When it comes to locating panfish (particularly crappie and sunfish), tracking them all year long is often easier than it seems. All it takes is a little bit of general knowledge regarding panfish behavior, and successfully finding them once, to find success all year long. In fact, once you have achieved this, panfishing becomes simple. You can then find them all year long with little effort and little movement.
Below I go through exactly what I do to target my favorite panfish (crappie and bluegill) , as well as what to look for each season to catch them in their transitions. I also include the exact presentations and gear I use, so you can find and target the big ones too!
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Short Distances is the Key to Locating Panfish
Long gone are the days that I’d treach across the lake looking for new areas because the fish must have made “big moves”. Instead I stay local. I mean REALLY local. If I find them once I will likely find them again, most of the time not far from where they were.
Sure their patterns may have changed – they may be a bit deeper, more scattered, or behaving differently – but they usually aren’t far from where I caught them 1, 2 or even 3 months ago. On most of the lakes I fish, they tend to stay in their core areas and make basic moves depending on water temperature and cover.
Understanding Panfish Patterns from Spring to Fall
The best thing you can do before even hitting the water is to first understand panfish behavior. They typically adjust based on water temperature and vegetation changes, which obviously affects their food source. It’s important to understand the following to make the right incremental adjustments:
- When do they go shallow?
- Why do they go deep?
- How does time of year affect their movements?
Once you’ve achieved understanding this, the rest is relatively simple.
Spring: The Shallow Time
To break this down, let’s start by discussing their spring patterns – prespawn and spawn. After ice, these fish push shallow. In fact, they will push shallow WELL before they begin spawning.
As soon as the shallow water bays start warming up, they tend to prefer the warmer water. Oftentimes they are congregated in shallow back water bays, up against weed edges, and spend most of their time in and out of cover. They will do this well before they start their spawn, and it’s quite literally one of the easiest times to catch them. They are shallow, hungry, and heavily congregated.
The Ice Connection
If you are coming off an ice fishing bite, they will often not be far away from the deep water you found them in before. They just shifted shallow. Did you find them in a bowl in the back bay? That same bay will likely hold those prespawn and spawning fish. Don’t go far, just go shallow.
To many people’s surprise, bluegills and crappie don’t really spawn in the “spring”, it’s much more like summer. As walleye and pike spawn when temperatures are in the 40’s and 50’s, bluegills and crappies won’t spawn until temperatures are into the mid 60’s and 70’s, which often means May into June up north, depending on the year. They just so happen to be shallow before then.
During the spawn you’ll often find both species on beds. These are easily identifiable, and you can target them with sight, not needing electronics at all. You’ll find these beds in the very shallow (less than 5 feet), and oftentimes along brush and pencil weeds. This is also the time of year when the males put sport their darker colors “their tuxedos”.
- You can learn more about the crappie spawn by reading my spring only guide here!
How to Target Them
During this time, targeting them is a breeze. As mentioned, you can usually sight fish them up against shoreline structure. It’s a perfect time to throw bobbers – I prefer ½” spring pencil bobbers that allows for quick replacements and movements when fishing shallow water. I will then throw on a small split shot or ice jig, hooked up with a plastic on a hot bite (or a crappie minnow or crawler on a tough bite).
Catching fish on beds are fun, but a bit controversial. I do have my fun with it, but I advocate for releasing these fish right near where you catch them. I very rarely keep a crappie or bluegill on beds, instead I release them near their catch point and they quickly find their way back to protecting their eggs. In fact, other than getting some needed time in the sun, I use this time to scout the fish in preparation for the rest of the year.
Spring Bobber Setup for Panfish:
- Thill Pencil Bobbers (Code nicole15 for 15% of any order)
- Plain Hook and Split Shot or my Favorite Tungsten Ice Jig (Code nicole15 for 15% off any order)
- 4lb Monofilament of Choice
- Tuned Up Custom Rod Apex Elite Ultralight
The Summer Transition
Everything changes after the spawn. They generally scatter, but they don’t go that far. In these instances you can find these fish slightly deeper near where they spawned/staged during the spring. It’s here you will likely find them in the thick of the weeds.
In fact, many people struggle to target them this time of year because of the weed density, making them tougher to find and target – but don’t let that discourage you. There are plenty of ways to work around this. One way is to use plastics and bobbers, but a better, quicker way to locate these fish is to rig for them.
Sure you can find them on sonar occasionally, but you can also find and target them by moving.
Summer Presentation (What to Use)
Spinners, mostly known from the walleye world, can actually be deadly for panfish in the summer. In fact, when rigged properly, they are my FAVORITE way to target big panfish all summer long. They help you cover ground and hook into those scattered fish.
I actually learned this technique from an older man I met at a boat access once. After a long afternoon with little return, I had figured it was a dead bite, only to find another angler who had absolutely crushed it with quality crappie, bluegill and walleye. As he showed me his livewell, I quickly noticed the pile of 14” inch crappies he had collected. The worst part was he wasn’t even fishing that far away from me! Clearly I had the wrong presentation.
He was using a split shot, spinner and fake worm cruising on top of the weeds in 14 feet – effectively covering ground, staying just above the weeds, triggering a bite, and turning over more fish. The ability to cover ground also seems to be a benefit, because often times these fish can be a bit more scattered.
I grew up trolling because we didn’t know any other way to catch fish on lakes. So what I learned from growing up is when in doubt in the summer, troll.
Summer Spinner Setup:
- Lindy Indiana Spinner (code nicole15 for a discount)
- Tuned Up Custom Rods Apex Pro MLF
- 8 lb Monofilament Line
- Crawler or Leech
Going Deep: Panfish Behavior in the Fall
Next let’s talk about the fall season. The fish will continue to go deeper. With rapidly cooling surface temperatures and dying weeds – baitfish, as well as predator fish – tend to push deep. Crappie and bluegill are no exception to this. In fact this is one of the most simple times to find bigger fish – as they often congregate together in the deepest areas (particularly crappie) making them easy to identify and target with any sonar. The only difference is I’ll often find big sunfish deeper off these structures and the crappie much more suspended.
So what is the key to finding these transitions and deep areas? Other than looking on your chart, look near the weed edges and structure that you found them in during the summer. Not every “deep hole” is going to hold fish. However, it’s pretty likely the ones near those weed patches you found them on will, and so will their transitions. In fact, often times you will catch these fish transitioning back and forth.
Look for deep bowls next to active weed structure and then start to scan. They may be on the move but they generally will sit in closer to this deep water, navigating back to the weeds now and then. They are easy to target when they transition and even easier when they sit suspended in the deepest water.
Fall Presentation (What to Use)
As for panfish presentation, I change it up again in the fall, especially late fall. I find the fish slow down compared to the warmer water of the summer (which makes sense based on fish metabolism). They can still be on the move but generally respond better to slower fall rates, vertical presentations and live bait. Oftentimes, you can hammer the same school over and over again with them hardly moving at all. They also tend to be more congregated.
In fact this time of year I will even use my favorite ice fishing jigs to entice a competitive bite, and I’ll work on the fall to the fish instead of expecting them to chase like I do during the peak summer months. Doing this will often times lead to the biggest fish chasing the bait up.
Fall Setup For Panfish
- Slow Falling Lead or Small Tungsten Jigs (this one is my favorite 15% off using code Nicole15)
- 4 lb monofilament
- Tuned Up Custom Rods Apex Elite Ultralight
The Panfish Ice Bite: Don’t Go Far
Finally let’s talk about ice fishing. Ice in itself could be an entire post, but for the simplicity of this article (because it’s already getting long) I’m going to summarize it for you:
A good place to start is where you found them at the end of fall.
This isn’t always the case, but it’s usually a good place to begin. They will still shift between structure and the bowls or basin through out early ice (especially the bluegill/sunfish). However, crappie like to suspend, and if you can’t find them in the daytime they will likely be deep at night, feeding on the plankton that starts to come off the lake bottom. As snow and ice thicken, they will begin to hold that pattern during the day, too.
Smaller bluegills can still be found in the shallows, but the crappie bite almost always congregates deeper this time of year, and especially at night.
You can count on this pattern through the heart of winter. Sunfish/bluegill can still sit off of weed structure and midlake humps, but will tend to push deeper in the winter too.
Just remember don’t go far from where you found them in the fall. Bluegill might be pushed along deeper structure, and a be daytime bite, but the crappie will likely be deep during much of the period, especially lowlight – or when the snow makes the water clarity dark during the ice season.
How to Target Them
Slow falling jigs is key this time of year! Cold water and slow metabolisms often make this preferred through the heart of winter. If you really want to catch fish you can move with the school, OR if you are like Ana and me, setup, stay warm, and know where the fish are piled at. They will usually shift through, they tend to move slow during the heart of the season (before speeding up during late ice) and have a handful of different ice jigs with along with different fall rates to be ready to entice those fish in.
- Tuned Up Custom Rod Bullwhip (VERY sensitive rod)
- 4lb Monofilament of your choice
- Barrel Swivel (to reduce the pesky monofilament line twists during ice)
- Tungsten (faster falling, smaller size) and Lead (larger size, slower falling) jigs
- A few bobby garland plastics and some spikes or crappie minnows as backups
Putting it All Together
What happens after ice? We are right back to where we started. They will stage in the shallows nearby, before bedding and spawning – and they will transition a bit deeper and scatter in the weeds again. Therefore, around and around we go. I always recommend finding time to focus on a few lakes, learning the patterns throughout the year and becoming experts at them. Then you can have areas you catch fish all year around.