Have you ever noticed that only a couple people get all the attention in a group? The Prom King and Queen in high school, the lead singer and guitarist in every band, your flamboyant aunt, and that outspoken cousin at Thanksgiving—certain folks just seem to get all the attention no matter how many other people are around them. It’s as if our brains are incapable of distinguishing any more than one or two standouts from a crowd and this is never truer than when anglers are talking about panfish.
Whenever you hear an angler chatting about going fishing for panfish, they’re always talking about filling up a bucket or livewell with a mess of bluegill and crappie. Crappie and bluegill dominate the market with all panfish equipment and media being directed towards them. Yet, there are more than just two panfish species–many more–and all of them can be caught on the same baits and lures as crappie and bluegills. These fish are the unknown and unseen dark horses of the angling world and are every bit as worthy of the attention anglers give to the more popular species.
Also known as the pond perch, the punkie, and the sunny, pumpkinseed are some of the most common sunfish species in North America. Often mistaken for bluegill but smaller in size, the pumpkinseed’s native range runs from as far north as New Brunswick, as far south as South Carolina, and as far west as Iowa, but they’ve also been introduced across the entire continent, as well as in Europe. Their widespread distribution speaks volumes about their popularity, as many pond-owning anglers stock pumpkinseed for their value as both a forage fish for larger predators like bass and for their quality as table fare.
Pumpkinseed are quite possibly the most beautiful sunfish on the planet. They come in a variety of colors, from orange and green to yellow, to dark blue with speckled sides and bright orange bellies. Their gill plates are covered in stripes of an incredibly vibrant blue or bright green with an orange or red spot in the center. Pumpkinseeds get their name from their body shape, with their blunt and rounded heads tapering down to a thin pointed tail, giving them a shape similar to a giant seed. They aren’t a very big fish with the average pumpkinseed being around 4 to 6 inches long and real giants being around 10 inches.
Pumpkinseeds are very similar to bluegill in both their habitat and feeding habits, though they prefer clearer water than their more popular cousins. They can be found in lakes, ponds, and small rivers and spend most of their time near shore around vegetation where they can find shelter and hide from predators. You can catch them on a variety of different baits, lures, and flies, from worms and minnows to small spinners, to tiny poppers and nymphs. They feed all day long and many anglers consider them to be a nuisance because they can almost be caught too easily, but that’s never a bad thing when you’re looking to get a mess of panfish filets for a Friday night fish fry.
Rock bass or redeye as they’re popularly known are a sunfish native to Eastern and Central North America. They can be found in large lakes, rivers, and streams and many anglers catch them without realizing what they are as they are often mistaken for juvenile smallmouth bass or crappie. For the most part, they are generally ignored by the angling public which is a huge miss—rock bass are definitely a fish of the people.
Rock bass are incredibly difficult fish to spook and are often found swimming around busy boat docks and popular beaches, quite comfortable to swim and hunt around revving engines and splashing divers and swimmers. Rock bass are so unspookable in fact that they can even be caught by hand. They are an extremely carnivorous sunfish, preferring to eat small baitfish, juvenile perch, bass, and walleye, and even their own young. In addition, rock bass have a particular fondness for crayfish and will actually follow the crustaceans as they migrate from shallow to deeper water.
As their name suggests, rock bass prefer to live around rocky shorelines in shallow water and around large boulder piles in deeper water. Though they don’t grow very large, with a big redeye being around 10 inches, rock bass can be extremely aggressive and can be caught by anglers using a variety of different techniques. Rock bass can be trolled up on the same Lindy Rigs baited with worms that you’d use for walleye, and they can also be caught by casting and retrieving spoons, jerkbaits, and spinners, but the best bet for the redeye-curious is fishing with a live minnow or crayfish on a jig.
Aside from being a great fighter, rock bass are also a great eating fish. They have a light, flaky flesh that will work well with any of your favorite panfish recipes. In addition, rock bass have incredibly high populations in the waterways where they are found and they tend to travel in schools, ensuring that you’ll have plenty of chances to catch your limit.
An extremely aggressive species, green sunfish are a fish with a permanent case of short-man syndrome and are well known for striking lures and flies meant for larger species. This of course causes many anglers to look at green sunfish as a pest, as they often end up as bi-catch for anglers in search of larger quarry.
Green sunfish have a more elongated shape than other sunfish and a much larger, more bass-like mouth. They have markings similar to a pumpkinseed, with speckles and dark bands running down their sides and bright blue stripes on their gill plates. Green sunfish are widely distributed across the Central US with the fish being native to the Great Lakes, Appalachian Mountains, the Southern Rockies, and Northern Mexico. However, green sunfish are considered an invasive species in several states including Florida, Georgia, Arizona, New Jersey, and within the Connecticut River and its tributaries. The fish’s aggressive nature makes green sunfish a problem in many of these areas as they will chase other panfish species away from their preferred habitats and have a tendency to attack, kill, and eat other fish’s young.
Green sunfish can live almost anywhere and seem to prefer poor water conditions, tending to live in ponds, warm lakes, and the backwaters of rivers. Like catfish, green sunfish can and will thrive in murky, muddy, water so long as there is adjacent gravel or bedrock to the area where they can spawn. You can catch green sunfish on a variety of different items as they have an extremely diverse diet. They’ll eat anything from small insects and baitfish, to frogs, juvenile gamefish, and even turtle and fish eggs. A green sunfish’s aggression means they’ll readily strike lures like small jerkbaits, crankbaits, jigs, and they are especially prone to topwater lures like poppers and terrestrial flies. They can make for a hell of a lot of fun on light tackle, with explosive takes on the surface from small, hard-fighting fish happening all day long.
Similar to white bass in size and appearance, the yellow bass are a feisty, hard-fighting panfish that can be found in rivers, lakes, and reservoirs across the United States. Native to tributaries along the Mississippi River, yellow bass can be found in their native range from Louisiana to Minnesota. However, due to their popularity as both a forage fish and a predatory control species, yellow bass have been stocked in clear lakes as far east as New York.
Yellow bass are thick-bodied panfish with a yellowish-white body and five to seven black horizontal stripes running down their sides, making them look just like juvenile striped bass or white bass. This makes sense, as the two species are some of their closest relatives. However, while white bass and striped bass occupy the deepest sections of waterways, yellow bass prefer shallow backwaters. They’ll move up into shallow tributaries and into the back of bays seeking out structures in the form of weed beds, steep banks, piers, boat docks, and rock piles.
Like their cousins, yellow bass are an extremely aggressive fish that can push your tackle to the very brink. They’ll happily smash any fast-moving lure or fly you throw at them. Small spinners and spoons are great choices for yellow bass and you can have a great time stripping small streamers for them on fly fishing gear as well. If you’re looking to catch a mess of yellow bass though, you can’t go wrong with live bait. Small minnows rigged under a bobber and dropped into a school of yellow bass will often keep your rod bent from sunup to sundown.
Perhaps the most commonly misidentified sunfish, warmouth looks like some sort of cross between a rock bass and a green sunfish. They’re usually brown or olive colored with small, mottled speckles or spots along their sides similar to a crappie. Like their cousins, warmouth have a large mouth, similar to a bass, into which they’ll shove everything from small insect larvae and minnows to crayfish, leeches, and even small frogs.
Warmouth primarily live in the Southeastern United States along the Mississippi River drainage, but they have also been found as far north as Chesapeake Bay and as far west as Texas. This widespread distribution means that warmouth often overlaps with other panfish species, making them another sunfish that anglers don’t even realize they’ve been catching. Unlike many other panfish species though, warmouth are almost exclusively found in rivers, preferring to live, hunt, and breed in slow-moving water with a lot of vegetation. They’re a hardy species and can survive well in polluted and extremely warm environments that would kill or drive out other species of panfish.
Most anglers who catch warmouth are actually in search of bluegill as they occupy many of the same areas, and so they tend to turn warmouth loose due to their small 4- to 10-inch size. Yet for their size, warmouth put up quite a scrappy fight. They have a big appetite and can be caught on anything from plastic worms and grubs to jigs and spoons. Warmouth are also very fond of insects like crickets as well as worms, and they tend to travel in large schools. This means that if you’re an angler with a lot of bait to burn and a quick hookset, you can stack a lot of warmouths up on the dock without a lot of effort.
There are a lot of other species of panfish that I haven’t mentioned here (around 25 more) and none of them should be overlooked. As a panfish aficionado, I’ve always thought it would be kind of cool to have some sort of Panfish Slam where you went around documenting every species that you catch.
But at the same time, having some sort of contest or goal would defeat the spirit of panfish fishing. They are a fish of simple pleasures for anglers who like dunking worms off a dock or soaking a minnow under a bobber in search of a few slabs for the frying pan. We fish for panfish out of a pure love for the panfish game and no matter the species we’re catching, none of them should be overlooked and all of them should be remembered.
Feature image via Tosh Brown.