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Jump in a Creek for Fast Panfish Action

If you're looking to catch a few panfish for the skillet, take a break from the heat and to go in after them.

Jump in a Creek for Fast Panfish Action

Rock bass are a common catch when targeting sunfish and will often fall for lures that imitate crayfish. (Photo by Jim Gronaw)

Summertime fishing has its ups and downs. The kids are out of school and family vacations come together. It hasn’t rained in nearly two weeks and those great bass and trout bites of just a few weeks ago are now a distant memory.

The weatherman is calling for a 94-degree day with a chance of a stray shower … if we’re lucky. You’ve got half a day to burn, but by the time you hitch the boat and load gear you’ll be crimped for daylight.

You want to fish—feel something at the end of the rod—but you’re just not sure what species to target or where to go. Do yourself a favor and go jump in a creek!


All throughout the eastern half of the nation are large river systems that have multiple smaller tributaries that seem to only get anglers' attention during the trout opener and shortly thereafter. Even these smaller streams have abundant creeks and feeders that hold large populations of redbreast sunfish, rock bass, green sunfish, longear sunfish and hybrids thereof.

Many of these overlooked creeks have good quantities of smallmouth bass, but the ever-present sunfish often make up the bulk of the daily catch for those willing to hop in, wade the creeks and pursue one of today’s most simple angling pleasures.

Many of my favorite panfish streams are lower sections of stocked trout water where rocky, mountainous stretches transition to slower farmland flows. Long, slow, deeper pools and undercut banks often hold high numbers of creek sunfish that may be in various stages of their spawning cycle, offering easy, fast-paced action. Access points may be few and far between, but bridges can often hold fish in deeper pools adjacent to these man-made structures.

Fallen trees, root balls and large eddies can draw multiple species. To reach the best stretches of most creeks, you will likely have to wade and hike up or downstream to remote sections where angling pressure is minimal, though some creeks are rarely, if ever, fished at all.

With periodic flooding in some watersheds, the small-stream scene may change a bit from year to year. Last year’s nice, deep pool could be silted in, or a newly fallen tree might keep you from making the perfect cast to a favored undercut.

With todays’ mapping apps, there is plenty of exploring to do, though most of us drive over creeks every day that have dynamite panfish opportunities that few anglers pursue.


One of the best parts of creek panfishing is that your rod, reel, lures and line do not have to be top-shelf for you to be successful. I have always used shorter ultralight spinning rods in the 5- to 6-foot range that allow me to cast under overhanging trees or tight to a tree-root system where sunfish often hang out.

Longer rods may conflict with streamside vegetation and foilage or may even spook fish in clear-water environs. Seldom will you need to make a long cast; 500- to 1000-series spinning reels do the trick. Models like the Pflueger President and Shimano Sienna hold enough 4-pound test monofilament to handle creek panfish duties.

I like Trout Magnet S.O.S. and Stren Original limp mono, both of which come in green coloration and aid in a stealthy approach in clearer waters by not spooking line-shy fish.


Lure selection will vary from day to day, but cooperative panfish are rarely picky. I like to keep a selection of small crank baits, some panfish-sized hair jigs and a few spinners to cover the bulk of the wet-wading bases. On most summer outings, the classic Rebel Teeny Crayfish and the smallest versions of the Rapala Floating Minnow will catch all the redbreast and longear sunfish you’ll want, along with larger gamesters such as smallmouth bass or even channel catfish.

If fish do not respond to mini crankbaits on a surface or sub-surface retrieve, I like to toss a Mepps or Panther Martin spinner in blade sizes from #0 to #2. A slow retrieve allows deeper lure travel in runs and pools from 2 to 4 feet deep. Gold and silver blades are standard, but I have had good success with black blades like the Mepps #1 Black Fury.

Up the Creek for Panfish
A handful of jigs, spinners and small crankbaits are all that’s needed to entice most creek panfish species. (Photo by Jim Gronaw)

Perhaps the most versatile lure option is a hair jig or a jig-and-plastic combo of 1/32 or 1/16 ounce. By imitating either a minnow or crayfish, you will surely get sunfish to respond. Many plastics work well, but if you stick with crappie-sized 1 1/2- to 2-inch minnow-profile baits you should draw strikes. I like the two-inch Crappie Magnet trailers in lighter metal flake hues to represent small minnows.

The classic Creme Mini Tail tubes at 1 1/2 inches make excellent choices for creek panfish as well. Select brown, orange or red plastics to imitate crayfish, and work them deeper along the bottom to entice bigger spawning sunfish. Rock bass will be especially attracted to crayfish patterns, and you may encounter juvenile smallmouth bass. Another great option is the mini–Ned rig jig heads and plastics from Mule Fishing Tackle. Developed by Ethan Dhuyvetter from Michigan, the durable soft plastics fit the 1/32- and 1/16-ounce Mule Jigs well. I like the 1 1/2-inch Donkey Tail in brown or black for creek work.


The variety of sunfish in our Eastern streams is diverse, but the dominant species is usually the redbreast sunfish, a willing biter and a panfish that can routinely reach 7 to 8 inches and provide decent fillets. Some waters have larger redbreasts, with anything approaching 10 inches considered a trophy. Spawning male redbreasts possess a deep red or orange breast and an elongated opercular flap. They have a larger mouth than most sunfish species and will frequently attack lures that seem too large for them to handle. Aggressive and protective of spawning sites, they will make a cluster of beds in shallow, slow-moving areas that receive sunlight during most of the day.

One of my favorite sunfish is the stunning longear with its large, brilliant opercular tabs edged with an orange, red or yellow crescent, flanks that are speckled with green-blue lines and fins that are often tinged in red. Flecks of red dot the sides of many longears and their colors can vary from one creek to the next. What they lack in size (an 8-incher is a giant), they make up for in beauty.

The green sunfish is another abundant and aggressive species that will sometimes attack a lure one-third its size. With their huge mouths, greenies have no problem chasing down crayfish and larger forage items. The spiny and soft dorsal fins are tipped and highlighted with yellow to orange edgings, and the blue cheek lines are another visual clue. Larger males will run 7 to 9 inches, but most are smaller. In some streams green sunfish are stacked under almost every undercut.

Many creeks will have varying populations of sunfish hybrids that will be challenging to identify. Others may hold good numbers of rock bass, another favorite in many East Coast and Mid-Atlantic streams. Most days will result in a multi-species effort with brilliant, beautiful sunfish in the creel.

This summer, when you find yourself with a few hours to burn, check out your local stream sunfish smorgasbord. And don’t be afraid to get a little wet.


Increase your wet-wading enjoyment by traveling light.

Wet-wading gear can be as simple or elaborate as your wish. Old jeans and sneakers are the budget option here, but you can opt for quick-dry clothing and wading shoes to help with the footing on stream bottoms. A wading staff is not a bad idea either, as some creeks are particularly rocky and slick with algal or mossy growth. I prefer long pants due to concerns of briars, sunburn and insect bites, but there are areas where shorts will do as long as poison ivy or smartweed are not present. A favorite hat, sunscreen and insect repellent are standard-issue for the wet-wading warrior. Use caution and common sense when venturing into the creeks.

One “don’t leave home without it” item, however, is a good pair of polarized sunglasses. Not only can they help you spot pockets, boulders and logs, but polarized shades enable you to more easily see bedding redbreasts and aggressive rock bass following your lure. Coupled with a brimmed hat, the glasses help prevent eye strain during an afternoon sloshing though a refreshing creek, in and out of sun-lit stretches and back to shady, wooded areas.

This article was featured in the East edition of June/July 2022 Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe

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