The term panfish describes small fish, many of which are caught by recreational anglers for food. They are named because they are small enough to be cooked whole in a pan. Among the most popular saltwater panfish found in Virginia waters are croakers, spot, kingfish, porgy, white perch, and pigfish.
Atlantic Croaker or “hardhead” are popular panfish common in Virginia. The fish get their names because of the “croaking” noise they make when removed from the water. Croakers are hard fighters and prolific feeders. They are caught on a variety of baits and lures. They are among the first fish to be caught in the spring and are caught over a wide range of habitats. Croaker can be caught from piers, jetties, inlets, in bays, and from the surf.
Croaker baits include shrimp, crabs, squid, cut fish, bloodworms, and others. In addition to cut baits, croaker are caught on a variety of jigs and other saltwater lures. They can also be caught in the shallows and grass beds using fly fishing gear.
Spot are among the most popular Virginia panfish. Spot can be identified by the distinctive dark spot above the pectoral fin. The species is abundant in coastal bays, creeks and other estuaries. They are especially common around fishing piers where they are caught in large numbers. Spot are caught using small hooks and baits such as bloodworms, crab, shrimp, clams, or other baits which can be presented in small pieces.
Kingfish are popular in the surf as well as with Chesapeake Bay fishermen. Kingfish have slimmer bodies than croaker and spot. Like other members of the croaker family, they are caught using small pieces of bait on the bottom. When kingfish are present in the surf, they are often targeted with live mole crabs.
White perch are small but tenacious fish that are found in rivers, creeks and bays. White perch prefer brackish water but can live in environments that range from fresh water to fully saltwater. These hardy panfish are caught with small baits such as grass shrimp or bloodworms, or by casting artificial lures or flies. Perch can be caught year round, even thru ice. They school up to spawn in early spring and can be caught in large numbers.
Scup or porgy are another saltwater panfish. They range from New England to North Carolina and are occasional visitors to Virginia coastal waters, inland waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Adult scup feed in schools of similar-sized individuals around piers, rocks, offshore ledges, jetties, and mussel beds. They move inshore in summer but return to deeper waters offshore or migrate southward when temperatures cool. Large scup generally occur farther offshore than do smaller, younger ones.
Pigfish are colorful members of the grunt family. They are marked with a bluish upper and a silver lower body, with a series of attractive stripes on the sides and bands on the snout and head. The species ranges from Massachusetts through the Gulf of Mexico and are common in Virginia during the summer and early fall. They are easily caught around piers, reefs and rough bottoms using small pieces of bait such as bloodworms, crab, squid, or shrimp.