There may be more glamorous species than panfish, but it is really hard to beat going for a fish that can be caught with a cricket on a hook.
In the world of fishing today, high-tech is the name of the game. Fancy boats, expensive electronics and more are the norm for many angling pursuits.
However, for a lot of anglers, one of the most enjoyable experiences on the water is to abandon today’s technology and channel a more simplistic approach in pursuit of panfish.
The term panfish is applicable to a variety of fish species, but most think of bluegills and redear sunfish, also called shellcrackers, along with a few other sunfish included in the mix. These fish are smaller than bass, striper, catfish or even most crappie, but that does not mean they are not worth the effort. On ultra-light tackle, bluegills and redears are every bit as exciting as other species.
Bluegills are very abundant across the state and are found in most all ponds, lakes, rivers and even some streams. However, not all bluegill fisheries have the size distribution desired by panfish anglers. Even less common are abundant populations of big redears.
Even so, there are some dandy locations in Tennessee to find good numbers of decent-size panfish.
Reelfoot Lake is the top bluegill fishery in the state according to Tim Broadbent, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency fisheries biologist in Region 1. According to Broadbent, the average size of bluegills is about 0.45 pounds and anglers harvest between 1.5 and 2.0 fish per hour. Larger bluegills in the 0.5- to 0.75-pound range are also present, just not caught as frequently.
Reelfoot Lake has great bluegill habitat and all four basins of the lake provide excellent bluegill fishing. There are boat ramps at all four basins, with plenty of lodging and boat rentals available near Samburg and Tiptonville. There is not a lot of bank access on the lake, but there are some fishing piers on the south shoreline.
Anglers and guides often look for bluegill beds when the fish are spawning, but afterward, most anglers target the bases of submerged cypress trees. The lake is full of cypress trees and the bluegills love holding tight to the bases. Not every tree holds a big school of bluegill, but with just a little searching and probing, good catches are a high percentage prospect.
Simply ease up to the tree and use a long rod to drop baits down vertically or cast baits suspended below a slip float. Crickets and red worms are the most common baits, but some anglers prefer to use a small Grizzly jig tipped with a wax worm. How tight the fish are to the tree and the depth at which they are holding varies, so look for a pattern to maximize action.
Reelfoot is a lake that attracts anglers from far away and it is very accommodating, with full service lodges offering lodging, boats and food. There are also plenty of guides and sometimes spending a day on the water with a local guide pays big dividends by showing anglers where and how to be successful for the remainder of their stay.
Another lake on par with Reelfoot for quality bluegills is Kentucky Lake. There is a great population of bluegills in the lake with plenty of fish in the 6- to 8-inch range and some even larger. Additionally, redear sunfish are plentiful and some fish reach 1 pound, although smaller fish are more commonly caught.
The best time of year to catch redears at Kentucky Lake is during the spawn, usually from late April through early May. The big sunfish move into shallow water and relate to big clumps of submerged pondweed, near buttonball bushes and especially on sloping shorelines with pea gravel. Redears usually stay close to the bottom and spawn in deeper water than bluegills.
Shellcrackers get their nickname from foraging near the bottom on mussels and snails, so anglers must keep baits on or near the bottom. Live baits, such as red worms and crickets are the most common, but mealworms and wax worms are also good options. These baits are fished below bobbers or even tightlined. A highly productive method is to suspend the baits below a slip bobber so they are positioned right on the bottom. The rig is cast out and allowed to rest a few seconds. If the bait is not taken, the angler uses the rod to drag the bait a few inches along the bottom and then lets it set again, all the way to the boat.
There are plenty of quality bluegills available as well, which are easier to catch. Bluegills spawn in May and their beds are easily spotted in shallow coves. Baits cast into or near beds often elicit immediate and aggressive hits.
The same baits used for redears are also the most popular for bluegills and oftentimes bluegills and redears are caught in the same vicinity. Most anglers present baits beneath a bobber; a slip bobber makes it easier to target different depths. Another option used at Kentucky Lake is a small, artificial bait known as a bluegill bug. These baits are effective alone, but can be made more attractive by tipping them with a mealworm, wax worm or cricket.
Bluegills are caught all summer long simply by changing tactics. After the spawn concludes, look for fish on deeper brush piles, stake beds or rocky points. A second peak of bluegill fishing occurs in summer when the mayflies are hatching along the shoreline.
Chris Cole, TWRA wildlife manager in Region 2, manages eight TWRA lakes within the region. He says all eight maintain healthy redear and bluegill populations. All of these lakes are great for panfish and the TWRA periodically adds supplemental stockings of redears and bluegills to enhance the fisheries.
The lakes include Laurel Hill Lake and VFW Lake in Lawrence County. Marrowbone Lake is in the Joelton community in Davidson County. Bedford Lake is in the Normandy community in Bedford County. There are four lakes in Maury County, known collectively as the Williamsport lakes — Bluecat Lake, Shellcracker Lake, Goldeneye Lake and Whippoorwill Lake, which is a youth fishing lake.
“Great success can be had at each lake if anglers will put in their time to learn the lake of their choice,” said Cole. “Historically, Laurel Hill Lake has been known for its large size bluegill and redear. Some of this is due to an abundant bass population.”
The 325-acre Laurel Hill Lake has bank access, a fishing pier, boat rentals and a boat ramp. There are also fish attractors in the lake. Other amenities include restrooms, picnic area, primitive camping, bait and tackle.
“Most all reservoirs in Region 3 offer decent bluegill fishing,” said Mike Jolley, TWRA Region 3 reservoir fisheries biologist and manager. “However, one that stands out for bluegill angling would have to be Chickamauga Reservoir.”
Chickamauga also provides some good opportunity for redears. Several year-classes of these panfish are apparent through various TWRA data collection methods.
“According to the TWRA creel results for 2015, Chickamauga had the third highest catch rate for panfish, mainly bluegills and redears, of all reservoirs creeled across the state,” said Jolley. “The catch rate was 6.64 panfish caught per hour on average.”
The best bluegill fishing at Chickamauga usually starts in May in the backs of the sloughs and sluggish water along the creek banks. Areas protected by sand bars, or other structure in the mouths of creeks, are also good. Look for bluegills to remain shallow until the spawn concludes.
After the spawn, bluegills tend to move to deeper water. Of course, there are always smaller fish hanging around boat docks and other shoreline structure, but bigger fish are usually found in deeper water near brushpiles and fish attractors, as well as along the main river bluffs and river channels with structure, such as stumps.
Crickets, red worms and pieces of nightcrawlers are great options on a tight-line when bluegills are on deeper brush. Try presenting these same baits near the bottom to target big shellcrackers.
There are plenty of boat ramps on Chickamauga Reservoir, as well as bank fishing and fishing piers. Lodging and other amenities are available in nearby cities including Dayton and Chattanooga.
Norris Reservoir is the oldest TVA reservoir in the state. It totals nearly 34,000 acres and has over 800 miles of shoreline. However, it has long had dramatic fluctuations in water level, which over time has diminished the shoreline habit. The TWRA and local anglers enhance fish habitat by placing artificial and natural fish attractors into the lake.
Sunfish play a vital role in the lake’s fish population, both as a food sources for larger fish and to fulfill angler enjoyment. The bluegill population is good and fish are fairly well distributed throughout the lake. Redears are also found throughout the lake, but the lower half of the reservoir is typically the best bet.
The redear population has been showing signs of much improvement in recent years. Numbers of fish have increased and so has the size distribution. Now, good numbers of decent-size shellcrackers are showing up in angler creels, especially when fish are shallow in early spring through the spawn.
Action gets tougher for redears after the spawn. However, they are still catchable with some effort. Probe deeper water using live bait on the bottom, along tapering points or any areas with gravel substrate. Brush in water 10 to 15 feet deep sometimes holds fish as well.
Bluegills remain in shallow water longer than the redears, but eventually larger fish move to deeper water. Decent ‘gills are often caught in the mornings along shaded rocky shorelines with live bait or poppers. After midmorning, most fish found along the shoreline are smaller, so look to deeper brush or fish attractors for larger bluegills.
Norris Lake is very accessible with numerous boat ramps and over 50 public access areas. Most supplies needed are available in nearby communities, but Knoxville is also not far away.
These spots offer some of the best panfishing in the state, but there are plenty of other locations with great panfish populations. Even some local farm ponds hold good numbers of slab bluegills. Fishing for bluegills and redears may not be as high tech as chasing bass or crappie, but it sure is fun and is every bit as exciting with the right tackle.