I know, the first day of trout season is when a lot of people get out fishing for the first time since last summer — it’s tradition, you just go on the “first day.” That’s great that a lot of folks often get out with family members to enjoy a day of fishing, but that does lead to a lot of people crowding into some tight spots on many streams and trout-stocked lakes. I’ll be honest; I’m not much into crowded spaces when it comes to fishing, so I seldom fish on the first day of trout, or I should say I seldom fish for trout. In recent years, my wife and I headed to a lake not stocked with trout, and we go after panfish or, more specifically, bluegills, perch, and crappies.
In my early years of fishing, I was under the misconception that panfish didn’t become active until the lakes and ponds warmed, so I didn’t really pursue them until May or even June. Well, that’s definitely not the case; after all, we just closed out the ice fishing season, and my ice fishing friends and I took several hundred bluegills, perch, and crappies. Yes, even bluegills can be taken through the ice and in the early season cold water, and what’s better is that not many fishermen are crowding the lakes this early.
If you do plan to go for panfish, there are some things you should be aware of to help improve your catch rate. Bluegills this early in the season are more likely to be in the deeper water. On a large lake that could be in 20 to 30 feet but in a pond that deep water may only be 10 or 12 feet, but the point is to aim for the deeper water. Some of the first fish to leave the deeper water are perch; they will begin moving into sand, gravel, and rock bottoms with scattered weeds or brush to spawn. They begin their spawning runs when the water temperatures are still in the mid-forties. Crappies are also quick to make the move from deep open water to brushy coves where streams enter the lake. If you don’t locate your quarry in the deeper areas of the lake or pond, start working towards their potential spawning areas.
One of the main keys to catching panfish this time of year is to gear your equipment and lures down to the fish you are after. Ultralight spinning outfits spooled with 2–4-pound test fluorocarbon line or light braided line with four of five feet of fluorocarbon at the business end. These lines have less stretch and are more sensitive to the usually light strikes of panfish. I often fish without any kind of bobber or strike detector; I simply hold the rod tip up a bit and keep a tight line to feel for even the slightest tick at the business end-set the hook immediately. You may also attach a slip bobber, a special bobber that can be set to the depth you want your lure or bait to go. Both methods work well and will take fish with regularity. Of course, the trick is to find the schools first, and that’s where the sonar equipment comes into play, but that’s another story for a later date.
Any number of baits will take these panfish, including small minnows, garden worms, wax worms, and mealworms, and they can be fished with or without a small jig. I like to use a small ice fishing jig with chartreuse or bright yellow but sometimes even black or white will produce. I also like working a small jig and tube or plastic grub, usually in white for starters. I cast the jig and let it sink on a tight line waiting for that little strike to be transmitted up the line. This method allows me to cover a lot of water and various depths until I locate a school, and then I concentrate on that location.
If you want to avoid the crowd and still get some fishing action, you may want to give an early-season panfish trip a try. By the way, they are great table fare.