What Are Panfish? Let’s Settle This Once And For All.

What Are Panfish
What are Panfish?

So, What Are Panfish?

Panfish is a non-scientific term that refers to small ‘pan-sized’ fish that live in freshwater throughout North America. This often includes members of the sunfish family and may include other small freshwater fish species depending on the region or angler.

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines Panfish as “a small food fish (such as a sunfish) usually taken with hook and line and not available on the market”. Dictionary.com defines Panfish as “any small, freshwater nongame food fish, such as a perch or sunfish, usually eaten pan-fried.”.

Look elsewhere online, or ask fellow fishermen and you may also hear things like “Panfish are Bream”, or “Panfish are Sunfish” or “any small freshwater fish”. Well, let’s set the story straight!

Why are panfish called ‘panfish’?

Panfish is a term that dates back over 200 years and it simply refers to a fish that can fit into and be cooked in a pan. Yes, that’s it! It was first mentioned in American Cookery, one of the nation’s first cookbooks published in 1796. Panfish recipes have even been mentioned in The Whitehouse Cookbook as early as 1901.

Both of these sources refer to a small, freshwater fish species usually cooked whole in a pan or skillet. This may be with scales on, scales off, and in a number of different methods. So does that mean any fish that can fit into a pan is considered a ‘panfish?’ Great question!

What fish species are almost always considered “Panfish”?

Black Crappie from Florida
Black Crappie, like pictured here are unanimously considered panfish.

There are a few fish species that are almost always considered panfish. These include:

What fish species are sometimes considered “Panfish”?

Other fish species are sometimes considered panfish, and this often varies from geographic region and angler preference. This may include:

  • Rock Bass (Ambloplites rupestris)
  • Yellow Bass (Morone mississippiensis)
  • White Bass (Morone chrysops)
  • Members of the Bullhead catfish family (Ameiurus)
  • Members of the Suckers family (Catostomidae)
  • In some cases, even smaller baitfish and migrating fish such as smelt and candlefish.

So what about Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass and Trout?

Small Largemouth Bass
Not usually considered a panfish- the bass is a member of the sunfish family.

Generally speaking, sought after game fish such as Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides), Smallmouth Bass (Micropterus dolomieu) and various Trout are not considered Panfish…but who’s to say they can’t be? This is where it really comes down to angler preference and regional customs.

For example, some areas out west and up north have a tradition of catching small trout and cooking them in pan over an open fire. Other anglers may keep a few small pan-sized bass for eating, as the smaller size often has a sweeter and more mild taste than their trophy counterparts. Catch and release is often encouraged for popular game fish species but it is not uncommon to keep a few for the frying pan!

Are Bream panfish?

Bream is another term often used to describe small freshwater fish or ‘panfish’. It is interchangeably used when referring to small bluegill, especially those caught in ponds or creeks. The truth is, bream is actually a scientific term for a family of fish native to Europe in the genus Abramis.

In other words, bream is not a specific species in North America it’s a term that is colloquially used to describe a small freshwater fish with a deep body and short size. In Europe, ‘bream’ is an actual genus of fish that includes both freshwater and saltwater variations. Clear as mud, right?

Are Panfish and Sunfish the same?

The short answer is no. Sunfish is a scientific fisheries term to describe fish in the sunfish family Centrarchidae. These include a wide variety of ray finned freshwater fish such as the Largemouth Bass, Smallmouth Bass, Bluegill, Redear Sunfish and many others.

Many people do not realize that the nations most popular freshwater fish, the Largemouth Bass is a member of the sunfish family. In fact, there are over 30 species of Sunfish native to North America…many of which do not fit into the traditional category of panfish.

Some of them are not even pursued by anglers such as the Blackbanded Sunfish (Enneacanthus chaetodon). Therefore, not all sunfish are panfish, and not all panfish are sunfish. But hey, at fish camp or out on the boat you will often hear these terms interchanged and that’s okay!

How do I know if I’ve caught a Panfish?

There are numerous resources available to help you determine if what you caught is considered a Panfish. But here are some tips to know for sure!

  • Document your catch. Where was it caught? What did you catch it on?
  • Measure your catch. How long was the fish from the mouth to tail? Get a weight if possible.
  • Take good photos of your fish! Try to take a photo from both sides, with a ruler or measure as reference.
  • Contact your state fish and wildlife agency. All 50 states have a department of natural fisheries staffed with biologists who can answer your question and positively identify your catch. To find a list of where to get started check out this link here: https://www.fishwildlife.org/landing/membership/member-list

So what is all the fuss about Panfish?

The term Panfish can include a wide variety of species depending on the angler, the geographic region and personal preference. There are a few species that almost everyone agrees are panfish and a few species that sometimes make the list. Other species like Carp, Walleye, Striped Bass, Pike, Muskie, Bowfin and many other are never considered panfish!

However there is one thing in common among all panfish- They are abundant, fun, and excellent table fare! Most fishermen cut their teeth learning to catch panfish in small ponds, creeks, and lakes. Today they remain the most popular ‘unofficial’ group of fish targeting by anglers in North America.

Here is a great video of Panfish action on ultralight tackle!

Conclusion

The term panfish usually refers to smaller sized freshwater fish found throughout North America. These fish are a critical ‘gateway’ species that has introduced so many young anglers to the world of fishing.

I’ve been fishing for over 30 years and to this day, panfish still put a smile on my face.

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