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Panfish: Primal Priority

Panfish: Primal Priority

When James W. Marshall spotted something shiny in sawmill’s tailrace on the South Fork of the American River, his 1848 discovery launched a massive wave of relocation known as the California Gold Rush. Some got rich, some lost all they had, others just contributed to the massive growth that put California on the path to statehood.

A far cry from today’s heavily mechanized and geographically diverse gold mining operations, those early stream panners delighted in the occasional high value nugget, but they paid their bills with smaller fragments and flecks.

Kinda reminds me of why I always have an ultralight spinning outfit rigged and ready. Panfish—the gold dust of freshwater fishing.

Fact is, there’s something irresistibly alluring about spotting one of the nation’s many panfish species along a lake shore, seawall or canal. This happens a lot while traveling for work or a family outing and while boats expand range and access, there’s something foundational and fundamentally rewarding about locating and engaging panfish from shore.

panfish priority
Panfish are abundant across the country and often very willing biters.

And if I’m being completely honest, while I spend plenty of time chasing the black bass clan, if I spot a lounging largemouth during a casual stroll, I can often resist the urge to run back to my hotel room or the car if I only have a short window of impromptu fishing time.

But … let me spot a few bluegills haunting the shoreline and it’s game-on. I’m catching them. There’s just something about these brash, aggressive fish that almost always bite and fight well beyond what their modest forms imply.

Put it this way: If bluegill grew as big as northern pike or alligator gar, I’d never go in the water. Never.

Where To Look

On my constant search for panfish potential, I’ll explore every water body I encounter—and it does not have to be of natural origin (including reservoirs here). Truth be told, some of the most overlooked bream/sunfish gems are the retention ponds the prevent hotel and retail parking lots from flooding.

The ones that hold water year-round often sprout native plant communities and that means shelter and habitat for various forage. Add in the depth variances and water flow of culverts and flood control pipes, maybe a seawall or two and you have a very fishable scenario. (Just make sure the property allows fishing.)

Other likely shore-bound panfish spots include:

Small Bridges — Structure, plus shade, plus constricted water flow checks all the boxes for shelter and feeding. Panfish won’t park in heavy current, but the pilings and riprap corners may offer potential.

Tailraces — Modest dam outfalls (nothing raging like a Tennessee River structure) often find rock bass gorging on baitfish in the turbulent water. I’ve come to value these little hellions for their ferocious feeding, often right alongside smallmouth—and their willingness to attack a variety of baits from dropshots, to small swimbaits, to crankbaits.


Panfish are plentiful across the country
Tailraces often present a great opportunity to catch numbers of panfish.

Docks — Same as bridges, marinas and individual docks offer panfish the total package. Older floating docks with Styrofoam floats coated with algae attract baitfish and aquatic insects—basic bluegill food.

Similarly, docks with an obvious lack of cleaning/maintenance service will often sprout terrestrial weeds and even small bushes in the corners where two sections meet. Insects that fall to the surface create a panfish focal point.

Likewise, spiderwebs indicate an area of insect abundance; also one that hasn’t been recently fished. This is a good bet for dropping a tiny jig or grass shrimp imitator next to the pilings.

Tackle Up

Great part about impromptu panfish missions is the minimal prep and gear requirement. If a local bait shop is handy, nightcrawler or crickets are hard to beat. But hear me well, one slice of white bread—maybe from a hotel breakfast bar—will get the job done.

You can toss a few samples to gather the fish, quickly form a dozen or so bread balls and carry the whole deal in a jacket or shirt pocket. (Try that with earthworms.) As for your “tackle box,” a ziplock bag with a few No. 10 to 12 Aberdeen hooks, a few split shots (sized to local depths) and a couple of clip-on bobbers.

Panfish priority baits
Panfish will attach a variety of presentations, including table scraps. Get creative and you’ll find plenty of fishing action.

If ever there was an angling activity for which a single rod was sufficient, this is it. I’ve come to favor a telescoping model like Daiwa’s Travel Combo spinning outfit. This 7-foot, 2-inch medium rod may be overkill for the average panfish exercise, but that extra length is helpful when shore-bound excursions require a long cast or a little extra reach.

For lighter duty and tighter reaches, I use an Okuma Challenger Travel Rod. The 4-piece construction requires a little more setup time than a telescoping model, but the action is ideal for panfish duty.

If you go with a single rod, spool with braided main line and add the appropriate fluorocarbon leader. This offers the ideal balance of sensitivity and stealth—with the strength to handle any bass that decides to crash the party.

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