Joel Nelson holding up a crappie he caught

There are a lot of ways to catch gills and crappies, and Joel Nelson talks about his favorite panfish baits. Depending on the time of year, different approaches can be taken, but I find it’s best not to get too complicated with the fish we all grew up catching. My first introduction to bluegill fishing was straight over the side of a red 16’ LUND with bench seats. What we called “teardrops” back then were simply ice flies tipped with any basic bait, tied off to winter jiggle sticks. That was the easiest way for grandpa to manage multiple grandsons in the boat while catching fish at the same time.

In time, I came to appreciate a whole host of new lure types, and while I’ve caught panfish on everything from crankbaits to spinner rigs, simple offerings like ice jigs will always remain in my tackle box. That said, I have expanded my game a bit and certainly have favorites depending on the time of year. Below is a list of some favorites organized by species, along with some quick information on how best to fish them.

Bluegill Baits

Firefly Jig – The Firefly could be the best bluegill jig of all time. I fish a variety of sizes depending on depth, mostly still below a float of some sort, opting for the smallest size that still fishes well. Slow fall rates and a bit of bait can really accentuate the Firefly and make it a great inside weedline, super-shallow bluegill-catching machine. I love all the colors too, with pink/white, parakeet, sunrise, and bumblebee being just a few of my favorites.

Impulse Rigged Bloodworm and Impulse Rigged Mayfly – As the water warms and we get nearer to the spawn, bluegills can readily be caught without bait, provided you’re offering them some shapes and colors they recognize. Mayfly larvae and bloodworms both are staples in a bluegill’s diet, so they’re both hard to beat as bait below floats or cast.

Impulse Rigged Mayfly

Impulse Rigged Mayfly

Crappie Baits

Gypsi Jig – Perhaps the most iconic spring crappie bait, the Gypsi is also a bluegill bait in the 1/64oz. size, but I prefer the 1/32oz and 1/16oz. sizes for crappies. Put it below a float of any kind and fish near reed beds, emerging cabbage, and lily pads for spring crappies. Especially early in the season, rig with a minnow and expect to get bit.

Thumper Crappie King – This bait gets the nod in the darkest and most turbid water situations. This bait features a jig-head that actually looks like a minnow while sporting a hammered belly blade that helps fish find it in dark-water environments. I love trolling it. Toss it a normal casting distance behind the boat, set the bow mount to between 0.5 and 1.0mph, and hold on. It’s really as simple as this bait calls fish to it.

Impulse Rigged Mini Smelt – As the water warms and crappies start to roam a bit more, this bait is a proven winner. I prefer the smaller mini-smelt offering in clearer water and like to make short, precision pitches near the cover.

Impulse Rigged Mini Smelt

Impulse Rigged Mini Smelt

Double Threats

UV Mimic Minnow – The Mimic Minnow works well into summer and is the perfect chuck-and-wind bait as water temps warm up, and the bait can start early in spring while making short casts to shallow crappies. The smaller version is great for big bluegills and perch too, so it’s good to have both of the smaller sizes on hand. It’s really a versatile bait that will catch almost any panfish species during most times of the year.

Rigs – I snuck this one in at the bottom of the article for those patient enough to make it all the way through. It’s a real sleeper during the summer months for me, and whenever I have a hard time finding gills and crappies, I tie on one of the many spinner combinations Northland has. I’ve caught some of the biggest bluegills in any system, particularly while pulling Butterfly Blades, Wingnut Blades, and Baitfish Image Rigs. It started on accident when looking for walleyes when I was younger, and now it’s very intentional, sometimes requiring me to run the smallest size spinners, and downsize the hook. Tip it with a crawler, or in panfish abundant lakes, usually, a chunk of Impulse Crawler or Impulse Rig’n Leech does the trick. If there was ever a secret weapon panfish setup, this is for me, is it?

If you don’t have all the gear above to create the perfect panfish rig, start small by putting together what you do have, and picking up a few of the staple baits listed above. The best part is that these are classics that have stood the test of time, and you won’t be longing for the next hot bait that comes around next year. Keep it simple, keep it fun, and enjoy some spring panfishing.


Bluegill caught on a spinner rig

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