A Panfish Primer

By Diana Rupp

What was the first fish you ever caught? Chances are it was some sort of panfish. For me, it was a bluegill in my parents’ backyard pond. I caught it with a piece of earthworm on the kid-size spinning rod that was a gift from my dad. It wasn’t a very big fish, but the grin on my five-year-old face was enormous.

But panfish aren’t just for kids and beginners. Now, many decades later, I still thrill to the outsize fight of a bluegill on an ultralight spinning rod or fly rod. While bass and trout get most of the glory, plenty of anglers spend at least some of their time targeting panfish. And why not? They’re common and accessible to most anglers, they’re relatively easy to catch, they fight hard for their size, and if you catch a mess of them, they make a great meal. 

crappie and angler on float tube
Crappies and other panfish can be caught from shore, but fishing from a float tube or small boat can be a good way to cast to weeds and other structure that you can’t reach from shore. ©Trail’s End Media

Originally, the term panfish referred to any edible freshwater fish that was small enough to fit in a small frying pan even at its adult size. Today, the term most often refers to sunfish, which include bluegill, green sunfish, redear sunfish, pumpkinseed, warmouth, redbreast, rock bass, and crappies. While these fish were originally native to North America, they have been widely transplanted and are now found in many ponds and lakes around the world. Because of their relatively small size and delicious meat, yellow perch are also sometimes considered panfish. 

You can find panfish nearly anywhere, from small ponds to medium-size lakes to big reservoirs. Although the world-record bluegill, caught in 1950, weighed more than four pounds, most panfish weigh a pound or less. A “keeper” bluegill—one large enough to fillet–is about 6 inches long and weighs four or five ounces.

The first rule for catching panfish is to lighten up. You’ll want a light or ultralight spinning rod spooled with 2-, 4- or 6-pound test. Most panfish have small mouths, so hook sizes in the 8 to 10 range are as large as you’ll want to go. Because panfish often hit hard and swallow the hook, use long-shanked Aberdeen hooks, which are easier to remove from the fish’s mouth. 

angler with a bluegill
Who says panfish are just for kids? Catching bluegills and other sunfish is fun for all ages.
©Trail’s End Media

Live bait is the easiest and most common way to catch panfish. In addition to the earthworm that brought me my first fish, panfish anglers often use nightcrawlers, red worms, mealworms, small leeches, or insects such as crickets and grasshoppers. If you’re targeting crappies or perch, small minnows are a great choice. Suspend your bait under a small bobber. If the water is fairly shallow, a standard clip-on bobber works well; if it’s deeper, use a slip bobber.

If you want to raise the challenge quotient a notch, try catching panfish on small jigs, spinners, and plugs. It’s also fun to catch these fish on a 3- or 4-weight fly rod. Bluegills and some other species will take small dry flies and poppers on the surface. Crappies and perch are easiest to catch on small streamers that imitate minnows. 

Where to find panfish depends on the particular species. First, check the water temperature. Bluegills and crappies do best in water from 65 to 75 degrees F. Yellow perch prefer colder water, in the 55 to 72 degree range. As with most fish, you are most likely to find panfish around cover, which can include weeds, brush, downed trees, rocks, or even a dock or pier. While most panfish species can be caught from shore, crappies and perch are often suspended in somewhat deeper water. Some species, such as bluegills, move and feed in schools, so if you catch one, you can usually catch several more if you continue to cast into the same area.

A crappie that is good for eating
A nice eating-size crappie. ©Trail’s End Media

It’s common to fish for bluegills in the spring, when they are in shallow water on their spawning beds, since the males are very aggressive at this time of year and will attack nearly any lure that swims past. Unlike most fish, bluegills are such prolific breeders that fishing during the spawn is not considered detrimental to the population. After the spawn and into the summer, most panfish move into slightly deeper water, 10 feet or more. One good tactic for summer bluegills is to find a spot with structure, weedbeds, or a dropoff, and cast your bait or lure into that area. Let the bait sink, then retrieve it very slowly just above the bottom, with occasional pauses. Watch the weather and try to time your fishing for the period just before a front arrives. Panfish of all types often feed aggressively right before a storm or a change in the weather. 

The scientific name for sunfish is Centrarchidae, which means anal spine, referring to the fact that these fish have at least three strong spines on their anal, or back fin, so when you grasp a bluegill or other sunfish you’ve caught, be sure to keep this in mind and press the spines down under your palm so you don’t get pricked.  

If you’re lucky enough to have panfish in your local lake or pond, these small fish will provide you with hours of relaxing and fun fishing. Best of all, you can get the whole family involved without the need to travel far or invest in expensive boats, rods, or other equipment. Don’t forget to fry up a few for dinner.

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