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Alabama Outdoors: Panfish

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Abundant small scrappers, a.k.a. ‘panfish,’ offer big action

By John N. Felsher

Practically all anglers start their piscatorial pursuits by tempting panfish, and for good reason. Just about anyone can catch these abundant and widespread, if diminutive, scrappers.

“Panfish are very common throughout Alabama,” explains Doug Darr with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. “Our 23 state public fishing lakes (www.outdooralabama.com/fishing/freshwater/where/lakes) are stocked with bass, bluegill, redear sunfish and channel catfish. They offer some of the finest bream fishing in the country.”

Fishing for panfish, from the bank, dock or a boat, offers an excellent way to teach children, and novice adults, about the outdoors. To start fishing for panfish, anglers don’t need much complex, expensive gear. Many people use cane poles without reels. Add a few hooks, bobbers and some bait to the list and start fishing.

Thread a worm or cricket onto a hook dangling under a bobber and drop it next to a stump, fallen tree, grass bed or other cover. Wait for the bobber to disappear under the water. Then, watch the expression on the child’s face as it goes down and the youngster sets the hook on a fat bluegill. Pound for pound, or more appropriately ounce for ounce, few fish outfight panfish, so called because they fit nicely in a frying pan and taste great.

In just about every freshwater system in Alabama, anglers can find enough delicious panfish to make a meal. While anglers may catch more than a dozen panfish species in Alabama, most people simply lump them all together as “perch” or “bream.”

“The Tennessee River lakes offer great panfish action,” Darr says. “The Tombigbee River around Demopolis is also a very good area for panfish. Lake Eufaula is another really good bream lake. The Little River, Tallapoosa River and Coosa River can also provide good bream action.”

Among the most common and widespread panfish, bluegills occur throughout Alabama. They derive their name from the navy blue “ear flap” near their gills. Slow rivers, farm ponds or lakes with abundant vegetation offer excellent places to look for bluegills. A bluegill can weigh nearly five pounds, but few exceed one pound. T.S. Hudson landed the state record, a 4.75-pounder, while fishing Ketona Lake near Birmingham.

One of the most distinctive panfish, a warmouth looks similar to a bluegill in color, but with the shape and mouth of a bass. Also called a goggle-eye, these thick, dark fish love swamps, shallow weedy lakes, sluggish streams or canals with thick vegetation. A warmouth may weigh more than two pounds, but few reach one pound. Jimmy A. Barfield set the state record with a 1.75-pound fish that came from a small farm pond.

Commonly called shellcrackers because they relish snails, redear sunfish look similar to bluegills, but with orange to red highlights on their “ear flaps.” Shellcrackers occur throughout the state, but thrive in southern Alabama, particularly in the Mobile-Tensas Delta. Jeff Lashley caught the state record, a 4.25-pounder, while fishing a park pond.

“In south Alabama, redear sunfish begin bedding in March, but fishing usually peaks in May,” Darr says. “If we get a couple warmer days in a row in the spring, bream start moving into the shallows.”

As water warms in the spring, panfish head shallow to lay eggs in nests. In a good spawning flat, anglers can spot these nests, dark depressions fanned into the bottom. Highly prolific panfish may breed several times from March through October and frequently return to the same beds every year.

In many bedding areas, several hundred bream may congregate, making such places great spots to fish. Anglers can tempt panfish with many baits including worms, crickets, grasshoppers, bread, crawfish and other morsels. For those who prefer artificial lures, a beetle spinner or a small jig make excellent enticements.

For the ultimate fun, try a fly rod. Bluegills and other panfish readily strike flies, streamers and nymphs, but small floating “popping bugs” make deadly topwater temptations. Some better surface enticements include foam or cork creations that resemble tiny frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, dragonflies or other natural prey.

Although bream anglers won’t land any monsters, they may fill limits with great tasting fish in just about any Alabama waters. This spring, think small for really big action.

JOHN FELSHER 2014

John N. Felsher is a freelance writer and photographer who now lives in Semmes, Ala. He co-hosts a weekly outdoors show that is syndicated to stations in Alabama. For more on the show, log on to www.gdomag.com. Contact him through his website at www.JohnNFelsher.com