For most anglers, the word “panfish” conjures up visions of warm summer afternoons, a weathered dock, a gentle breeze, and a red and white bobber that dances on the surface.
Worm dunking for plentiful sunfish, bluegill, bullheads, rock bass, and other panfish offers dependable action for the whole family. These days, though, panfishing in Ontario has also matured to a level where pro anglers compete in tournaments to catch them on popular lakes and many non-residents come here just for the smaller fry. But, for the most part, panfish remain a basic and readily available underutilized resource.
Crappie and yellow perch draw the biggest followings of diehard resident and non-resident anglers, since these fish grow the largest and are delicious in a fry pan. The Ontario black crappie record is 3.78 lbs. (1.71 kg), and the average size is 1/2- to 1 lb. (.23 to .45 kg). The provincial record yellow perch weighed 2.42 lbs. (1.1 kg), and they regularly top 3/4 pound (.34 kg) in productive waters.
Crappie are expanding their range in Ontario, making them available to more anglers. The black crappie is common in lower northwestern Ontario and roughly in a line south of the French River, including the Great Lakes, but there are white crappie in the southwest. Yellow perch are in most waterbodies roughly south of James Bay and the Upper Albany River.
Open-water anglers get their first crack at crappie as ice clears from back-waters in April or early May and the fish move inshore to feed and eventually spawn. Top spots include boat cuts and canals, and shallow bays with cover (wood, weeds, docks). In summer, crappie hold along deep weedlines or suspend farther out. They’ll hit during the day, especially during overcast weather, but morning and evening are prime.
Light spinning or fly-fishing tackle and 6-pound or less line is suitable for crappie and other panfish. In fact, let the kids bring whatever equipment you can assemble. A 6-foot ultralight spinning outfit, though, is ideal for drifting, casting, or trolling tiny lures. A good second choice is a 9- to 12-foot light panfish float rod.
Effective baits include small live minnows, spinners, panfish jigs, mini-crankbaits, nymphs, and streamer flies. A crappie’s eyes are positioned to see upward, so bait should be worked slightly above them. This makes the preciseness of float fishing the way to go once you locate crappie by casting, trolling, or drifting. Hang a live minnow or a 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jig and 1 1/2-inch to 2-inch soft-plastic tube, minnow, or twister-tail body under a panfish slip-float. Scented orange, yellow, white, pink, blue, amber, chartreuse, and baitfish-finishes on jigs and bodies are all productive.
After ice-out in late April or May, scads of perch are also caught near shore, where they spawn. Fishing weedlines, rocks, and flats bordering deeper water pays off through summer. In fall and winter, they are often found in both shallow and deeper water.
Perch are more bottom-oriented than crappie. Light slip-sinker rigs or split shot and a hook with a worm or small minnow are all you need to catch them. Panfish jigs, cast or hung under a slip-float, are also effective.
With year-round seasons and generous bag limits across most of the province, panfish offer an option to take a feed of fish home after your vacation is over, while releasing larger gamefish. No matter where and when you plan your trip to Ontario, local tackle stores and lodge owners can usually put you on good panfishing spots.
Get back to your angling roots right here in Ontario.