They're the smallest sport fish in local lakes and rivers, but they offer some of the biggest fun you'll have with a hook and line.
They're panfish — the catchall term used for a variety of species shaped more or less like a small plate with fins.
In this area, bluegill dominate the scene, with various sunfish such as the redear (or "shellcracker") complementing the catches.
Crappie (or "speckled perch") generally get lumped into the panfish mix, but they're more of a tweener fish — somewhere between panfish and largemouth bass.
Where to find them
Two attractive panfish attributes: 1) They live close to shorelines, so anglers on docks or on foot have a fair shot at the action. 2) These fish frequent a variety of habitat from grass lines to lily pads to the very dock you might be standing on.
From my experience, the best place to find a panfish — especially bluegill — is under a piece of bread. In other words, chumming with pieces of bread, bagels, doughnuts and practically any baked item will draw such a feeding frenzy that you'd have to close your eyes to miss the boiling display.
Certainly, your chum will find greater response when cast near likely panfish haunts, but don't be surprised if wind-blown appetizers pull the little gluttons into open water.
A 12- to 14-foot cane pole — or modern fiberglass version — fitted with an equal length of 6-pound monofilament, a small hook, split shot and plastic clip-on float will be all you'll need for a day of panfishing.
The long rods help you reach over vegetation, logs, fences and any other impediment to reach the sweet spots. On a strike, you simply lift and swing your catch inward like a pendulum. There's no casting or reeling — just a simple drop and lift deal.
If you're a decent caster, light action spinning rods in the 5- to 6-foot range afford you the benefit of slinging a rig into tighter quarters where the long sticks cannot reach.
A rod and reel setup offers more fighting power should you hook a stud panfish or a larger bycatch species. Catfish, carp and bowfin ("mudfish") occasionally crash the panfish party, and they pull a little harder.
If you want to go traditional, fish live crickets for panfish. Rig the little hoppers by running a hook under the "collar" at the back of their necks. This arrangement will keep the bait kicking but securely tethered.
If a panfish chomps your cricket without getting hooked, don't waste the bait. A crunched cricket crammed onto the hook remains plenty appetizing.
Some folks don't like the feel of crickets, so try substituting earthworms. Bread balls — wadded pieces of store-bought slices — are an inexpensive option with far less maintenance worry.
For a homemade option, mix half a cup of all-purpose flour with enough water to form a sticky dough. In its raw form, the dough will tempt panfish, but little mouths can easily pick your hook clean.
Patting the dough into a disk about ¼-inch thick and microwaving for 30 seconds yields tighter dough that clings to a hook. Panfish have to commit to a closer bite, and that usually leads to more hookups.
Bouncing 1/32-ounce jigs with tubes or curly tails will tempt panfish as well. If you fish from a boat or canoe, drop a jig near the edge of a weedline and hop it in one place for several seconds before moving elsewhere.
Work the bottom first, and then hop the jig at various depths to find the strike zone.
Fly-rod enthusiasts will have a ball presenting small poppers and various insect patterns on 5- to 7-weight outfits with floating line. Slow strips are all you need because fired-up panfish will find any bug that hits the water.
Even novices can enjoy the fun. If you can throw a fly 20 feet and tug it across the water, you can catch panfish on a fly rod.
Cook 'em up
Panfish big enough to filet are rare, so average-sized fish are best cooked whole. Remove the head and entrails, scrape off the scales, slit the sides for even cooking and toss the fish in your favorite coating.
A mixture of corn meal and flour seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic works well. Combine the ingredients in a baggie and toss a few fish at a time until thoroughly covered.
Peanut oil has a high burn temperature, so it's the popular choice for cooking up a pile of panfish. Cook each fish until it's golden brown and lay it on paper towels to soak up excess oil.
Frying makes the entire fish crunchy, so with this preparation, you can eat the whole deal — fins and all. Bones become easily crunchy, but if that worries you, just pull the meat off the skeleton with a fork.
Real panfishermen might look at you funny, but it's a free country.