When it comes to fun fishing, nothing beats a panfish. Actually, a panfish isn’t a species of fish. It’s a word that is sometimes used to describe assorted fish that are good to eat but seldom outgrow the size of a frying pan.
Here in Texas, crappies and other various members of the sunfish family such as bluegills, redears and longears fit the bill.
Not only do panfish make for good table fare, but they also can be a blast to fish for. Better yet, they usually don’t require whole lot of skill to catch, which makes them a great choice, whetting the appetite of kids and newcomers to the sport.
So long as you know the basics of operating a spinning or spincast outfit, and don’t mind baiting a hook, you can reel in a few panfish. Learn a little something about their seasonal habits and you’ll be able to do it more frequently than somebody who doesn’t.
Here’s rundown on Texas’s most popular panfish, followed by a few hot weather fishing tips:
There are two sub-species, black crappie and white crappie. How the name is pronounced depends on who you are talking to. Some folks say it crappie, as in “Crap-E,” while others say croppie, as in “Crop-E.” Commonly used slang includes white perch, which is used in reference to white crappie, and speckled perch for black crappie. Hardcore crappie buffs sometimes call them papermouths because of the paper-thin membrane that surrounds their lips, or “barndoor” or “slab” when referring to a fish weighing 1 1/2 pounds or more.
Although both sub-species are capable of growing beyond three pounds (state record for black crappie is 3.92 pounds; 4.56 pounds for white crappie), fish in the 1 to 1 1/4-pound range are most common in angler creels.
Most anglers prefer to fillet “keeper” crappies measuring 10 inches or longer, but you can also prepare them whole. Either way, the panfish are great in the skillet, mainly because of their succulent white meat.
Where to Find Them: Crappies can be found in lakes all over the state. Black crappies are most prevalent in the clearer, acidic waters of eastern Texas, while white crappies are found statewide. The best crappie lakes will always have premium habitat consisting of aquatic vegetation and/or plentiful brush.
Following the spring spawn in February-April, crappies begin gravitating towards deeper water, where they will congregate around brush piles, bridge pilings, standing timber or outside grass lines. In early summer the fish might be caught around stuff as shallow as 10-12 feet, but they move progressively deeper as hotter weather sets in. But they won’t necessarily be on the bottom. crappies are notorious for suspending in the water column, usually in accordance with oxygen levels in the water and the depth at which shad and other bait fish are holding.
How To Catch Them: Crappies can be caught a variety of ways during the summer months. One of the more common is to soak a live minnow or small crappie jig around target cover like brush piles or structure such as bridge and boat dock pilings. Many anglers rely on depth finders to locate potential hotspots and determine whether fish are present before fishing in order to be more efficient.
Effective as it can be, soaking a shiner straight beneath the boat can get pretty boring—pretty quick—especially when the fish are aren’t biting. That’s why many anglers like to take a more aggressive approach by casting small jigs around potential hotspots and working them slowly back to the boat. The technique can be effective around brush piles but is most commonly used around bridge supports and outside grass lines.
Another grass tactic that can be effective in early summer is called “strolling.” It works best along the edges of deeper outside grass lines. Rather than casting a jig to the grass cast it 30-40 feet behind the boat and rely on the trolling motor to move the boat and keep the jig crawling along at a slow pace. Jigs weighing 1/32 to 1/8 ounce usually work best, depending on the depth of the grass.
“Bream” is the generic term sometimes used in reference to a wide variety pint-sized sunfish species often found in great numbers in lakes, rivers, streams and stock ponds across Texas. Among them are the redear, redbreast, longear, bluegill and green sunfish.
A bream wide and long enough to completely cover a grown man’s palm is considered a big one, but they have been known to grow larger, especially on private waters where easy meals are always available.
The redear is genetically programmed to grow larger than its cousins. The Texas state record redear from public waters was caught from Lady Bird Lake. It measured 14 inches long, but was not as heavy as you might think. The fish weighed 2.99 pounds.
In contrast, the state record redear from private waters weighed 3.25 pounds. That fish was 14.25 inches long.
Bluegills, longears and redbreast sunfish are equally common in Texas waters, but fish weighing upwards of one-pound are pretty rare. A two-pounder would rank as a giant.
Small as they are, panfish fans have learned not to be fooled by the bream’s meager dimensions. What they lack in size they make up for in grit. In fact, ounce for ounce, the colorful sunfish rank among the hardest fighters swimming in freshwater.
Where to Find Them: Bream have a tendency to run in loose groups, except when they move shallow to spawn in early summer.
Bream like company when making babies—lots of it. The fish spawn in “colonies” comprised of dinner plate-size spawning beds that are stacked tight together, usually on points, humps, or main lake ridges that offer a hard bottom with gravel or shell. Beds are easy to identify in clear water, because they appear lighter than the surrounding bottom. A colony of bream beds might number as few as 20 or as many as 200 or more.
How to Catch Them: The techniques used for catching bedding bream can be as simple or complicated as the angler cares to make them. They will hit live and artificial lures alike. You can catch them dabbling live crickets, earthworms or larvae beneath a cork, or by fan casting casting a small bucktail jig or spinner. The energetic sunfish can be caught on on flyfishing tackle.
One of my favorite ways to target bream is with a 12 foot B’n’M telescopic BreamBuster pole. The lightweight pole is easy to handle and has plenty of flex, which makes it a pleasure to fish with.
I like to rig the rod with a strip of four-pound monofilament of the same length. This allows you to fish close to the boat or check the perimeter with relative ease. You can add a small reel to reach out farther.
Other important ingredients are the hook and cork. Remember, you’re not going after Moby Dick. It is best to think small on both counts.
I like a No. 12 or 14 long shank hook matched with a Shy Bite balsa wood float by Thill. It is a good idea to add a couple of small split shot a few inches above the hook to make the float stand erect.
Another good way to locate spawning beds is with an ultra-light rig that’s tipped with a small jig or Roadrunner. Once the beds are pinpointed you can move in close and have some serious fun with a long pole.