How to eat A Panfish

Harvest Season

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1. Did You Harvest?

a photo of your harvest in the field!


The RecipeS:


The RecipeS:



You might be new to sunfish and bluegill fishing. We've got the important questions covered.

An Introduction to Harvesting Panfish


what do panfish even do?


Sunfish and bluegills are two separate species but their ability to inter- breed so many hybrid varieties have blurred their differences and they are understood in much the same way. There are five kinds of sunfish; the bluegills, the pumpkinseed, the green, the warmouth and the orange-spotted sunfish. 


The real slabs are full pound fare and the diameter of your dinner plate. 


What do panfish even do?

These plentiful prey fish fatten up larger fish as well as feeding herons, turtles and otters. They are a great introduction to fishing for beginners and while small, their relative abundance and ease in catching can fill the frying pan on a regular basis. 

what do panfish taste like?

Sunfish and bluegill are popular choices on the dinner table. Fish in clearer, cleaner waters tend to taste the best. These species produce bites of tender, flaky fish that melt in your mouth when prepared well. 


The common method to cook is filleted, battered and fried in the pan. Some recipes remove the head and guts, de-scale and boil or fry them whole. These fish can also be grilled, baked, stewed or tossed into tacos and freshwater chowders.

can anyone go fishing?


  • If you are over age 16 you need to possess a Minnesota fishing license.

  • An annual license runs from March 1 through the last day of February the following year.

  • For a Minnesota resident an annual angling license is $25

  • There are lower cost licenses for a single day or three day period and most state parks do not require a license.

  • Purchase a fishing license online here

where & when do I go to fish sunfish & bluegill?


Sunfish and bluegill are present in the majority of Minnesota aquatic ecosystems from great lakes to small ponds and slow, temperate streams or rivers with sandy banks or rocky bottoms.


Waters are public in Minnesota. This includes walking in the water or on the ice. A stream or lake is lawfully accessible via a public access, adjacent public land or public road right-of-way. Locate nearby waters and public accesses with the DNR Recreation Compass. Use LakeFinder to look up a list of species present in your county’s waters and if any have recently been stocked with sunfish or bluegill. Check with local land managers to determine legal access or regulations. 

Fishing for sunfish and bluegill can be done any day of the year, in open water or through the ice. The premium season is spring and early summer - late May to mid June. It is during this time the fish are spawning, laying and fertilizing their eggs, then guarding their nests in sandy bottom shallows.


Try any time of day, but early morning and late evening is best for sunfish and bluegills. Their vision is poor in low light so don’t count on productive fishing after dark. 

sounds good. what do i need to go panfishing?

All fishing requires a rod, reel and line combination with characteristics that match the size and fighting ability of the target species. Then bait and tackle to match their location and feeding preferences at the time of year you’re fishing. 

how do i put all of this gear together to fish with it?


Before you go, you’ll need to know some basic tackle management techniques. 

How to add fishing line to a reel. 

How to tie a hook onto a line.

How to attach a slip bobber? How to attach a sinker?

How to bait a fishing hook?

The real trick is in keeping them on your hook. These smaller panfish tend to nibble at your bait. Weave the hook through the worm several times, letting less than a half inch of tantalizing tail dangle. This necessitates the fish take more of the hook so you can set it. If you have larger night crawlers, break them into one pinch pieces. Small leeches remain more reliably.

i'm at the lake. what am i looking for?


Fish have seasonal location patterns. Depending on the time of the year, a combination of variables including water temperature, the location of plant growth and the location of food will help you determine where the fish are. 


Into the spring, bluegill begin to gather in the shallows, sometimes extreme shallows just off of boggy shoreline. The sun’s warmth penetrates the thinning ice and snowmelt draining in brings freshly oxygenated water. With several consecutive sunny spring days plants will begin to grow, and with them, bugs to eat. Shallow bays on the north end of lakes will warm fastest, as they receive more direct sunlight. Investigate boat harbors, inlets, tiny bays and channels, sighting for this early plant growth in semi dark shallows. Soft bottoms and structure like stumps, logs, docks, cattail reeds and bulrushes are added bonuses. 


Lingering cold snaps will send the fish back out into deeper spots nearby, where they’ve been much of the winter.  Schools will transit the mid depths of their “elevator”, the sharpest drop between a main lake basin and a shallow shelf or bay, ranging from 5 to 15 feet. 


The spawn happens when water temperatures reach around 70 degrees.The breeding and egg laying period happens primarily in May but can occur multiple times through the summer if conditions warrant. During this event, explore the sandy north shore shallows of lakes and bays for crater pocked moonscape bottoms. This can be as shallow as 1-3 feet of water. These are collections of nests, or beds. These saucers are fanned out by the tails of male fish. The females will arrive to breed above them, lay the fertilized eggs and the males will guard them, striking at any intruders. Remember these locations. Fish will use the same spawning sites year after year.


After spawning, sunfish and bluegill are hungry. They will be found nearby in slightly deeper water, 7 to 9 feet deep, amid weed beds and their smorgasbord diet of insects, crustaceans and small minnows.


Through the summer, wherever there are weeds and structures like bridge pilings, sunken trees or the boat dock you’re standing, you’ll find panfish sheltered from the hot sun and aerial predators. These more accessible fish tend to be smaller though.


The bigger bluegills will be in deeper water; roaming weed lines, sunken islands or humps. Irregular spots along the weed edge will be more productive than solid, straight lines of growth. These features can be 25 to 45 feet down. They may also be feeding on plankton over open water, or suspended at the thermocline, where the water temperature changes dramatically. 


When early autumn is arriving, many weeds are losing their green and their decay uses up oxygen in the shallows. Sunfish and bluegill move to deeper water and feed heavily, fattening up for colder weather. Where hardy green plants remain in those springtime haunts, clusters of fish will hunt these shallow water weed flats but will ever more likely be found in deeper adjacencies; drop offs, deeper weed lines, and open water flats. This can be in 15 to 25 feet of water. 

By later fall, active feeding slows, and in winter panfish become particularly finicky compared to open-water. But once you’re on the ice you’ve got the opportunity to offer bait and lure without having to compensate for wind and waves moving you around on the surface. 


At first ice, bluegill will be back in shallow cover.The “good” weeds -coontail, curlyleaf pondweed, cabbages - will outlive others in the cooling water. While they remain the fish will hover above and at the edges. If you’ve been fishing through the open water season it’s not a bad idea to keep track of remaining weed beds up until ice forms. Explore the bays, beginning with obvious structure like points and rock humps. Then look for the thickest greens. As long as this lush lasts, producing oxygen and forage, these spots will produce fish. Fish right down in the weeds or slightly over the tops. In the evenings, they may move onto the edges and into nearby clearings.


Mid winter - As the ice thickens, plants die with less sunlight penetration. Their decay uses up oxygen. When water temperatures in the shallows drop to lower 30s sunfish and bluegill head for deeper water. They hunt soft-bottomed flats for insect life and suspend over deep holes, with the crappies, feeding on zooplankton. Fish steep slopes from previously vegetated areas into deeper basins and holes.


In late winter, bluegills are bunched together in deep areas and around drop offs, likely the same places you find them in the fall. You may find there is one prized hole where lots of folks are fishing, but do explore others. When the water warms to between 50 and 60 degrees they move closer to the shore as new weed growth appears in the shallows and the season’s transits begin again.

how will i know where these underwater features are?


LakeFinder provides bathymetric (underwater topographic) maps of your local waters. Use the depth contours on these maps to locate shallows, reefs, holes and other geologic features to narrow your search, depending on the fish’ preferences during certain times of the year. 


Fishing electronics including depth finders use sonar to show you on a screen what the lake bottom looks like and indicate the exact depth location of fish in realtime. GPS included in these units allows you to mark waypoints so you can return to productive features in the future. 


More commonly used through the winter ice, underwater cameras transmit video footage to the surface so you can see bottom features, the presence of weeds and watch the fish approach and react to your lure presentation, hopefully even taking a bite. 

how do i get to those features?


1. On Foot

The shallows can be cast to from shore and off a number of public fishing docks. A pair of chest waders allows you to wade in most anyplace, situate yourself more strategically and with more room to cast. 

2. Watercraft 


Find your way into a motorized fishing boat and you unlock access to the entire water body with little physical effort. All that storage space, and greater versatility to drift, troll or soundly and strategically anchor over the fish. For less cost & commitment; kayaks, canoes, paddle boards and other inflatable float tubes unlock as much open water and its features you’re willing to paddle to. Find public lake accesses for launching watercraft on the DNR Recreation Compass.


3. When the ice forms, you’re granted full access without the need for watercraft. Some lakes have snow road networks plowed and maintained by independent resorts or businesses and they likely charge for this service, but many public accesses allow you to drive or sled drag yourself out and on to the snowy ice. 


Remember, ice is never 100% safe. Temperature, snow cover, springs and currents all affect the quality and thickness of the ice. Never assume it’s the same everywhere around you. Check current local conditions. 


That said, some general guidelines for ice thickness and travel; 

  • 4” of clear ice and you can head out on foot with gear sled in tow. 

  • 5” to 7” will hold a snowmobile or ATV

  • At least 12” is necessary before you consider driving automobiles out onto the ice.


i'm here. how do i get a fish onto this hook?


You’re legally allowed to fish with one line during open water season. What you put on that line and how you present it to the fish will change to better match the fish’s location and behavior that time of year. 

Much in fishing feels like piecing together the right parts of a puzzle, and is particularly satisfying when solved. After finding the first piece; location, there comes a real mix of variables to match in one of the correct combinations to convince a fish to take the hook. These include:


  1. Tackle - The assortment of hooks, lures, floats or sinkers attached to the fishing line. 

  2. Bait - Live or artificial. 

  3. Technique - Delivery of the bait and tackle by manipulation of the line, including distance, depth and movement.


Research, experiment and refine. For now, select from one of the following basic seasonal approaches for targeting sunfish and bluegill and you should have pretty good luck. 


The fish are hungry after a long winter and the spring smorgasbord in the shallows is beginning. 

This is a good time for fishing from shore if you don’t have access to watercraft. Shallow spring schools of bluegill and sunfish can be spooked back into deeper water for awhile. Fishing from shore allows you to be relatively silent and still. Also, a fish reeled in towards shore draws other fish in to your concentration rather than out into the lake. 


A simple baited hook presentation works fine here. In shallow water a bobber float will aid in keeping the bait off the bottom as well as offer an indication of a strike.  


Cast out over spring feeding features and let the bait drift slowly and naturally to the bottom. Very slowly reel in to allow the lure to remain near the bottom. If you feel tapping, stop reeling and wait for the strike. The fish are wary, you won’t catch them if you’re too close. After you catch a couple may need to move 50 feet away to catch more. 


Prepare to get a strike every time your bait hits the water. 

If sunfish are spawning, laying eggs during their breeding season, they will often be found in water from 6 feet to 2 feet in depth. 


Take advantage of the bobber and adjust the depth accordingly. You can sit patiently and wait to see the bobber bounce, indicating the bite of a fish. Or you can introduce a little movement and catch the attention of nearby fish with jigging, a few short controlled jerks, bouncing your rod tip and the bait below. 


The quest for bigger bluegills in mid and late open water season will take you out onto the lake, to position yourself above deeper weediness in 10 to 20 feet of water. 


You’ll need to send your bait to the depths, so lose the bobber and make sure you’ve got enough weight. A jig head of 1/8 ounce and an added ounce of split shot sinker should do. Put the sinker a foot above the jig. Bait with a worm, piece of nightcrawler, leech, grasshopper or artificial baits. 


These fish hang in tight schools and will suspend anywhere from a couple of feet off the bottom to five feet or so below the surface. If you have sonar, troll or paddle up and down the weed line looking for an indiction of fish. Otherwise, just be patient while you cast for them. 


Cast to the edge of the weed line and allow the bait to fall slowly. Reel in a few feet, give a sharp tug or two and let if fall again. If they’re in the area you’ll receive some aggressive strikes. Once you’ve located fish you can anchor, hang a line from above, keeping it tight to detect strikes, jigging on occasion to attract a bite. 


When you decide you are above some feature you want to fish, its time to drill a number of holes. This is called your spread. Remember, your goal is to be mobile. You will be moving and drilling holes frequently. 

Fish feed less aggressively in the winter, so downsize your tackle to something snack size. Use micro size jigs or spoons, around 1/16 ounce. Tungsten jigs are heavier than lead, helping keep the line taut so you can feel nibbling bites. Select horizontal lures - where the eye you tie your line is on the side rather than the top. Green and chartreuse work better in clear water, with red and blue performing well in discolored water or at low light. Bait the hook with wax worms, spike maggots or soft plastics. 


Ice fishing technique is mostly about jigging. Jigs are weighted hooks, often painted. They are hooks, sinkers and lures in one piece of tackle. Bait is added to these. You’ll be lowering this presentation vertically into the water column, attempting to deliver it at the depth of the fish and introduce just enough movement to attract their attention. As you lower your lure to the bottom, lightly bounce the rod tip. As you bring it back up to the ice, perform a series of short lifts then letting it drop. Jiggle the bait with short jerks then let it lie still for a moment. Sunfish and bluegill will hover in front of the bait for several seconds before slurping it in then quickly spitting it out. Wait for this bite, and set the hook. Do this as you slowly reel your lure up to just below the ice.

no bites. you sure i'm doing this right?


Mix up jigging style and cadence, jig size, bait and even lure color until you find something that works. Just move around until you find fish that are willing to bite. They will bite during the day.


While winter ice fishing, fish for five to ten minutes in a hole, then move to another if you’re not getting bites or decent size fish. If there are no bites and no activity in your electronics, try another hole. Fish of the same size will school together. If you’re catching too small of fish, increase your depth, larger fish tend to be closer to the bottom. Or, try another hole.

alright, i'm waiting. what am i waiting for? 

Remain relaxed, but be ready to spring into action. You’ll want to reel in any slack in your line and keep your rod pointed towards where the fish ought to be. The fish tend to come up and nibble the bait. You’ll feel the tapping in your line and see your bobber bouncing. You’ll wait until you feel a firm hold and see the bobber pulled underneath the water, and then…

there it goes! how to set the hook

Setting the hook is a fundamental maneuver in earning this meal. When a fish strikes, quickly pull up on the rod tip, towards a shoulder or off to the side. If successful, you’ll have pulled the hook into the fishes mouth, and should feel it’s weight. Keep steady pressure on the fish, keep your rod tip up. Panfish have soft mouths. Steady, sweeping hook sets don’t need to be very aggressive. 

fish on! now what?

Playing panfish isn’t difficult, but it requires the same fundamental skill for other fish species. There is a rhythm to enter. With your rod tip up, you keep your line taught and keep pressure on the fish. When you lower your rod tip, towards the fish, you quickly reel in line, keeping it tight. Elevate the rod tip again, pulling the fish closer. If you think the fish’s fighting threatens to break your line or your rod, allow it to pull out more line. It will eventually tire. Resume and continue the pumping motion of reeling until you’ve brought the fish in for landing. 

You can hoist your average panfish up and out of the water by the hook and line before grabbing ahold.


When fishing lighter rods and lines through an ice hole, simply and quickly drag the fish from the hole onto the surface of the ice. 

how do i take it off the hook?


Wet your hands. These fish are toothless but have sharp back fins. Approaching from the head, smooth down the sharp dorsal fins before grasping.  Once you’ve got a firm hold on the fish, and don’t panic if it wiggles, get a solid pinch on the hook. A longer shank hook is easier to pinch on to and provides more leverage in removing. Use a pair of hemostat forceps, the pincers, to reach the hook if it’s been swallowed or is otherwise difficult to reach. Back the the hook out the same way it went in. 

can i keep it? should i keep it?


  • You are allowed to possess 20 combined sunfish and bluegill at a time. Legally, a fish is in your possession once you have caught and kept it. This includes any fish you have at home, in storage. No more than twenty. Take a closer looks at state regulations here. 

  • There are no legal limits or restrictions on the size of a fish. A typical “keeper”, a fish large enough to be filleted into two eating pieces should be at least six inches long. Is it the size of your hand? That will probably do. Some harvest a “mess” of fish, and will keep fish smaller than 6”. Processing these only requires the removal of the heads and scales before they are fried.Many folks prefer a 7” to 9” fish for filets. Fish larger than this you should really consider releasing. 

Size restrictions and reduced limits attempt to reduce the over harvest of larger fish, which ends up stunting the population. Choose to release some of your larger catches for more breeding seasons. 


Sunfish and bluegill are prolific species in our waters. The often problem is that too many are very small fish. The absence of large fish in a population is referred to as ‘stunting’. Some controversy surrounds why this stunting occurs. The usual suspect behind stunted growth is because of intense competition for food amongst an abundance of young fish. There isn't enough for everyone to eat and grow. Also, and perhaps more important, is a recently discovered genetic difference between larger and smaller sunfish and bluegill.

It is important to consider the probable impact on our fisheries while management policies evolve. Keeping the largest sunfish and bluegill could remove too much of the genetic stock needed to breed bigger fish in the future. While there are no legal restrictions on the size of the sunfish or bluegill you can keep, it would be wise and beneficial to practice a personal ethic to release the largest fish you catch. 


A general rule of thumb to release sunfish and bluegill 9” or longer would help avoid stunting a fishery. A 10” or longer bluegill is entering trophy territory. Anyone interested in harvesting for the pan can comfortably make due with cleaning and cooking fish in the 6” to 8” range. You may just need to catch a few extra to make up the weight.

how do i keep it until i'm ready to clean it?


If you’re releasing, do it as soon as possible. Return the fish to the water from as close as you can. Avoid dropping it from heights or tossing it distances. Let it swim away on it’s own. 


Keeping it for food yeah? You’ve got two options. Keep them alive, or put them on ice. 

If you’re not on a watercraft with a live well, you can keep your fish in the water, alive, remaining fresh, with a basket or a stringer. The basket is a collapsible mesh cage that suspends in the water. This is more gear to transport, but less stressful on the fish than a stringer, a rope that threads in through the gill and out of the mouth.


Chances are you’ll find your fish and be off the water in four or five hours. A portable cooler filled with ice will allow them to die while keeping your catch delectably edible. Just drain off the meltwater from time to time. 


In the winter, keep them out on the ice until it’s time to head home then gather them in a bucket. Give them some time to thaw once you get home and clean them then.


For the safest and tastiest fish, it’s best to clean them as soon as possible. Slime coating and cloudy eyes are normal from iced fish. As long as the gills are red, not dull gray or beginning to fray, then your fish are safe to be cleaned and eaten. 

how do i make this fish into food?


how to filet a panfish

what if they're too small to fillet?

Get the scales off the fish. Hold the fish down by the head. With the sharp of your blade, from the tail towards the head, scrape off all of the scales. Even the ones along the fins and the tail, which will end up looking and tasting like fish chip bacon. Cut off the head, just behind the pectoral fin aka the side fin, and the gills. Clean out the innards. To allow the penetration of flavory goodness while cooking, slice a series of vertical incisions, every inch or so across the side of the fish. Just deep enough to reach the backbone or ribcage. Give them a final rinse of any remaining scales then fry them like you would a fillet.

what to do with these guts?

is this ready for the kitchen?

how long can i keep this fish for?


Kept frozen at 0 degrees panfish will remain good quality for 8 - 12 months. 

Place the fish in a container, cover with cold water and freeze it. 


Fish can be canned, but as a low acid food, it requires a pressure canner. 

Fish can also be smoked and pickled. 





These rods are light, shorter and more flexible than typical fishing rods, made for jigging, or bouncing lures below the hole. Different lengths and actions are better suited to different fish species. For perch and panfish, select a light rod with medium action. Shorter rods (24”) are more manageable within close quarters shelters, longer rods (27”-30”) absorb shakes, hard hook sets and offer leverage when fighting fish. 


At the end of 5# test monofilament line, present bright colored jigs 1/64 to 1/250 ounce with bait. Try some more active swimming lures or flash lures to keep schools of perch interested. 


Tip your jigs with wax worms and other grubs. Target perch with leeches and minnows. 


Hard water access is no easy feat. Power augers, gas or electric make much quicker work of boring a series of holes. Hand augers are inexpensive, quiet, simple and the run on free and clean elbow grease. The average size blade is 6”, sufficient for eating size fish. Don’t forget a blade cover.


A device to skim the ice and slush from the surface of your hole. Some have integrated rulers for measuring fish and ice thickness. 


An elevated perch keeps you off the cold ice, in a more comfortable sitting position and allows you to peer down into the hole to see the arriving action. 


Portable canvas shelters hauled out sleds are placed right next to holes and popped up to provide shelter against blowing wind and snow. Once you’re hooked, your next DIY project may be a more permanent shelter designed and built to your liking. Lake side resorts offer moving, storage and road plow services for your shanty year round. 


On the colder days, a portable burner with a throttle can be threaded on to portable propane fuel canisters, and condition your micro climate to a more comfortable temperature. 


Shorter days and the dim interior of ice shelters benefit from a maneuverable, hands-free light source. 



An optimum panfish blade length is 6 inches, but can be done with a versatile 7.5. Look for stainless steel with an inch or so of flex, with an easy to clean plastic or rubber handle.


Combine a balaclava, buff and insulated hat with ear flaps to hold the heat of that noggin in.


Look for windproof fabrics that block the breeze and sticky, dextrous fingers for finessing light rods and reels.


Strike a balance between lofty insulation and finger dexterity. You can always remove these during the action.


Stop the coldest days from dividing and conquering your digits. Forget dexterity. The loftier the better.


Wear wool or synthetics next to skin. These fabrics transfer moisture, manage odor and continue to insulate if damp from sled pulled perspiration. 


Get hotter and heavier with a fleece or pile sweatshirt.


Begin to create some real dead air space with at least 650-fill micro puffy packet. Synthetic fills will continue to insulate if they are wet.


This is your forcefield. A waterproof, windproof, breathable shell that packs additional insulation. Look for 200 grams, preferably Thinsulate. Zippers pockets for higher activity venting and hand warming refuges are a major plus.


Synthetic or wool briefs that wick moisture and prevent odor. 


Lightweight/midweight, wool or synthetic thermal “long johns” will trap heat right against the skin and wick away any moisture during periods of overheating.


A synthetic fleece or pile pant maximizes the trapped and toasty dead air space, and will continue to insulate if soaked.


These need to be waterproof. Waterproof membrane + repellant coating waterproof. With sealed seams. A WP, breathable and durable 300 denier shell pant will repel cold moisture while regulating heated body temperature. Knee and seat padding provide roaming comfort. 


Ultralight synthetic liner socks will transfer any moisture to a lightweight/midweight merino wool. 


Adhere a full foot length heat pad then layer on a heavyweight and expedition weight sock. 


A winter-weather-weight pair of snow boots has taller cuffs, a Thinsulate liner wrapped in a waterproof/breathable membrane and will insulate you to -30/-40 degrees F. 


A pair of elastic harnessed stainless-steel spike chains are easily stretched onto your boots to provide reliable traction on icy terrain. 

Get oot and after it.

You are how you eat.