By Hannah Pennebaker
As the weather starts to heat up and our waters begin to warm, the panfish bite has gotten better and better! So named because they fit perfectly in a frying pan, most panfish weigh less than a pound and measure less than twelve inches in length. These fish include rock bass, bluegill, crappie, pumpkinseed, and yellow perch. In Washington State, there is no bag or size limit on most of these fish- although some lakes with quality crappie populations do impose a size and/or bag limit to protect the population, so always check your regs before heading out. Panfishing is one of the most easily accessible fisheries here in the Pacific Northwest. Tackle is cheap and the fish are plentiful. In the summer months, they hang around close to shore, and thus can be readily caught from by both boat and shore anglers. They are eager biters and fight surprisingly well for their size, particularly on light tackle. Most lakes in the Northwest have at least one type of panfish. Read on to find out how you can bring home some tasty panfish for your frying pan!
As most panfish don’t get larger than twelve inches, it’s a good idea to use either ultralight or light tackle. This serves two functions: it allows you to cast weights as light as 1/64 ounces if needed, and it makes the fight more fun! If the fish are shy or tight lipped that day, scaling down the size of your presentation can make all the difference. Size 1000 to 2000 reels work well, and will hold plenty of line for catching panfish. Pair your reel with an ultralight or light action rod, and you’re set! I’d recommend spooling up with 2 to 8-pound test for your line. Light line will allow you to cast out your light weights further. You can use soft plastics or bait to catch panfish. I’d recommend having both options in your tackle box. There are some days when the fish can’t resist a nightcrawler or mealworm, but on other days, they’ll eagerly chase down a jig.
The classic, tried and true way to catch panfish is by using a bobber and worm. Bobbers easily allow you to change the depth of your presentation, and watching for that bobber to go down is one of the best ways to spend a summer afternoon. First off, tie your hook to about 1 or 2 feet of leader (the lighter, the better). You can use size 6, 8, 10, or 12 hooks for panfish, since they have small mouths. Tie your leader to a small swivel, and crimp 1 or 2 split shot right above it. The added weight will help make sure your bobber stays vertical. Then, attach your bobber. You can either use a sliding bobber with bobber stops or a fixed bobber. It’s up to your personal preference. Either method will allow you to change the depth of your presentation quite easily. For bait, you can use a chunk of nightcrawler, mealworm, or grub. Once your bobber goes down, it's fish on!
If you’d like to go the soft plastic route, it’s a good idea to have a variety of colors and sizes in your tackle box. Panfish jigs come in a huge variation of shapes and sizes, from tubes and curly tails to crawfish and shrimp imitations. What the fish will bite on can vary from day to day, and lake to lake. I usually use a 1/16 oz jig head, but you can use anywhere from 1/4 oz to 1/64 oz. Choose your soft plastic, and carefully thread it on your jig head. It’s as simple as that! Here’s a tip: if the lake is extremely weedy, you can attach a bobber above your jig to ensure it can’t get tangled up on the bottom.
The key to catching most panfish is to stay shallow and target structure. These fish are prey for hungry trout, bass, and walleye, and they know it. If you have a fish finder, you can use it to find submerged logs, rocks, and weed beds. Docks are also a great place to find panfish hiding by. Polarized sunglasses can also help you locate structure. Panfish tend to congregate in schools of other like-sized fish. If you’re catching 5-inch fish, try changing locations. You may just find a school of bigger ones!
Casting out jigs will allow you to cover more water if you’re not sure where the fish are, but nothing beats a bobber when you’re on a thick school of fish. Whichever technique you use, make sure to target structure, and don’t be afraid to keep moving and try new locations. Cast your jig out by a dock or weed bed, and slowly reel in until you feel a bite. Two pole endorsements can come in handy when pan fishing. You can cast your bobber out, put it in a rod holder, and throw out a jig while you wait for the bobber to go down.
Although fishermen tend to lump panfish together, each species has its own preferences and characteristics. Crappie tend to lurk near submerged trees. Although you can catch them on bobbers and bait, I prefer to cast out jigs for them. They bite jigs ferociously, and fight all the way to the boat. Rock bass are only found in a handful of lakes around the Pacific Northwest, namely Lake Washington, Spanaway Lake, and Green Lake. They are not actually related to bass, and are in the sunfish family. They are aggressive and bite readily on worms and jigs. Bluegill are probably the most common panfish in the Pacific Northwest. Several lakes in the state boast trophy bluegill populations. Resembling tropical fish, pumpkinseed are usually no larger than your hand, but they are one of the most beautiful fish around. They love small chunks of worm! Yellow perch are one of the best eating panfish. Often found near the edges of weed beds, these fish congregate in massive schools. Nightcrawler chunks work well, but yellow perch are carnivorous and will bite pieces of other perch, or even eyes! A word of caution about all panfish- they tend to have small spines concealed in their fins, so be careful when handling them.
Panfish are all plentiful, eager biters that taste delicious on the dinner table. Kids, beginners, and seasoned fishermen alike can all take delight in reeling in dozens of these scrappy fish. They bite all day long, so you can feel free to sleep in on your day off and hit the lake in the afternoon. It’s a good idea to check WDFW’s website to see what kind of panfish live in your local lake- you might be surprised! Whether you target scrappy bluegill or voracious yellow perch, go out and have a blast!