Spring has nearly sprung, and while everyone’s getting excited for warmer weather and open-water, not all have their ducks in a row when it comes to tackle. Especially panfish tackle. Spring crappie and bluegill angling can be a simple affair in the shallows, but even still, it’s those tackle-box staples that seem easiest to overlook. Lures themselves are certainly a part of the conversation, but I focus on rigging rods, reels, and line first.
If you haven’t invested in a panfish-specific rod yet, you’re missing out. Anglers are willing to drop hundreds of dollars or more on technique-driven rods for bass, walleyes, and beyond, without giving second thought. Yet, when it comes to light-biting fish like panfish species, an application where a well-balanced sensitive stick could literally mean dozens more fish per outing, so often anglers will pass. Make that mistake no-longer, and select a 6’6” to 7’ (no that’s not too long) Light Power, Fast or Extra-Fast Action high quality carbon fiber fishing rod. Longer rods throw small jigs further, help with precision placement in cover, and simply perform better in a variety of panfish settings.
Pair that with your favorite lightweight 1000-series spinning reel. Ice reels work in a pinch, but small spool arbors rob casting distance, increase line memory, and often don’t have the drag you might need if fighting bass or pike along the way. Make sure the reel balances well with the rod you select, such that when spooled up, you’re not too forward or rear-heavy. 2500-series reels are often overkill for panfish applications and make the process more challenging, and expensive. Think mid-price here, not ultra-low, or ultra-high, as there’s a multitude of great options right in the middle.
For line, if you have multiple rod options, consider a nano-braid style for around heavy cover if you fish that. Pencil reeds, brush, rocks, and Lilypad roots are hell on standard mono, so it’s nice to have a brush-beater setup. For most other applications, a good 4-6 lb. co-polymer will do. In extreme clear water, consider a high-end fluorocarbon to fool finicky fish in high-pressure lakes. I find it unnecessary for the most part, but if you have a favorite fluoro that’s supple enough to get the job done, it’s never a bad thing to fish with mostly translucent line.
Now focus on terminal tackle. The boring stuff that nobody needs till they really need it. Sinkers in multiple sizes, a variety of slip bobbers AND spring clip-on bobbers, along with bobber stops, swivels, and small octopus hooks. That should cover most of your live-bait scenarios for all panfish species. Bobbers and sinkers seem to be the number one and two most-needed items, respectively, in my boat come springtime no matter how well I think I’m stocked up.
Of course, the fun stuff is always the lures and top baits to be throwing this time of year. I’ll break those down into a couple of my favorites per species.
- Gypsi Jig – Perhaps the most iconic spring crappie bait, the Gypsi is also a bluegill bait in the 1/64oz. size, but I prefer the 1/32oz and 1/16oz. sizes for crappies. Put it below a float of any kind and fish near reed-beds, emerging cabbage, and lily-pads for spring crappies. Especially early in the season, rig with a minnow and expect to get bit.
- Impulse Rigged Mini Smelt and UV Mimic Minnow – As water warms and crappies start to roam a bit more, both of these baits are proven winners. I prefer the smaller mini-smelt offering in clearer water and the thump of the mimic minnow tail in dark or stained systems, but think of both of them as baits to make short, precision pitches near cover with. The Mimic Minnow works well into summer and is the perfect chuck-and-wind crappie bait as water temps warm up, but both jigs can be fished in spring while making short casts to shallow crappies.
- Firefly Jig – Just as the Gypsi Jig is the quintessential crappie jig, the Firefly could be the best bluegill jig of all-time. I fish a variety of sizes depending on depth, mostly still below a float of some sort, opting for the smallest size that still fishes well. Slow fall rates and a bit of bait can really accentuate the Firefly and make it a great inside weedline, super-shallow bluegill catching machine. I love all the colors too, with pink/white, parakeet, sunrise, and bumblebee being just a few of my favorites.
- Impulse Rigged Bloodworm and Impulse Rigged Mayfly – As water warms and we get nearer to the spawn, bluegills can readily be caught without bait, provided you’re offering them some shapes and colors they recognize. Mayfly larvae and bloodworms both are staples in a bluegill’s diet, so they’re both hard to beat as a bait below floats or casted.
If you don’t have all the gear above to create the perfect panfish rig, start small by putting together what you do have, and picking up a few of the staple baits listed above. The best part is that these are classics that have stood the test of time, and you won’t be longing for the next hot bait that comes around next year. Keep it simple, keep it fun, and enjoy some spring panfishing.