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How To Catch Sunfish: Proper Rig, Bait & More Fishing Tips

The internet is a great place to learn things. Fishing is no exception.But of all the dozens and dozens of websites about fishing, most of them seem to cater to bass, crappie, trout and other major gamefish. But what about the people who just enjoy catching a few sunfish? Information on sunfish secrets is a little sketchy online.

If you are like the rest of us, you probably started learning how to fish by catching the various species of sunfish. They are actually panfish, but usually referred to as sunfish so as not to confuse them with crappie and bass, which are in the same family, Centrarchidae. They are a gregarious species that are very cooperative about taking a bait, of almost anything they can get in their mouths. They also tend to be very pugnacious and will attack anything that invades their space, no matter how large. And the best part of all is that ounce for ounce, they can outfight anything that swims. They usually do not engage in any aerobatics like trout and other gamefish, preferring to slug it out underwater with brute force and leverage. On light gear, they can provide as good a fishing experience as any other fish, and better than a lot of them. And they are everywhere in the US, and in Northern Mexico and Southern Canada. Within their range, it would be hard to find a habitable body of water that doesn’t have some kind of sunfish in it. Streams, Rivers, lakes, ponds, and even bar ditches can contain surprisingly large populations of good-sized sunfish.

Baiting Up For Sunfish

At the risk of starting an argument, I will say without any reservations that the very best bait for sunfish is Red Wiggler worms. Sunfish are accomplished bait-stealers. Red Wigglers are small, and when threaded on the hook properly, are almost impossible to get off with getting hooked. The next best live bait is angleworms. They are a little bigger than Wigglers, and you will lose some, but sunfish attack them with wild abandon, so you will certainly catch the majority of them. Next on the list is plain old earthworms and nightcrawlers. Any worms too long to thread on the hook should be broken in pieces to fit the hook. And make sure you cover the hook point completely, or you will lose a lot of bait. Sunfish are notorious for being able to grab the end of the worm and suck it off the hook like a piece of spaghetti. If they see the hook point, they will grab the other end of the worm, and not get hooked…

Proper rigging for sunfish.

Next is crickets and grasshoppers. Sunfish love these, but they will steal a lot of them off the hook, so make sure you have plenty of them. Hook the insects through their collars.

Beyond this, just about any small creatures will work for bait, such as small frogs, tiny lizards and newts, small crawfish, pieces of mussels, small minnows, etc…. The drawback to using minnows is that many times, the sunfish will just peck the eyes out of the minnow without getting hooked. Once the minnow is dead, sunfish won’t touch it. Sunfish will also hit dough bait, and just plain old bread molded into a ball on the hook.

If you really want to have fun, sunfish eagerly hit small jigs, crank baits, spinners and flies. Use ultralite gear and hang on. Some sunfish are total demons on light tackle.

There are around 28 species of sunfish in N. America, but they freely and happily hybridize with each other where their ranges overlap, as well as many that have been created in fish hatcheries, so I will not bother trying to list every species. Here are the most popular:

Bluegill

Bluegills are one of the larger species of sunfish, and one of the most popular. They are also known as ‘bream’, and ‘perch’, although they are actually neither. They average around 6-12 inches long and can weigh around 1 lb. Really large ones can be up to 16 inches and weigh several pounds, but these are rare. They are very aggressive and can be found just about everywhere in the US, and have been transplanted in places like Europe and Africa. They can be found in lakes, rivers, streams, and creeks. They do not like current or direct sunlight, but they do like vegetation and structure, so they will usually be found in shady areas near vegetation, sunken timber, rock piles, bridges, etc…. As table fare, they are one of the best tasting freshwater fishes there are.

Redear Sunfish

The Redear Sunfish, also known as a shellcracker, Georgia Bream,and Chinquipin, resembles a bluegill without the males orange belly, and they grow larger. They average around 12 inches and 1-¼ in weight, and rare individuals can approach 5 pounds, but they are rare. Redears are native to the southeastern US, but due to their love of mussels, they have been stocked everywhere in the US in order to combat the invasive Quagga Mussels.  They can be found in lakes, rivers, streams, and reservoirs near underwater structure. They do not like current or moving water at all and will be found in slow backwaters near underwater structure. They are crazy about eating mussels, snails and other mollusks, but will happily munch on worms, jigs, and small crankbaits. Like the Bluegill, they are delicious.

Pumpkinseed

Pumkinseeds are smaller than bluegills and shellcrackers, and more colorful. In fact, in my opinion, they are one of the most beautiful of the sunfishes. They never leave shallow water and love clear water, shade,  and vegetation. They eat just about anything small enough to fit into their mouths, including smaller individuals of their own. They happily gobble worms, crickets, mealworms, small jigs, lures, and flies. On the smaller side, pumpkinseeds average around 6-10 inches and ½ to ¾ of a pound. Like the other sunfish, they are delicious.

Warmouth

The warmouth looks like a cross between sunfish and bass (even though both are in the same family…Surprise! Black bass aren’t really bass. They are big sunfish…). They are one of the larger species, averaging around 12-14 inches and ¾ to 1-½ lbs. Really big ones can go to almost 2 lbs. They have a larger mouth than most other sunfishes, more closely resembling that of a smallmouth bass. Their original range is throughout the Mississippi River Basin, but like most other sunfish, their range has been greatly expanded due to stocking programs. They can survive in rivers, lakes, ponds, and creeks with low oxygen levels and high levels of pollutants, where other species cannot. Like most other sunfish, they like slow water, shade, and vegetation. They are very vicious and will streak 20 feet or more to bite a Clouser Minnow fly. They happily smash jigs, small spinners, crankbaits and plastic worms in the smaller sizes. They will eat minnows, crayfish, frogs, lizards, leeches, and nightcrawlers. On light tackle and fly rods, they are a pleasure to fish for.

Sunfish Biology

The habits of all the species of sunfish (there are over 28…) are very similar. Some of the more common species are Bluegill, Redear, Rock Bass, Warmouth, Redbreast, Pumpkinseed and Green Sunfish. The individual species are native to certain areas, but due to the popularity of fishing for them, and their excellent suitability as a forage fish, they have been stocked just about everywhere they can live. Some are more prevalent in streams and rivers, and others prefer lakes and ponds. But wherever you fish, it’s almost a certainty there are plenty of sunfish around.

Sunfish are very prolific, and start spawning early, when the water temperature approaches 65⁰F. Some biologists speculate that females in some areas can spawn as much as 9 times a year. This kind of enthusiasm ensures that we will always have lots of sunfish to catch. It also means that you don’t have to feel guilty about taking some home to eat. In fact, harvesting them makes the entire population stronger, because without a certain amount of attrition, sunfish can quickly overpopulate a body of water, causing the fish to become stunted. And sunfish are some of the best-tasting freshwater fish there is.

Only a few species of sunfish are nocturnal, but all of them can be caught year-around, even through the ice. And they can all be caught on even the most modest of equipment. A cane pole with a worm is just about as basic as it gets for these little fighters. I’ve probably caught several hundreds of sunfish with nothing more than a homemade cane pole and earthworms.

In early spring, sunfish will begin to stage on 6-10 feet of water when it approaches 60⁰F, usually in some offshore cover with good access to the shallows. They will follow creek beds, channels, weedbeds, and rock piles to and from the spawning grounds. And they will use the same trail every year, so where you found them this year, they will be there next year unless something drastic changes. Males will come in first and build nests in flat sandy or rocky places in as little a 1 foot of water. Females will come in when the water approaches 65⁰F, select a male, lay eggs, and leave. The males stay to protect the nest and small fry.  And they will do so viciously, attacking anything coming near the nest. This is the hottest fishing of the year for sunfish.

After the eggs hatch, the males will head for deeper water along structure lines, and will hang around suitable structure in 5-15 feet of water. But if you missed the spawn, don’t worry. In some places, sunfish will keep spawning as long as the water stays in the suitable range. But in late spring and summer, sunfish can usually be found near under hanging vegetation, sunken timber, weedbeds, rock piles, etc…. In rivers and streams, they will be on the down-current side of any structure. As a rule. Almost all sunfish prefer to hang-out about 1 to 2 feet above the bottom. They will stay there until the water temperature drops into the 60s.

In winter, sunfish will suspend in deeper water, 10-15 feet deep, near cover, and not move around much. But they can still be caught, even through the ice. You just need to use small baits, and drop it very near where they are. Down south, sunfish habits don’t change much in winter at all. As long as the water doesn’t get colder than the upper 50s, they will still actively feed.

Conclusion

These are the most significant species to anglers, although there are at least 28 recognized species, and due to their habit of freely interbreeding where habitats overlap, there are lots of hybrids. But all of them have very similar habits. Wherever you live, with the exceptions of Alaska and Hawaii, it’s a good bet there are some great sunfish spots very near you.

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