By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
April is a great time to be an angler in the Midwest as the action heats up, right along with the water. It’s a fun time to be outside after being indoors so long, and it’s a terrific time to replenish the fish supply in the freezer with fresh panfish.
But never forget – it is possible to harm panfish populations if too many are taken from small lakes and reservoirs. But, some bodies of water host good numbers of big fish ready for harvest. Use selective harvest to preserve the fishery for next year.
Species like crappie go through cycles wherever they are. About every three years, a lake will have a bumper crop of bigger fish that are reaching the end of their lives. Fisheries biologists say the reason for the up-down-up swings are because the bigger ones feed on smaller ones. As a result one year class will be the bullies on the block until their numbers are diminished by aging, predation and fishing pressure. When they’re moved aside, the next year class can thrive to become the next big age class.
Check with your local conservation department which is glad to share their latest surveys. Sometimes, they’ll even single out reservoirs and lakes where increased fishing pressure and more relaxed limits in terms of numbers and length limits are allowed which, in turn, could help prevent stunting. All things being equal, try to locate lakes farther off the beaten path which others anglers may have overlooked.
Reservoirs, or flowages as they are often called, are often prime crappie locations. They seem to love wood, which is often incredibly plentiful in reservoirs. Often, huge forests were left in place and flooded when these reservoirs were built. Fluctuating water levels in flood-control reservoirs often causes trees to topple along the shoreline. It may seem like there is so much cover that finding crappies is impossible. But the process isn’t so complicated, according to guides like Steve Welch (www.lakeshelbyvilleguide.com) who works the 11,000-acre Lake Shelbyville in Central Illinois or Greg Bohn (www.gregbohn.com), who guides on flowages and natural lakes around Minocqua, Wis. They have two different approaches. Welch focuses on deep water even after other anglers have moved to the shoreline, which is where you’ll find Bohn. Both patterns will work. Here are their suggestions;
For shallow work when water ranges from 45 degrees to 60 degrees, electronics equipped with a temperature gauge is a must have. A difference in a degree or two is all it takes. Avoid the points. Check the shallow adjacent bays instead. Shallow, protected water warms faster. Add a breeze blowing warm surface water into the bay and the effect is even more pronounced. The ripple effect often triggers more intense action. Wood also transmits heat from the sun to the water. Check shallow stump fields in the back of bays. The water will be warmer and crappies will be there.
Slip bobbers are best to target both the skinny water near shore and that 5 to 6 feet of deeper water under the boat. Crappies can be in both shallow and deeper water. Use minnows in the colder water, but try plastic trailers as the temperature rises. If your state law allows multiple rods, set out the slip bobbers and use another rod with a small jig/plastic combination to fan cast the area and cover more water.
Flood control reservoirs have usually been drawn down over the winter. That means much of the forage has moved toward the dam and so will many crappies. Check those bays first.
If the water is high enough, motor up the shallow feeder creeks and rivers. Shad and other forage will go toward the warmth. If you live further north, try looking for fish in shallow, warmer water starting with bays located on the northwest side of the lake.
Deeper reservoir fish might be harder to find were it not for sonar units with sophisticated side imaging, like Humminbird’s. The technology is so precise that fish can be seen on the screen as a boat motors along the deep river channel banks that feature down trees and standing trees. Once crappies are seen among the branches (yes, the side imaging is that good), use the cursor to mark the position with GPS. Mark several trees to target before quietly motoring over the tops of the trees and switch to standard, down looking sonar to gauge how deep to fish.
The same deep-water tactic works on Welsh’s second favorite reservoir system, Kentucky Lake. “Even though the water temps are starting to warm up, I stay on the deep fish until late April,” said Welch. “These fish are schooled up and easy to catch. On sunny days, they will suspend at the same level as the top of the submerged trees. Bottom depth means nothing because I know of trees in 50 feet of water depth that have branches just a few feet under the surface.”
Use heavier jigs with lighter hooks to get down to the fish fast and get free if you snag. Tip with a minnow.
Feeder rivers and creeks can get shallow and narrow. Slip bobbers work best there. Stay back a bit from the trees and toss the bobber to them.
Crappies aren’t the only panfish that are welcomed by an empty freezer. Decent-sized bluegills are worth the trouble to find and place in the live well. Again, your conservation department biologists know the best places, which usually have a strong predator base such as largemouth bass, walleyes or muskies. Most biologists say a lake known to have large numbers of 2-pound largemouth may harbor big panfish. Angling pressure can certainly impact the number of big bluegills so practice selective harvest.
Unlike crappies and wood, bluegills usually relate to weeds and the bottom content they prefer consists of a variety of hard and muck bottoms. The best early-year ‘gills are often found in small, shallow, fertile farm ponds. In larger lakes, shallow bays near deep water are typically best. Find emerging vegetation and the bluegills will be there. The best vegetation is cabbage 12 feet to 20 feet down near transition areas between mud and hard, sandy bottoms. Target the edges of the weeds, the inside, outside and on the top.
Use an ultra-light rod, like St. Croix’s PS60ULF, light line, and tiny jigs. Lindy’s Fuzz-E-Grub jigs or Little Nippers are awesome panfish jigs. Tip them with small minnows or wax worms.
Early panfish action can be hot and heavy, which is just the medicine to warm you up after a chilly winter.
Reproduced with permission:
Mark Strand Outdoors
3077 Meadow Brook Drive
Woodbury, MN 55125