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Will Elliott’s Outdoors: How-to approach to hook fickle pan fish

Panfish don’t get major mention in big-fish stories and contests. They often are considered mostly a means to interest and initiate youths in fishing, and each early-spring they become an amusement for anglers waiting for season openings or better catch conditions for hooking into walleye, pike, bass, trout and other larger game fish.

Also, these mighty fighters have become associated with cooking rather than catching; however, this lowly band of fish species known as “pan” fish has a special place not only with cooks, but also with kids of every age and level of angling involvement.

Ease of catching is yet another misgiving about fishing for panfish. Granted, when the fish are schooled and biting, anglers cannot get the bait or lure back in the water too quickly after each catch. But even the best of experts can be fooled/misled when the bite gets challenging.

Each spring, the path to plentiful panfish takes a different route. Last year, a prolonged cold well after winter’s end put panfish on spawning beds so much later in the spring season that shore anglers had to make long casts and boaters often set up over deeper weed edges and drop-offs to find perch and sunfish-family members well into May.

So far this season, a winter meltdown occurred early and a rise in water temperatures had hopes for an early panfish run. Then a cold snap, extending more than a week, broke up hopes of an early rise in water temperatures and an earlier start to spawning cycles that bring fish into shallows and prompt pre- and post-spawn feeding forays.

As in real estate values, panfish catching comes down to location, location, location. However, catch rates often come up with temperatures, temperatures, temperatures. A cool/cold spring start to panfish prospecting can frustrate even the best of pros, as well as seasoned, recreational anglers.

Last year, during a media day on May 5 with tackle reps, I had the enjoyable and informative opportunity of boating with professional crappie angler Wally “Mr. Crappie” Marshall.

A prolonged winter and persistently chilly spring had early May waters much cooler than usual, with modest weed growth and spawning cycles for all cold-water fish species markedly delayed.

Marshall, strictly an artificial-baits competitor, went with various colors of his Mr. Crappie ShadPole baits on a chill morning at Lake Alice, a lake that holds a solid population of crappie. Marshall was disappointed, but I was stunningly impressed that he could catch about 10 fish while area residents and cottage owners went fishless. He went to Chautauqua Lake a day later and stuck about two dozen respectable “calicos,” while most regulars on the lake pulled an odd crappie, bluegill, sunfish, runt perch or two, if that.

Marshall devotes a career to crappie fishing, driving his boat and trailer more than 70,000 miles a year to fishing sites, trade shows and competitions. But his visit to Western New York waters was during an extended cold front that had all panfish anglers perplexed.

Nonetheless, his techniques were successful and worthy of applying this spring season. He goes with a long, flexible, fly-rod-like pole measuring 7 feet or more. While most boaters seek weed edges, Marshall looks for docks, piers and tree or brush over-story and shoots his ShadPole jigs under covered areas with underhanded casts with that long, flexible rod. He also goes with light-weight, yellow line to watch for the slightest of taps and lure lifts from light biters.

Check out his tackle and rig array at

Capt. Frank Tennity, inland charter captain, keys on bass catching, but much of his time is spent targeting panfish on western Finger Lakes. “I haven’t had a bait bucket in my boat in years,” Tennity said of his panfishing approaches.

He goes with artificials that include small spinner baits, blade baits such as RoadRunners, rubber/vinyl worms, spinners, jig heads and other hardware. Like Marshall, Tennity suggests changing baits to find the desired color. He also stresses changing casting speeds. “When it’s cold, you have to retrieve slowly; sometimes, when you stop reeling, they hit it on the fall,” he said. On early, cold-water outings, he sends out a 1/32-ounce jig head with a vinyl worm or minnow tail under a bobber.

When it comes to an early, cold panfishing season, Skip Bianco at Hogan’s Hut Bait & Tackle on Chautauqua Lake in Stow says, “You must have minnows.” Bianco says that more as a lifelong Chautauqua fisherman than a bait salesman.

Crappies at Chautauqua Lake and panfish in Southern Tier and western Finger Lakes waters tend to follow a pattern Crappie Magazine cites as “…start(ing) their movement out of their deep water winter haunts when the water temperatures start warming towards the 45-50 degree range. They will congregate around the entrances of creek channels until the water temps reach around the 50-55 degree range.”

Given these conditions, Bianco and other area panfish experts recommend a live- bait program at the start followed with artificial lures as waters warm.

Savvy anglers are taking along both live and a variety of hard- and soft-bodied artificial lures during the start of this chilly but promising spring panfish run.