I've spent the last twenty-five years chasing the fish that swim in our local waters and I've enjoyed every minute of it! During that time, I've made some remarkable friends and together we've learned a great deal by spending loads of time on the water.
Let's face it: unless you're out at the canyons or offshore wreck and reef sites, the dog days of August don't exactly offer the best fishing opportunities. The long, hot days and warm water temperatures take a toll on many of our favorite freshwater and saltwater species. I'm not saying it's impossible to put together a decent catch, but the odds are stacked against us when water temps are in the low to mid 80s. September is fast approaching and with it will come cooler nights and the much-anticipated mullet run. In the meantime, I suggest hitting your favorite panfish holes and having some fun with the scrappy crappies, perch and sunfish that are more than willing to bend a rod.
When I think about fishing for panfish, it's usually because options for other more desirable species are limited – usually during the mid-summer and mid-winter periods. However, over the last few years, I've gained an appreciation for panfish, especially black crappies and yellow perch. Our local waters offer some great panfish opportunities and because of our climate, the crappies, perch and sunfish have a longer growing season than up north or out in the Midwest. While a trophy crappie may not compare to a trophy striped bass, you won't find me complaining about any type of world-class fishery.
Before you dismiss fishing for panfish, there are a few things I'd like you to take into consideration. Panfish are schooling fish and can provide hours of insane rod-bending action. The variety of yellow perch, white perch, crappies, and sunfish always keeps things interesting and if a stray largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, pickerel or catfish decides to join the party, all the better. Daily bag limits are fairly liberal when keeping crappies (8-inch minimum and 10 fish), perch and sunfish (no minimum size and 25 combined). While most panfish are bony, they are fairly easy to clean and offer sweet, firm, delicious, white fillets.
I'm sure at least a few readers are asking themselves, "Can you eat fish from our local waters?" According to the State of New Jersey's General Freshwater Advisories and the 2013 Fish Smart, Eat Smart Guide, there are "no restrictions" for the general population when consuming sunfish. While specific bodies of water do have more stringent consumption guidelines, panfish seem to be one of the least affected by pollutants. I'm assuming a sunfish's diet and shorter life span don't allow them to accumulate toxins as easily as some of the other species listed such as largemouth bass and striped bass. From much of the literature I read, generally, I would say that eating panfish is likely less harmful than eating striped bass. Surprising huh? For more detailed information, visit http://www.state.nj.us/dep/dsr/njmainfish.htm.
After our great family outing at Parvin State Park last weekend, Jake and I decided to return this weekend and set up our fish camp. We packed light and trailered the kayaks down to Parvin on Friday, August 14. It took just a few minutes to set up the tent and get our campsite in order – we checked in around noon and were carrying the loaded kayaks to the water's edge by 12:30 PM. Our plan was to fill a cooler with some tasty panfish to cook over our campfire each night.
After a short paddle, we returned to the same little cove that surrendered so many fish last weekend. Just a few casts in and we located a school of gigantic crappies. Cast after cast ended with 12 to 14-inch crappies, 10 to 12-inch white and yellow perch and 8 to 10-inch sunfish. I was tossing a 3-inch Berkley Gulp Minnow on a bare hook while Jake was jigging small, brightly colored tubes from a crappie kit we picked up at Wal-Mart. The crappies seemed to hit closer to the surface while the perch preferred our offerings a little closer to the bottom. We attached a small, ice-filled cooler to Jake's kayak and had it filled in no time. This wasn't a fishing trip – it was a catching trip.
Filling the Cooler
On our return to camp, we pulled our kayaks and compared notes about the great fishing action. We kept our limit of crappies, a few perch and released a bunch of other fish. It wasn't until it was time to clean our catch that I noticed preparing these fish wasn't going to be as easy as it is at home where we have a hose and a fish-cleaning table. I didn't think the next campers would appreciate us using the campsite picnic table as a fish-cleaning station so I decided to use the next best thing – and old tree stump. Cleaning twenty-five or so fish on a tree stump in the wilderness is quite an experience. Jake helped by bagging the fillets, tossing the discards and filling the bucket with clean water when needed. About an hour later, I had a sore back and big bag of tasty fillets.
Our Camp Fish Cleaning Station
Later that evening, after we showered and cleaned up, we prepared the fish for dinner. We packed aluminum foil, cracked pepper, a little butter and some locally grown squash and zucchini to cook with our fillets. A few minutes over the fire and our tasty meals were complete. Jake and I talked about how great the fish tasted and how much fun we had catching them. I thought about the many great fishing experiences I've had over the years and how this panfish trip somehow ended up right there with any of them.
We hit the lake early the next morning and fished the weekend away. It was a great trip as the fish cooperated the whole time. We practiced catch and release for the rest of the weekend as Friday afternoon's trip provided plenty of fillets for us. Now that my back is feeling better, I can't wait to get back out there again.
Do yourself a favor and don't overlook those puny, little panfish. They are a lot of fun to catch on light tackle and make for delicious table fair. With such liberal regulations, I'd like to remind everyone to make their own sensible limits. Just because we can keep so many fish per day doesn't mean we have to keep a limit on every trip. Responsible practices will allow us to enjoy great fisheries for years to come.