With the demise of the winter flounder fishery now in its second decade, anglers have pretty much come to terms with the loss of our once reliable treat for the springtime table. Fortunately for those who grew up fishing freshwater, substitutes are readily available — the ubiquitous “pan fish” found in ponds and lakes all over Long Island.
Just like flounder, freshwater pan fish exhibit schooling behavior; catch one and there are probably a dozen lurking nearby. Also, these little fellows are best taken on light tackle, and, finally, they are great table fish.
I grew up on a lake some 60 miles from Manhattan that once had a population of bluegill sunfish so robust it would have brought tears of joy to any of the Good Ol’ Boys who loved their “brim” so much in Dixie. Almost any time of year, you could locate these sunfish hanging around the shallows where they would eagerly take anything resembling an insect or tiny minnow. The groups of big bluegills from eight to 10 inches in size were so easy to find in the spring that we would invite guests over and wait until they arrived to start fishing the great big fish tank off our dock. In very short order, we had enough fish for a “fry.”
Early this month, a cousin who had lived through those days with me and was now an expert on rainbows and browns, came through on a visit and wanted to revisit that lake. We called my brother, who still lives in the old family house, and got together on a miserable, showery afternoon with an east wind and more rain in the forecast. To make more space in the aluminum skiff, we jettisoned battery and trolling motor, opting for oars and a small mushroom anchor instead. As expected, fishing was picky. When we couldn’t locate any chain pickerel to fool with (we try to avoid the spawning bass), we dropped back to light fly rods for the pan fish — first a nice rock bass (“redeye”), then a couple of seven-inch bluegills. When the wind sent us drifting into a big sheltered cove, we considered moving out to a couple of brush piles in front of the cove that were home base to schools of black crappie later in the season.
Suddenly, cousin Steve hooked a large but sluggish fish, not a bass, not a spunky bluegill, and I dropped another at the same time. When he coaxed his fish to the boat, I grabbed the net — and we had our first crappie. With large but soft mouths, crappie are the one pan fish you don’t swing aboard, especially when you’re fishing streamers in sizes 10 and 12. The next half-hour was classic, just like a flounder run, and we caught dinner in short order. These crappie, 12 to 14 inches in size (we’ve caught them to nearly 18, in fact), were apparently well off the brush piles and probably spawning or feeding on fry in a few feet of water.
To best enjoy the art of pan fishing, you fish light with tippets less than six pounds and two- to four-weight fly rods. Nothing fancy here; sink-tip or floating lines work just fine. Besides midget streamers, wet flies will work, and so will dry flies or tiny popping bugs later in the summer. For non-fly rodders, spinning tackle — ultralight with lines testing two to four pounds — works equally well. Just remember to keep the lures tiny. Spinners, jigs and the smallest wobblers you can find will catch all pan fish species. Usually freshwater pan fish are so abundant (in fact, they can outcompete a bass population unless there are top predators like pikes around) they can be enjoyed on the table without concern for “overfishing.”
Besides the pan fish species mentioned above, there are myriad species in all eastern waters. In the course of a fishing career, we’ve caught both white and yellow perch on the North Fork when they were abundant in Marratooka, and one of the largest white perch I ever saw, a two-and-a-half pounder, took a full-sized Rapala on Laurel Lake. Remember that pan fish species are cyclical, and a lake may change over the years with one species replacing another. The niche once occupied by bluegill in the lake I described above appears now to be occupied by black crappie and bass.
As table fare, pan fish are (again, like flounder) superb. For best results, you can fillet the larger fish, the ones well over 10 inches, but you might want to simply remove head and tail and eviscerate the smaller ones. Unless you like the stronger taste of the skin (scaled, of course), you’ll want to skin your catch before frying, baking or broiling. When you put some fresh pan fish on your table with a good Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, you might just for the moment forget those winter flounder.