Panfish Basics

The group of fresh water sunfish species collectively known as panfish provide perhaps more hours of angling enjoyment than any other types of fish found in North American waters. This is largely because everyone from children and beginners right up to experienced fishermen are able to enjoy catching these feisty fish. However, though they are a `user-friendly' quarry, there are a few basic baits, lures and techniques that can help every angler increase their catch.

There are over a dozen species of sunfish that are distributed in various degrees throughout the United States. Although not every species occurs in each region of the US, ever angler within close proximity to fresh water can be assured they will have at least one or more species of sunfish within their reach.

Probably the most widespread of these is the bluegill or bream. Bluegill are active year around in most waters, but are particularly sought after when they are 'bedding' in shallow water. On most warm water lakes and ponds, Bluegill will create saucer-shaped beds in shallows during their spawn. These beds are easily found by fishermen and often yield the largest Bluegill. The remainder of the year, Bluegill can be found in various depths around structure such as lily pads, docks, flooded timber and reeds.

Another widespread species is the Crappie. Actually, there are two species of crappie present in the United States - white and black. In some areas, both species are present, while other regions have primarily one or the other. However, wherever they are found, Crappie are considered the 'glamour' species among sunfish. During their spring spawn, Crappie are usually found in shallow water. During the rest of the year, they like to hang around deep structure such as brushpiles, dock pilings and grass beds.

Other fairly widespread species include Warmouth (google-eye), Red Ear, Pumpkinseed and Red Breast sunfish. Many anglers in southern waters also consider cichlids such as Rio Grande Perch and Tilapia as panfish.

As a rule, sunfish are voracious feeders, which adds to their appeal among anglers of all ages and experience levels. Virtually any type of natural bait will tempt some sort of sunfish. However, though just about every species of sunfish will, at one point or another, strike almost any natural bait, there are some preferences among them. Worms, crickets and grasshoppers are most effective on Bluegill, Warmouth, Red Ear, Pumpkinseed and other similar sunfish. Crappie, on the other hand, prefer natural baits such as live minnows and soft-shell crawfish.

There is a myriad of artificial lures that will attract panfish. The one common thread between them all is size - think small.

Jigs are probably the most popular. Marabou, tube and curltail jigs are all effective. Models that incorporate a small blade such as the Blakemore Roadrunner are excellent for Crappie.

Soft-plastic baits that imitate natural prey items also work well. Artificial crickets, grasshoppers and spiders, like those produced by Burke-Flexo, are excellent choices for sunfish such as Bluegill, Warmouth and Red Ears. Artificial crawfish work well for Crappie.

When seeking 'trophy' sunfish, anglers should consider hard baits, such as downsized lipless crankbaits, lipped crankbaits and topwater plugs. Rebel offers a variety of such baits, including their Ghost Minnow, Crickhopper, Cat'r Crawler, Tad Fry, Wee Frog and Crawfish.

When fishing natural baits, anglers will need a selection of hooks, small sinkers and bobbers. An assortment of light-wire hooks such as those offered by Tru-Turn, Eagle Claw and others in sizes 6 through 12 will cover most situations involving worms, crickets, grasshoppers and crawfish. When using live minnows, most fishermen prefer a gold Aberdeen hook in either a size 2 or 4. Likewise, an assortment of spit shot sinkers in various sizes should cover most situations.

Bobbers - or floats - are a bit more involved, as they come in various shapes and sizes, ranging from perfect globes to elongated ovals to mere quills. In general, the rounder the bobber, the easier it is to see. However, fish are also much more likely to feel resistance when striking a lure or bait with a round bobber attached. So, while round bobbers are good starting points, if fish are biting tentatively, it is better to go with a smaller diameter bobber.

Rods and poles are also a major consideration for panfish. Light and ultralight action sticks are best. However, length is usually the most critical factor. Whether using a rod paired with a reel or a simple graphite or cane pole, go with the longest you can comfortably handle if you are precisely placing lures and baits around trees and other obstructions that are likely to ensnare baits. If you are doing more casting, go with a shorter rod that is less cumbersome.  

Slow rolling: Used with jigs such as Roadrunners, slow-rolling simply entails casting beyond a target, then using a slow, steady retrieve to bring the lure or bait back across the structure.

Dabbling: This involves “dabbling” baits alongside stumps, riverbanks, holes in moss beds, in between lily pads and other tight spots by using a long pole or rod. This technique can be used with or without a bobber, but simply jiggling the rod tip while the bait is next to the target structure.

Vertical Jigging: When fishing over deeply submerged structure, drop a lure or bait down alongside or just above the structure. Then, methodically lift and drop the rod tip to impart action to the lure or bait.

Bobber drifting: Simply put, cast a lure or bait that is suspended beneath a bobber near fish holding structure and allow the bait to drift along with the wind or current.

Trolling: Involves moving baits along at a steady speed by using the boat's trolling motor and allowing the lures or baits to trail at a set depth and distance behind the boat.

Slingshot: In order to get a bait or lure under overhead structure like docks or limbs, hold hook by the bend, pull back to put tension on pole and release. The lure is “shot” ahead in whatever direction the pole is aimed.