What Is a Panfish?

What Is a Panfish?

Knowing your fish breeds is the defining trait of a successful angler. At this point, we can even disregard the necessity of additional knowledge, notably related to climates, locations, times of day, or times of the year when a fishing trip would yield the most catch.

Being a fisherman is primarily about knowing what fish you’re going for and what you plan on doing with it. So, if you’re ready to catch some game fish and learn about other species besides the panfish, read on!

The Fish Species In Question

That brings us to one of the most represented buzzwords circulating through most anglers’ circles: What Is a Panfish?

At first glance, one might think that panfish is a particular fish, but time and again, this has proven to be incorrect. Scientists have identified many different species as panfish at one point or another. Moreover, a given breed may sometime be considered panfish, but not at another time.

Panfish in a frying pan

If you want to find out what panfish are, which species they encompass, and why they’re so popular, you need to keep reading!

What Is a Panfish?

The short answer is that many describe fish like panfish as any edible sport fish that can fit into a frying pan. So, the best way to describe panfish fish is to call them small-food fish.

With that in mind, it’s easy to see why the term ‘panfish’ isn’t a thing in all anglers’ circles. For instance, there is no scientific term for panfish per se. Instead, it is a sort of slang, usually for smaller-sized freshwater fish, which are legal to catch, and which don’t exceed the size of a regular frying pan.

Anglers usually catch panfish to eat the same fish, and most tend to be small fish breeds.

The Defining Traits of Panfish

Another aspect of these fish is that they’re usually unavailable on the market. So if you want to eat them, you’d need to catch them yourself. Moreover, panfish are fish that anglers tend to capture using the standard fishing method—with a hook.

Aside from these descriptions, there are no strict and precise definitions of panfish. However, we can mention many quality fish species in this category.

Depending on the location and the time of year (which influences the quality of fish meat and frequency of game fish), a fish species may be panfish at one point but not at another. That prompts us to think of the panfish category as referring to the type of fishing activity. You can find panfish in big lakes, small lakes, and ponds.

How Did the Name Originate?

Yet, that also prompts us to wonder about something else. Where did the word panfish come from, and how did it become part of our vocabulary?

Well, allegedly, at least according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first record of the term dates back to 1796, with Amelia Simmon’s American Cookery—the first cookbook published in the American-speaking world. It defines panfish as smaller-sized freshwater fish that one can cook in a skillet or a small panfish.

The Recipes

Another well-known instance where certain types of fish were called panfish is The Whitehouse Cookbook from 1901. In it, you’ll find various panfish recipes. You can fry, grill, and roast them with or without their scales and gills.

However, you can also eat them separately or combine them with other vegetables and spices. Arguably, since the publication of these famous cookbooks, the word panfish has anchored itself into most anglers’ regular, day-to-day vocabulary in the USA.

Even children can catch panfish

Which Species of Fish Are Panfish?

Let’s go over the exact fish species that are usually considered panfish. They are abundant, and most vary between regions. Thus, certain breeds will be the staple panfish in one US state or an area encompassing more separate territories. In another, other smaller species will be more common.

We’re now going to list the ones that are always panfish and those that are only panfish sometimes. Then, we’ll discuss those that tend to be between these categories later.

Species That Are Always Panfish

The definitive list of fish species that are nearly always deemed to be panfish includes:

  • Balkhash Perch
  • Bluegill
  • Black Crappie
  • Creek Chub
  • Cutlips Minnow
  • Dark Sleeper
  • European Bullhead
  • European Perch
  • Flier
  • Green Sunfish
  • Mayan Cichlid
  • Midas Cichlid
  • Oscar
  • Pumpkinseed
  • Redear Sunfish
  • Redbreast Sunfish
  • Ruffe
  • Spotted Sunfish
  • Three-lips
  • Warmouth
  • White Crappie
  • White Perch
  • Yellow Perch

Many of these are well-known as panfish, with the Small Bluegill, Sacramento Perch, and Yellow Perch standing out as regular record catches and members of many panfish anglers’ daily fishing repertoires.

There have even been world-record bluegill catches reported! Yet, not all panfish are as famous and regularly caught as the bluegills, crappies, and crappie subtypes mentioned here.

Species That Aren’t Always panfish

The following species are only considered panfish during certain times of the year, only at some locations, and only by some fishers:

  • Rock Bass
  • White Bass
  • Yellow Bass
  • Bullhead Catfish family members
  • Suckers family members
  • Smelt
  • Candlefish
  • Smaller fish are often used as bait (baitfish).

Of course, this list can go on, as different species may emerge as panfish depending on how their size varies and how local anglers tend to go fishing. But in many places, species like rock bass, for example, are almost always considered panfish. There have even been world record Rock Bass catches!

However, some species, such as northern pike, walleye, grass carp, muskie, bowfin, and striped bass, are never panfish. Moreover, few deep-body fish are ever considered sunfish.

How to Recognize a Panfish If I Caught One?

Yet, how can you know if you’ve caught a panfish? What defines panfish once you capture them and need to review them? Let’s take a look:

The Methods

Whereas there are no strict definitions, there are some basic ways to discover what you’ve caught. Let’s go over some well-implemented methods below.

Research and Deduction

For instance, knowing where you caught your fish and other species in that area may help deduce what you captured.

Contact and Consultation

Furthermore, contacting the local wildlife and fish agency or the Outdoor Writers Association may help let you know if it was a panfish you caught.

Measurements and Cooking

Finally, the easiest and most reliable method is simply measuring the fish – if it fits inside a frying pan or skillet, congratulations! You’ve caught a panfish!

The Ones In Between

Before we finalize our analysis, let’s discuss some more controversial fish breeds that may or may not be panfish.


Are members of the Sunfish family panfish or not?

Simply put, they aren’t – at least not entirely. The Sunfish family is pretty extensive. It encompasses numerous members, such as the Black Bass, the Bluegill, the Redear Sunfish, the Largemouth Bass, the Smallmouth Bass, many crappie members, and other Sunfish members.

Exemplary panfish species in an angler's hand

Some of these fish are panfish, and others are only sometimes thought of as panfish. Similarly, there are panfish that aren’t members of the Sunfish family. That means that there are overlaps but also exclusions on both sides.

Largemouth Bass

Considering the size, the Largemouth Bass is usually not considered a panfish. But, of course, if an angler can capture one that can fit into a frying pan and taste good, who can say it can’t be a panfish?

Smallmouth Bass

Almost the same goes for the Smallmouth Bass too. It tends not to be considered one, but if you can catch a smaller one, cook it well, and eat it, it can be a panfish—to you.


This topic is a bit more problematic, as the definition of a bream tends to be incredibly unstable. In some regions, and Europe especially, a Bream is the name of a separate genus of fish (Ambamis), which can be both freshwater and saltwater.

A largemouth bass could hardly fit inside a pan

In some sections of North America, a bream panfish is slang for small fish one can find in freshwater surroundings. While in the rest of the US, a bream is a synonym for panfish that encompasses small bluegills in ponds, lakes, or creeks.


The last of the three species considered somewhat ambiguous is trout – various types. Although you can eat it, due to its size, it’s usually not deemed a panfish, but a smaller one that can fit into a pan can indeed be called a panfish.

Why Are Panfish Anglers So Common: The Popularity of Catching Panfish

The main reason behind their popularity has to be that they’re effortless to catch. In addition, these fish usually taste delicious, and one can cook them in various ways!

Moreover, considering the magnificent locations where they swim, many anglers decide which fish breeds to go for depending on how much fun they think they’ll get from the fishing experience.

Trout is usually too big to be a panfish

Are They Easy to Catch?

Light tackle fishing lets anglers enjoy the beautiful weather while going after different sorts of freshwater sunfish, crappies, perch, or bluegills.

They are abundant in various waters, making them suitable for both experienced and amateur anglers still learning the trade. What’s more, you’ll always have a whole basket and a delicious meal by the end of the day.

Final Words

Regardless of where you find yourself, asking What Is a Panfish? or opting to go panfish fishing is always a good option. We recommend doing your research and discovering the local panfish breeds. Leave the rest to the waters!


  1. Gerald

    Lake thom-a-lex in Lexington in north carolina is a shallow lake consisting of 640 acres. Few laydowns, little grass at shallow water. The bottom is flat muddy water. Most times, the clarity of the water is 3 yo 12 inches. Low boat traffic. I’ve used mostly crank baits, spinnerbaits and jigs. I have fished this lake many times. A good day is 3 bass. How can I increase the numbers.


      Well, it sounds like a great place, but it may not be what you are doing or not doing. It may be the production for that lake is 3 per day, because there are not that many fish. Keep fishing, and keep trying new things!




      This is the same obstacle that many anglers face, as not many fish and wildlife agencies stock Bluegill any longer.

    • Johan Summit

      Hi Frederick, have you considered looking into private ponds? While not as common in New England, there are still some folks out there who will let you fish in their private ponds or lakes.

      As compense for access to their ponds, I always try to give the pond’s owner two or three of my good catches so they can have a fine dinner as well. Mutual respect to good people who have the heart to share is how we stay civilized.

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