Try panfish for fun and food

By Tom Seymour | Jun 25, 2017
Photo by: Tom Seymour Black crappies and ultralight spinning tackle.

Fishing can be as expensive and complicated as we wish to make it. Or it can be inexpensive and simple.

Fly-fishing is fun and trolling for salmon and trout thrills me. But what about the average person who just wants to go out and have fun catching fish? Panfish are the answer.

Fishing licenses are inexpensive and tackle for panfish has increased in quality and gone down in price. Ultralight spinning gear, the preferred way to take panfish, gives the angler the most bang for the buck. And fish, even small fish, taken on such lightweight gear feel like monsters.

So just what are panfish, anyway? Well, "panfish" is a general term for schooling fish that swarm in Maine lakes and ponds. The two most popular panfish are white perch and black crappies. White perch were originally a fish of brackish water, transplanted into freshwater lakes in the 19th century. And black crappies were introduced to the Sebago Lake area in the early 20th century, but have spread like wildfire because of illegal stocking. Midcoast Maine abounds in crappie waters, and over the last decade or so, legions of Mainers have developed a fondness for these scrappy game fish. Other panfish include yellow perch, pumpkinseed sunfish and redbreast sunfish.

Here are my pointers on how to catch panfish.

1. Go early and late

Early morning stands as the absolute best time for crappies and perch. Even during summer’s heat, water remains cool from the previous night. And wind, the bugaboo of all anglers, usually only becomes a problem in mid- to late morning.

Best of all, schools of white perch and crappie are on the prowl now. Later in the day, the schools head for deeper waters, where they are a bit harder to locate. But toward evening, when things cool down, fishing heats up. That last hour of light can see the fastest action of the day.

2. Use jigs

While worms and baitfish work fine, bait isn’t necessary to take panfish. Instead, buy a selection of panfish jigs. These have a painted lead head attached to the hook, with a plastic body slid up the hook shank until it butts upon the jighead.

To use jigs, just cast out and let the jig sink to the bottom. A fish may grab it on the way down, so if the line stops or even begins to move sideways, lift the rod smartly to set the hook. If nothing intercepts the jig as it sinks, bring it back in increments, raising the rod, lowering it again and reeling up the slack.

Another benefit of jigs, as opposed to live bait, is that fish rarely swallow a jig very deeply, making unhooking easy. This also helps small fish that you wish to release. A fish hooked in the mouth on a jig has every chance of surviving.

Tackle stores carry a selection of panfish jigs, so finding them shouldn’t pose a problem. Look for jigs no heavier than 1/16 ounce.

3. Quick return

Upon landing a fish, either release it or kill it and place it in an ice-filled cooler. And then get that jig right back to the same spot as quickly as possible. Instead of scaring other fish off when one is hooked, a fish fighting on the way in holds other fish’s attention. So it is possible to catch one fish after another.

Maine law dictates that all fish kept be killed immediately. This is an effort to thwart the devices of those who would catch fish, keep them alive and then release them in another water. A sharp rap on the top of the head will instantly and humanely kill a fish.

4. Points and ledges

If fishing from shore, look for points of land heading out into the pond or lake. Usually, the unseen, submerged part of a point or small peninsula holds schools of panfish. Again, these places are at their best in the early morning and again in the evening.

If in a boat or canoe, look for underwater structures. This can be ledges or shoal edges. In many cases, the state of Maine marks these places with buoys in order to keep boat traffic away from danger. But it’s fine for someone in a slow-moving watercraft to slowly approach these places and begin casting.

5. Boggy edges

Often, shoreline sections of shallow-water lakes are lined with boggy, aquatic vegetation. Panfish, especially in spring and early summer, hide along these swampy edges, seeking schools of baitfish and insects to prey upon.

It’s tempting to see how close you can come to these boggy shorelines without getting hooked on brush. Don’t let that possibility discourage you, though, because fish sometimes lie within a foot or so of shore. Besides, aiming at a specific point helps develop pinpoint accuracy, something every angler can use more of.

Wind can make such precision casting near impossible. It’s difficult to hold the boat to just within casting distance when the wind blows. For that reason it pays to bring an anchor. And yes, anchors are expensive. But you can make your own by buying a small bag of ready-mix concrete and pouring the concrete-and-water mixture in a gallon pail. These ready-made anchors cost only a few dollars and do a fine job of holding a boat in the wind.

6. Drift fishing

When schools of panfish move from the shallows into slightly deeper water, drifting with a jig can prove a deadly method. A fish locator can help to find these schools, but these are fairly expensive. Besides that, we got along for many years without the aid of electronic devices and we can still catch fish without their assistance.

A chart of the lake bottom, though, can help greatly. "Maine Fishing Depth Maps," a booklet of all the lakes and ponds in Maine offered by DeLorme, the makers of the "Maine Atlas And Gazetteer," shows depths on all listed waters. And these are easy to use. Each map has a north-pointing arrow accompanying it. Just line the map up to correspond to the proper compass settings. From there it’s easy to locate deep holes, as well as shallow water.

One option for drift fishing with a jig is to find where depths plummet precipitously. These are called “dropoffs,” and schools of fish often haunt such places.

7. Surface feeding

In the still of early morning and again in evening, schools of white perch roll and splash on the surface. It’s a magnificent sight, all those silvery bodies jumping and rolling. And it’s also a perfect chance to sight-cast to fish.

Fish on the surface are often quite easily spooked and will dive down in an instant when alarmed by a threat from above (think osprey). So approach splashing fish slowly and with great caution. Don’t bang things around on the deck, especially in an aluminum boat or canoe, since the vibrations will carry through the water and alarm the fish.

When within casting distance of the school, stop paddling or shut down the motor. Then cast as close as possible to the school and with luck, fish will bite.

It is possible to catch quite a few fish before they finally sound and head down to bottom.

8. Enjoy

White perch and crappies rank among Maine’s best-tasting fish. Just slice a fillet from each side and then place each fillet skin-side down on a cutting board and with a long, sharp knife, insert the blade between skin and flesh and move the blade the length of the fillet, separating skin from flesh. Later, use a finger to feel for any errant bones.

That’s it! After this, the fillets can be broiled or fried. A bit of pre-made fish coating mix helps get that golden brown look when frying. I enjoy a Cajun product called Slap Ya Mama Cajun Fish Fry. Many stores in Maine now carry this product. But any fish fry mix will work. Just put a bit of mix in a plastic bag, add the fillets, shake the bag and you’re good to go. Enjoy.

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.