There’s something so satisfying about coming home with a bucket full of panfish. Whether you’re catching bluegill, crappie, or any of the other myriad of sunfish species, having a pile of delectable panfish fillets is on par with having finished processing a deer, spatchcocking a duck, or finding the perfect movie to go with your takeout. When it’s all laid out in front of you, for a moment you feel rich. It’s the reason that these relatively small and easy-to-catch fish still manage to hold their own in the angling world despite being surrounded by larger and more challenging species like bass, walleye, and trout. Catching a stringer full of panfish and feeling that satisfaction can be done by every angler out there no matter their skill level.
Almost every lake, pond, or large river in the country has a species of panfish swimming around in them somewhere. Best of all, these aggressive and hearty fish can be caught almost any time of year, from the dark of winter to the middle of summer. However, if you’re looking for some real slabs for your dinner table, your best bet is to start targeting panfish during the fall.
The reason that fall is such a hot time for panfish is that it is a time of transition. As water temperatures begin to drop and vegetation dies off, panfish that have been spending the summer lazily swimming around the shallows and hiding in thick cover begin to move out of their warm-water haunts and start to feed heavily. The fish school up and move into deeper water, cruising along drop-offs and into deep holes in search of still-living vegetation. This vegetation is vital because as oxygen levels drop in the shallows with the dying of the plants, these deeper water jungles begin to attract baitfish, providing schools of panfish like crappie and bluegill with a food-rich environment.
Finding these small patches of deep water weed growth is essential for fall panfish anglers. These small patches of salad can be found anywhere from 10 to over 50 feet of water depending on the overall depth of the body of water you’re fishing. The best way to find these areas is by using electronics like depth- and fish-finders from a boat which will allow you to cover a lot of water and find stacked-up schools of panfish very quickly. Set up offshore in deeper water immediately adjacent to shallow water structures like long sand flats and beaches, outside of boat marinas, and off of long points and islands. Start cruising along these drop-offs, moving in and out of the deeper water, and keeping a sharp eye on your electronics for fish but also any large clumps of weed growth that you can find. These spots will become hotbeds for fish activity during the fall months.
Shore anglers without the use of boats or electronics can also find fall panfish by targeting the deeper water immediately adjacent to any spots where they have had a lot of panfish success during the summer. By using a bathymetric map of the lake, pond, or river you’re fishing or even by using a mapping app like onX, find a few areas of deeper water adjacent to these summer fishing spots. On maps, these spots will show up as areas with a distinct color change that reveals deeper water. Mark a few of them that are within easy casting distance of the shore and plan an approach for fishing them as soon as water temperatures begin to drop consistently.
Equipment for targeting fall panfish can be a bit tricky. You’ll want to use rods that have enough backbone to cast great distances in what are often adverse fall weather conditions with a lot of high wind, yet are still sensitive enough to pick up what can be extremely subtle strikes. Your best bets for this are longer 6- to 7-foot ultra-light to light-action spinning rods. Pair these rods with a decent spinning reel strung with some light 4- to 6-pound test monofilament fishing line.
Fly anglers looking to put the smack down on some fall panfish will do well using the same lighter 4- and 5-weight rods that you would use for trout. However, if you’re looking for a bit more of a challenge, then consider dropping down to a 2- or 3-weight fly rod. Lighter rods will make every panfish you hook feel like it’s up for a fight. Match the rods with a mid-grade fly feel strung with a basic weight-forward fly line, tipped with a light 5x to 3x leader and a similar tippet.
Aside from rods, lines, and leaders, both fly and spin anglers will want to have a decent supply of split shot as it will help get baits and lures to the right depth quickly. You’ll also want to bring a decent supply of slip bobbers and or strike indicators to help detect subtle strikes when you’re fishing with different fall panfish techniques.
While during the spring and summer it seems that you can almost do no wrong when it comes to catching panfish. During fall, however, you are limited to only a few different methods if you want to have success because of the depths the fish inhabit and their feeding habits.
Jigging is going to be far and away your best choice for fall panfish wrangling. It consists of dropping a lure down onto or just above the bottom and then twitching or “jigging” it up and down with your rod tip. This can be done with several different types of lures, including small spoons and jigging raps, but the most consistent panfish producer I’ve found has been a classic marabou jig. All of these lures work very well on their own or can be tipped with bait such as maggots, worms, small minnows, or even leeches.
Drop your jigs either directly onto rocky bottoms or suspended them a few inches above weed beds and start fishing them with a light bouncing action. Vary the cadence of your jigging, starting with small minute vertical twitches of your rod tip, to long lifts and drops, until you find a rhythm that gets a lot of panfish attention.
Live bait fishing is also an especially productive method for fall panfish, especially for shore anglers. The best and most simple rig for this type of fishing is to tie a small size 8 or 10 bait hook to your line and attach a couple of heavy split-shot to the line about 8 inches to 24 inches above the hook. Bait the hook with a worm or small minnow and then cast it out into any likely-looking areas and wait for a frisky fall panfish to grab it. While this very simple method can be effective, it’s often not the most efficient fishing technique as the bait simply sits on the bottom and has a tendency to get snagged up. This can be extremely frustrating especially when the snag is caused by a hog sunfish running you into the weeds. I’ve found the best way to prevent this is to suspend my baits just above the bottom using a slip bobber.
The first step to setting up a slip bobber rig is finding out the depth of the water you’re fishing and then setting your rig so that your bait is suspended only a few inches above the bottom. This can be done using an electronic depth finder or by casting or dropping a weighted line into the water and measuring the length of the line once the weight hits the bottom. Once this is done, add a bobber stop or tie a large knot in the line a few inches shorter than the depth you are fishing and then thread your slip bobber onto the line. Add a medium split shot to the line about 6 to 8 inches above the end and then tie on a bait hook. When done properly, the line should slide down through the bobber to the proper depth once it’s cast out so that the bobber hangs vertically in the water. Bait your slip bobber rigs with a worm, minnow, maggot, or leech, and then heave it out into the water where it can be inhaled by a cruising panfish.
Fly anglers can also get in on the fall panfish blitz. The best and most efficient way is by casting a small weighted streamer such as a Conehead Wooley Bugger or Clouser Minnow out into the water with a small flashy nymph like a Lightning Bug or a small Psycho Prince tied about 12 inches below it as a dropper. Let the rig sink down just above the bottom and then strip it back to you with small, sharp, deliberate strips. Any large panfish hunting along the bottom will be attracted by the action of the streamer and either move in to smash it or at least be drawn close enough to inhale the nymph.
Deep water nymphing is another very efficient technique for catching big fall panfish. As with the slip bobber, it’s vital to know how deep the water is that you’re fishing so that you can suspend your nymphs just above the bottom, so I’ve found it best to use an easily adjustable strike indicator such as a Thingamabobber which will allow you to quickly change your depth until you find the hot zone. Attach your strike indicator at the top of your leader on the thickest part of the line. Most leaders are around 9-feet-long so you may have to add a length of tippet to the bottom of the leader to ensure that your flies will reach the desired depth. Once this is done, attach a small split shot 8 to 10 inches above the bottom of the line and then add your first fly. This should be a larger, attractor pattern such as a San Juan Worm or a Hot Head. Tie a 6- to 8-inch length of tippet to the shank of this fly and then add a second smaller fly like a Tactical Hot Spot or a DD Midge.
While other fly-fishing methods require a lot of action, deep-water nymphing is usually best when the flies are left alone. A “set it and forget it” type of fishing method, the only real action required for this type of fly fishing is a certain amount of patience and enough poise to set the hook hard and fast when the strike indicator is yanked underwater by a fat panfish.
There are a lot of reasons you should be fishing for panfish in the fall. They are beautiful fish that will turn hard and fight when hooked and they’re almost always available when you just need to feel a bend in the rod. However, the biggest reason you should be fishing for panfish is that they are delicious. They can be cooked in a dozen different ways, from whole fried to chowders to sandwiches.
Additionally, most states with healthy panfish populations have pretty liberal limits which means you can bring plenty home for the freezer. Fall is one of the last chances you’ll have to gather and store such a harvest before the dark days of winter, and it is an opportunity that should not be missed. During the longest and grayest days, you’ll be able to take those panfish fillets out of the freezer and remind yourself that brighter times are just over the horizon.