Yet for all that it lacks, the lowly panfish remains Minnesota’s most popular fish, with an estimated 9.7 million pounds harvested in 2013 – more than twice the take of Sander vitreus, our official state fish, the walleye.
Panfish, of course, isn’t really a particular species of fish, but a generic term that encompasses several species including bluegills, crappies, sunfish, rock bass, pumpkinseed and perch. The term made its debut in print with the first American cookbook in 1796. What all these species have in common is that they’re generally small enough to fit easily in a frying pan; some are even kind of pan-shaped.
“They’re good in the pan,” said Tim Ohmann, a fisheries specialist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources’ Fishing in the Neighborhood (FiN) program, which provides close-to-home angling opportunities for kids and their families. “Panfish are a tasty treat dredged in some flour and seasonings, then given a little swim in hot oil.”
Panfish also are a healthy food choice. Because they’re lower in the food chain and tend to be smaller, they’re less likely to be the subject of consumption advisories than larger predator fish.
The culinary virtues of panfish account for only part of their popularity, though. Another selling point is that you don’t have to go far to find a body of water with good panfish action.
“They’re ubiquitous,” Ohmann said. “You can go to just about any lake around and find panfish, especially in the metro region. And the season is open year-round.”
To increase the chances of catching larger panfish, Ohmann suggests consulting the fisheries surveys included as part of LakeFinder (www.mndnr.gov/fishmn) on the DNR website; look for lakes with a good percentage of fish in the 6- to 8-inch range. After ice-out, panfish move into shallow water, which is warmer, to eat and spawn. Later in the season they can be found loitering around the weed edge, or near docks. As temperatures warm, the fish are more likely to bite and easier to catch.
“They’re poikilothermic – that’s a $10 word for being cold-blooded,” Ohmann said “Their body temperature varies with their surroundings, so they get more active and hungry when the water is warmer.”
The relative ease with which panfish can be caught is another selling point. You don’t need a lot of expensive equipment. A cane pole or a cheap rod and reel set up with a bobber and a worm for bait will do the trick.
Panfish also can be caught using crickets, bugs, small leeches, crankbaits, little jigs and by flyfishing. You don’t need a fancy boat, either. Fishing from shore or a fishing pier works fine.
“The equipment is about as basic as you can get,” Ohmann said. “If you put something in front of them, they’re going to bite on it. They’re not too finicky.”
Their catchability and widespread existence make panfish an ideal target when introducing kids to angling. For a novice angler, nothing beats the excitement of seeing a bobber go under and feeling a tug and tingle in the line. Panfish may be small but they can be aggressive and quick, providing good action for their size. And because they’re schooling fish, if you get one bite, you’re likely to get a bunch.
“They’re competitive feeders,” Ohmann said. “It’s every fish for himself, and if one goes after bait, more will follow. They’re even kleptoparasitic – one fish will try to steal food or bait from another.”
Because of the popularity of panfish, the DNR supplements natural reproduction in some heavily fished areas such as the metro region. The FiN program puts about 25,000 bluegills into 66 small lakes around the Twin Cities each year.
To provide a higher quality angling experience, the program also has experimented with taking fish out of lakes with an over-abundance of small bluegills in the spring, putting them into rearing ponds over the summer, then moving them into FiN-managed lakes without a history of winterkill in the late fall. The result is bigger bluegills – a three- to five-fold increase.
“I suppose any angler worth their salt likes to brag occasionally about what a walleye warrior they are,” Ohmann said. “But when it comes to pure fishing enjoyment, it’s hard to beat panfish. They put the fun in fishing.”