With a satisfying splash, your bobber lands a short cast from the bank. Tiny ripples fan out across the surface, then quickly subside as your rig comes to rest. But the calm doesn’t last long, as somewhere below, a hungry panfish flares its gills, inhales the bait and tugs your bobber under.
Welcome to spring panfishing. From the first feeding binge all the way through the spawn, schools of crappies, bluegills and other sunfish offer anglers amazing action within a chip shot of shore. Throughout this magical season of opportunity, anglers afoot and afloat can score incredible catches. The key to success is targeting prime locations—which vary depending on the timing and current conditions—with high-percentage presentations.
Panfish fiend Paul Fournier is no stranger to the spring scene. A lifetime of tapping hot early season bites in waters across the Midwest has left him with a well-stocked arsenal of tactical tricks. On any given spring day from ice-out until post-spawn crappies and sunfish leave their beds, you can find him stalking the shallows—often in waders—seeking skinny-water slabs that other anglers miss.
“Whether you’re standing on shore, wading, or in a boat, there’s fine fishing to be had,” he says. “And in all three scenarios, one of my favorite ways to hook up with panfish this time of year is throwing bobber rigs.”
It’s a slick system. With deadly simplicity, bobbers suspend the bait in the strike zone—high enough for panfish to spot them, yet not above their comfort zone. Most days, Fournier lets his jig ride midway in the water column, making adjustments as needed if the fish show a preference for higher or lower placement.
At the technique’s most basic level, the bobber does all the work. And indeed, many panfish fans prefer a cast-and-wait approach, content to lob their bobbers into likely areas and bide their time until a fish arrives. But Fournier raises the bar in mobility with more active presentations.
He starts with a water-covering, slow-rolling locomotion. It’s not unlike the way bass anglers may work a spinnerbait, in that the lure rhythmically rises and falls in the water column throughout the retrieve. “Cast the rig into a likely area and let it come to rest. Keeping the rodtip at a 45-degree angle to the water, make three or four cranks of the reel handle, pause 30 to 60 seconds, then make another three or four cranks, pause, and repeat,” he says. “The bait will sweep upward when you reel, and swing back down on the pause.
“In this technique, you’re using the bobber as a strike-indicator, similar to steelhead fishing,” he adds. “Watch for any little tick that indicates a bite. When it happens, don’t set the hook like you would on a bass, with a long, powerful rod sweep. Panfish have small, soft mouths, so a reeling hookset is enough. If you use more force, you may lose the fish.”
Tackle considerations include a medium- to ultralight-power spinning outfit anywhere from 6 to 10 feet in length. Fournier wields a long rod when epic casts are necessary to reach fish holding far from the bank, but uses a shorter stick for close-range work. “A cold front may push the fish out to the first major breakline, but they’ll still bite if you can get the bait to them,” he says.
Fournier spools up with 4-pound monofilament line, which he prefers for its ease of handling and resistance to irritating wind knots. At the end of the line, he ties a small swivel, followed by a short 2-pound fluorocarbon leader. The fluoro’s low visibility is a huge asset, and its admirable abrasion resistance gives you a fighting chance if a pike, muskie or other surprise striker grabs the bait. “The 2-pound-test also lets you impart as much action as possible to a small jig,” he notes.
In the bobber department, Fournier favors Thill’s Wobble Bobber. “It offers several advantages over traditional round bobbers for casting applications,” he says. “The shape and weight allow for longer casting distance. But it also rocks back and forth when you reel, tossing the jig left and right down below. At times, this can be a triggering mechanism for panfish that refuse other retrieves.”
Thill’s Crappie Cork merits mention, too. “I use the Wobble Bobber to cover water, and the Crappie Cork when fish are concentrated,” he says. “The Crappie Cork’s stem also makes it easier to see at long distances or when waves are a factor. And, when properly balanced, it tells you how the fish are taking the bait. If the stem tips over, for example, they’re hitting from below.”
Fournier normally fishes a jig tipped with livebait or plastic beneath the float. He matches the size of each so the float rides with its waterline stripe at or slightly beneath the surface—a balancing act made easier by Thill’s system of rating Wobble Bobbers and Crappie Corks according to how much weight each is designed to handle. Most of the time, floats in the 1/16-, 1/8- and 3/16-ounce sizes get the nod, with a series of tiny split-shot strung six inches apart on the line if extra ballast is necessary (especially with the Crappie Cork).
Go-to jigs run from 1/64- to 1/8-ounce, and include Lindy’s Watsit, Little Nipper and Dancin’ Crappie, along with ice fishing heads like the Lindy Ice Jig and Toad. Top tippings range from wriggling crappie minnows, waxworms and Eurolarvae to manmade softbaits such as the Watsit and Lindy Ice Jig bodies, or YUM’s F2 Teeny Shad, Wooly Beavertail, Wooly Bee and Houdini Fry.
Another top tactic Fournier says shines with the same jigs and tippings is a more erratic, popping technique. “Instead of slow-rolling, you sweep the rodtip one to three feet at a time, popping the bobber and moving the jig through the water,” he says. “After the pop, let it sit five to 15 seconds so the rig is dead still, then sweep again.” At times, he melds the two presentations into a funky pop, reel, pause, pop conglomeration.
If slow-rolling, popping and hybrids of the two fail to produce in a select spot, Fournier widens the search area, fancasting promising water until fish are found. “Once you find them, you can slow the presentation end of things down,” he says. “But remember, most schools of feeding fish are roamers. When you catch one, it’s critical to get your bait back to the others as fast as possible before they move on.”
Talking location, Fournier favors fast-warming, dark-bottom areas in early spring, when panfish move shallow to feed. Later, as the spawn kicks in, harder bottoms with woody cover, overhanging branches or some type of vegetation such as bulrushes are a better option. At this time, spot-and-stalk bobbering tactics also apply, as do a variety of casting approaches with tiny cranks and softbaits, but that’s a topic for another day.