A Complete Guide for the best size bluegill or panfish to keep and eat!

Many people love to eat bluegill, redear, sunfish, perch and many other species of panfish. And for good reason. They are easy to catch, plentiful through much of the United States, and taste great!

But because they are one of the smallest species in most fisheries, most anglers don’t know what size is actually worth keeping. After all, if a fish is too small it won’t provide enough meat to make the cleaning process worth it. And you don’t want to harm fisheries by taking too many larger fish that will re-populate the lake. 

Most every fishery has some size and number limitations on the amount of bluegill and other panfish species you can keep. So always abide by that first and foremost. But if that is not present, then I recommend keeping fish from the 6 and half to 8 inch range. Or if you don’t have a tape measure, anything around the size of your hand. 

But let’s go a little more in depth… and then also explain how harvesting bluegill can impact fisheries too!

First, are bluegill even good to eat?

YES! Bluegill are one of the better tasting fish that you can catch in almost any body of fresh water. They have less of a “fishy” taste than a lot of other common species like bass, carp, or catfish. 

The only reason you don’t see bluegill on many restaurant menus are that they have little meat compared to larger species. So it isn’t often worth all the processing time to serve someone a very small filet when they want a big piece of meat.

But with that said, even Taste of Home has a bluegill recipe. So a lot of people around the world eat them. And you should too!

How are you going to clean your fish?

The first question you need to answer before deciding what size of fish you’re willing to keep and eat is how you want to clean them. Or in other words, how you will process the fish to get it’s meat for cooking and eating. 

When you clean a fish you have several methods available. The most popular of these is to filet the fish, which means you will be taking a knife to slice the meat of the fish right against the bone. This is ideal because it leaves you with one, boneless slice of fish which can be fried, seared, or cooked however you prefer.

The issue with this method is it leaves a lot of meat on the fish unused. For large fish, this isn’t much of an issue. The majority of meat for them is in the filet itself so not using the additional little pieces in between bones and organs isn’t a huge deal.

When you get smaller fish though the filet becomes much smaller and more of the meat is left on the fish if you choose this method. So for a smaller fish like a bluegill or any species of panfish – this can make quite a challenge. Filet a small bluegill and you’ll have nothing more than a bite.

What size to filet a bluegill or other panfish?

If you decide you do want to filet the fish, which is always the preferred method, then you naturally need a larger bluegill. Anything over 7 inches should be just fine though.

Since I don’t keep a ruler on me when fishing, I’ve estimated it for me to be anything that is larger than my hand. I put the bluegill tail on my fingertips and if it’s nose passes my wrists – it goes in the bucket. Smaller and it goes back in the lake.

But if you really want to get a bang for your buck, above 8 inches is probably ideal. Depending on your fishery though, you may not have that option. And as I’ll go into below, you really want to put fish that big back in the lake. Around my local ponds anything over 8 inches is a great catch. Other larger lakes have tons of 8 inch bluegill. So put that into perspective as well.

What if I don’t want to filet my panfish?

So maybe you don’t have a ton of big bluegill in your lake or you want a nice mess and can’t catch that many big ones. You do have another option besides fileting – and that is cooking the bluegill whole.

This method provides much less in the way of cleaning – you essentially just need to de-scale and gut the fish. There is no pulling the meat away from the bones which is time consuming and a bit of an art.

best size sunfish to eat

The issue is you then have many little bones to work around as you eat the fish. It also resembles more of the fish and some people don’t like thinking of that while eating – though I personally don’t mind. Your cooking options are also a bit more limited this way. But a great recipe is located here for the picture above 

What size bluegill can be cooked whole?

If you are going to cook the fish whole, you can go a little smaller as you have the ability to pull all of the meat from the bones unlike a filet. But you still want enough meat to make all of the de-scaling and gutting worth it.

For me, this is anything over 6 to 6 and a half inches. Again, if you hold the fish and it takes up most of your palm and fingers, it’s probably in a good range. If I place the fish tail in my fingertips and it at least touches my palm – I’d consider it a good size for frying whole.

Could you keep even a 4 inch fish and fry it whole? Technically, yes. But in my mind anything smaller than 6 inches just isn’t worth the work and is better to put back and eat it in a few years when it’s bigger. 

But what size bluegill is good for the fishery?

The most important factor to consider when keeping a bluegill or not is the size that is worth eating. But you should also consider what size of bluegill the fishery needs to keep it happy and healthy for years to come. And to keep producing big panfish. 

First and foremost – local guides and regulations are the best way to determine what is best for your fishery. Experts have more information, have done more research, and consider factors that the average fisherman just doesn’t know. This leads them to produce regulations that allow fisherman to eat their fresh catch and keep the fishery healthy. Always abide first by these.

But if you’re fishing a small pond there may not even be regulations – so you have to do some sleuthing for yourself in what size bluegill can come out and still keep the fishery in balance.

Above is an example from the Virginia Department for Wildlife Resources which your local or state agency should be able to provide. 

Debunking the myth you can’t over-harvest bluegill

Many fisherman might tell you that “you can’t take too many bluegill” from a fishery. Or that if you don’t take a lot of them out every year, they’ll take over the place and nothing will grow big or other species will be taken over.

In most cases, this is false. Studies have shown that bluegill actually can be easily overharvested. 

For example, a researcher in the Midwest studied two lakes that had protected big bluegill species and then opened harvesting to all anglers. They found that within 3 days of open fishing two lakes had 13% of bluegill over six inches harvested. Within the first month, over 24% and 35% had been removed from each lake. Then three years later, all big bluegill had been caught from the lakes and they had less than any other fishery in the area.

This proves that you can actually overharvest bluegills, and that big panfish do not just naturally reproduce quicker than anglers can catch them.

But small panfish can take over

It really is true though that bluegill can take over a fishery – but it isn’t because of keeper size bluegill. It’s actually all of the smaller ones that aren’t really eating size.

Bluegill and many other panfish can start reproducing by the time they are 4 inches long – which only takes a couple of years. And once they reach that size, they also grow at a much smaller rate. Which means it will be many years before the majority of bluegill reach what we consider a good eating size.

keeper size panfish

This leads to a real problem. There are a lot of bluegill big enough to reproduce but not big enough to eat. So the only thing to keep their population in check are bigger fish like bass or herons and other predators. But they often aren’t enough to keep the population from growing exponentially.

What size bluegill should I keep then?

Given all that information, the best advice is to keep fish greater than 6 or so inches but less than 8. Or in more general terms, keep the mid to large size bluegill but throw back the largest ones you catch.

This is best for several reasons. The bluegill in the 6 to 8 inch range have enough meat to make the cleaning and cooking process worth it, first and foremost. But they also are small enough that they aren’t trophy sized – meaning you leave a great thrill for other fisherman to catch. 

Most importantly though, like almost all other animals, the big, old bluegill or sunfish control all of the smaller ones in the fishery. More than any other fish, panfish school in large groups. Which means these large fish boss around a lot of the smaller ones. And the smaller ones inherently want to grow to become the big ones, leading the group.

Scientific research has actually been able to determine this really is the case. Small bluegill in a fishery actually grow bigger and more quickly when there are other larger bluegill around. And then, when they reach the biggest size, they stop growing!

Putting that all together means one thing – if you take the biggest bluegill of a fishery out, nothing will want to grow bigger than it. So you almost never want to take out the biggest fish as it’s something for all other fish to try and grow to.

Instead, keep the medium to large sized fish that are just one of many trying to grow and be the biggest fish. It gives you a good meal, while keeping a lot of fish that are willing to grow bigger to be the alpha males.


There are two ways you can look at deciding what size bluegill to keep – what will be worth cooking and what is best for the fishery? Fortunately, there is a great middle ground for both. You want the biggest fish possible for eating, but the fishery needs those to keep thriving. Right in the middle is the size you should keep then – those panfish between 6 and half and 8 inches.

But what size bluegill have you kept? Do you fish in local ponds that don’t get a lot of pressure or in public lakes where many people keep fish? What have you noticed in the bluegill you catch? I, like you, am always wanting to learn more about fishing and fishery management. So I’d love to hear your opinions below or on twitter and pinterest at the links below!

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