boy with perch

How to catch panfish

Today’s post comes from professional angler Italo Labignan and the Learn to Fish team!

When it comes to enjoying sportfishing in Ontario, some of the easiest and most plentiful fish to catch — whether from a boat or from shore — are panfish.

The most popular panfish in Ontario are the sunfish family (pumpkinseed, bluegill, rock bass & crappie) and perch.

Here’s what you need to know to catch them:

Catching sunfish

How to identify the sunfish:

All of the sunfish family have a wide body and are flatter than wider in shape.

The pumpkinseed and bluegill have bright colors. The rock bass is usually brown in color and has red eyes and is often called a “red-eye.” Crappie are mottled black with silver specs. All sunfishes have spiny fins.

Where to find them:

Pumpkinseed, bluegill, rock bass and crappie live in shallow, warm water along shorelines where there is a mix of rocks and weeds. They can also live off-shore in shallow bays, around submerged points, shoals and weedbeds. You’ll also find them around boat docks, off fishing piers and under bridges.

Girls learning to fish

Best rigs to catch them:

To catch all of the sunfishes, the easiest rig to use is a small float (bobber), a small hook, and a couple of split-shot sinkers.

Since all of the sunfishes like to feed suspended in the water column, the depth you fish your bait at will be determined by how deep the water is. The best depth to fish your bait at is usually 1-2’ off the bottom.

family fishing

When a fish bites and you see your float “bobbing,” wait a few seconds until the float goes completely under and starts to move consistently in a certain direction. This means the fish has the bait/hook in its mouth and you should set the hook and reel the fish in gently.

Best bait to use:

All sunfishes love to eat worms. You don’t have to use a whole worm on your hook since they will probably nibble it off slowly without getting hooked. Usually using a ½” section of night crawler (dew worm), and threading onto the hook up the centre so that only a small portion sticks off the hook will work best.

They also like to feed on leeches, crayfish and insects like grasshoppers and crickets. These can usually be caught in tall grass close to where you plan on fishing. When sunfishes get larger they also like to feed on small minnows. The best minnows to use for bait are those that come from the waters you are fishing. 

Be sure to check which baitfish are legal to use!

Catching perch

How to identify them:

Catching a Yellow Perch on the dock at Emily PP.

Perch are longer in shape and have more oval bodies than the sunfishes. They are usually yellow in color with bright black vertical stripes that start at their back and go down to the belly on both sides of their bodies. Perch have spiny fins.

Where to find them:

family fishing

Perch can live in shallow water like the sunfishes, but they can also live in deeper water far off shore. They can feed around weeds like the sunfishes, but they also like to feed near rocky bottom and especially around big rocks and structure that comes up from the bottom.

Good places to catch them is off rocky shorelines that have deep water nearby, or off fishing docks and piers.

Best rigs to catch them:

You can catch perch using the same bobber-rig you use for the sunfishes.

If you fish for perch in deeper water a “pickerel rig” is one of the best rigs to use. A pickerel rig has a weight on the bottom and two hooks that hang off of leaders 1-2’ up from the weight. The pickerel rig is fished right on the bottom.

Most anglers cast the pickerel rig out, let it sink to the bottom and then tighten their line so that they can easily detect when a perch bites.

Best bait to use:

bait for fishing

Perch like to eat worms and especially small live minnows. You can also catch them using small crayfish and leeches.

Be sure to check which baitfish are legal to use!

No matter which panfish you catch, be careful when you handle them since they have spiny fins and if they wiggle in your hand you can get pricked!

New to fishing? Enjoy a free two-hour lesson from Learn to Fish!