Spring is a great time for panfishing. Our weather has been weird in 2013, but you can still catch panfish. The following are suggestions for catching three species found throughout the Midwest.

Spring is a great time for panfishing. Our weather has been weird in 2013, but you can still catch panfish. The following are suggestions for catching three species found throughout the Midwest.

The fabulous bluegill

Bluegill can provide an excellent days fishing, resulting in a good fillet dinner. Bluegill fillets are not large but daily limits are generous, sometimes up to 30. A well-fried batch of fillets will never last long on a kitchen table. Some fishermen prefer them over almost any other type of fish for taste. I personally will not go that far, but I never turn down a bluegill fillet dinner.

Bluegill are not hard to catch. Popping bugs, worms, crickets and tiny lures are the main bluegill baits. A Mepps Spinner is excellent bluegill bait. But that is the joy of bluegill fishing – they are not particular. If it looks or smells good, chances are they will bite it.

During the spawn, bluegill are caught in shallow, weedy areas. After spawn, bluegills are found in deeper areas. But like many predator fish, they will move into the shallows for food. Fishermen have a lot of success around logs and stumps after the spawn.

Fly fishermen consider this to be one of the best times to fish. Try an 8-inch leader, 2- to 4-pound test and a box of tiny popping bugs. An old fisherman once told me, “It don't matter what color you use, as long as it is yellow.” This is good advice, but black, brown and white will attract a fair share of bites too.

Flip the tiny popper in productive water and gently move the rod tip until the rubber legs kick. All game fish love to find a bug struggling and helpless in the water. That means an easy meal. I have caught numerous bass while popping for bluegill, including a 6-pound female on a 2-pound leader. That got the old heart muscle pumping.

The key is finding a big school of large bluegill. When you find this concentration, fish after fish can be caught. Be cautious not to make a lot of noise. Too much noise will spook bluegill out of any area.

Bluegill tend to hang around woody cover for protection. The wood also draws a healthy population of insects. Bluegill love these tiny aquatic insects and respond well to black and brown wet flies. You might do as well with 1/80- and 1/100-ounce black and brown jigs.

Redear sunfish

Redears, sometimes called shell crackers is a species related to bluegill except bigger. They are found in Iowa and in states farther south. A 2-pound shell cracker, so called for their love of snails, will occasionally qualify for master angler status in many Midwestern states.

Redear require a combination of vegetation that holds snails and insects with clear water to provide this sight feeder maximum growth. The good news is, numerous lakes throughout the Midwest have excellent redear populations.

A redear may be distinguished from other sunfish by its yellow to yellow-orange belly, a long, sharply pointed pectoral fin and a light colored, sometimes reddish-orange border of the ear flap over its gill cover. It is not uncommon to catch redear weighing over a pound.

A big difference between redear and bluegill is availability. Redear are simply more difficult to locate. Some are found on deeper outside edges of bluegill beds. The late Bill Bennett, formerly of the St. Joseph News Press, and I once caught this unique fish while it was suspended in a submerged dead tree in probably 6-foot depths.

Breeding season, which starts in early May and runs through June, is the best time to catch redear who keep a small distance from other panfish breeding areas, discouraging the crossing of species. Green sunfish and bluegill sometimes cross, creating a hybrid.

Bluegill are usually finished with their first spawn by the end of May. Redear like to spawn on deeper edges of bluegill spawning beds later in the season. These easy-to-spot pockmarked bluegill beds are good areas to target.

Redear are not impossible to catch, but harder than a bluegill. Bits of live worm, euro larvae or crickets will work. Some even use snails. Live bait should be presented on a tiny gold or black hook. Feathered 1/100-ounce jigs or small flies will also work. Wet flies are preferred, but a redear will occasionally pop a topwater insect. Black or dark brown lures are mainly used.

Some fishermen claim they use dark-colored lures to imitate snails, but it is certain that redear are quick to feed on a meal that does not require much effort. You will catch more redear by placing your offering in front of its face. This is normally accomplished by fishing baits barely off the bottom.


More crappie are caught with additives on jigs or even minnows. Euro larva, Crappie Candy or any other kind of colored pieces of fish attractant work. The tiny bits added enough scent to make crappie bite in a highly pressured situation. Others have used Preparation H on their jigs with good success.

While this may sound comical, crappie are attracted to the shark liver oil additive used to create this “serious medicine” concoction. I have always wondered who first had the nerve to try fishing with Preparation H and what their fishing buddies said. But it does provide a powerful scent that attracts crappie.

Scents are used for two reasons – to smell like natural bait or to cover human scent. Many fishermen do not realize the importance of camouflaging odors on their hands.

The second phase of cover scents are odors that imitate shad or other live prey. Crappie are well acquainted with the strong odor of shad that they follow in large schools throughout the year. Fruit-flavored scents used mainly by bass fishermen will occasionally give crappie a sweet flavor they are not used to. This may or may not be productive, depending on what the fish want.

Here’s another neat trick for catching more crappie. One day I watched an old fisherman catching numerous crappie while others quietly watched their fishing rods. The elderly man was noted for not being sociable. His secrets of crappie fishing success stayed a secret, but I continued to watch, trying to figure out exactly what the man was doing. The old man soon limited out and walked off the dock. Fishermen around the dock stared longingly at his full fish sack. Two fishermen quickly moved to his spot and proceeded to catching nothing. Someone noted that the old grouch must have fished the spot out.

The old man and I were alone on the dock early in the morning two days later. He was still hauling them in while I scarcely had a bite. I finally got up the courage to ask the man just what he was doing. The answer changed my crappie fishing techniques and success forever.

The old gentleman squinted, smiled and answered, “Clear, nylon sewing thread and you are the first person that had the nerve to ask.”

I had discovered the first step in truly giving the crappie something different. Ironically I never saw the old gentleman again, but decided to try this strange line that was available at all sewing shops.

I experimented with the nylon sewing thread and found it was invisible in the water. This unusual line averages about 1 1/2-pound test and costs less than a dollar per roll. There is always a certain amount of jig loss, but you get 10 times as many bites. I have caught 2-pound crappie on this thread and know of 2- to 3-pound bass caught. In recent years I have found some success on commercial 1- to 2-pound lines. But they seldom match the success of sewing thread. Most 4- and 6-pound tests provide some movement restrictions.

Sewing thread started me thinking about smaller jigs. Most fishermen use 1/32- to 1/64-ounce versions. I visited the local trout shop and purchased a variety of 1/80- to 1/100-ounce feathered jigs in different colors. Experiments with the lighter jigs proved enormously successful.

During the spawn crappie are more apt to attack the jig. During this period I don't cut the feathers as short. But crappie bite light throughout the remainder of the year. Then I make sure those feathers are short.

I completed my light-weighting technique by experimenting with bobbers. I was watching my standard-sized bobber float over a crappie bed one afternoon. I started wondering how much effort it took to pull a round bobber under. I was surprised at the amount of effort required – definitely a factor when crappie are biting light.