THE RED-AND-WHITE plastic float spasmed as if possessed—once, twice, three times—before plunging below the surface. My granddaughter’s blue eyes grew wide, and she froze. So I lightly, but quickly, lifted the fishing rod while she still held on to the rod butt and reel. The tip came to life, and I stepped back to watch Nixie tangle with her first fish.
After a brief but spirited tussle, a broad-sided gold-, copper- and teal-colored fish about the size of my hand splashed at our feet. It was a hybrid green sunfish/bluegill, but we called it a “bream.” Nixie smiled. I smiled. And I recalled the wide smiles I’d shared with my grandpa under similar circumstances more than 40 years ago.
Panfish is the umbrella term for bream, perch, sunfish—just a few of the colloquial names used for individual species of Lepomis, a genus in the family of Centrarchidae, which are, in fact, sunfishes. Within this genus are bluegill, redear, longear, green sunfish, pumpkinseed and a handful of others, along with hybrids. They populate nearly every pond and trickle of water in Arkansas. This ubiquity, along with an eager bite on a variety of baits and finger-lickin’ excellence on the dinner table, is why panfish are the gateway fish for many anglers—no matter their skill level.
You don’t need fancy specialized gear to catch panfish (that’s a major component of the appeal). Any rod and reel will work, and often, a long cane pole without a reel is the best tool for the job. But if you want to buy a panfish outfit, tell the folks at your local outfitter that you’re looking for a spincast (the easiest to master) or spinning rod-and-reel combo with an ultralight-action rod. Tell them you’re going after panfish and need 6-pound line as well. If you want to use live bait (the surest and most traditional method), buy a bag of long-shank cricket hooks in size 8, a bag of tiny split-shot weights (lead or, preferably, a nontoxic alternative) and some plastic or cork floats. Worms and crickets are the live baits of choice. Tiny jigs are the best choice for artificial baits.
Where to find them
When I said panfish can be found in almost any puddle of water in Arkansas, I wasn’t exaggerating. Each species prefers a certain habitat—longears like mountain creeks, redears live near the bottom of lakes, and bluegill love vegetation—but that means wherever you wet a line is likely to get a bite from something. Bluegill and green sunfish are the most common and range across a variety of habitats. Look for cover in the form of wood, rock or vegetation. You may need to experiment with placing your bait at different depths to find the sweet spot. Panfish typically spawn from April through late June and frequent the shallows during this time of year. But prespawn and summer fish—especially the bigger fish—like to hang a little deeper. Still, you should be able to catch all you want from the bank, no boat needed.
How to catch them
Start out shallow. For live bait, pinch the split shot about 6 inches above the hook, and set your float about 12 inches from the hook to start (if all of this sounds cryptic, just know that instructions for tying on a hook, “pinching” split shot and setting a bobber are all available on Youtube). If there’s no action within a few minutes, adjust the float depth 6 inches to 18 inches above the hook. If panfish are present, the bites should come quickly. Watch for the float to twitch and jiggle, but don’t set the hook until it’s pulled under or steadily away. Then, lightly but quickly, lift the rod tip, and you should be secured to a spirited fish. You can fish a jig with the same setup used for live bait. Just exchange the hook and bait for a jig, and lose the split shot. Experiment with depth and retrieval speed. When you feel a bump, set the hook. Once a fish is hooked, reel it in quickly, but thoughtfully. Don’t just crank, but take line when the fish gives it to you. If you’re fishing with a cane pole, use the pole’s length and limber action to tire the fish a bit; then lift and swing the fish to you.
To unhook the fish, first wet your hands (dry hands destroy fish slime and can lead to a sick or dead fish if released), and grasp it like you would a jar lid, taking care to lay flat the spiny dorsal fins. The fins are sharp, but they aren’t venomous like catfish fins. Then twist the hook out of the fish’s mouth with your fingers or a pair of pliers, and let the fish go, or put it in your fish basket.
Get expert help
The best source is the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission’s Outdoor Skills Patch program (agfc.com/en/get-involved/first-steps-outdoors/outdoors-skills). The program is designed to motivate people to find a mentor for their outdoor passion or to mentor others in outdoor pursuits.
According to Hollie Sanders, facility director at the AGFC Witt Stephens Nature Center in Little Rock, all ages can earn patches. “Many families are earning patches together,” Hollie says. Solo adults are also very involved in learning outdoor skills and, of course, earning a cool patch for those skills within the program.
Besides the patch program, AGFC nature and education center staff can guide you toward how-to literature and maybe even someone who can offer one-on-one help. Then go fishing.
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