April 11, 2023
By Jim Gronaw
Giant, slab-sided panfish, those "dream" fish of exceptional body dynamics and dimensions, are not an everyday occurrence. You see them on social media, in magazines and in photos pinned to bulletin boards at local bait shops occasionally—hubcap-shaped crappies over 15 inches and repulsively rotund bluegills that tape 10 or 11 inches or more.
The fish are wide and thick across the back. Many of us will not experience fish like these in our lifetimes, usually because we are chasing other species. Sure, we could hire a guide at one of those Deep South crappie meccas where 3-pound slabs abound. But that's not going to guarantee the fish of a lifetime. To be truthful, most anglers will see a 10-pound largemouth bass before they lay eyes on a legit, 12-inch bluegill. Despite all the advancements in electronics and gear, finding and catching giant panfish remains one of the most challenging angling efforts today.
In a lifetime of chasing the biggest crappies and bluegills I could find, it became very apparent early on that most waters simply do not have the environmental characteristics necessary to consistently produce big fish. However, I discovered that some larger tidal systems held populations of giants, and local reservoirs were cyclical with up and down years of panfish size structure. And so the quest began.
Do the Research
We are very fortunate to live in a time when research on almost any topic is at our fingertips. The internet, Google Maps and multiple phone apps allow us to quickly search and find recent information on waters that are producing big fish. This is all good news, provided that the sites and apps are putting up recent information and not highlights from three or four years ago. When I seek a region or water that may have giant potential, I always look for reports of exceptional fish that have been caught within a year of my viewing. Things can change quickly on various waterbodies, and weather events like drought, excessive cold and flooding can alter the spawning success for panfish, creating hardships for fish and fishermen alike.
If I am traveling, I almost always begin my search by checking statewide or local results from various angling awards programs. Most states recognize trophy crappies in the 15-inch category and bluegills that exceed 10 inches. Some states' standards are even higher, but if a lake or river is producing fish of this caliber, that is where I want to concentrate my efforts. Not all waters are the same, as emerging or declining fisheries will hit highs and lows simultaneously. Environmental factors, water quality and angling pressure play key roles. With that in mind, here are the types of waterbodies I look for when seeking giants in Eastern waters.
1. COMMUNITY LAKES
Over the years (decades, actually) I have found that there is a tendency for bass anglers to concentrate on small, local public lakes where high numbers of smaller bass exist, yet populations of large bluegills go unnoticed. These facilities may or may not be adjacent to playgrounds, ballfields, greenways or public walking trails. Almost all allow shoreline angling only. Therefore, most angler success comes during the springtime spawning efforts. Harvest limits are often limited, or the waters may be total catch-and-release fisheries.
Currently, I have three such lakes available to me that are all within a 30-minute drive of my home. Each has produced bluegills over 10 inches and redear sunfish to 12 inches. One lake has yielded crappies over 15 inches. It is a classic scenario where small, overfished bass lakes have morphed into trophy panfish waters. All three of my lakes are in roadside parks that are gated and close at dark, long after the locals show up to feed the ducks.
2. WATER WITH LIMITED ACCESS
When I see, hear of or find a lake that is tough to get into, my heart beats just a little faster knowing that angling pressure is negligible or even non-existent. Things like un-improved ramps, gravel access roads or trolling motor-only regulations tell me that many anglers will skip a lake over. I have noticed that since the Covid pandemic, reduced funding for upkeep in some smaller, obscure venues has led to difficult or minimal access, or even situations where caretakers may open gates early and lock them late in the day. In any event, such a find could lead to waters that have received no angling pressure on panfish species.
The trolling motor-only requirement is often a big drawback for the bass-and-trout crowd, but ideal for the kayaking panfisherman willing to explore and find new horizons and giant fish. Many of these types of remote lakes and ponds can be located through diligent mapping efforts with Google or other apps.
Let's be honest: Searching for and finding huge panfish will, more often than not, require physical effort and a research plan in order to find the giants. Additionally, that hard work will not always pan out, as some waters just won’t have the fish no matter how good they look from a satellite image or a roadside overlook.
3. WATER WITH LOTS OF SMALL BASS
I touched on this earlier, but this is one of my key triggers when inquiring about potential panfish lakes. With bass remaining the premier "money fish" throughout much of our nation, the bulk of the angling pressure is typically directed at larger sportfish. Panfish maintain popularity among the masses for family fun and their delicious eating qualities. In many mid-sized to larger reservoirs, abundant 1 1/2- to 2-pound-class bass dominate the fishery and feed heavily on young-of-the-year panfish, preventing overpopulation of sunfish and crappies. This can be a perfect recipe for fewer, but much larger, individual panfish specimens.
Smaller lakes, right on down to humble farm ponds, can also experience this dynamic. This is particularly true with trophy bluegill waters that consistently produce 1-pound-class or larger fish. One of my all-time greatest trophy bluegill waters was a five-acre pond on an abandoned golf course that held tons of plump, 14-inch largemouth bass that anglers, for some reason, couldn't get enough of. However, the bluegill population was dominated by huge numbers of 10- to 11-inch fish, with a fair number of bulls measuring close to the 12-inch "lifetime" benchmark. This was indeed a world-class panfish fishery with a phenomenal number of 1 1/2- to nearly 2-pound bluegills.
With large populations of aggressive, bluegill-fry-eating bass, these waters seldom experience the overpopulation and stunting characteristics of many bluegill lakes that we see way too often. The bass are eating machines, even consuming their own young-of-year as the warmer months progress throughout the summer. As the bluegills spawn several times a summer in many lakes, it provides a virtual conveyor belt of food for the bass. The bass look healthy, but because there are so many of them, they still compete for food and seldom exceed 16 inches in length. Meanwhile, 11-inch bluegills await.
4. TIDAL SYSTEMS
Frequently the site of large bass tournaments and pleasure boat activities, expansive tidal systems can provide both quality and quantity for many species, with bulky tidal bluegills and massive crappies again taking a backseat to other fish. In my region, the tidal Potomac River remains a great multi-species fishery, but it wasn’t until I did my research and checked with several guide services that my eyes were opened to the exceptional crappie fishing it provided.
The average size was amazing, with 14-inch-class fish common. On my second trip there, I caught and released a 2-pound, 12-ounce giant that stood as my personal best for several years. The Potomac’s tributaries, with their abundance of docks, marinas and creek arms with various wood structure, offer a tremendous winter bite.
Rivers that flow from southern Virginia to the Albemarle Sound are another example. Home to world-class coppernose bluegill and crappie fishing, it is a vast system with cypress trees, fallen wood and pad fields. There are many places here that have yet to be fished by panfish anglers. Fish have plenty of areas to hide from predators or hunker from drought or floods. Often, tidal waters recuperate from tropical storms or drought events much more quickly than other environs, and fishing remains good for trophies and numbers of fish.
5. CLOSE TO HOME
In a lifetime of chasing giants, I have had great success most years in small, private waters that are frequently very close to home. As a teenager, I realized that the abundance of fertile farm ponds had big-fish potential for double-breasted bluegills and massive crappies. Although some anglers scoff at the notion of this sort of "easy fishing," I quickly found that, as with larger reservoirs and lakes, it took time, effort and strategies to capture the biggest fish in each system. Weather changes promptly shut down a hot bite and access was often difficult. Shoreline and wading efforts could only cover a fraction of the total water available. Where we could use kayaks, launch options were often challenging. Deer flies, ticks, mosquitos and poison ivy were part of the game. It still required hard work.
Everyone thinks that farm pond fishing is easy, with neatly mowed banks, spacious docks and a pavilion nearby. Simply cast and catch. Having fished well over 100 private venues in my life, I can assert that about one in five produces exceptional angling. And when a truly remarkable gem is found—one with 11-inch bluegills and 16-inch crappies—you'll learn quickly that catch and release, even of giants, is a beneficial practice.
It's not always about a massive reservoir, side-imaging or GPS waypoints. Sometimes it's about country roads, dragging kayaks and climbing fences. Sometimes a giant can be right under your nose.