Our favorite lakes awaken in the spring. Mother Nature alerts you to these changes with a bevy of sights and sounds: waterfowl return and jockey for prime nesting locations; the chorus of tiny frogs – spring peepers – resonates across shorelines and marshes; barren tree limbs swell with buds, waiting to burst into a blanket of green. Parallel changes are occurring beneath the surface, but many – or most – of these annual changes are invisible to the naked eye. More than any other time of the year, modern marine electronics make the difference between a tough day on the water and a bountiful panfish harvest. Here are some tips that will help you to leverage the many capabilities of your electronics to find and catch more crappies, bluegills and perch this spring.

Surface water temperature

If you’ve spent any time studying up on spring panfish – or early season fishing in general – then you surely recognize that water temperature is central to success. Happily, nearly every fishfinder is equipped with a water temperature sensor, so our ability to monitor changes in surface temperature is almost universal.

Fundamentally, we want to locate the warmest water available. Since fish are cold-blooded creatures, their metabolic rates are directly coupled to their environment’s temperature; cold water leads to lethargic fish, while warm water enhances activity levels and supports active feeding.  You can use this general principle to help you pick a lake, or a small portion of a larger body of water, to focus your panfishing efforts. Small, shallow lakes – especially those protected from harsh north winds – will warm up much faster than large, deep bodies of water. As a result, you should focus on smaller lakes when taking your first few trips of the season.

When your early season trips take you to larger lakes and reservoirs, begin by studying the lake’s depth contour map. In general terms, we want to avoid the deep, main basin areas which will harbor the coldest water in the system, and as such, the least active fish. Look instead to shallow bays, which will act much like a smaller, isolated lake and warm more quickly than the basin. Key depths are often three to six feet – but not every portion of the lake that is 3-6 feet deep is suitable for spring panfish. So, let’s turn to another hi-tech tool to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Bottom Composition

We’ve talked about an important surface consideration – water temperature – and now, we turn our attention to the opposite end of the water column: the bottom, and more specifically, the composition of the bottom. Within the shallows, water will be warmer over soft-bottomed areas – mud or muck – and colder over areas of harder bottom, like sand or gravel. Soft bottom is frequently darker than hard bottom, as the darker substrate does a more effective job of absorbing the sun’s warming rays and releasing that heat back into the surrounding water. Finding shallow, soft-bottomed areas will focus our spring panfish pursuits.

Your fishfinder possesses all of the tools you’ll need to rapidly distinguish between areas of soft and hard bottom. On your traditional SONAR views, soft sediment typically provides a thicker bottom return than does harder sand or gravel. Think about it this way: soft bottom allows the SONAR beam to penetrate deeper into the sediment before being reflected back to the transducer; as a result, the bottom return from mud or muck is thicker, or wider, than the bottom return from harder substrates.

Differentiating between soft and hard bottom is even easier if your fishfinder is equipped with modern, high-frequency imaging technology. In tools like Side Imaging or Down Imaging, soft bottom will always appear darker in color on your imaging views than hard bottom. This is because soft substrates are better at absorbing high-frequency sonar waves than is hard bottom. As such, look for dark, soft regions of bottom to hold more spring panfish than bright, hard-bottomed areas.

A little cover goes a long way

Let’s review our checklist so far: warmest available water – check; 3-6 feet deep – check; soft, muddy bottom – check. There’s only one puzzle piece remaining, and that is cover. In the spring, a little cover goes a long way toward concentrating both predator and prey.

Spring panfish need some form of cover or structure to anchor themselves in one general area. In shallow, soft-bottomed areas, that cover is often low-growing submergent vegetation. In lakes where weed growth is limited, fallen trees or submerged stump fields can be spring panfish hotspots. These types of cover are easy to identify in either traditional SONAR or by using high-frequency imaging techniques.

Find the warmest water, in the right depth range, with the proper bottom composition, fortified by a little cover, and you’ll have assembled the most important parts of the spring panfish puzzle. What’s missing? Only you, a youngster, a pail full of minnows and a couple of rods – now you’re ready to tap into spring’s panfish bonanza. Enjoy!