Celebrating The All-American Panfish

By Ted Leeson
Illustrations by Gary Hovland

Without the youthful joys of fishing for bluegill, sunfish, warmouth, rock bass, white and black crappie, and yellow perch, this boater fears he might well have sunk into juvenile delinquency — or, worse, golf.

Illustration of cooking panfish

Among angling aristocrats, Atlantic salmon have long been celebrated as "the fish of kings," no doubt because the two have so much in common — an aloof arrogance and inflated sense of self-worth, a fussiness about habitat, and expensive tastes. And as far as I'm concerned, they deserve one another. Give me a panfish any day — a fish of the people, blue-collar rather than blueblood, a working-class fish, a fish for a great republic. I've never understood how the bald eagle, a scavenger and a thief, could have been chosen as our national symbol, while the honest, sweat-of-the-brow bluegill never even made the short list. I guess the Founding Fathers didn't fish much.

"Panfish," of course, doesn't denote a particular species but a loosely defined assemblage with varying regional representatives — a little like Congress, but harder working and better behaved. The core of the group comes from the Centrarchidae family of sunfishes, itself a kind of melting pot whose chief ingredients include bluegill, pumpkinseed, redear, redbreast, green sunfish, warmouth, rock bass, and white and black crappie. A kind of odd man out, the yellow perch isn't a sunfish, but no less a panfish wherever it is found. I'm not aware of any single place that's home to all these species at once. They crop up in various mixes and proportions in different geographical areas, and the category "panfish" (or "bream" or "brim," depending on where you live) has always been a matter of shifting local interpretations, further complicated by a host of colloquial names — shellcracker, stumpknocker, goggle-eye, sun perch, longear, speckled perch, white bass, and so on — that baffle the outsider. In practice, the term "panfish" ultimately falls into the category of such expressions as "I'll do it in a minute" or "I have strong feelings for you," ones that are universally understood but not universally understood to mean exactly the same thing to everyone.

Fishermen don't trouble themselves much about such discrepancies, concerning themselves instead with the collective virtues of the fish. And foremost among their merits is a relentless availability. Like the other indispensables of American life — duct tape, canned chili, and WD-40 — panfish can be obtained virtually everywhere. I've taken them in creeks and rivers, brackish water and fresh, 10,000-acre lakes and quarter-acre stock tanks, old quarry pits, prairie potholes, golf-course water hazards, abandoned strip mines, backyard ponds, irrigation ditches, and, once, in the ornamental fountain pool behind a fancy hotel. As a group, they're America's most widespread and abundant gamefish. And they're nothing if not game. I've caught them by accident and on purpose, on handlines, trotlines, poles cut from tree limbs, garage-sale spincast outfits, fly tackle that cost slightly less than my car, and every kind of gear in between. I've grabbled a few by hand, and in a mercifully brief period of angling dementia, jigged them up through two feet of ice. Equally ready for a few casual casts after work or the formalities of an organized expedition, panfish are a fish-of-all-trades, up for anything, any time. They are a welcome counterweight to the forces of hi-tech angling and a persistent reminder that fishing is about fish, not equipment.

Accommodating and enthusiastic, genial and cooperative, panfish are custom-cut for the neophyte. In the angling universe of my youth, they were the force of gravity that held everything together. The ones I could catch whetted my skills and honed my instincts. The ones that proved better at being fish than I did at being a fisherman gave me a continuing sense of purpose. Without panfish, I might well have sunk into juvenile delinquency, or golf. The pinnacle of every summer was the day my father, a man who did not readily leave the house, squeezed our whole family into a station wagon and endured the eight-hour drive to a lake in northern Wisconsin. He herded us directly from the car into a rowboat where, except for a few moments stolen to dig more worms, we spent a week or two yarding in unimaginable numbers of perch and rock bass and bluegill. The little ones bit readily; the bigger ones proved just discriminating enough to teach you something, but still catchable enough that you could learn the lesson. At a time of life as yet uncorrupted by a lust for magazine-cover specimens, panfish fulfilled the greatest promise in all of angling: pure action.

We ate them, too, by the stringerfull, with butter and lemon and onions, fried, baked, broiled, and grilled, and best of all, without guilt. Even today, in a time when quality angling for high-profile species increasingly hinges on catch-and-release, you can still sit down to a plate of bluegill or crappie without the slightest twinge of conscience or the fear of a second-rate meal. They come by their name honestly, for a pan is the best and highest destiny of these sweet-eating fishes. Bony? Sure, a little. And a steamed crab is mostly shell. Who's that gonna stop?

Night crawlers illustration

Once you've got panfish in your soul, they never really leave. Not many seasons ago, a friend and I extorted an invitation to a pay-to-play trophy trout lake in the high desert of Eastern Washington. The morning's fishing, while not fast, produced some remarkable trout, among the biggest of my life. Noon found us prospecting the lower end of the lake. Approaching deeper water near an earthen dam, we suddenly doubled up — smaller fish, it was clear, but dogged and determined fighters. To our utter disbelief, they turned out to be a pair of identical yellow perch — a full pound apiece, with deep blue-green backs and lemon-lime flanks that shaded into fat, cantaloupe bellies. With no real idea how they got there, but a pretty a good one about how to get them out, we burned up half-a-box of trout flies and a whole afternoon happily catching perch in a $200-a-day lake where a 5-pound rainbow scarcely elicits a yawn. That evening when our host, proud of his fishery and eager for a report, asked how we'd done, we just told him, "Couldn't have been better."

And we meant it. In this age of scientific fisheries control, of measurements and projections that produce finely calibrated angling regulations, panfish may well be the last unmanaged gamefish in America, left to themselves, on their own like they've always been, and doing just fine, thank you. It's ironic that a whole sector of the fishing industry now thrives on whisking anglers off to remote and pristine destinations to experience sport of unspoiled abundance, fishing "the way it used to be." Any 8-year-old kid with a cane pole, a bike, and panfish in his soul can lead you to just such a place.

And maybe that's what I like best about them. Panfish are the great egalitarians of American angling, generous-hearted, "no respecter of persons," as the Bible says (of an unrelated matter). They are the most democratic of all gamefish. Panfish don't care who fishes for them; they bite equally for all. They are unimpressed by the cost of your tackle, indifferent to the methods you use, and unconcerned about the bait you favor and, sometimes, whether there's any bait at all. Panfish are angling's version of the single-shot .22 — sturdy and dependable, workmanlike and unpretentious. If panfish formed a baseball team, they'd be the Cubs; if you could play them on a jukebox, they'd be Hank Williams tunes; if panfish were a beer, they'd be whatever's on sale.

Oh, and one last thing. Except for the more cosmopolitan perch, panfish are pure homegrown. Though like much in American life they've been exported around the world, panfish are indigenous only to North America, native to no other part of the globe. So picture this for a moment — a red-and-white bobber twitching above the slab of a sunset-colored bluegill. Now that's something worth printing on a the back of a dollar bill. 

Ted Leeson has been named Fly Rod & Reel Magazine Angler of the Year. This article was excerpted from his recent book Red, White, and Bluegill — The Ultimate Guide to Fishing.

— Published: August/September 2016

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