Few other environments offer greater concentrations of panfish grouped more tightly in the same, relatively confined areas.


As early spring gives way to longer days and warmer waters, panfish seem to pay less attention to minor differences in temperature. 


Walking the shoreline of a frozen backwater in spring, a time comes when you can reach out and grab a chunk of the degrading ice and it will sliver into shards in your hand. The next day, in many cases, the ice will be gone.

When the wind blows the surface rolls, and you can hear the crystals sliding across each other, making a hushed, suspirant sound. Beneath that rolling, shimmering sea of crystals, panfish are already moving. When we’re first able to reach them by boat, the surface temperature will be close to 40°F, sometimes a shade cooler. Crappies, bluegills, and perch are already out of wintering areas and following their own, species-specific programs.





River backwaters extending down into more temperate zones of the Great Lakes Region follow the same kind of panfish paradigm progressions. Though perch may not be as available to all anglers, the other species march to the same beat of warming water and activities leading up to and beyond spawning.


Early Spring

Perch seldom seem to “invade” the shallowest portions of our river backwaters on the Mississippi in early spring. Being first of the panfish to spawn, they can be found “staging” (if that’s the proper word) on or near spawning flats, where weeds will soon begin to pop up. Most of the actual spawning areas are in 3 to 8 feet of water, but I often find perch off the next drop, near the break, mostly on 8- to 12-foot flats. They react well to vertical jigging with small Northland Forage Minnow Spoons and PK Predator Spoons. When reluctant, we approach them with slip floats and crappie minnows. Few anglers chase perch in the river, so average size is good.

Perch begin to spawn on emerging weeds on those 4- to 8-foot weed flats as surface water approaches 49°F. Spawning probably peaks, most years, between 50°F and 54°F. As this is an ideal time to pursue prespawn crappies and bluegills, we tend to leave perch alone for a few weeks. Perch have enough problems with pike, walleyes, and big largemouth bass, which take advantage and maul those distracted spawners.


On sunny days, breezes and light winds push warmer surface waters along. Those warmer waters gather against windward shorelines. On cloudy days when the air is colder than the water, the wind paradigm falls apart. 


Crappies are the most susceptible of the three species to cold fronts at this point. When the barometer rises, crappies move back to wintering areas—which tend to be adjacent to the same areas perch occupy. Typically, backwater crappies can’t retreat to depths much greater than 10 feet, because such depths are rare in these environments. Perch bite better than crappies after a cold front—but river crappies tend to be more active than those in lakes at that point.

Bluegills are first to hit the wood piles, deadheads, and fallen trees, actually appearing before the ice leaves. Crappies favor cold water less than anything living in these backwaters, and tend to stay where the sun hits them during daylight hours until water temperatures climb into the 50°F range—unless they need cover to escape predation.





In early spring, crappies and bluegills can be located best with temperature. Find the warmest water in a backwater and panfish will be stacked there. Since forage of some kind can be found in the substrates practically anywhere in a backwater—from crayfish to bloodworms—panfish move with the warmest water, just as most minnows do. Wind history can be the best indicator of where to begin a search, and your water temp gauge can be the best final determinant.

On sunny days, breezes and light winds push warmer surface waters along. Those warmer waters gather against windward shorelines. On cloudy days when the air is colder than the water, the wind paradigm falls apart. Ditto for snowy days or big wind that stirs up colder water from below. The warmest water might be on the lee shore in those instances. But observing wind history over several days or weeks usually reveals the best places to start— usually where wind has been blowing into shore.

The sun is still in the southern part of the sky, however. North-side shorelines get more hours of sun and less shade from trees at the edge of the water. And the warmest days tend to have winds from the south. In the absence of contrary wind history, northern shorelines are the best place to start looking, but I have many times found the best panfishing on southern shorelines in spring, even those surrounded by hills and forest. Hot spots are just that—spots where water is warmest.



Top, left to right: Rainbow Plastics A-Just-A Bubble, HL Outdoors ESB, Redwing Blackbird, Drennan Loafer Bottom: TC Tackle Girdle Bugs


To find it, I cruise along very slowly with the trolling motor, watching the temp gauge while casting a light jig-grub combo (1/64- to 1/32-ounce heads with 1- to 2-inch tails), small tubes, or an A-Just-A-Bubble rig. If the middle of a backwater reads 46°F, it always seems possible to find 48°F water somewhere, and sometimes water as warm as 50°F. With temperature disparities of 4°F or more in early spring, it’s safe to predict that almost every biting crappie and bluegill in that embayment will be found in the warmest water. Sometimes the biggest temperature differences are only 1°F, yet the fishing is predictably better in that slightly warmer water, indicating panfish can and do react to very minimal changes in temperature. Perch are a different story. They tend to remain in proximity to those “soon-to-be” weed flats.

If a north wind has been blowing for three days and, several hours or more before you arrive, begins blowing from the south, panfish begin to scatter. The hot bite on the south shore will dissipate and, while some panfish remain in that area, they lock their jaws and begin to move off or bury in cover. Some of the worst panfishing I’ve experienced in river backwaters occurs when the wind blows from all four directions over the course of a day or two.





As weed beds develop on the flats, all three species can be found there. Weed beds are grocery stores. While thick tangles of timber always look inviting, the best bites often occur away from shore on flats 4 to 6 feet deep. When weeds die back because of drought, panfish populations tend to decline. Jeff Janvrin, Mississippi River habitat specialist for the Wisconsin DNR, says bluegills in Pools 5 through 10 begin spawning when water temperatures reach 67°F. “Bluegills on the Mississippi are migratory,” Janvrin said. “Once the water temperature reaches 50°F, river blue-gills become very mobile fish. One bluegill marked with a tag moved 7 miles between tagging and recapture.”

As early spring gives way to longer days and warmer waters, panfish seem to pay less attention to minor differences in temperature. Big changes, yes—small changes, no. By the time bluegills and crappies are spawning, perch have moved into summer habitat. Depending on water levels, they might remain in backwater areas or move into the river proper.


Spawn Into Summer

Bluegills and crappies spawn out of the current, generally in those same backwater areas where they spend winter and spring. Both species spawn in temperatures ranging from 67°F to about 74°F. For most fish (and people), summer has already begun as crappies crowd into the fallen wood and bluegills dig beds up against the shorelines. Often, both species are found in close proximity. Bluegills, too, enjoy the sheltering wood to escape cruising post-spawn largemouths.


When the barometer rises, crappies move back to wintering areas—which tend to be adjacent to the same areas perch occupy. 


Many backwater complexes entertain degrees of separation from the main river. In high- water years, bluegills and crappies may edge closer to the current, into those “bays outside of bays,” but generally stay out of the main river. In low-water years, both crappies and bluegills will move right into the main river channel.

“Along with providing food and shelter from predators, weeds can choke a backwater, causing oxygen depletion,” says Steve Gutreuter, doctor of fishery science working with the U.S. Geological Survey, who surveyed panfish populations in Pool 10 on the Mississippi River (near Prairie du Chien) by trawling. “When water levels were below median flow in that pool, bluegills were out in the main river. When flows were high, they pushed back toward shoreline-related structure. But bluegills were the second-most numerous fish sampled in the main channel throughout our entire survey, including both high and low water periods.”





Watching this postspawn progression for many years now, I find crappies and bluegills invading stands of cane, rushes, and cattails or fallen trees that actually separate the main river from backwaters. As water levels drop, crappies move along the bank in the main river to access submerged timber and deadheads. Bluegills tend to use the current breaks provided by rock, gravel, or sand bars that reach out into the main channel. Perch like the floor of a pool with even current. The lower water levels become, the more we find panfish in the main channel itself. When using those main-river areas, crappies and perch prefer deeper pools, runs, and holes. Bluegills tend to prefer shallower flats. All three species can be found around major current breaks like bridge abutments and wing dams if such areas can be reached from backwaters without major migrations being involved. And all three species spend most of their time hugging bottom until water and current levels become extremely low. At drought levels, I see large groups of bluegills swimming around near the surface in the middle of the Mississippi River.

Crappies seek wood in the form of deadheads, fallen trees, cribs, log jams and individual logs that settle on the low-current side of the river. If deep water exists near wood, crappies will find it. But backwater bays nearest the main river may still have fish. These are incredibly diverse and rich ecosystems, receiving a constant supply of nutrients from the river. If weeds aren’t choking the area out, bays off the river connected to backwaters tend to hold the most crappies. In some cases, the oxygen levels in bays and backwaters swings back-and-forth daily as plants photosynthesize during the day, creating peak levels. “It can create diurnal movements,” Jarvin said. “At daybreak you can have zero oxygen and by mid-afternoon the same area can be super saturated with it. Panfish often move back into those food-rich environments. Bluegills, especially, continue to redistribute throughout backwaters all summer, oxygen allowing, according to our monitoring data. Sometimes, river bluegills make relatively long daily movements in summer, back-and-forth.”


Bluegills and crappies spawn out of the current, generally in those same backwater areas where they spend winter and spring. 


Back-and-Forth Tactics

Between early spring and late summer, my tackle selections for river panfish go through several complete makeovers. Early spring, all I need is a handful of Rainbow Plastics A-Just-A-Bubbles, a couple fly boxes filled with jigs, and several livebait selections. For whatever reason, backwater panfish can be very picky about bait types. If maggots rule one day, don’t be caught without waxworms, minnows, or leeches the next. And don’t be surprised if all the perch hit one, the bluegills another, and the crappies a third. Of course, leeches are worthless before the water hits 50°F. They just ball up. By the time the water hits that mark, weeds are becoming visible, perch are spawning, and bluegills seem careful to move through areas away from perch, where fewer predators accumulate. Crappies use weeds too, and tend to locate in and around the deeper pockets. These weed flats can be vast, making GPS units invaluable. Oddly enough, I’ve been putting down waypoints on weed flats in backwaters for years and have found panfish seldom relocate in the same areas the following year. But in the course of a single spring, I find bluegills and crappies using the same portions of those weed flats day after day until the weeds become too thick to penetrate.

Backwater weeds are up and tough by late spring, and impossible by early summer. I use 6- to 8-pound Berkley FireLine on the spool of a light spinning reel. The bubble goes on the braid above a small SPRO swivel. Below that is a 3-foot segment of 5.6-pound Raven Fluorocarbon. No need to add split shot when using jigs with an A-Just-A-Bubble, and I generally use custom-painted 1/80- to 1/64-ounce TC Tackle Custom ball heads or TC Girdle Bugs.





Crappies and bluegills seem to invade timber in indefinable intervals in early spring and I like the same rig around timber because we can finesse jigs through wood easier. But after spawning, as bluegills and crappies follow perch out into the river, or into other segments of the backwater complex, I begin to use longer rods, classic slip floats, and classic river floats. I have a new favorite slip float—the HL Outdoors ESB (Everlasting Slip Bobber)—highly durable with a brass grommet for easy line flow—great in bays or for dapping around timber in slight current. Out on the humps and bars that bluegills frequent, I appreciate the efficiency of floats designed for current, like the smaller Thill River Masters and Drennan Loafers, using “shirt button” shotting patterns and the same TC jigs.

The fun way to find panfish in early summer, cover allowing, is with a 2-inch jig-grub combo on light 4-pound PowerPro and a light-action, 7-foot rod. Pitch, let the jig settle, and slowly retrieve near bottom. It tricks everything, including smallmouths and walleyes.

Few other environments offer greater concentrations of panfish grouped more tightly in the same, relatively confined areas. Find the warmest water in spring, pay attention to water levels in summer, and chances are good the best panfishing avail-able in your area is connected to a river with a backwater complex where crappies, bluegills, and perch thrive.


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