Sight-Fishing Tips for Crappie and Panfish

Spring crappie and sunfish can be caught in great numbers by sight fishing, even in less-than-clear water; here’s how to find them

By: Tony J. Peterson,

Sight Fishing Crappie

Spring panfishermen should re-think how they sight fish and learn to look for more than a fish, but the exact spots that might hold several fish. (Tony Peterson photo)


When we think of sight fishing, we often think of spotting largemouth hovering over a bed or bonefish nosing their way over sand flats in gin-clear water.  When it comes to panfish and springtime attempts to catch a mess for a fish fry, sight fishing can take on many non-typical forms; some of which don’t involve actually seeing the fish you’re targeting.

Of course, when the big bluegills are bedding and the lake bottom takes on the dimpled texture of an oversized golf ball due to all of the nests, it’s easy to targets. But what about crappie and bluegill in stained or tannic water?

Having spent a fair amount of time in my youth sight fishing for bass and just about any fish I could lay eyes on, I’ve come to realize the pursuit is all about what you can’t see. This may seem strange, but think about crappie for a second.

We know they love timber and if they can’t find it, they’ll orient themselves to any sort of vertical structure they can find. Naturally, there are situations where they’ll suspend over nothing, but during the spring when they are running shallow and looking to spawn, they’ll hold tight to cover of some sort.

Putting on polarized sunglasses and looking for the right cover is often the key. Sometimes you’ll spot the actual fish, but often times it’s simply a hole in the emergent vegetation, or a cluster of lilypad rootwads. For slabs in the spring, it’s almost always necessary to see where they should be and then try to find out.

Sight Fishing Crappie in stained water

Sight fishing for panfish is more than just targeting a single fish. While this can happen, it’s often about looking for holes in the vegetation or a single piece of vertical cover that might hold unseen crappie. (Tony Peterson photo)


I know plenty of panfish junkies who like to use artificial lures to cover water and find active fish, and at certain times, I fit into the category. But I also know there are situations where a cast-and-retrieve strategy doesn’t cut it.

Years ago when I was living in north-central Minnesota, I fished an awful lot of good crappie lakes. When the slabs were shallow, they were almost always tight to beaver dams, rootwads, or other structure that was simply tough to target with most presentations.

So I fished with minnows suspended under bobbers, a lot. It’s simple, I know but fish the way you should and you’ll catch more. I’ve never met a crappie that could pass up a lively minnow, just as I’ve yet to meet the bluegill that shuns a nightcrawler. They are meat eaters, and the advantage of targeting their shallow cover during the early season is when you do drop a minnow or fathead into a pocket of cover, it’ll be right in front of their face. I look at it like putting a bowl of M&Ms on the table and then inviting guests over. Nearly everyone will swipe a handful because it’s so easy and they are so tasty.

While looking for tight pockets to drop a little live bait through the cover, don’t forget to go where others won’t. Bass fisherman are notorious for fishing deep into the thickest vegetation and trying to navigate their boats through water more conducive to walking. Panfisherman don’t seem to follow that playbook, but they should.

Sight Fishing Sunfish

Big panfish can be easily found in the spring, but they also can be equally difficult to find. If you’re struggling to locate enough for a fish fry, consider taking a page from a bass fisherman’s playbook and get deeper into the thick stuff. (Tony Peterson photo)


The most crappie I’ve ever seen in my life, and by that I mean hundreds and hundreds of them at one time, were all spawning in a pencil-reed patch on a northern Minnesota lake. I was casting for pike along the edges when I noticed the reeds moving. Closer inspection revealed some crappie in the shallow water.

I nosed my boat right into the jungle, and what I saw blew my mind. The black triangular tail fins of countless crappie appeared, and in that couple-acre patch I found more crappie than I knew existed in any lake. There were some panfisherman anchored around the edges, but I never saw a single one of them get into the jungle and fish where the bigger slabs were holding until I started doing just that.

When you head out to bring home something worth sharpening the fillet knife over, think about how you’ll look for them. Sight fishing goes way beyond just looking for fish.


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