Panfish 101: Getting Your Kids Hooked on Fishing

Dustin and Jackson Warncke heading to the lake for a day of fishing fun.

I grew up with a love of fishing and part of that came from my family. Both of my grandfathers were avid freshwater  and saltwater fisherman and my father fished many freshwater B.A.S.S tournaments all through my formative years up through my high school graduation. When I had a son of my own, I vowed to myself that I would take him fishing as much as my father took me fishing as a kid. At the current time, I don’t own a boat so the next best thing was to introduce him to the joy of land-based fishing.

We have a large regional park near our home in Central Texas that my son, Jackson, and I frequently fish at and we usually always end up having a successful day fishing there. Brushy Creek Lake Park is a large regional park and community lake but it was rumored to be a stocking pond for Texas Parks & Wildlife in its previous life. I love this lake. It is a serene reminder of why I love fishing so much. The last time we went fishing there, I snapped a few photos for this post to show the “science” of what I use for a successful “perch jerking” trip.

Our first stop on an outing like this is usually to our local Academy Sports & Outdoors in Cedar Park. There are three things in the tackle and bait sections you will need to be successful on a trip like this: small light wire Aberdeen hooks, small split shot weights, and some Canadian night crawlers or meal worms if you can find them. Those three things combined with a little good luck should result in hours of fun.

For split shot, I like to use 3/0 size as they are among the smallest split shot you can find. Light weight is key here. The light wire hooks have a long profile and I like to use them for other baits such as crickets, grasshoppers, or other things because they have enough length to support  your bait while also being small enough to catch the smallest of fish. For rod and reel, I like an ultralight spinning or spincast rod and reel combination. The ultralight profile for a rod and reel like this keeps things lightweight and kids can feel a bite and the “fight” of the fish easier. Keep in mind that some kids will have a learning curve for spinning reels at first. It takes a little practice to cast them out. My son, Jackson, is just now getting where he can cast out a spinning reel on his own so if your kids are just starting out, keep it simple and stick to a spincast reel. When we were at the ICAST fishing show this year, Chester Moore Jr., our TF&G Editor-in-Chief had a short look at what Shakespeare is doing with kid-sized rod and reel combinations. I really like what they have for kids fishing tackle these days. Check out this short YouTube video:


I typically use one small split shot a few inches above the hook. Then, thread the tail end of nightcrawler or other live bait on the hook and you’re in business. You may notice that I haven’t mentioned a bobber yet. I have used them for many years and I think they are a great bite indicator but Jackson and I have been at this for a while. My dad taught me how to watch the line for a bite and I have taught my son the same thing so we typically do not use a bobber for its intended purpose. If you are going to use one for small panfish, I recommend buying and using the smallest ones you can find. Even better would be a long “quill style” bobber that will detect the slightest bite. This will give you the best bite indicator and be a good balance with the other lightweight gear. Here again is one reason I recommend a small spilt shot weight. You never want to “weight down” your bobber with too heavy of a weight.

Bites from bluegill and other varieties of panfish might be rather light. I watch the line carefully. If it makes a steady move in or out from where the bait settled in my cast , I usually try to set to hook because the fish usually has it in its mouth at that point. You never want to set the hook too hard, as to pull the bait and hook out of the fishes mouth too soon, but don’t be afraid to be direct and assertive with the hook set. A short quick jerk should be fine. If kids have an issue setting the hook at the right time with little fish like these, it can be frustrating at times. Fishing, after all, is a game of patience and fun so I sometimes will hold the rod and reel and wait for the bite, set the hook and had the rod and reel to my son. He enjoys reeling in and “fighting” the fish more anyway.

The name of the game here again is light-hearted family fun time. They can’t get this experience on an iPad or video console game after all. This is all about passing down a legacy from one generation to another, in its simplest form. This is not complicated nor expensive and it purely fun fishing doesn’t have to be that way either.

The most amazing experience happened to us on this last trip where I took the photos for this blog post. Jackson was reeling in a bluegill when an explosion came from out of the water. A big largemouth bass jumped out of the water and swallowed the bluegill he was reeling in. Then an even larger bass tried to get the fish from the first bass. Jackson handed me the reel, with a look of sincere disbelief and I did everything I could to get the bluegill back but the bass was long gone and all we could reel in was an empty line. The bass took the bluegill from us along with our hook and all we had left was a split shot weight on a bare line. I might fish another 50 years and not see a sight like that again! Two big fish competing for one little fish right before our very eyes was amazing. Both of our hearts about pumped out of our chests after seeing that. It all happened so quickly too! I hope we never forget that story. It will be one to pass down through the ages. Experiences like that are what fishing should be all about.

Jackson wanted to eat we caught this trip so I brought along a wire fish basket and a stringer with which to tie it off to the bank so we could keep our catch alive in the water until it was time to go home. When we were done with our fishing excursion, I put the bigger fish we caught and kept on ice for the ride home in my Frio Vault soft side cooler and cleaned them when we arrived home. It takes some mad skill to fillet smaller fish like these but they sure are tasty. and, depending on the water, clean. Some people might wonder if it is worth all of that work but kids should have the opportunity to eat what they catch if the fish are of legal “eating size” and that’s just what we did.

If you haven’t done so lately, get your kids out on the water fishing. Even if it is just a land based trip like my son and I take, keep it fun and keep it simple. Don’t start them out chunking and winding crankbaits for big bass right away. Give them something they can be proud of and that they can tell their friends and family about. Its about the small wins. After all, “perch jerking” can provide endless hours of year-round fishing fun for kids of all ages. Thanks for reading, watching and listening!

TF&G Staff:
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