Vermont Freshwater Fishing
By Shawn Good and Dylan Smith
Vermont Fish & Wildlife
Where do you think panfish would fall in a popularity contest for Vermont fish species? Whether you’re a lifelong angler, a newcomer, a young family with kids, or a seasoned die-hard, you’d probably answer “fairly low.”
After all, panfish are only good for worm and bobber fishing by kids, right? The species you go for when you don’t know how to catch anything else, or when nothing else is biting. I mean, who wants to go out and purposely catch a bunch of sunfish?
Well, it might surprise you to hear that a lot of anglers do! This group of fish has seen a huge surge in interest in recent years, and not just from kids and new anglers learning how to fish. Panfish are abundant and widespread in Vermont waters, fun to catch for all anglers—new or experienced, young and old alike. And, they’re some of the best eating fish we have.
So, what’s a “panfish”?
This term has been around a long time and is used
to describe small fish species that are sized and shaped for the frying pan. Species commonly lumped into this category include pumpkinseed, bluegill, rock bass, crappie, yellow and white perch, and even bullhead.
For many anglers, the first fish they ever caught was a “panfish,” and it was probably with a worm and bobber – a technique that works better than just about anything else, even today. But to catch eating-sized panfish consistently throughout the year, it helps to understand a little more about their biology, habitats, and how bait or lure selection can increase your success at catching enough for a nice meal or fish fry.
All panfish spawn in the spring, with May being the most active month for spawning activity. Yellow perch usually go first when water temperatures reach 45°F to 50°F. Bluegill start building round crater-like nests along shorelines at 60°F to 65°F. Pumpkinseed and black and white crappie spawn last when water temperatures hit 68°F to 70°F.
Panfish always spawn in congregations. You’ll find clusters of sunfish nests in shallow bays, and schools of crappie (that don’t build nests) can be found along the edges of bulrushes and cattails in three to six feet of water.
This is one of the best times of year to catch panfish. A small baitholder hook and a piece of worm is the simplest and most effective technique. Using a thin pencil bobber allows the fish to pull it under without feeling resistance and will help you control the depth of your bait.
After spawning is over and all you see are empty nests, or you’re not catching larger fish along the edges of shallow weeds anymore, move out to slightly deeper water. From late spring through summer and fall, schools of bigger sunfish, perch, and crappie are more consistently caught in deeper water, from 8 to 12 feet. Sometimes deeper.
Some of the favorite haunts of panfish in the summer and fall include the deep edges of submerged aquatic vegetation like milfoil, eelgrass and pondweed, and around sunken logs and treetops.
Fishing for panfish in deeper water takes slightly different tactics. A simple worm and bobber won’t reach the schools of larger fish.
Instead, try drifting worms or trolling small spinners or crankbaits parallel to these areas. If you find a sunken tree or a weed edge that’s holding fish, stop and use a small 1/16 to 1/32-ounce Marabou hair jig or a plain jig head tipped with a piece of worm or small plastic minnow. Staying back from the cover, make a long cast beyond it, close your bail, and let the jig sink and swing across the area.
In the winter ice fishing season, panfish really shine, and become the target of many anglers. As a matter of fact, yellow perch is the most targeted species in Vermont in the winter, and bluegill, pumpkinseed and crappie attract a lot of attention as well.
Because the water temperature under the ice is generally a uniform 34°F, fish metabolism slows down significantly, fish activity levels decrease, and their drive for food drops. Anglers need to downsize their lures and baits to entice finicky panfish who are only looking for a snack. Instead of large lures and worms, most successful panfish anglers use very small 1/32 to 1/64-ounce jigs tipped with a tiny plastic bait or a couple live maggots or waxworms, available at most baitshops across the state. Fish can be found in both deep and shallow areas where they gather around collapsed weed beds that have died back.
Panfish aren’t hard to find in Vermont, and almost every waterbody in the state has some of the more common species. A great way to research potential fishing destinations is to use the Vermont Master Angler Program’s website and sift through the Trophy Fish Gallery looking to see where different species are commonly caught. Then, go try catching them yourself!
And finally, speaking of trophy fish, panfish are like any other sport fish species. The largest “trophy” fish are the most productive individuals in a population, and anglers should consider practicing selective harvest with these.
To protect quality panfishing opportunities for the future, anglers should limit their take of the largest specimens. Keep a few for dinner, let the others go.
Panfish are abundant and widespread through Vermont, and are easy to locate and catch with simple gear and techniques. And, they make for a healthy, locally-sourced, and delicious meal.
Don’t miss out by thinking panfish are just for kids!