What Are Panfish?

Here’s the Definition and Species Included in This Non-Scientific Term

Fat yellow perch ready to be cleaned and put into a frying pan. Photo © Ken Schultz

The commonly used term “panfish” describes a  variety of small fish of several species. There is no individual species called a panfish. This term is used almost universally in freshwater, seldom in saltwater, and is often explained as referring to fish that, when fried whole, can fit into a frying pan, but it is often also understood to mean species that are not technically classified as gamefish, and which are usually abundant and as valued for their tasty flesh as for the enjoyment of catching them.

The classification of species as gamefish, and the public view of their sporting value or virtue, are variable issues. Therefore, in some quarters, panfish are viewed as gamefish, while in others they are not. Whether panfishes are considered “game” or not, small species that are susceptible to angling are valued highly for the recreation they afford, and for the delicious table fare they become.

Species That Fall Under the Panfish Umbrella

Although panfish are commonly linked because of these factors, the species that fit under this umbrella are not all linked biologically. Many of the species that are called “panfish” are members of the sunfish, perch, bass, catfish, and sucker families. These include, but are not limited to, such sunfish as the green, longear, orange spotted, redbreast, and redear varieties; plus bluegill, Sacramento perch, rock bass, warmouth bass, black crappie, white crappie, yellow bass, white bass, yellow perch, and white perch. In some areas, people include suckers, bullheads, pickerel, and even carp among this category.

Collectively Most Popular

Whether panfish fit into a pan or not, and whether they are classified as gamefish or not, is immaterial to most people who fish for them. Although black bass, trout, and walleye get higher accolades for sport, and thus greater media attention, more time is devoted to angling for the collective group of panfish than for other individual freshwater species. Panfish are not only a strong component of spring and summer open-water fishing, but in many places are the prime quarry for ice anglers. Furthermore, panfish are especially significant for interesting children in the sport of fishing, and for providing family fishing opportunities. 

The fun in catching panfish is a major popularity factor, since most are very scrappy when hooked on light tackle. Sunfish, rock bass, perch, crappies, and other panfish dart and dive, run and turn, and offer a fine short-term fight on light fishing equipment, even if they are only 5 to 7 inches long and half a pound or less in size. Compared on an ounce-for-ounce basis, these are among the most determined and vigorous fish caught by anglers.

Another major factor in the popularity of panfish is that most of them are especially good to eat – crappies, perch, white bass, and bullheads in particular. They are among the most favored freshwater table fare, in part because of their size, and they’re delicious when prepared in a variety of ways. A feast of fresh panfish is one of the finest – and usually simplest – meals that a fish lover can have.

Abundant Numbers, Liberal Harvest

Feasts, in fact, are usually possible because panfish are relatively abundant in most places where they are found. Fisheries managers generally encourage harvesting panfish, and apply fairly liberal creel limits to facilitate this. Although panfish provide a good forage base for larger gamefish, they can quickly overpopulate a lake or pond. 

Most panfish are generally prolific spawners, and harvesting them is helpful in keeping fish populations in balance. When populations get out of balance, a body of water can be populated by stunted sunfish, crappies, or other species, and removing significant numbers is necessary to help with this problem. Fortunately, delectable flesh makes this a task that many anglers are willing to take on.