The Pugilistic Panfish: How to Find and Catch Warmouths

Anglers know warmouths as predictable fish with a big appetite – continue reading for tips and tricks for how to bag some of these panfish for yourself

“Goggle-eye hole,” Curt Moore announced, swinging the johnboat toward a dark, flooded recess in the bottom of a hollow cypress.

“How many you reckon are in that I one?” I asked.

“Three, maybe four.”

“Really?” I said, incredulously. “What makes you think there’ll be so many?”

“Just a feeling,” Curt replied. “Watch and see.”

Curt maneuvered the boat close, then using a long jigging pole, he dropped a cricket in the cavity. The tiny cork above the bait hit the water, wobbled momentarily, then shot out of sight. A brief struggle ensued as Curt tried wresting the cricket-eater from its hideout. But within seconds, he had subdued the 10-ounce fish.

“That’s one,” he said, tossing the fish to me to put in the fish basket. “And a nice one, too.”

I turned the fish in my hand, examining it more closely. It quivered all over in a manner characteristic of the species. The mouth was large, bass-like. Yet the contours and size of the body resembled a bluegill.

Its colors changed as I held it, from dark, blackish-green to lighter brownish-gold. The cheeks were emblazoned with dark slashes radiating outward from its red eyes. Before I had opened the fish basket, Curt tossed another almost-identical fish my way.

“Are you keeping count, Sutton?” he snapped. “That’s two.”

Curt’s father, W.T., now attempted to join the action. When we first approached the tree, Curt positioned the boat so W.T. was beyond reach of the goggle-eye hole. Not to be outdone, W.T. paddled his end around and dropped a jig into the water beside Curt’s bobber.

“Would you look at that?!” said Curt, turning to me. “Can’t find his own honey hole, so he moves in on my spot.”

“It ain’t nice to be greedy,” W.T. replied. “And it would be a good idea if you talked less and paid more attention to what you’re doing. That way you’d know when a fish takes your cork under.”

Curt’s bobber had disappeared, and when he tightened his line, he met firm resistance. During his moment of inattention, the fish took the bait, darted away and snagged the hook in some hidden recess of the tree. A swear-word left Curt’s lips the same time W.T. set the hook in a dandy goggle-eye.

“That’s three,” W.T. said, unhooking the fish. “What happened to the fourth one, son?”

Before Curt could reply, I pulled number four over the transom.

Curt and W.T. Moore of Mountain View, Arkansas, often fish for goggle-eyes, or warmouths as they’re more properly known, in the bottomland lakes of Arkansas. On the September trip described above, we were bream fishing on an east Arkansas oxbow, and now and then Curt pointed to a hollow tree or other such hideout and announced cheerfully, “Goggle-eye hole!” Almost without exception, each spot produced several nice warmouths.

I got curious. “How did you know there’d be a goggle-eye in there?” I asked Curt.

“They like spots like that – dark holes inside old cypress trees, thick branches in the water around beaver lodges. Drop a jig, cricket or worm down in a place like that and you’ll catch a goggle-eye almost every time.”

“We catch a lot of ‘em bass fishing, too,” W.T. added. “They’ll hit almost anything you cast. You often catch them on lures almost as big as they are.”

Most warmouths are caught and released by anglers seeking bluegills, crappie, bass or other fish. Some folks shun them because of their small size. The typical fish is 8 inches long or shorter and weighs no more than half a pound, if that.

They aren’t the most handsome member of the sunfish clan; in fact, they’re downright homely. They lack the furious spirit and determination of a hooked bluegill, and some fishermen complain they have soft flesh with a muddy flavor.

Despite these supposed shortcomings, though, warmouths have a devoted group of followers in many areas, and for good reasons. Sure, they’re small, but they’re so plentiful in some waters, you can land 50 or more before you catch your first bass. They may not be as scrappy as bluegills, but what panfish is? Warmouths are pretty darn feisty in their own right, and on ultralight tackle, they put up a respectable battle.

Warmouths have a big appetite and a mouth to match. They are anything but shy and will strike an assortment of lures and baits, including crickets, worms, small crayfish and minnows, jigs, spoons, plastic worms, spinners, flies, streamers and plugs. Poor table fare? In some poor-quality waters, perhaps, but poor taste is mostly a matter of poor preparation. Throw them on ice as soon as you catch them, and most will provide delectable vittles.

The warmouth is a lover of swamps, bayous, sloughs, oxbow lakes and other warm, sluggish waters with dense timber, brush and/or weeds. It’s especially common in the warm lowland waters of the southeastern United States but occurs sporadically as far west as New Mexico and as far north as Lake Erie.

Some think the name “warmouth” is probably derived from the “Indian warpaint” pattern of facial bars radiating backward from its reddish eyes to the margin of the gill covers. In some areas, it is still improperly called by an old name – warmouth bass. In other places, it goes by nicknames like mud bass, weed bass, stumpknocker, bigmouth perch, jugmouth and goggle-eye.

One of the nicest things about warmouths is their predictability. As I learned from Curt and W.T. Moore, all you have to do to find them is look for a hollow cypress tree or stump in a fertile lake or stream. Chances are, if there are warmouths inhabiting those waters, there will be at least one, and maybe half a dozen, hiding inside. For some reason, warmouths love dimly lit hollows.

Beaver lodges are another favorite hideout. Sometimes beavers build their stick homes where many of the branches are submerged, and warmouths love to hide in these dense tangles. The best way to catch them is to use a jigging pole or cane pole to lower a small jig down into the small openings of the beaver lodge. The hole need be no bigger than a half-dollar to harbor a warmouth, and though you’ll lose a few jigs, this is one of the best ways to load a stringer with the fat little fish.

Mini-crankbaits are also good warmouth catchers. Use 1/12- to 1/8-ounce minnow or crayfish imitations fished with 2- to 4-pound-test line on an ultralight spinning or spincast combo. Cast around cypress knees, weedbed edges, stumps, or other good warmouth cover, and get ready for an exciting battle with one of these spunky, big-mouthed fish. Warmouths exemplify the old saying, “Good things often come in small packages.”

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