Complete Panfish Guide: What Is a Panfish?

bluegill by fly reel on groundThe term panfish is one you’re going to hear a lot if you spend time fishing or any amount of time around anglers. While this is a very commonly used term that can be heard in many parts of the country, or even across the world, it doesn’t refer to one species of fish. There is no “panfish” species. 

Even as a kid this made me wonder, just what is a panfish? What makes one small fish a panfish and another one something else? Don’t they all end up in the same pan at Grandma’s anyway? Grandpa would laugh when I asked this questions as a kid, but his simple answer turned out to be pretty true.

A panfish is a small tasty fish that fits completely in a frying pan and rarely gets above a few pounds even at its absolute largest. Bluegill, croppie, and sunfish are three of the most common panfish that can be found about everywhere.

Grandpa liked to tease us about a lot of things, he was a joker by nature, but he took his fishing seriously and it turns out he wasn’t just being overly simple and patient talking to an eight year old. Panfish really is a general term that tends to refer to certain species of small, edible, and delicious fish, while excluding others. 

Based on online fishing forums, turns out I’m not the only one who was confused. How can such a general term refer to so many fish? What is or isn’t a panfish?

The good news is there are accepted rules of thumb about this and you can read on to get all your questions answered! At least the ones that fit in a frying pan, anyway.

Definition of a Panfish

Panfish, which can also be written as “pan fish” or “pan-fish” is actually more of a general colloquial term that anglers used to describe fish with certain traits. It’s not one species or one family, and because of that it’s not a scientific term.

The good news is that this means you really can’t get called out for using it “incorrectly” unless it’s a pretty egregious example. An 18 lb northern pike, for example, not fitting in even the biggest pan. Not a panfish.

That being said, there do tend to be certain fish that are pretty much always considered part of this group. Being a panfish generally means a little bit more than just being “small but legal.”

Then how do you identify a panfish?

The first step is knowing what local species are going to be considered panfish. If you’re hundreds of miles from the nearest perch or bluegill, then it’s a safe bet whatever you caught isn’t going to be one of those.

After all, while there are some similarities between the different species here, depending on which two you choose they can look very different. 

Panfish in general tend to be shorter in length, not particularly large in general, but fat even at small sizes, making them acceptable to eat. They can be found about everywhere, and while exact species can vary based on what is in one habitat versus another.

What Fish Are Generally Considered a Panfish?

While the term is a colloquial one there are certain fish that are ALWAYS considered panfish, some that can often be grouped in under that label, and then some that never get that moniker. While this can be confusing at first, the good news is that the use of this term does follow some basic rules of thumb, such as:

  • Certain species (bluegill, croppie/crappie, sunfish) are pretty much always considered panfish because they never get above a certain size
  • Pan fish are just that – they need to be smaller fish that once filleted fit into even a small frying pan
  • Popular sports fish like bass, trout, salmon, walleye, etc. can never be panfish even when on the smaller side of things
bluegill against ruler
That bluegill looks perfectly pan-sized to me!

Is a Bluegill a Panfish?

The short answer is yes, a bluegill is definitely considered a panfish. In fact, along with crappie and sunfish, the bluegill is one of the fish that is pretty much synonymous with the term panfish no matter where you go. Bluegill are known for being light in length but fat and thick, as well as tasty when fried up. Meaning a whole mess of small bluegill are sort of the poster children for what panfish really are.

Bluegill are an extremely popular panfish for obvious reasons. So why are bluegill so popular with anglers?

  • They are extremely hard fighters despite their small size
  • They are a very good tasting freshwater fish
  • Abundant and easy to find
  • Aggressive – making a bluegill pond a great place to introduce young ‘uns to fishing

The bluegill has long been a very popular fish where it is found, and that’s because it is a panfish that really exemplifies the best in freshwater salt fishing. They fight aggressively, there’s a good chance of getting them to bite when you find them, and they are one of the better fish to fry up, making them easy to cook.

Bluegill are smaller in general although because of their unique shape, you can get a lot of meat in a small package. The two biggest bluegill ever caught were 4 lbs 12 oz and 4 lbs 10 oz (both from the same Alabama quarry pond). The 1947 catch of 4 lbs 10 oz at the time doubled the known world record, to give you an idea of just how rare it is to find a bluegill this size.

A giant bluegill is usually around the 1.5 to 2 lb mark still making them a pan fish at that size…although maybe that’s a giant pan fish? 

A 2-lb bluegill is still considered a gigantic bluegill.

Crazy story on the world record bluegill, and worth a read if you’re an avid angler. You can read more on that crazy story HERE.

So once again: Yes, bluegill are most definitely a panfish and in fact considered one of the “Big 3” species that come to virtually every angler’s mind when it comes to listing off panfish…though as those giant world record bluegill prove, some require larger pans than ever!

ALSO: Just in case you saw that really stupid Facebook meme/online rumor that bluegill are dangerous…if you did anything other than laugh your butt off, you gave whoever came up with that idiotic idea way too much credit. Are bluegill dangerous? Except for maybe the worm at the end of your hook – ABSOLUTELY NOT!

two yellow perch in dark waterAre Perch Panfish?

Perch are a delicious panfish that are well-known for being delicious to fry up and can be found over a wide array of areas including to the far north. All perch you find in the United States and Canada will be yellow perch.

These fish rarely get longer than 16 inches or weigh more than 2.2 lbs, but they are a popular panfish that are so well respected for their great tasting meat that in many places they are raised en masse in hatcheries before being released into local ponds and lakes.

So perch are small and delicious, but are they considered a panfish?

The answer is ABSOLUTELY!

In fact, yellow perch are considered one of the “Big Three” when it comes to panfish – those three species that are always considered panfish and are the most widely known (bluegill and croppie being the other two). When you are considered one of the “Big Three” then it is a safe bet that their designation as a classic panfish is never going to be disputed.

Yellow perch are commonly one to two pounds even at larger sizes and they fry up extremely well. While very popular with a wide array of anglers, it is important to note that in many places there are “good seasons” to catch perch, and then there are seasons where worms become an issue.

Because perch in some areas tend to be susceptible to worms you’ll want to make sure to know the ins and outs of a given fishing area or have a guide who can tell you if it is a good time to bring in the perch or not. During some months they are great eating but there are others where you may need to toss them back for safety’s sake.

But perch are definitely 100% a panfish.

black croppie fish in waterAre Crappie Panfish?

We can jump right to the answer on this one: crappie are definitely a panfish and are one of the “Big Three” ironically named fish species that are considered the prime example of what a panfish is. This includes both white crappie as well as black crappie (sometimes referred to as “croppie”).

Aside from bluegill, it’s probably safe to say that no other pan fish is more recognizable than crappie. Despite the name, the fish taste delicious and these are a favorite among small lakes and farm ponds across the country.

Crappie actually come in two sub-species: white crappie and black crappie. Both of these are similar in many ways and they are both considered panfish, as the world record for both species is 5 lbs.

It isn’t hard to see why. These are panfish that get especially active in the autumn months leading up to winter and are relatively easy to clean, making their ready to fan-fry fillets easy to slice open and start cooking.

Are Sunfish Panfish?

Sunfish are absolutely considered panfish. While they’re not quite as recognizable as bluegill, perch, or croppie, sunfish hit all the checkmarks to be considered sunfish. This includes all sub-species like red ear, long ear, green, and other types of sunfish. 

Sunfish are found in many areas, and although there are a lot of sub-species, all of them are considered to be in that general grouping. Many major panfish enthusiasts have their favorite sunfish, but whichever species is local to your area, it definitely belongs to this general grouping. Most of these cap out at the 2-4 lb range that is the common ceiling for most panfish although once in a while some sunfish can actually push up to the 5 lb mark.

Just a short list of common sunfish that are great for the fight, and the frying pan, include:

  • Red ear sunfish
  • Longear sunfish
  • Redbreast sunfish
  • Banded sunfish
  • Mud sunfish
  • Pumpkinseed sunfish (also sometimes just referred to as pumpkinseed)

The red ear sunfish in particular is known for being mistaken for a bluegill as they can look very closely alike, although they usually don’t have the exact same striping or the blue hue that gives the bluegill its distinctive look.

Are Trout Panfish?

Some people wonder if trout are panfish. While this is a common question among beginning anglers, it’s also a pretty easy one to answer. Because the average trout grows well above the size of a frying pan, they are not considered panfish.

So why do so many people make this mistake? The likely culprit comes from stocked trout creeks. In many areas where trout used to thrive but struggle in the wild they may be raised in hatcheries and then released into local waterways once they hit a certain size. That means that in many places although trout can reach giant sizes, anglers will always find them at their minimum, which is conveniently big enough to fill a medium sized frying pan.

Aside from the fact we can argue whether from stream to pan is really the best way to cook trout (I’m in the camp that it’s not, unless soaked in milk before the batter and fry), trout are not considered panfish because they can grow to impressive sizes well above and beyond even the most optimistically sized frying pan.

Are Bass Panfish?

The simple answer here is that bass are not a panfish. This is obvious for smallmouth and largemouth bass, but it also generally applies to the smaller species of bass like rock bass, as well. The reason being that larger species grow well beyond what would be considered pan-sized and into sports fishing territory while smaller bass species don’t produce the amount of meat, or high quality of meat, that traditional panfish like bluegill do.

The rock bass, for example, rarely gets above two pounds or longer than 15 inches (and that’s a pretty big rock bass) but it doesn’t have the girth that most other panfish do. That means way less meat no matter how you cut them, and means they are going to be way less popular than fish like bluegill, perch, or sunfish.

There are also fish that are often mistaken for bass that are small and not. Around a good chunk of Ohio “white bass” actually refers to the small annoying fish that are technically white perch that sometimes go on feeding frenzies, thus stinking up the walleye fishing. Much to the hilarious swearing and consternation of local fishing guides.

Bass are a sports fish, not a pan fish.

Are Bream Panfish?

Bream gets complicated when it comes to the question of whether or not it is a panfish. Bream as in the European freshwater fish, wouldn’t be considered panfish, which makes sense because this is more of an American angler term. On the other hand, sometimes people refer to bluegill as bream, in which case those would be panfish. So in short, “bluegill bream” are panfish, the common European bream is not.

This has more to do with where the general term is used more than anything else, but considering one panfish is often given the name “bream” it isn’t surprising that people begin getting confused or having actual questions on this topic. Regular European bream can be plenty good eating, but they are not in this group.

This was actually a new one on me as I had never heard bluegill called anything other than bluegill, and my first experience with bream was honestly from playing Stardew Valley.

Just confirms my belief that maybe it’s time to travel even more!

Different Species in Different Areas

While some species of fish like bluegill, sunfish, perch, and crappie are all commonly accepted, there are others that might be considered local panfish but aren’t as widely seen in other regions. Some areas might actually consider rock bass panfish. Grayling is an example of a very far north fish that might be considered that area’s local panfish.

There are many different species and if they’re small, thick, and good eating then there’s really nothing wrong with adding them to the local definition of this popular fishing term.

Colloquial Use & In Conclusion

One thing worth noting is that the term “panfish” can sometimes be used in a local colloquial manner, and that is definitely adding to the confusion for some anglers about what exactly are panfish and what aren’t.

There are two common reasons where someone might refer to a fish as “panfish” when it really isn’t.

The first is that they are fishing for a local species that is not widely spread. There are plenty of small freshwater fish species that are similar in size to bluegill, croppie, and perch, and they are great tasting and a favorite of local anglers. They’re just not as widespread as those most common fish species so outside of the small area where the fish are found, no one thinks of them when this term comes up.

Considering that technically the term “pan fish” doesn’t refer to a family, this definition isn’t exactly wrong. Just keep in mind that if every single small regional freshwater fish was on the list, it would be a pretty useless term referring to dozens upon dozens of different species.

Second, sometimes when a small barely legal bass, walleye, pike, trout, or other game fish is caught it will be referred to by someone in the boat as a good “eater” or “pan-sized.” Sometimes pan-sized gets shortened to panfish. This is an easy jump to make, and that’s probably where most of the questions like “Are trout panfish?” or “Are bream panfish?” comes from.

Generally speaking widely recognized game fish that can grow to impressive sizes like bass (both smallmouth and largemouth), walleye, northern pike, muskie, catfish, and carp – none of these are ever really considered panfish although it is possible that the smallest legal catches of each could very well fit into a good cast iron frying pan.

If you’re aware the colloquial use then you aren’t as likely to get confused, so keep that in mind if you ever find yourself trying to figure out what is or is not a panfish.

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