Catching Panfish: Shellcrackers, Crappie, & Bluegill

Probably one of the first fish a person will catch will be one of these fun hard-fighting fish. These fish are plentiful and can live in a wide variety of waterways.  Let’s take a closer look at these fish and learn more about their habits and importance in God’s creation.

One of the Fishermen’s Favorites

One of the fisherman’s favorite panfish is the Crappie. These are sometimes called “Slabs” (especially if they are big!). In other parts of the country they are called “Papermouths” due to their thin easy to break loose mouths. Others call them “Bachelor Perch“. Whatever you call them, they are worth the time to catch. One of the neat things about fishing for Crappie is that if you catch one, you know there are many more about! They school up in the same areas. One of the best times to seek Crappie is the Springtime when they are spawning. They come in close to shore to build their nests in about 1 to 5 ft. deep. In the summer they seek deeper water where the temperature is cooler and there is more oxygen. Look around structure! They are often found under docks, fallen trees, and brush piles. Some fishermen actually drop their used Christmas trees into the lake to create a spot to come back to in the Spring and Summertime for a stringer of fish. In one lake, not far from where I live, the fish and game department has sunk a series of pipes and spaced them just the right distance apart to create an artificial brush pile habitat. These are marked so fishermen know where to drop their jigs and bait.

Be Aware of the Laws!

Since Crappie are so popular it is an economic boost to those who sell fishing gear, provide overnight accommodations, and food to feed the fishermen near where the fish are caught. Some lakes have strict laws governing the size of Crappie that can be kept by the fishermen. Be sure to know the regulations for your area! In most regions there is also a limit of how many you can catch a day. In Tennessee, the statewide creel limit for Crappie is 15 fish and they must be at least 10 inches long to keep. However, at some lakes, like Percy Priest Lake, (this is the one with the sunken pipe habitats mentioned earlier), you can catch twice that number, 30 a day. These size limits and creel numbers often change from year to year depending on the populations available.

Many Different Techniques

One of the interesting ways these fish are often caught is called Spider Rigging. This technique is used widely in shallow lakes like Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee. Fishermen set up their boats with multiple poles all the same size, usually about 12 ft. long. The poles are set in rod-holders about 8 to 10 inches above the water all around the boat. The lines are rigged with jigs and sunk only about 1 to 2 ft. deep. The fishermen use a trolling motor and move around the edges of the lake. When a fish grabs the jig they flip it up into the boat, unhook it and place it in the live-well or bucket and then reset the pole and line for another fish. In lakes like this fishermen can catch a whole freezer full in a day’s tine. I’ve never tried this yet since I have neither a boat or that many poles. I can still catch fish from the dock or shore. Some people use a  minnow under a bobber and others trail a Crappie jig behind a bobber and just roll it in slowly until the bobber sinks and set the hook. Be very careful when setting the hook, however! They don’t call them “Papermouths” for nothing!

Crappie are highly prized for their pure, white, flaky flesh. There are tons of great recipes for cooking them up. Since you usually catch a bunch it is well worth your while to fillet them up. Others just scale them and fry up the whole fish, bones and all. Since the meat is flaky it is easy to remove it from the bones.

The fish below went back in the lake to grow up. It was fun to catch, however.

 

Strong Fighters and Meaty

 

Another large sunfish is the Shellcracker, also known as a Red-ear Sunfish.

 

These fish put up a good fight and have a lot of meat on them. I caught one yesterday that was bigger than my large hands and fought harder than a bass. These fish also breed near the shore in the Springtime. Last year I caught a half dozen large ones in a half an hour in the same General area near the shore. I almost always catch them on worms. They are masters at stealing the bait so I usually only use part of a worm and bury a small hook totally inside the worm. Sometimes it will take a couple worms to get them on the line because of their sneaking worm grabbing abilities.

 

Create a Memory with this Old-Time Favorite: Bluegill

The final sunfish we will talk about is the most dependable species that can be caught year round in most freshwater lakes, streams, rivers, and ponds. These feisty little fish are the Bluegill. I rarely go to the lake without hooking into a number of these. I love to show kids fishing for the first time how to catch these fish. I used to work at a camp for the mentally disabled and they all seemed to enjoy fishing since it wasn’t long before they had one on the line. These are the fish to target if you are taking a child fishing for the first tine. They will be hooked on fishing for the rest of their lives. I remember taking my own kids down to the lake in California in the early Springtime, baiting up their lines with two hooks on each pole, and spending the whole time baiting hooks and removing fish while they kept bringing them in. In many places there is no size of creel limit on Bluegill. Just remember, however, that if you keep them you have to clean them! They are a good eating fish and a great fish to introduce someone to the wonderful taste of fish. I still remember my Grandpa cooking up a batch for me when we used to catch them out in the irrigation canals in Northern California when I was a kid. Why not take a kid fishing and create a wonderful memory of your own?

An Important Part of the Environment

These fish eat insects, other fish, spiders, snails, crayfish and other crustaceans, worms and insect larvae. They are often eaten by other animals including: larger fish (like bass), many birds (like herons and egrets, osprey, and eagles), raccoon, mink, and other mammals, as well as reptiles like snakes and turtles. They are part of many food webs and support a wide variety of animal life around and in the water.

Self-Regulating

Interestingly, if there are too many of these fish in a given area, their growth rates are diminished  and all the fish will be about the same size and very small. It’s important that their numbers be regulated and monitored in smaller lakes and ponds. Some fish, like these ones, secrete a chemical hormones that affects the growth rates of other fish in the area. Size is also related to the amount of food per fish available. 

 

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