For me, zeroing in on active, pre-spawn Crappie and Sunfish can be one of the most challenging seasons of the year. It’s one time when fish are most unpredictable, yes; they do feed heavily during this period. But the problem is that after ice out, the lakes are loaded with fresh Oxygen and fish can move freely into and out of any area they choose.
For the moment, spawning is NOT the primary force that determines location. The urge to spawn will come later, when the water warms into the 60 degree range. But now, when surface temperatures hover between 45 and 55 degrees, Panfish spend their idle time in deep water. They’ll make feeding runs into shallow water when they want to, but unless weather conditions are ideal, they won’t move very much.
So there’s the challenge; from now until spawning time Panfish can go wherever they want; feeding only when the urge strikes them. Until they begin to spawn, they could be found deep, shallow or somewhere in between. That forces anglers to spend the lion’s share of their fishing time in search mode, looking for fish instead of actually wetting a line.
Obviously, predicting the location of Panfish is a key to catching them. But I believe that your average success rate will improve when you begin factoring in “Location vs. Time”. What I mean is that KNOWING where the fish are supposed to be is meaningless if you haven’t allowed yourself ample time to find them.
Let’s face it, with today’s electronics, you CAN find fish, if you have time. Where I think we go wrong is when we try to cover too much territory or selecting lakes with small populations of fish. Either way, tackling too much water or selecting lakes that contain too few fish are both time wasters. In fact I believe that “the wasted time factor” has been the most common cause of my own past failures.
Today, I consider picking the right lake to be the most important factor of a successful pre-spawn Panfish trip. I believe that if you pick the right lake and everything else will fall into place.
So let’s talk about that, how do I decide where I’m gonna float my boat before I ever pull a rod out of the locker.
For me, the ideal Panfish Lake would be less than 300 acres, consist of one deep hole, have one weedy flat and have ample shoreline cover to provide spawning habitat. If it also had a long point leading into deep water and sharp breaklines at the edge of the deep water, then it would be perfect.
In Minnesota, finding lakes like this isn’t really that hard, but I will admit that finding the ones with lots of Panfish in them is more challenging. Still, we all have our ways of researching and we all have at least a couple of ideas about lakes that fit this description.
For me, using the DNR Lake Finder website as a primary tool for researching new lakes is becoming less rewarding all of the time. That’s because information moves too fast these days, and by the time a lake is surveyed, reports are written and published, the information is already outdated. Typically, anglers who have found more expedient ways of staying in the loop have already done their own research, fished there and changed the entire dynamic.
That said the Lake Finder is still useful in terms of taking inventory of key elements that we’re looking for. A quick perusal of their reports will at least tell me if the structure, average depth and access match my criteria. Likewise, the reports will at least confirm the existence of Panfish in the lake. So even if the information isn’t exactly up to date or precise, I still know that the lake is capable of producing Panfish and I have an educated about their average size; ideally the average size will be on the small side.
Yes, you heard me; I said that I hope to find lakes where the fish average on the small side. During springtime, I AM a tourist and I am not trophy hunting; I just want to have some fun, get a nice boat ride and maybe gather a meal. Lakes that produce whopper size Panfish rarely produce large numbers of them and that makes searching for them harder. Conversely, lakes that produce smaller average size fish tend to have lots of them and that makes the search easier.
One factor that's crucial in selecting a good Panfish lake is the abundance of shallow, weedy cover. Cabbage is the best, if you can find it, because it gets green early and that encourages Panfish to prowl for baitfish and insect larvae. If you can't find Cabbage, don't be concerned, any variety of health weed growth can provide adequate cover. But if you can't find some type of fresh, green weed growth, then you will probably struggle and when I have that problem, I put my boat on the trailer and high tail it to another lake.
Once I have a lake selected, I start searching for an ambush point, a travel route that fish will use as they move between deep sanctuary and shallow feeding grounds. To make visualizing easier, I'm sharing three actual spots on lakes within my home territory, real places where I fish during the spring. The shaded spots on each map represent proven shallow feeding areas that are used by migrating Crappies and Sunfish. Watch for areas like these on your favorite lake and you'll probably find Panfish.
Don’t be disappointed when you stop along the edge of a weedy flat and discover that the fish are not there. Instead, move out to the breakline that drops into the deep water and watch for fish on your sonar.
On any given day, fish may move between the deep water and shallow feeding areas more than once, a warm afternoon with lots of sunshine will trigger a feeding migration. A cold front or even chilly overnight temperatures will send the fish back into the deep sanctuary where they’ll wait for their next feeding opportunity.
Helping your fellow fishermen and women stay abreast of the fishing conditions in your area is good for everyone and it's easier than you think!