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Waters are opening, boaters are getting ready to set sail and start motors and the fish are cooperating in many places anglers now have access.

The walleye, pike and Lake Erie early bass season does not kick in until May 3, but many an inland lake, river and bay area offer some attractive panfish prospects.

Boater are reminded that wearing a PFD (personal flotation devices) or life preserver is mandatory for all aboard vessels in New York State until May 1.

Crappie critters

The crappie (aka calico, strawberry bass, speck, etc.) offers the most challenging pre-spawn fishery open as soon as ice disappears from water surfaces.

Chautauqua Lake was best known as the Mecca for “calico” catches. Before 50-fish limits were placed on this prize species, many a Buffalonian – and anglers from elsewhere many miles from Mayville or Jamestown – filled pails, buckets and bins with hundreds of these tasty panfish.

White crappie schools can be tight, abundant and a good bite; they prefer stained waters and can be picky about habitat areas. The black crappie is much more dominant in area waters and can be found in relative shallows at varying depths throughout the ice and early spring season.

But the catch is finding both the sites and depth levels at which these fish will feed on terminal tackle.

Chautauqua still holds many a sizeable school of black crappies, but the shoreline run is shorter and boaters have to make reconnaissance runs to find these tight schools. At times, three or four boats in a circle have good catches and boaters in dozens of surrounding boats become an audience rather than performer in the harvest.

Other panfish

Each early-spring a corps of savvy anglers get in on this crappie bite, but for most shoreline scourers bluegills and perch lead the search.

Mike Sperry at Chautauqua Reel Outdoors in Lakewood has been selling many minnows and gets good ‘gill reports along with smaller perch and the start of a calico run at Chautauqua.

In the western Finger Lakes, both Honeoye and Silver Lake have had a decent early-spring run of sizeable bluegills. Dave at Dave Washburn’s Bait Shop on West Lake Road said, “The boaters have been getting out of the state launch on Honeoye for about a week now and I’m selling all kinds of bait – minnows, worms and grubs.”

The worms (nightcrawler) sales could be the start of a good bullhead run. The minnows and grubs indicate a beginning for crappie and ‘gills. “They (boaters) won’t tell me what they’re doing yet,” Washburn said Tuesday afternoon.

Along Lake Ontario, shore casters have been reaching perch at Cranberry and Long Pond but not yet on Irondequoit Bay, according to George at S&R Bait & Tackle in Rochester. Ice has been off the bay for more than a week, but most bait buyers are headed to shallower bays or trout streams.

Bait debates

Many early-spring crappie chasers rely wholly on live minnows, but plastic baits (tube jigs, Mr. Twisters, Gulps, and small whacky worms) all can connect with the right presentation.

Minnow hookups vary with each expert. Some say hooking through the head or lip draws the best bite on rigs suspended under a bobber/float. Others swear by a connection just behind the dorsal fin of either emerald shiners or fathead minnows to let the bait swim a bit and draw attention from passive feeders.

The waxworm get hooked at either end or through the center, but a dead-center hookup give this longer grub the appearance of a mini whacky worm and often ups the hit and hooking count.

As for plastics, colors can be essential at times and so-so at others.

Darker colors resemble bugs, larvae and grubs. Lighter colors work like minnows. For decades, even the smaller, grub-like plastics ended up as small, oval or tubular offerings.

Lately, some panfish plastics experts have gone with longer white bodies on plastic heads, either in a full body pattern or with long tentacle-like streamers behind the white head. Southern crappie experts swear by these longer patterns for bigger crappie gathering around brush piles and dock structures. Perhaps they will catch on up north here this spring.

Most inland lakes have reached that magic 39 degrees, creating the turnover that melts off even the thickest layers of ice.

Niagara river

Lower Niagara River water temperatures hold in the mid 30s, water coming down from ice-covered Lake Erie, says Capt. Jim Rores.

Water remains clear, so Kwikfish are not as effective as egg sacks or minnows, Rores suggests. He looks forward to fish setting up on the Niagara Bar prior to the removal of the ice boom.

email: odrswill@gmail.com