By Ray Gildow
It is time to start thinking about pan fishing now that this strange winter is winding down. Most anglers can’t wait to get out and find some open water to find a few pan fish! Even though the winter was fairly warm, it was still long, and jumping in the boat is just a great way to forget about it all.
When the ice first leaves our lakes and the water starts to warm up, it is important to remember that many of the pan fish are still hanging around in the deeper water until the temperatures start heading toward that 50-degree range along the shorelines. So anglers who like to get out on the water as soon as the ice is gone will often have the best luck fishing in water that is 20 to 30 feet deep. That is often where the sunfish and crappies will still be hanging out waiting for that big warm-up and the spring spawning activity. Vertical fishing at very slow speeds is usually the best technique for this type of fishing, and fish at these depths are usually seen on your locator screen. Fishing deep at this time of the year can be iffy, good one day and slow the next, but if the fish aren’t in the shallows, they will still be hanging out in deeper water.
Once the water temperature starts to get close to the 50-degree range, the pan fish will start migrating to shore structure. The crappies move in to spawn, the sunfish move in looking for food, and it is very common to catch them both in the same areas. The north side of most lakes warms up first, and the areas that warm up the fastest are lakes with muddy bottoms. Look for fallen trees, bull rushes, old cattails and any other organic material along the edge of the lake. These areas attract pan fish food and pan fish.
I like to use three techniques to find fish. I use a No. 6 hook tipped with a crappie minnow or small plastic bait, such as a Puddle Jumper, and hang it under a slip bobber. I also use a 1/32 ounce jig tipped with a minnow or small plastic bait and cast along the shoreline until I locate the fish. The third technique I use to search for pan fish is casting very small crankbaits. Crankbaits can be a very useful tool for locating where the schools of fish are and once you have found them you can slow down and fish the spot with bobbers or jigs. Crankbaits are also a great way to locate summer pan fish. This is a technique usually overlooked by most anglers.
Some of the very best pan fishing can be found on the smaller lakes located throughout the Midwest. It is also very important to remember that these lakes cannot sustain a lot of fishing pressure – just take what you need and enjoy a great meal.