Momentarily diverted by the splashing of a bluegill being reeled in by her brother, my granddaughter’s attention snapped back to her bouncing orange and yellow bobber with an intense, pointed stare; the bobber blipped twice; moved sideways a foot, then disappeared.
“Got ‘em!” she shrieked with a delighted girlish giggle. “Wow, he’s strong!”
Moments later I unhooked her plump, colorful catch, dropped it in the fish basket, rebaited her hook and watched her make a soft little cast back to the same spot. Within a minute she was giggling again, reeling in another big bluegill.
Panfish abound most any place there’s water, and catching them is simple nuts and bolts fishing, easy to learn, easy to do, a ton of good fun (especially for kids) and great eating too! If you’re thinking about starting to fish (or helping a youngster get started), getting after spunky pan fish is a great way to start. Here are some quick tips to help you on the way.
Where to Start
Springtime, without a doubt, is the best time to get in on fast and furious panfishing. Each spring as the water in rivers, creeks, lakes and ponds begins to warm into the 50 F range, tasty fishes awake from their cold-water winter doldrums. Brought on by sunny days and southerly winds, sporty panfish begin moving from deep-water winter habitat to shallow, warmer waters. Crappies, bluegills and other sunfish begin to feed ravenously after three months of near fasting. They stage in schools and stock up on meals in preparation for spawning. When searching for these schools, look for some form of structure in the water: rocks, trees, weedy points, or variations in the shoreline. Small indented coves are one example. Long, sloping points that drop gradually from shallow to deep water, and places where new water is entering a lake or pond are also excellent locations.
Spring may boast the hottest action of the year, but perhaps the most consistent action occurs throughout the hottest months of the year. Small waters, especially ponds and creeks, provide the best opportunities during summer. Here, panfish typically remain in shallow, easy-to-access water even in hot weather. Cattails, weed beds and flooded brush are top locations, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon and evenings. In large lakes and reservoirs, try boat docks and any other shoreline feature that provides panfish with ample shade and feeding opportunities.
Finding the fish takes a bit of exploring, which is part of the fun, but the best tip of all is follow the springtime crowds on public lakes and rivers. If there’s plenty of room and everyone’s friendly, panfishing is often a social event.
The term “panfish” encompasses a wide variety of true sunfish, including both crappie and bluegill (the universal favorites for catching and eating), as well as bullheads, white bass and yellow perch. All are easy to catch with inexpensive, non-fancy tackle that can be found in most chain stores and mass merchandisers’ sporting goods departments.
For adult beginners, I recommend light to medium action rods of 5 to 5.5 feet in length and closed-face (push-button) spincast reels for trouble-free casting. Reels should be spooled with 6- or 8-pound test line. Excellent combination outfits are economically priced, and there are numerous smaller outfits designed just for kids.
Terminal tackle needs are equally simple and inexpensive: A few packs of bait hooks; sizes 10 and 12, a dispenser of split-shot sinkers in assorted sizes – preferably the style with the little ears that allow them to be easily opened and closed – and some brightly colored bobbers in small to medium sizes. A pair of needle-nose pliers or forceps for unhooking and a sturdy finger nail clipper is pretty much all the equipment you’ll need – except bait.
Note: Be sure to look around for free “how-to” booklets supplied by tackle manufacturers found most anywhere tackle is sold. They can be great help in understanding basic knot tying and tackle rigging and are usually complete with detailed diagrams and instructions.
The term “bait” can mean either live bait or artificial lures. Popular live baits for panfish are worms, crickets, minnows of various types, mealworms and wax worms, among others. Visit a bait shop for advice on what they are biting on best. Worms are always a good bet for bluegill and redears; crappies are more predatory and dearly love minnows. Artificials most effective for panfish are small “jigs.” These are mostly designed to resemble a small minnow and come in a myriad of colors and shapes – the most popular being the soft plastic, curly tail and tube body styles. Jig sizes of 1/32-ounce up to -ounce are effective on all types of panfish.
How To Catch ‘Em
For bluegill and others of the sunfish variety, a worm fished beneath a bobber is a hard method to beat (most anglers fish for crappies using the same technique with jigs or minnows). Start with a size 10 hook tied on about 2 feet below the bobber with a single BB size split-shot clamped on 6 inches above the hook. I like to press down the hook’s barb with my pliers. It allows me to release small fish unharmed and is faster when unhooking “keepers,” too. Thread a medium-sized piece of worm – about an inch and a half – on the hook. Too large a piece will get you more “pecks” than solid bait-taking strikes. Cast it out gently so the bait is not snapped off. Let it settle with the rod tip pointed at the bobber. Ever so slowly – 30 seconds or so – reel it in a few feet. Eventually the bait will come in contact with the bottom. Let it stay there for a bit, then reel it in, re-cast at a different angle and start over.
When a strike comes, notice where it occurs in terms of distance from your position and direct future casts to that depth. If a spot doesn’t produce after a dozen casts, move to another location. Don’t sit there all day hoping the fish will come to you – experiment. Try different pockets and points, or the edges of weedy cover. When you catch a good one, there should be others close by. Fish that area thoroughly. Oftentimes a dozen or more can be taken from the same spot. Try jigs, too, fished the same way though you won’t need the split shot. A jig and a bobber are especially deadly on spawning fish. Keep the slack out of the line when jig fishing; when the bobber moves sideways or dips under, set the hook with a snap of the wrist and start reeling!
Panfish are good eating and fishing for them is relaxing, enjoyable fun … especially for kids. It’s a wonderful way to discover the outdoors.