Smaller Fish, Huge Rewards: Panfishing Guide

The following appears in the June issue of California Sportsman:

Once bluegill and sunfish eclipse the 6-inch mark, they put up an outstanding fight on light spinning gear and provide a pair of thick, tasty filets. (CAL KELLOGG)

By Cal Kellogg

A f ew years back, I was guiding NorCal trout anglers at a smallish reservoir in November. With clients scheduled every day, rather than towing my big pontoon boat back and forth from the lake, I grabbed a slip on the outer edge of the lake’s marina.
When my wife Gena came to visit me one weekend, she suggested we target catfish one afternoon after I’d finished up with my clients. The water temperature was in the upper 50s and my boat was docked over 35 feet of water at the mouth of a cove. I figured we could set up at the dock, break out some snacks and enjoy a relaxing afternoon and evening of soaking bait.

The bites started almost as soon as our nightcrawler-adorned 6/0 hooks made it to the bottom. At first, we thought the action was from light-biting catfish, but after reeling up bare hooks a few times we realized that whatever was cleaning our hooks weren’t catfish.
“I want to know what’s down there stealing our bait,” my wife said, plucking a spinning rod rigged for fishing PowerBait out of a rod holder. She put a tiny piece of nightcrawler on the rig’s small octopus hook and eased it down to the bottom.

Sure enough, within minutes the rod’s tip wiggled to life and then drew down into a pulsing bend. Fish on! I was thinking small trout, but when Gena reeled the fish to the surface, I was shocked to see a big bluegill measuring just over 7 inches in length.

My experience with bluegill was restricted to fishing for 3-inchers next to the tules in the California Delta with a bobber and red worm when I was 8. What the heck, I wondered, are bluegill doing in 35 feet of water holding on a clean bottom free of weeds, wood or any other sort of cover or structure?

As Gena cranked up and released jumbo bluegill after jumbo bluegill, I got more and more intrigued, and this set me on a quest to learn more about the panfish inhabiting our California reservoirs.

What I’ve learned is interesting and it may well prompt you to give panfish fishing a try.

Black crappie like this handsome fish are the most common crappie caught in California waters, but white crappie are found at many lakes too. In terms of the filets they produce and the habits they exhibit, the species are very similar. (CAL KELLOGG)


Spend a day on a Northern or Central California reservoir and you’re going to see two basic types of fishing crafts: bass boats and trout/salmon boats. The explanation for this is simple: The Golden State’s reservoirs offer world-class bass fishing and amazing opportunities for trout and landlocked salmon.

As a result, any gamefish that doesn’t fall into the category of bass, trout or salmon goes largely overlooked. Back East, you’ll find an entire industry focused on panfish, and you can even book a guided trip for bluegill or crappie. In California, you’ll only find the most rudimentary panfish gear stocked at our local tackle shops.

You can find a few panfish guides who chase Clear Lake’s fabled crappie, but step beyond that unique lake and you’re hard pressed to find anyone who knows much about a panfish trip.

Like me, when anglers uninitiated in the ways of bluegill, green sunfish and crappie think of targeting panfish, their minds fill with images of spring fishing either in the form of soaking a worm under a bobber or working a marabou crappie jig around a fallen tree.

Ask just about any avid reservoir angler where to find bluegill in September and their face will go blank and take on the appearance of a computer in need of a restart.

The sexy part of any fishery, be it bass, stripers or kokanee, comes in the form of the baits and presentations used to catch them, but the cornerstone of consistently hooking up comes in understanding the habits of the fish. The same is true of panfish fishing. As a result, we are going to dive into the panfish lifestyle as we discuss offerings and presentations throughout the year.

During the spring when lake levels are high and panfish gravitate toward the shoreline, banks lined with fallen timber and big rocks are a great place to start your search for crappie and bluegill. Rock-studded coves are also good in fall. Start shallow and work your way out toward deep water. (CAL KELLOGG)


Temperature is the key factor in panfish movement and behavior. When the water is in the lower to middle 40s you can expect crappie to post up tight to the bottom in 30 to 50 feet of water. These fish will be lethargic and unwilling to chase a bait, but with patience you can get

them to go on small minnows and slowly worked hair and marabou jigs. Natural jigs made of feathers and hair typically outperform plastic baits when the water is cold since natural fibers offer more movement. Plastic becomes stiff in cold water and the lack of subtle movement translates to a lack of strikes from lethargic crappie. In later winter and very early spring, when the water temperature first begins inching up, male crappie and smaller females will begin elevating in the water column. You’ll find the fish suspended 20 to 40 feet deep offshore of areas where spawning will eventually occur.

With the rise in temperature, crappie become more aggressive. These fish will grab jigs. Finding the suspended schools can be a chore on big reservoirs, so slow-trolling minnows pinned on jig heads, small spoons, soft plastics and small crankbaits make for a great way to cover water as you search for fish.

Once you hook a crappie, drop a waypoint on your GPS and then work the areas with vertically presented minnows and jigs.

If you want to hook larger crappie during this period, look for the big females to be close to the mass of suspended fish, but typically they will hold deeper. These larger fish show a strong preference to hold around submerged creek channels that they will eventually use as travel lanes to the spawning grounds.

The closer the crappie move to shoreline spawning grounds, the more aggressive they become. You can catch prespawn fish on small crankbaits, spinners, curly tail grubs and other fast-moving presentations.

Spawning takes place when the water hits the 60- to 65-degree mark. This is when crappie are easiest to catch while working shallow water with curly tail grubs and tube baits. You’ll be able to hook crappie on the spawning grounds until the water temperature eases into the 70s.

As water temps continue to climb in early summer, the crappie can spread out and retreat from the spawning grounds using the same routes they used in the prespawn period. Look for them to hold around any type of structure in the form of stumps, standing trees or rock formations. During much of the summer, crappie will hang out in deep water oriented to submerged creek and river channels.

The defining factor for crappie throughout the year – except during the period when they are actively spawning – is the presence of baitfish in the form of pond smelt and threadfin shad. Crappie eat smaller fish. Find the bait, especially scattered bait, and crappie will often be close at hand.

Jumbo bluegill like this one will hit a variety of artificial lures at times, but day in day out, natural baits are the most effective offering for bluegill and panfish. (CAL KELLOGG)


Here in California, some of our lakes have bluegill, some have green sunfish and some have both. Because these fish look alike, for our purposes we can use the same approach for catching either species.

In terms of size, I think the green sunfish average a little larger in most waters; however, this is a generalization based on my observations.

During late fall and winter, when the water is below 50 degrees, you’ll find most of the sunfish holding in deep water ranging from 25 to 50 feet deep. They may hold near rock structure, or you might find them suspended just off flat, featureless expanses of firm bottom.

When the water is at its coldest, members of the sunfish family are all but inactive. Small baits like wax worms and ultrasmall finesse jigs will hook fish when presented within a few inches of the bottom. During the dead of winter, hooking sunfish requires a methodical, patient approach.

As winter gives way to spring and temperatures climb into the upper 50s, sunfish begin moving into shallower water. This is the prespawn period. The fish can range from lethargic to aggressive, depending on the weather. When it has been warm and calm and water temps spike during the day, you can often find sunfish in 10 to 25 feet of water along the outer edges of coves that will host spawning fish in late spring and summer.
Rising temperatures make for aggressive sunfish that want to feed. Red worms and crickets are great baits when rigged on modified drop-shot rigs. Small tube jigs, hair jigs and curly tail grubs will also hook fish when they are feeling frisky.

When a cold front moves through you can expect the sunfish to retreat into deeper water and you’ll note a decrease in aggressiveness. I’ve had success at such times soaking a third of a nightcrawler inflated with air on the same sort of Carolina rig we use for targeting trout.

It’s a do-nothing fishing approach. The wriggling chunk of worm captures the interest of the lethargic sunfish and represents an easy meal they can capture with minimal effort.

Sunfish will spawn in 1 to 4 feet of water when the water temperature climbs into the 70. In clear lakes you can often sight fish for them in the backs of coves. If the water is stained, fan cast the same types of areas.

During the spawn, sunfish are aggressive and will attack anything approaching their nest. You can hook spawning fish on natural baits, but since the fish are so aggressive, it makes sense to run with artificials.

I’ve done very well at this time with a variety of soft plastics and flies such as a No. 8 Woolly Bugger teamed with a split shot and worked with spinning gear.

During the summer, as water warms up to above 70 and 80 degrees, you’ll find small sunfish in the shallows, but the big units tend to retreat into deeper-water areas ranging from 15 to 30 feet down.

A summer sunfish hunt should begin at the mouth of coves. Exploring cover is a good way to go. Sunfish will hang out around submerged wood and rock formations, but the thing they love above all else is weeds. If you can locate areas that support deep weedbeds, you’ve stumbled on a honey hole that will likely produce fish year after year.

Jigs and flies will produce fish all summer long, but I’ve found natural baits teamed with slip bobbers work the best. Red worms, jumbo red worms and crickets are my go-to baits

that sunfish just can’t seem to pass up. Come fall, sunfish act a lot like trout in the sense that on an instinctive level they know the lean days of winter are right around the corner, so they need to put on weight to survive.
The reason more anglers don’t catch these aggressively feeding fish during October and November, when the water temperature is in the high 50s and dropping, is that the sunfish will almost always be holding in water deeper than 20 feet.

You simply will not find fall sunfish hanging around areas that were packed with them during the spring and early summer.

The aforementioned sunfish I described my wife catching at that reservoir are a prime example of fall behavior. The fish were in open water and hunting for targets of opportunity along the bottom.

At such times, you can take sunfish on small jigs, jigging spoons and a long list of natural baits, including small minnows, crickets, mealworms, red worms and even mini-crawlers.

When crappie, bluegill and sunfish are spawning one of author Cal Kellogg’s go-to offerings is a bright-colored 3-inch Trout Trix worm wacky rigged and dead sticked in the backs of coves where spawning activity takes place. (CAL KELLOGG)
Bluegill and other sunfish are ready strikers that put up a frisky fight. To catch large sunfish consistently, you must gain an understanding of their seasonal movements. (CAL KELLOGG)


All things considered, crappie are more geared to anglers who like to fish artificials. Their proclivity for gobbling bait makes them good targets for jigs, spoons and soft plastics.

Sunfish, on the other hand, have a much wider-ranging diet than crappies. Sunfish love insects and invertebrates. Will they gobble a small minnow or smack a minnow- imitating jig? Yes, but I get the distinct impression they’d rather be seeking a cricket or worm.

In terms of table fare, both sunfish and crappie are yummy and as a side benefit, they are among the fish species least impacted by the mercury contamination in our reservoirs left behind by miners during the gold rush.

I don’t expect sunfish and crappie to eclipse the popularity of bass and trout anytime soon here in California, but if you are looking to add a new wrinkle to your fishing calendar, take the plunge and give panfish fishing a serious try! CS