Why You Should be Fly Fishing for Panfish

Fly fishing is all but synonymous with trout. From books and movies to organizations like Trout Unlimited, the main message being put forth is that fly fishing is for trout. It is, of course, but they’re not the only option. Anything from catfish to marlin can be caught on the fly, and one of the best options is panfish.

Panfish is a pretty broad term. It refers to multiple species of fish that tend to be small enough when fully grown to still fit in a frying pan. Of course, what qualifies as a panfish depends on whom you ask.

Although there’s no set list of species, certain fish are widely regarded as panfish. These include the bluegill, black and white crappie, yellow perch, rock bass, warmouth, and many of the smaller sunfishes like longear and pumpkinseed.

While these species don’t hold the same notoriety as some of the more popular gamefish like bass, trout, pike, and walleye, there are a ton of reasons to fish for them. If you haven’t yet given panfishing a go, let me try to convince you to do so.

They’re delicious

If you’re a catch-and-release angler, this might not matter to you. But, to much of the country who grew up with these delicious fish, it matters a lot.

Even their name suggests they go best inside a pan, and as someone who generally lets most of my fish go, I count bluegill as one of my all-time favorite fish to eat.

Since panfish are essentially flat, they produce thin, flaky fillets. That’s if you choose to fillet them. They’re also good cooked whole, and can be eaten as a finger food off the bone. Regardless of how you choose to eat them, panfish have a tasty, mild flavor, and even those who aren’t big fans of fish can find them delicious.

To top it off, panfish are everywhere (see below), so they have pretty liberal bag and possession limits. They also fall pretty low on the food chain, putting them at a lower risk of having high levels of heavy metals. These convenient features mean you can catch and eat to your heart’s content!

They put up a great fight

Panfish aren’t just valuable to the catch-and-keep angler as a meal. They also put up a hell of a fight for their size.

I’ve often hooked into a fish that I thought to be a bass, only to find out after a bit that I actually have a small crappie or bluegill on the end of my line. Panfish are some of the scrappiest fish out there, and even small ones put up a good fight. If you do hook into a large one, it may be one of the best fights you get out of that body of water.

A yellow perch in a person's hand

They’re perfect for first-timers and kids

Panfish are very forgiving for first-time anglers or kids. Unlike trout fishing, where it may take an hour to get a rising trout to bite, only to have it disappear forever after a missed hook-set, panfishing is relatively laid back.

If you can see a panfish and cast in its path, the odds are extremely high that it’ll at least give your fly a good look. There’s also a very good chance it’ll bite. And the bonus: if you miss the hook set, you can cast right back out to it and get a second take. It’s almost as though they think “oh good, I thought I missed my chance!”

Because panfish are very lenient with their presentation requirements, they’re a great target for first-timers who struggle to land delicate casts and get solid hook-sets. This goes for kids as well. Additionally, since kids often get bored quickly when they aren’t catching fish, panfish are a good option for keeping them entertained.

A black crappie

They’re everywhere

As mentioned above, panfish are everywhere. Not literally in every body of water, but close to it. City ponds and lakes are often chock full of them. Many rural stillwater locations also have them.

Even some larger rivers, provided there are eddies and pools with nonmoving water, have stable populations of sunfish.

Although backcountry fly fishing is the focus of Fish Untamed, the reality is that it’s not always possible to get out in the middle of nowhere to fish. Knowing a couple spots to hit in town after work or during lunch will scratch a fishing itch when the backcountry isn’t an option.

A longear sunfish

They’re pretty

Don’t get me wrong, the fish that are usually noted as pretty definitely are. Trout, especially wild brooks and browns, can be dazzling.

That said, panfish aren’t to be left out of the conversation.

While not all panfish are brilliant in coloration (although, neither are all trout), many are. Especially during the spawn, panfish display a variety of colors, from deep greens and blues to bright oranges, reds, and yellows.

As someone who values coloration almost as much as size, being able to catch dozens of bright, colorful fish in an outing puts panfish high on my list.

A sunfish sitting on the group with a lure in its mouth.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Ulysses

    I enjoy fly fishing for pan fish; blue gills, perch and sunfish are great at taking small poppers. The weeds are full of them here in Northern Minnesota. Go easy on the bluegills in the spring through. The males defending their territory and eggs, take them readily but I return them all early in the season. Now (late August and September) they are fair game.

    1. Katie Burgert

      Thanks for reading, Ulysses. Absolutely, I always try to go easier on those aggressive ones earlier in the year. They’re such a hardy fish that they always do seem to get their spunk back fast as long as they’re released quickly and cleanly.

  2. Terry Wilson

    Great article. Thanks. I’ve fly fished for panfish for the past 40 years. Love it. Mostly size 8-12. My favorite is Wilson’s Bully Spider wet fly. I release all bluegill 8” & over. IMHO, the 5-6-7” bream have a sweeter taste, by far. With 6” being the best.
    Oz 4 oz, no other fish fights like the mighty Bluegill.

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