Just what are “panfish” anyway?

I’ve been listening and reading. Panfish anglers out in force,
say the reports. But what exactly are panfish?

The name “panfish” apparently means different fish to different
fishermen. Even the seminarians and fishing writers use “panfish”
kind of loosely and unpredictably. Are panfish any small fish that
fit in a frying pan? Or what? Just how inclusive is the panfish
family?

Maybe you’ve noticed the diverse use of “panfish.” One article
about small ice jigs targets anglers who pursue “crappies, perch,
and panfish.” A panfish feature focuses on perch, crappies, and
bluegills. Another discusses only sunnies. An ice fishing expert
lectures about “panfish and perch” as though they’re separate. Just
what are panfish?

Well, the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) style
manual describes panfish in this fuzzy way: any of a variety of
species of fish that resemble the shape of a frying pan, thus the
name. Often applies to sunfish, crappie, perch, other small fish or
small sizes of other species.

The “shape of a frying pan” implies a deep-bodied fish. Are
sheepshead, rock bass, smallmouth bass, flounder, and halibut
panfish? And if a frying pan shape is a requirement, how can the
more streamlined perch be considered a panfish?

I checked in with some Minnesota fishing people and found
multiple definitions of “panfish.” Steve Quinn, an In-Fisherman
editor, defines panfish quite broadly. He includes bluegills and
pumpkinseeds, crappie, white bass, yellow perch, and some bluegill
relatives down south “a number of these smaller species.” Ron
Lindner, one of the founders of In-Fisherman, shares this broader
view. For him, panfish implies no particular species, but rather
“anything small” that’s readily available, pursued with light
tackle, and probably destined to be eaten. With him perch are
panfish. And the “pan” in panfish refers to a hot frying pan and
frying fish, not to the shape of the fish.

Tom Langhoff, chief of everything at JB Lures in Winthrop (which
manufactures a large line of small “panfish” jigs and lures along
with larger tackle), thinks of three species when defining panfish:
bluegills, crappies, and perch. For Kit Nelson, DNR area fisheries
manager at Aitkin, panfish are only crappies and bluegills. He
finds it difficult to “force” himself to include bass and perch in
“panfish.” For Tim Spielman, associate editor of Outdoor News,
panfish are “sunnies and crappies.” I might be reading ice fishing
expert Dave Genz wrong he was fishing and I couldn’t catch him by
phone but I have the feeling the word “panfish” brings an image of
a bluegill into his mind. If that’s the case, he’s not alone. I
notice the National Geographic Book of Fishes lists panfish in its
index with bluegills in parentheses. Ron Schara’s Minnesota Fishing
Guide (Minneapolis, Waldman House Press, 1978) defines panfish as
bluegills and other sunfishes, crappies, and perch. Schara says
“that’s my definition,” his opinion, which testifies to how
defining “panfish” seems to be a matter of personal opinion.

This writer has no set-in-concrete preferences here, although
I’m kind of used to talking about “perch and panfish,” panfish
usually meaning sunnies and crappies. But if the likes of those
students of fish and fishing mentioned above can entertain
divergent notions of what “panfish” means, well, that’s no problem
since there are apparently no gospels, no constitutional dictates,
and no court mandates to adhere to.

Laws of averages

The coldest late November and pre-Christmas December in 20
years, or something like that, would normally have made 18 inches
(or more) of ice on Minnesota lakes by winter’s start on Dec. 21.
We were due for such an early-season cold siege. But we were also
in for above-average December snows. And it doesn’t take much of an
insulating snow blanket on lakes and rivers to retard
ice-making.

Yes, ice fishing has been going on for a month or more in a lot
of places.

But full-bore ice fishing if that has to include cars, trucks,
and multi-ton fish houses has been a little slower in getting off
the ground on some parts of the big lakes, where high winds in
early December brought a temporary return of open water. There was
a prompt refreeze just in time for the succession of snows. As of
last weekend there was no end to the cold in sight and not much
snow forecast, so maybe they’re “caught up.”

All of the uncertainties and variables with weather drive home
the point that fishing is like farming but, as resorters often
point out, without the subsidies.

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