June 10, 2014
By Matt Straw
Walking the shoreline of a frozen river backwater in early spring,
you can reach out and grab a chunk of rotting ice and it shatters in your hand. The next day, it's generally gone. Beneath that shimmering sea of crystals, panfish are already moving. When we're first able to reach them by boat, the surface will have warmed to nearly 40°F. Crappies, bluegills, and perch already have shifted from their wintering areas and begin to follow their own species-specific programs. River backwaters in more temperate latitudes follow a similar progression of panfish patterns. Though perch may not be as available to anglers south of Iowa, the other species march to the same beat of warming water.
Perch seldom seem to enter 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 on or near spawning flats, where weeds are soon to pop up. Most spawning areas are in 4 to 8 feet of water, but I find perch mostly off the next drop, near the breaks to shallower water, but typically on 8- to 12-foot flats. They respond well to vertical jigging with small Northland Forage Minnow Spoons and PK Predator Spoons. When reluctant, we approach them with slipfloats and crappie minnows. Few anglers chase perch in the Mississippi River, so average size is good.
Perch begin to spawn on emerging weeds on 4- to 8-foot weedy flats as surface water approaches the upper-40°F range and continue through the mid-50°F range. Since this is an ideal time to pursue prespawn crappies and bluegills, anglers tend to leave perch alone for a few weeks. Perch have enough problems with pike, walleyes, and big largemouth bass, which take advantage of the distracted spawners.
At this stage, crappies are most susceptible of the three species to cold fronts. When the barometer rises, crappies move back toward 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. Perch bite better than crappies after a cold front, but river crappies tend to be more active than lake dwelling fish in that situation.
Bluegills are first to hit the woodpiles, deadheads, and fallen trees. Crappies 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. Both species can be located best by monitoring temperature. River backwaters are full of bottom-dwelling forage — from crayfish to bloodworms — so panfish move with the warmest water, just as minnows do. Wind history is the best indicator of where to begin your search, and your temp gauge can be the best final determinant.
On sunny days, light winds push warmer surface waters along and they gather against windward shorelines. On cloudy days when the air is colder than the water, the wind is no longer a good indicator of fish location. The same is true with snowy days or strong winds that stir up colder water from below. The warmest water might be on the lee shore in those instances. Observing wind history over several days or weeks usually reveals the best places to start.
The sun is still in the southern part of the sky, so north-side shorelines get more hours of sunlight and less shade from shoreline trees. 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 sometimes 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.
To find warmth, I ease along 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 slight differences in temperature. Perch are a different story. They tend to remain in proximity to those "soon-to-be" weedflats.
If a north wind has been blowing for three days and, several hours or more before you arrive, begins to shift and come from the south, panfish scatter. The hot bite on the south shore dissipates. While some panfish remain in that area, they reduce activity 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 vegetation develops on the flats, all three species can be found there. Weedbeds 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 says. "Once the water temperature reaches 50°F, river bluegills move. 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 water temperature. Big changes, yes — small changes, no. By the time bluegills and crappies are spawning, perch have moved into their summer habitat. Depending on water levels, they might remain in backwater areas or move into the main river.
Spawn Into Summer
Bluegills and crappies spawn out of current, generally in the same backwater areas where they spent winter and spring. Both species spawn in temperatures ranging from 67°F to about 74°F. Crappies crowd into the fallen wood and bluegills dig beds near the bank. Often, both species are found in close proximity. Bluegills, too, enjoy the sheltering wood to escape cruising largemouths.
Many backwater complexes are separate from the main river. In high-water years, bluegills and crappies may edge closer to the current, into those "bays outside of bays," but they generally stay out of the main river. In low-water years, both crappies and bluegills move right into the main river channel.
"Along with providing food and shelter from predators, vegetation can choke a backwater, causing oxygen depletion," says Steve Gutreuter, fishery scientist working with the U.S. Geological Survey, who surveyed panfish populations in Pool 10 on the Mississippi River near Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. "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, I find crappies and bluegills invading stands of maidencane, rushes, and cattails or fallen trees that 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 occupy the current breaks provided by rock, gravel, or sandbars that reach out into the main channel.
Perch prefer the floor of a pool with even current. The lower water levels become, the more we find panfish in the main channel. When using main-river areas, crappies and perch prefer deeper pools, runs, and holes. Bluegills favor shallower flats. All three species can be found around major current breaks like bridge abutments and wing dams if such areas are close to backwaters. 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 near the surface in the middle of the Mississippi River.
Crappies seek wood in the form of deadheads, fallen trees, cribs, logjams and individual logs that settle on the low-current side of the river. If deep water exists near wood, crappies find it. But backwater bays nearest the main river may hold fish as well. These are diverse and rich ecosystems, receiving a steady supply of nutrients from the river. If weeds aren't choking the area, bays off the river that are connected to backwaters tend to hold the most crappies.
In some cases, oxygen levels in bays and backwaters swing back-and-forth daily as plants photosynthesize during the day, creating peak levels. "It can spur diurnal movements," Janvrin says. "At daybreak you can have zero oxygen and by mid-afternoon the same area can be saturated with it. Panfish often move back into those food-rich environments when conditions are better. Bluegills, especially, continue to move throughout backwaters all summer if oxygen is sufficient, according to our monitoring data. And river bluegills sometimes make long daily movements in summer."
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 baits. 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 option, bluegills another, and crappies a third.
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 occupy weedy areas too, and tend to hold in and around deeper pockets. These weedflats can be vast, making GPS invaluable for relocating hot spots. Oddly enough, I've been setting waypoints on weedflats in backwaters for years and have found panfish seldom relocate in the same areas the following year. In the course of a single spring, however, bluegills and crappies favor the same portions of those flats day after day until the vegetation becomes too thick to penetrate.
Backwater weeds are tough. I use 6- to 8-pound Berkley FireLine on a small spinning reel. The bubble goes on the braid, then I tie on a small SPRO or Eagle Claw swivel. Below that I add 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. I generally use 1/80- to 1/64-ounce TC Tackle Custom Jigs.
Crappies and bluegills seem to invade timber during certain intervals in early spring and I use the same rig around timber because you can finesse jigs through wood more easily with it. After spawning, as bluegills and crappies follow perch out into the river or into deeper segments of the backwater complex, I select longer rods, classic slipfloats, and river floats. Slipfloats like the Cast Away Bobber and Thill Pro Series are 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 Red Wing Blackbirds, Raven Floats, Thill River Masters, and Thill Turbo Masters, using "shirt button" shotting patterns and TC jigs.
During summer, a fun way to cover water and find panfish is with a 2-inch jig-grub combo on 4-pound PowerPro and a light-action, 7-foot rod. Cast out, let the jig settle, and slowly retrieve near bottom. It tricks everything, including smallmouths and walleyes as long as vegetation doesn't clog the area.
Few other environments offer greater concentrations of panfish in confined areas. Find the warmest water in spring, pay attention to water levels in summer, and chances are good the best panfishing available in your area is connected to a river with a backwater complex where crappies, bluegills, and perch thrive.