Fishing for Panfish, A Complete Guide!
While anglers have many choices when it comes to fishing, more choose to go fishing for panfish over all other species combined. There are good reasons for this. Panfish are the most pursued fish species in North America. Panfish are widely distributed and there are quite a few different panfish species. Most anglers can find a place to catch panfish a short distance from home. Panfish are abundant, aggressive, and less challenging than other species, resulting in a great option for kids and novice anglers. Expensive equipment is not required, this is very basic fishing.
Panfish are found in every warm water body to some degree. Some waters are known for numbers of fish while others produce large fish. In most instances, it is actually beneficial to take out some fish to eat, as the stocks can easily become stunted. A body of water can only support so many fish. That said, many anglers are now releasing the largest specimens to maintain the health of the fishery. Keeping the “medium” sized fish is a great approach.
Panfish fishing – species
There are many different species of panfish that anglers have the opportunity to catch. Some of these species will be covered individually in a later chapter. Bluegill are perhaps the best known and most widely available. They are quite aggressive for their size. Crappie are certainly extremely popular and are the largest of the panfish species. Depending on the area of the country, anglers can catch redear sunfish (shellcracker), spotted sunfish (stumpknocker), pumpkinseed, redbreast sunfish, warmouth, rock bass, and more!
Panfish fishing tackle and equipment
One of the best aspects of panfish fishing is the simplicity. This type of fishing is not complicated or expensive by any means. Many a panfish has been caught by anglers using a cane pole with a worm under a bobber. In some states, a license is not even required for this type of fishing.
Best panfish fishing rod and reel
In most cases, ultra light spinning tackle is the best choice for anglers panfish fishing. A decent rod and reel can be purchased for less than $50. A longer rod will allow anglers to make longer casts as well as have a better chance if a larger bass or other fish is hooked. A 5′ to 6′ ultra light rod with a 1000 series reel spooled up with 4 lb line is a great all round combination.
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While spinning reels, also known as “open faced” reels are considered the most versatile outfits to use, many anglers still prefer to use closed faced reels. These are also inexpensive and easy to use. Many anglers caught their first fish on the venerable Zebco 202! These reels do have their limitations; the retrieve ratio is slow, line capacity is limited, and the drags are fair at best. However, for most panfish fishing, they are more than adequate.
Panfish fishing line choices
Anglers have several choices when it comes to fishing line. These are monofilament, flourocarbon, and braid. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Monofilament line is inexpensive and works well in most applications. It does stretch, which can actually be beneficial when using such light equipment. It is clear and relatively hard to see.
Flourocarbon line is almost invisible in the water with less stretch than monofilament line. The only real negative is the initial cost. However, considering how little is needed and the fact that it lasts a long time, it really is a great option.
Braided line is very thin and has zero stretch. It is extremely sensitive, giving anglers excellent feel for the lure or bait. It is expensive, but lasts a very long time. Knots are more difficult to tie as well. Some anglers tie the lure or hook right to the braid, especially in dark water. However, most use a 3′ piece of 4lb to 6 lb flourocarbon leader.
Terminal tackle for panfish fishing
Panfish are caught by anglers using both live bait as well as artificial lures. Those using live bait do not need a lot of terminal tackle. A selection of short shank live bait hooks and long shank thin wire hooks in sizes #10, #8, #6 and #4 will cover most situations. Anglers seeking larger crappie may need #2 size hooks as well.
There are several other items that will be needed in the panfish live bait angler’s tackle box. A selection of floats will be required. Quill floats are used when the bite is very subtle, even the lightest take will result in the float moving upright. The old red and white clip on bobbers are fine as well. Generally speaking, the smallest bobber that will suspend the bait should be used. Split shot in several sizes and rubber core or sliding egg sinkers in a ¼ ounce and ½ ounce will get the bait down when fishing deep. Dipsey sinkers or drop shop weights can be used when using a dropper rig, which will be discussed later.
A selection of artificial lures should be included in every panfish angler’s tackle box. These would include small spinners, spinnerbaits, plugs, and a selection of jigs and jig heads with some grub bodies. It takes some anglers time to grow confident using lures, but they really are productive as well as being fun to fish.
Finally, there are a few other pieces of gear that will be needed for panfish fishing. A tackle box of some type will be needed, the soft bag styles with removable boxes are quite popular these days. Pliers and clippers are handy to have along. Bait boxes and buckets will be needed for anglers who fish with live bait. Some anglers put fish on a stringer, but getting them on ice is a better option where possible.
Fishing for panfish with live bait
It is probably safe to say that the majority of panfish landed by anglers is done so using live bait. A live worm under a bobber has accounted for more panfish than any other method. Crickets are a fantastic bait for large bluegill in summer. Live minnows are far and away the top live bait for crappie. Grass shrimp are extremely effective, though not always available. Grubs such as meal worms are deadly under the ice and in open water.
Worms and nightcrawlers for panfish
Worms have been the universal panfish bait for as long as anglers have been chasing them. They are readily available to catch or purchase, are easily kept alive, and are very effective on a variety of fish species. More retail outlets offer live worms these days, from local gas stations to big box stores. Red wigglers are the perfect size for panfish and are extremely lively when placed on a hook. Most anglers use a whole one unless they are extra large in size. They are kept alive in a refrigerator for a long time.
Common earthworms are found all over North America. Anglers can dig them up in moist, fertile soil. Some go extra lengths to make a compost pile in a cool, shady spot in the yard. Sometimes, watering the area before digging will help. Like all worms, as long as they are not exposed to extreme hot or cold, they will live a good while in moist soil. Both wigglers and earthworms can be threaded on a hook or hooked several times through the body.
Nightcrawlers are a fantastic freshwater fishing bait! Whole nightcrawlers are great for larger gamefish such as bass and walleye. Anglers fishing for panfish will do better pinching off a small piece and placing that on the hook. Often times, several fish will be caught on one small piece of bait. This makes nightcrawlers a very cost effective option. They are readily available at most stores that sell fishing equipment.
Fishing with minnows for crappie and other panfish
Big fish eat little fish, it is a basic fact of life. While most panfish mostly feed on crustaceans and insects, some panfish, especially larger bluegill, will take a live minnow. However, live minnows are by far the number one choice of anglers targeting crappie. Crappie are the largest member of the panfish family and feed primarily on small bait fish. Minnows are most often hooked through the lips from the bottom up.
Bait shops that service waters that hold crappie will keep live minnows in stock. The type of minnow used depends on the geographical location. Missouri Minnows are hardy and are very popular. In cooler months when the water temperature is low, a few dozen will remain lively in a bucket or cooler. However, in warmer months when more minnows are needed, anglers will need an aerator to keep the bait alive. These are available in 12 volt of battery operated units at a very reasonable cost. They come with a plastic tube and an air stone.
Anglers can catch their own minnows. In fact, it can be great fun! It is important to check local regulations to ensure compliance. The two best ways to catch minnows are with a seine net and a minnow trap. Minnow traps are easy; the trap is baited with bread or cat food and tossed into the water. If minnows are plentiful, the trap will produce enough bait in a few hours. Many anglers let them sit overnight.
Minnow seines require 2 anglers. They are usually 4 feet wide and ten feet long or so with poles on each end. Again, check local regulations. With an angler at each end, the net is moved through the water, encircling the bait. This is actually great fun on a warm, summer day!
Insects make great panfish bait
Insects are a primary part of a panfish’s diet. They are just the right size and are plentiful in and around the freshwater bodies of water that they inhabit. While panfish will eat just about any insect, the top two live baits used by anglers are crickets first, followed by grasshoppers.
Crickets are commercially raised and sold at many bait shops as well as pet stores. They are mostly gray crickets and are small in size. They are terrific panfish baits, particularly for bluegill in the warmer months. Anglers can purchase special containers for crickets which make it easier to get one out without the others escaping. Grasshoppers are also excellent panfish baits, but anglers must catch their own. This is best done in the morning when the grass is still wet. Later in the day, they are much more difficult to catch. Both are best hooked under the collar behind their head.
Grass shrimp are a top fishing bait for panfish
Grass shrimp are a tremendous bait for just about every species of panfish. In some areas they can be purchased live at local bait shops. Anglers can catch their own by using a fine net with a long handle and probing the weed edges close to shore. They look just like saltwater shrimp, though much smaller. They are delicate baits that are best used with a tiny, fine wire hook. Grass shrimp are usually threaded on the hook.
Grubs are versatile panfish baits
Mealworms and waxworms (waxies) are without a doubt the top live bait for anglers targeting panfish under the ice. They are readily available at shops and can even be ordered online. They live a good while as long as they are not exposed to extreme hot or cold conditions. While mostly used when ice fishing, they are also very effective, though underutilized, in open water applications. They are threaded on a hook.
Live bait panfish fishing techniques
While panfish fishing with live bait is relatively uncomplicated, there are nuances which will increase success for the angler. Bait and hook size combinations are important; anglers should be careful to keep their offerings on the small size. This is especially true in clear water and on pressured lakes. Also, depth presentation is important as most panfish feed facing up.
Shallow water live bait tactics
Fishing for panfish with live bait in shallow water is pretty simple and that is where most anglers fish for panfish. In most cases, a live bait suspended several feet under a bobber is the best approach. The bobber serves as weight to cast, a visual reference for a strike, and presents the bait at the desired depth. This works well with all live baits.
The hook size should match the size of the bait being used and the fish being targeted. Erring on the smaller size is usually a good idea. A #10 or #8 hook is a good size for most panfish. Anglers using worms do well with a “baitholder” hook. These have little barbs on them which helps hold the worm on the hook. Fine wire hooks are better for minnows, crickets, and grass shrimp.
There are several different types of floats to choose from. Many experienced panfish anglers prefer quill floats. These are long and even the lightest take can be detected as the long quills tip upwards. Round floats are easier to cast and work better when using live minnows. A small split shot can be added if current is present or in deeper water.
The best technique is to set the float two feet or so above the hook. Obviously, in slightly deeper water the float can be adjusted. The baited rig is then cast out to a likely looking spot. These include submerged weed beds, edges of grass and pads, docks, fallen trees, gravel bottom, and rocky shorelines. When the float moves or disappears, the angler reels up the slack with the rod tip pointed at the float. Once the slack is removed and the line comes tight, the rod tip is raised sharply.
Anglers can also free line a live bait. This means hooking a bait and casting it out with no weight or float. This can be extremely effective as it gives a very natural presentation. The bait will slowly flutter through the water column, putting out signals of distress. Panfish will find this irresistible and often attack it before it reaches the bottom. If no strike occurs, the bait can sit on the bottom for a few moments. The best approach is to keep the bail open as the bait sinks. When a fish takes, the line will move off. The angler can then engage the reel and come tight on the fish.
Live bait fishing for panfish in deep water
Fishing for panfish in deeper water with live bait is a bit trickier. Locating the fish is more difficult as the visual clues are not there. Anglers must understand how fish will use structure to migrate from deeper water to shallow water. Points and main river and creek channels are top locations. Anglers most often target panfish in deeper water in the coldest and warmest months.
Generally speaking, anglers fishing deeper water for panfish will do so in a boat, most often times using a vertical presentation. This can be done with a dropper rig, split shot, a jig head, or even under a sliding float.
The simplest rig is a hook with a split shot or two attached. This works well in areas that are a bit too deep for a fixed float, but really not much deeper than ten or twelve feet. It also is the best choice for casting out away from the boat or shore. The bait will slowly sink though the water column and settle on or near the bottom.
A dropper rig is a very effective method to get a live bait down in deeper water. Some anglers refer to them as drop shot rigs as well, which normally uses a soft plastic bait. However, they both work the same. The sinker sits at the end of the main line and a hook is tied on a short dropper loop a foot or so above the sinker. Anglers can add a second hook another foot above the first one.
Rigs for fishing live bait in deep water
The result is a rig that presents the bait or baits just a little bit above the bottom. This is a very effective way to fish in deeper water, as fish often hold close to bottom structure. It can also be used on suspended fish by stopping the sinker at the desired depth. Crappie anglers use this rig extensively with a pair of #4 thin wire long shank hooks and live minnows.
Another simple and easy way to fish live bait in deeper water is to simply add the bait to a bare jig head. Most panfish anglers have a good selection of jig heads, so it really is easy to just tie one on. 1/32 ounce is a good size, but anglers can go up if conditions dictate. A piece of worm, grass shrimp, or minnow can be used. Meal worms and wax worms fished on a tiny jig head can be extremely effective when the bite is tough.
Anglers that prefer to fish live bait under a float can do so in deep water as well. This works best when casting out away from shore or the boat. The line slides through the middle of a float and is stopped by a small swivel. A 2′ leader connects the hook to the swivel. A split shot is used a foot above the hook. A bobber stop is placed on the main line at the depth that is to be fished. It is basically a small piece of yarn or thread. The rig is cast out and the main line slides through the float, stopping at the bobber stop. The bobber stop goes through the guides easily. This allows anglers to cast out and fish a bait deep under a float, something that will not happen with a fixed float.
Fishing for panfish with artificial lures
Many anglers use live bait such as worms and crickets to catch bluegill and panfish. However, artificial lures can be used successfully as well. This is particularly true for the bluegill. They have a fairly large mouth given their size. Also, they are probably the most aggressive species in the panfish family. Remember, largemouth bass are really just giant sunfish, and we all know how they can be taken using lures! These are the top lures for panfish and crappie.
Artificial lures have a couple of advantages over live bait. The first is convenience; no need to acquire bait or keep it alive. A tackle box full of lures is always ready to fish! Lures also allow anglers to cover water much faster than live bait. This is advantageous in locating schools quickly. Finally, lures will trigger strikes when fish are not feeding.
Anglers can read a comprehensive article on the best panfish lures
The same artificial lures that are effective on largemouth and smallmouth bass work well on panfish, just in much smaller sizes. These include spinners, spinnerbaits, jigs, spoons, and plugs. For the most part, anglers fishing for panfish with lures can keep it pretty simple. A basic selection of baits will get the job done.
A 1/16 ounce Johnson Beetlespin is Capt Jim’s favorite lure for fishing for bluegill and other panfish. Black is his favorite color, with green being second. The lure is very easy to use. It is simply cast out and reeled back in slowly. Weed edges and fallen trees are top spots. It also works well when trolled to help locate fish.
Spinners are proven lures for most freshwater species and panfish are no exception. The Warden’s Original Rooster tail is Capt Jim’s favorite spinner. It puts out a lot of flash at slow speeds. These spinners are very light, making them a great choice when fishing shallow rivers. The 1/16 or 1/8 sizes in bright colors work best. As with most lures, a slow steady retrieve works best.
Spinners work best in fairly open water. The treble hook will hang up on weeds fairly easily. Once cast, the lure should be given a good “twitch” to get the blade spinning. Slow and steady, as slowly as possible to keep the blade turning, works best.
Plastic curly tail and shad tail as well as marabou jigs are proven panfish lures. Jigs are by far the number one lure for crappie as they feed primarily on minnows. Chartreuse is a good all round color. White works well in clear water. Bright colors such as pink are better in tannin or stained water.
Jigs are versatile lures that can be cast or trolled. Marabou jigs have a lot of action with very little movement are work well when fish are finicky. Curly tail and shad tail grubs put out great action when retrieved. They can be used under a float or with a spinnerbait frame as well.
Blakemore Road Runner
The Blakemore Road Runner is a terrific freshwater fishing lure, especially for crappie. It combines a jig with a spinner blade, which adds flash and vibration to the jig. They come in a variety of colors and either hair or plastic tails. 1/16 ounce is best for bluegill and panfish while 1/8 is the better size for crappie. They are very effective when trolled.
Spoons are good lures for bluegill, panfish and crappie as well. They tend to catch larger fish as they mimic minnows. The Acme Kastmaster in the smallest sizes are Capt Jim’s favorite spoon. It can be cast or trolled. They are dense and cast a long distance, making them a good choice to cover open water.
Rapala plugs are for anglers looking for trophy bluegill and other panfish. These baits will not catch a lot of fish, but will catch larger ones. They are a mouthful for a panfish. The Original Floating Minnow in silver and the Husky Jerk in gold and black in the smallest sized are capt Jim’s favorite plugs. They can be cast or trolled.
When fly fishing is mentioned, many anglers imagine casting for trout in a remote mountain stream. However, panfish are great fun on a fly and relatively easy to catch. Bluegill in particular will aggressively take a fly. Short easy casts are the norm, the techniques are not difficult to learn.
The biggest difference between fly casting and spinning is that in fly fishing, the line provides the weight since the fly weighs very little. Once that concept is adopted, fly fishing is not that complicated.
Anglers can read more about fly fishing for bluegill and panfish in this article by Capt Jim
Fly fishing equipment for panfish
Fly fishing tackle has designated sizes. The lower the number, the lighter the tackle. It is dispayed as “Wt” for “weight”. A 2 wt outfit is very light. A 10Wt outfit would be for large saltwater fish. Anglers fly fishing for bluegill and panfish will do well with a 3Wt or 4Wt outfit. Rods are usually 8′ or 9′ long.
The fly line and reel is also designated by “weight”. This makes it easy to match the equipment. Fly lines come in several varieties, but anglers fishing for panfish only need a floating weight forward line. The package will look like this “F4WF”. Floating 4wt weight forward. The fly reel basically just holds the line. A decent complete outfit can be purchased for less than $200.
A leader is needed between the fly and fly line. The fly line is thick and easily seen. The leader is tapered, making it easier to cast. Leaders that are 4 lb to 6 lb test at the end (tippet) are fine. This would be a 6x leader.
Fly fishing tactics for panfish
Fly fishing is not all that different from spin fishing. The fly is cast out to a likely spot, allowed to settle or sink, then retrieved back in. Just as with lures, subtle retrieves work best. Surface flues are twitched sharply and allowed to settle. Sinking flies are slowly retrieved.
When a fish takes the fly, the angler pulls sharply with the stripping hand (the hand not holding the rod) then raises the rod tip sharply. The fish is then brought in by stripping the line in by hand. If a larger fish such as a bass is hooked, the angler can fight the fish with the reel.
Fishing the Popper/dropper rig
The popper dropper rig is an excellent way to catch panfish on fly. It features a floating fly, usually a popper, with a small sinking fly tied 18” below. A leader it tied to the bend of the popper’s hook. It allows anglers to fish the surface and mid depth. The popper also functions as a float to indicate a strike.
Anglers do not need to get fancy when it comes to fly selection. Anything dark and “buggy” works well. In reality, a #8 or #10 black Wooly Bugger is all any panfish fly angler needs. Nymphs such are a Hairs Ear are good for use under a popper. Small baitfish patterns produce as well. A few poppers and floating sponge bugs will round out the box.
Fishing for panfish in ponds, rivers, and lakes
Panfish are found in just about every body of water that is warm enough to support them. While the fish species are the same, they do behave differently in certain types of water and tactics need to change in order for anglers to be successful.
Fishing for panfish in ponds and small lakes.
Ponds and small natural lakes are ideal habitat for bluegill and other panfish. They are for the most part shallow, weedy, and loaded with forage for bluegill and other species. Ponds are fairly easy to fish, in many cases a boat is not required. It is every angler’s dream to get invited to fish a private farm pond that is loaded with fish and sees little pressure!
Most of the action in ponds will occur close to the shoreline. This is where weeds, lily pads, and other aquatic vegetation will be found. Any cover such as a dock or fallen tree deserves extra attention. Many ponds are “bowl” shaped with little deep water and almost no sharp contour changes. This will concentrate panfish near the vegetation. For these reasons, ponds usually do not provide great action on crappie.
Since ponds are often fished from shore, one good approach is to walk the shoreline while casting a lure or fly. This is an excellent method to cover a lot of water while learning the spots that hold fish. Once a productive area is located, anglers can slow down and fish it thoroughly with lures or live bait. A 1/16 ounce black or green Beetle spin is the perfect lure for this. As an added bonus, lures will often catch a bunch of small bass, if they are present.
Live bait certainly produces in ponds as well. Ponds that are brushy along the shore with limited openings to fish are better suited for using live bait, as access is limited. A live worm under a float is a time proven combination that will produce plenty of bluegill and other panfish. Small docks will usually attract panfish as well and offer a good spot to fish from.
Anglers fishing in larger ponds and small lakes will probably do better using a small boat, canoe, or kayak. The same applies to ponds that do not offer much shoreline access. The best approach is to simply work the shoreline with lures or bait and hunt the fish down. This works best for anglers fly fishing as well.
Fishing for panfish in rivers
Rivers are often overlooked by anglers fishing for panfish, and this is a mistake! There are several advantages to fishing rivers. First, fish are easier to locate; the current and geography will dictate where fish hold. Rivers usually get less fishing pressure. They are also protected, making them good areas to fish on breezy days. Finally, the serenity and scenery add other elements that increase the enjoyment of fishing rivers.
Current is the primary factor to deal with when panfish fishing rivers. Water level is a close second. These two will combine to determine where to fish. First off, if the river is high, fast, and muddy, do not bother fishing it, especially for panfish. Conditions will be tough and can be downright dangerous.
Panfish do not like current. Slower rivers that meander along are better choices. On rivers with a bit of current, oxbows and coves out of the main current will be spots where panfish will concentrate. The same applies to deep, slow pools, fish will congregate there.
Fallen trees are usually plentiful in rivers as the current under cuts the bank and trees fall into the water. Bluegill in particular love wood! Fallen trees, especially in outside bends with deeper water, will often hold good numbers of fish. Artificial lures work well when prospecting. A small Rooster Tail spinner is a great choice, as is a curly tail grub. Live bait works best when fishing isolated cover such as fallen trees.
Anglers may encounter some different panfish species in rivers than they will in lakes. While not technically “panfish”, many small rivers are full of smallmouth bass. Rock bass can also be abundant, almost a nuisance to some anglers. Spotted sunfish, also known as stumpknocker, are aggressive and thrive in flowing water as well. Crappie may be found in deeper holes, especially if the river flows from a productive crappie lake.
Fishing for panfish in lakes and reservoirs
Larger lakes can provide anglers with excellent fishing for panfish and other species. This is especially true for anglers targeting crappie, which prefer and do well in larger bodies of water. The primary issue in these larger bodies of water is locating fish, there is a lot of water that is devoid of fish. The old saying that “90% of the fish are in 10% of the water” is really on point. However, there are some strategies that will help anglers be successful on these larger, more intimidating, bodies of water.
Many lakes are part of river systems. The Tennessee River lakes are a prime example of this. These long, narrow lakes often have current and fish like rivers. In these lakes, most panfish will be found in secluded coves and tributaries with less current. Bluegill and other panfish just do not like to fight a strong current.
One good approach when fishing larger lakes is to take a large, secluded or isolated cove, and treat it like a mini lake. Learn where the points and deeper areas are along with the prime shallow spots. Areas with sandy or gravel bottom will be prime spawning areas. Weed growth in these areas will only increase the chances for success.
Seasonal migrations of panfish in larger lakes
Larger lakes also experience more of a seasonal migration than smaller bodies of water, for obvious reasons. There is access to so much more area, including deeper water. Most panfish, crappie included, will be found shallow in the spring. Bluegill and other panfish will stay there all summer, while crappie will move out after late spring in most areas.
Lily pads, weed edges, submerged vegetation, gravel banks, rip-rap, docks, and fallen trees are all good spots to try for shallow water panfish. Areas that combine several of these will be hot spots. For example, an area with sandy bottom, a small patch of lily pads, and a fallen tree should hold a bunch of panfish. Crappie are particularly fond of submerged brush and timber. Many anglers make their own spots by planting bunches of brush in likely spots.
Both live bait and artificial lures can be productive when fish are shallow. One effective strategy is to take a two pronged approach by using lures to cover a lot of water then switch to bait once the fish are located. This is an efficient fishing method. Trolling the weed lines is another excellent way to locate productive areas in larger bodies of water. Beetlespins and small plugs are perfect for that, as are curly tail jigs.
In the warmer months, crappie will have moved out deeper. The same applies to bluegill and other panfish once spawning ends and the water gets too warm in shallow. Sloping points and creek channel edges are prime spots. Fish are more difficult to find, but once located, the action can be fast. Anglers will often find larger than average fish in this situation.
In most cases, a vertical presentation works best for panfish in deeper water. Anglers can use the depth finder to stay right on top of the fish. A double dropper rig with live minnows works very well for deep water crappie. A small jig and grub combination works well for bluegill and other panfish, as does a jig head with a worm. Often times these fish will be suspended, so fishing different depths is important, the sonar will help.
Fall can be a tricky time to fish. In the south, panfish and crappie will start moving shallow. In Florida, crappie will start schooling up to spawn as early as October. These lakes really do not turn over, nor do they get very cold, so fish spend their winters in fairly shallow water.
In northern lakes, anglers will have to put the time in to learn the local migration patterns. Lake turnover is a huge variable. This is where cold surface water “falls” through the water column to the bottom, stirring things up. This can result in tough fishing conditions.
One fall pattern that does hold up is to fish the back ends of creeks. Normally, water levels are low in the fall and these creeks are pretty clear. Panfish, and bass, will move into these areas to feed on shad and other forage. They will stay there until the water temperature drops and pushes them out to the first breaks in 10′ to 15′ of water.
Panfish and crappie can be caught in the winter up north, especially for those further north where ice fishing is very popular. Despite the cold water, bluegill, crappie, and other panfish will feed. Some specialized tactics and equipment are required, which will be covered in the next chapter.
There are quite a few different panfish species that are available to anglers. While many are similar in habit, there are differences that anglers will need to know in order to maximize their success. Therefore, individual species will be covered in this chapter.
Bluegill are arguably the most popular of all panfish. They are widely available and are one of the larger members of the panfish family. Bluegill tolerate a wide range of water temperatures. They also have a varied diet. These combine to make bluegill a very prolific and adaptable species.
Bluegill are very aggressive and feed on insects, crustaceans, and bait fish. They also have a fairly large mouth relative to their size. These traits make them prime candidates for anglers casting lures and flies, more so than most other panfish species.
Bluegill have a fairly round body with a small head. Their color varies greatly from blueish purple to a lighter olive or green. Most fish have six to eight vertical bars, though they can be very difficult to see at times. The fish has a dark flap on the rear of the gill cover, which gives the fish it’s name. There is no lighter border around the flap as in some other panfish. Breeding males take on vibrant dark colors. There are several sub-species of bluegills, which can make identifying them difficult.
Bluegill prefer areas with little or no current, preferably with aquatic vegetation or submerged trees or brush present. They will be found in varying depths, depending on the season. Bluegill spawn in the late spring and summer. They create bowl shaped nests in clusters that are easily seen. Spawning bluegill are very aggressive, especially on the full moon.
Bluegill feed on a variety of worms, insects, crustaceans, snails, fish eggs, and minnows. Smaller fish will mainly feed on insects and very small prey. They will feed throughout the water column and at all times of day, though early and late are best. Top live baits include crickets, worms, grass shrimp, and grubs.
Bluegill are more likely to take an artificial lure than most panfish, excluding crappie and rock bass. Just about any small lure will fool them. Spinners, spinnerbaits, spoons, jigs, and plugs all work well. The best retrieve is usually slow and steady, but as with all lure fishing, anglers should vary the retrieve.
Crappie are an extremely popular freshwater gamefish, second only to bluegill, and that is a subject for debate! They are the largest of the panfish and are fantastic eating. Crappie come in two different varieties; black crappie and white crappie. While very similar, there are a couple of differences. Black crappie prefer clear water and timber while white crappie like vegetation and can tolerate more stained water. For all intents, anglers can treat them the same when fishing for them.
The number one factor when it comes to catching crappie is locating them. They will school up into large schools at times, as well as scatter out in little bunches. In the spring, crappie move in shallow to spawn, and this is when many anglers target them. In most situations, it is the easiest time of year to catch them. Areas with brush piles (often man made) and fallen or submerged timber are top spots.
As reservoirs have become old and submerged timber has rotted, boat docks have become prime crappie holding structure. They really replace the trees as cover. In spring, shallow docks will produce. Deeper docks will hold fish all year long. These same docks also attract shad, which the crappie feed on.
Larger lakes are normally the best fisheries for both size and numbers of crappie. They simply provide the best cover along with abundant forage. Crappie feed primarily on minnows, though they will eat insects and crustaceans. Other than spring when fish are shallow, points, channel edges, bridges, rip-rap, and submerged islands or humps are all good spots to catch crappie.
Read this article for more on crappie fishing tackle and lures
Crappie are caught by anglers using both live bait and artificial lures. Live minnows are without a doubt the top live bait. Shops that cater to crappie anglers will keep a good supply on hand. Minnows can be fished in shallow water under a float or in deeper water on a dropper rig.
The top artificial lure for crappie is a jig. Jigs realistically mimic bait fish. Anglers can use small marabou hair tied on their jig. Most anglers now use the jig and grub combo. This allows anglers to quickly and easily change colors. Jigs can be cast out or trolled. Generally, a fairly subtle retrieve works best. Another very effective lure is the Blakemore Road Runner. It is a jig with a blade, combining two great lures; a spinner and a jig. It is more compact than a spinnerbait.
Trolling has become an extremely popular method to fish for crappie. It is very efficient, allowing anglers to cover a lot of water while keeping the lure in the strike zone. Jigs are primarily used, but some anglers use live minnows. Trolling can be done simply by dropping a couple of lures down and slowly moving along.
However, there is a relatively new technique called “spider rigging”. It uses multiple rods of varying lengths to cover a wide swath of water as the boat trolls along. The rods are specifically designed for this. The differing lengths keep the lines from tangling. This is difficult to master at first, but those that do put a lot of fish in the boat!
Redear sunfish (shellcracker)
Redear sunfish, also known as shellcracker, grow larger than bluegill and are terrific eating. They get their nickname from the diet they eat; freshwater mollusks and snails. They will also feed on worms and grass shrimp. Redears have been successfully stocked across the country, though native to the southeast. The meat is snow white and delicious!
Shellcrackers have a plate in their throat that allows them to crush the shell of crustaceans. They are also found a bit deeper, as that is where their favorite forage is often located. They are most often caught by drifting worms or grass shrimp under a float over deep submerged grass beds. While they occasionally take artificial lures and flies, live bait is usually more productive.
Shellcrackers, or redear sunfish, are easily identified by the red (on males) or orange (on females) ring around the rear of the flap. They are also a little more olive in color than bluegill. They also spawn in late spring and summer over sand or shell bottom.
Sunfish; spotted sunfish, green sunfish, redbreast, longear, green, and pumpkinseed
There are quite a few other species in the sunfish family. These include, but are not limited to, pumpkinseed, green sunfish, spotted sunfish, redbreast sunfish, longear sunfish. These are all fairly similar, with some minor differences. It can be difficult to identify some of these species, especially with the number of bluegill sub-special and hybrid species, it gets tricky. However, for the most part, they can all be treated the same. All of them are very good eating, fun to catch, and in very few circumstances have no special regulations.
In most cases, live bait is the most effective bait. Many of these sunfish have a small mouth and are less likely to take lures, especially large ones. Worms, grass shrimp, and grubs are the best live baits. Small spinners and jigs will catch sunfish as well, especially the spotted sunfish, which is a bit more aggressive.
In states where it is legal, some anglers do use these smaller sunfish for bait. Anglers targeting yellow or flathead catfish in particular use them for trophy fish.
Rock bass are a bit of an under-appreciated panfish. They end up with this dubious reputation partly by smallmouth anglers who find them to be a nuisance. Rock bass are not large by bass standards, but are compared to panfish, and they are very aggressive. They will most certainly take an artificial lure.
Rock bass are often associated with rivers, and for good reason. That is why they are often fooled by lures meant for smallmouth bass. They can be caught on just about any live bait, but are so much fun to catch on lures that most anglers chasing them go that route. Small plugs, spinners, spinnerbaits, spoons, and jigs are all effective. They are very good to eat and since they are larger, produce great fillets.
Yellow perch are a very popular panfish that prefer cooler water, they are not found in the southern portions of the country. They school up in large numbers and in many instances are found in deeper water. The Great Lakes region is well known for yellow perch fishing. They are an extremely popular fish for anglers ice fishing as they remain fairly active even in the colder water.
Yellow perch love minnows! That is the top live bait, followed by nightcrawlers. Lures that resemble minnows work as well, including jigs and spoons. The presentation is often a vertical one as the fish are found in deeper water. In the spring, yellow perch will make a run up into tributary creeks and rivers.
In conclusion, this article on panfish fishing will help anglers catch more of these hard-fighting little game fish!