Everything You Need to Know About Catching Panfish

Many anglers start with various types of panfish before moving on to more glamorous species. Some, however, come back to these feisty little fish for a variety of reasons.

Panfish live in pretty much every body of water, from small streams and shallow ponds to major rivers and deep reservoirs.

Whether called bream, bluegill or sunfish, some type of panfish is most anglers' first catch as a child.

Unfortunately, most anglers move on to more glamorous fish and forget how much fun these feisty little fish can be to both pursue and eat.


Panfish live in pretty much every body of water, from small streams and shallow ponds to major rivers and deep reservoirs. Some prefer specific cover and foods but all can be caught on everything from $5 cane poles to fly rods and reels costing hundreds of dollars.

Regardless of what is used, anglers should go light. On cane poles, spinning and spincast reels, use 2- to 6-pound line with small hooks, such as a No. 6. Use a tiny piece of split shot if needed. A cork will help see bites but a free-falling bait is better. With fly rods go with very light tippets and No. 6 streamers, nymphs and popping bugs. It is hard to beat a rubber cricket fished on a fly rod for most sunfish.


Bluegill are the most common species and the fish most think of when discussing bream or sunfish. They have the flat, roundish body typical of sunfish and range from dark blue or bluish-purple back to yellow sides with a yellow-reddish belly. Bluegill typically have six to eight vertical bars on the sides. During the spawn, the males get much brighter in color.

Panfish Are Panfish 

Anglers usually don't think of crappie as panfish in the same way they think of bream, but if panfish is a cooking term, they are in the same category. If you think of panfish as fish that fit in a frying pan and taste good, you have to classify sunfish and crappie both as panfish.


Although both sunfish and crappie are basically saucer shaped and can often be caught in the same kinds of places, crappie tend to be more of an open water fish than sunfish. And fishing methods and baits are different. Most states lump all sunfish in one category regarding limits but crappie have different limits.

No matter what you call them, both sunfish and crappie are hard to beat when fried in a pan.

The world record bluegill is a 4-pound, 12-ounce monster caught in Alabama in 1950. The average size is around 12 ounces, and a 1-pound fish is considered big. Bigger fish are caught in fertile waters where there is a balance of bream and predators, so a well-fertilized farm pond is the best bet for quality fish.

Panfish can be caught on everything from $5 cane poles to fly rods and reels costing hundreds of dollars.

Bluegill like calm or slower moving water, so look for them in backwaters of big rivers. In lakes and ponds, they tend to hold around cover like weeds or wood. Anglers can catch them around any kind of plant growth in the water as well as stumps, brush and blowdowns.

Bluegill will eat anything that moves and a lot that doesn't, if it will fit in their small mouth. Their diet ranges from algae and zooplankton to aquatic vegetation and small minnows. Any kind of worm or insect is a favorite. Anglers should fish with crickets, earthworms, grubs, or artificial flies and small spinners. They are sight feeders so a small flashing spinner is excellent for drawing attention, as is a small popping bug on a fly rod.

Redear sunfish, usually called shellcrackers, are native to the Gulf states north to Indiana and North Carolina but have been transplanted as far north as the Great Lakes and to most U.S. states. They are one of the larger sunfish, with the world record being a 5-pound, 12-ounce fish caught in Arizona in 2014. Fish weighing a pound are fairly common, which is one reason they are so popular.

Redears have a deep body typical of sunfish but are often thicker. They have a dark olive-green back and a light colored belly that ranges from yellow to white. The sides are almost yellow to dark green. The red edge of the earflap is distinctive. With these, as well as other sunfish, clearer water makes fish darker and more vivid with color. Muddy water produces fish with a washed out color.

Vegetation in water with little current is preferred by redears and they feed on snails, small freshwater mussels and shrimp. That is where they get the name shellcracker. But they will also eat insects and larvae but feed on or near the bottom. Earthworms and crickets will catch them when fished around waterweeds and on hard bottoms. In big lakes, find a shallow mussel bar and fish earthworms on the bottom.

Reader submitted photo

Green sunfish are nicknamed green perch, blue spotted sunfish and sand bass. Although native to states west of the Appalachians from Canada to Mexico, green sunfish have been introduced into most states.

With a thicker body and bigger mouth, green sunfish are fairly easy to identify. They look more like smallmouth bass than they do their sunfish cousins. They have brown to olive green backs and sides and usually have a copper sheen. Sides get lighter down to a yellow or white belly. Their earflaps are black with a light red, pink or yellow edge. The world record is a 2-pound, 2-ounce fish caught in Missouri in 1971.

Green sunfish prefer gravel and rock bottoms in calm waters. They eat insects and small minnows, so all live baits, as well as small minnow imitations, will catch them. They breed with other species of sunfish readily, so hybrids with characteristics of both species are common.

Warmouth, also called stump knockers and google-eyes, are similar to green sunfish with a bigger mouth. It is stocky like largemouth bass and looks a lot like a rock bass. It ranges from olive to gray with mottling on its sides and back and spots on its tail. They often have red eyes. They are native to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River drainage as well as the East coast states and have been introduced widely.

Warmouth like dense weedbeds and stumps, and can be found on bottoms ranging from soft mud to rock. Bass anglers often get frustrated missing bites on plastic worms when warmouth hit at them. The world record is a 2-pound, 7-ounce fish caught in Florida in 1985.

They are very aggressive and fight even better than other sunfish. They will eat anything they can get in their mouth, including crayfish, shrimp, insects and minnows. Any live bait, such as earthworms and crickets, work well, as do small spinners, and nymphs and small streamers on fly rods.

Redbreast, also called sun perch, are arguably the prettiest of all sunfish, especially when caught from clear or tannic water. They are native to states east of the Appalachian Mountains but have been introduced to most states out to the Rockies. Their belly ranges in color from yellow to orange to crimson red, and the tail and dorsal fins often have a red tinge. They also have a long, thin, black earflap. The world record weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces and was caught in the Suwannee River in 1984.

Redbreast like slow moving creeks and rivers but can be found in ponds and coves of bigger reservoirs. They like waterweeds and wood cover, but overhanging bushes are a favorite hangout. Since they eat insects, snails, small crayfish and minnows, any live bait, such as earthworms, meal worms, small minnows and crickets, is good. They will also hit imitation minnows like spinners and streamers, as well as popping bugs.

Bring back some good memories of your childhood by going fishing for sunfish, no matter what you call them. Even better, take a kid fishing and make some new memories that will last a lifetime.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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