marines and coves are good bets, too, warming earlier than a main lake or river. In the Great Lakes, try among reeds or bulrushes in shallow areas. Crappies are big-time eaters of insect larvae and fish, and best bets include live minnows or jigs, still-fished beneath bobbers or cast and retrieved.

Crappies, like perch, are sentinels of early spring. But a friend on the now-drained Sanford Lake often urged patience when alternating warm-ups and cold fronts turned crappie action on and off in the yo-yo style typical of their species. He knew that fish in different parts of the lake behaved differently. He maintained faith in spots like the “Mother’s Day stump,” which always produced shallow-water fish on that mid-May event – long after many crappie fans had put away their minnow pails and pinkie jigs.

You’ll likely have to endure harsh spring weather if you consistently chase perch and crappies. But I’ve found bluegills and other sunfish to be the robin on the yard, the cluster of rummage signs at the street corner, the pick-up baseball game — the sign that spring’s soon to give way to summer.

Bluegills and the rest of the sunfish family — bluegills with black patches on the gill plate and dorsal fin; pumpkinseeds with a red spot on the gill flap, aqua-blue lines radiating from the mouth and an orange belly; green sunfish with their slimmer profile; and others — share many traits and behaviors, most notably to anglers their community nesting reproductive patterns. As water temperatures sneak through the 50s and into the 60s (later than many of us think or wish!), males move in shallow and begin scooping out a depression into which one or more females deposit eggs. Those males then guard the nest and young, to an angler’s delight smacking soundly about any bait or lure that seems a threat.

Best baits include leaf worms, red worms or, my favorite, wax worms on a small ice fishing jig. Small artificial lures can also pay off. Spawning sunfish — bluegills, pumpkinseeds, green sunfish, redears or even rock bass — have long been a favorite target of flyrodders wielding poppers and rubber spiders. Each year, more anglers turn to small plastic baits, which panfish bite with abandon.

The best sunfish bites begin in May, but you can beat the calendar by heading to the south-facing side of many lakes, where sunshine warms water even during cold snaps. A friend messaged me last mid-April that he was making good catches late with spikes, a bait he prefers over wax worms because the tough maggots stay on a hook better.

In truth, though, almost any kind of small bait or lure tossed into a sunfish bedding area is likely to bring a strike once the leaves have emerged, the mosquitoes hatch and the snow’s long gone. And it just gets better: some of my best mid-Michigan spawning sunfish days have come in mid-June.

Panfish offer year-round angling opportunities with liberal daily limits: Perch carry their own 25-fish daily creel limit, while crappies, bluegills, green and hybrid sunfish, longear, pumpkinseed, redear rock bass and warmouth have a collective 25-fish limit.

This time of the year especially, you may need to keep count. A friend lives on the shoreline of a lightly fished lake in central Northern Michigan. It abounds in bluegills, bass and generous populations of other sunfish, walleyes and crappies. There’s not a bad fishing spot on the entire lake, but in spring, two particular lobes, each maybe the size of a large city lot, become like the setting for a fish story in a liar’s contest. Their shallow spots have dark bottoms that act like solar energy cells, warming quickly to hatch aquatic insects and draw small fish and other food sources. Almost overnight, hungry and spawning-ready panfish and bass pack into the bays in densities more than one astonished angler has called ‘stupid.’ You might catch a fish on every cast, and if you lose one during a fight, you can expect a replacement hooked just a few feet further along.

It doesn’t take long to switch to mainly catch-and-release in a situation like that, and it’s a good idea to limit your catch a bit anyway. Heavy harvest pressure on adult panfish can take a toll, and spring panfishing is not only worth waiting for, it is worth conserving. Play with those exciting spring perch, crappies and sunfish, keep a few mid-size for the frying pan, and release others as gently as possible.

Michigan’s inland-lake bluegills and other sunfish were once protected by a closed season that kept them off-limits until the late-June bass opener!
Be glad we no longer have to be that patient for our panfish!

Be sure to visit the Michigan DNR’s website and get your fishing license!

Steve Griffin has been a full-time freelance outdoors writer for over four decades; his first magazine article appeared in Michigan Out-of-Doors in February 1976. A University of Michigan graduate in English, he lives in Midland with wife Mary Jo.