If you want to learn how to fish for sunfish, it helps to know a little about them. As stated earlier, sunfish are members of the Centrarchidae family of freshwater fishes. Bass and crappie are also members of this family but are not usually considered sunfish because of their size and habits.
There are many species of sunfish but most have similar habits.
They are all colorful, deep-bodied, have dorsal spines, and ctenoid scales. They are sized between 4” and 16+” in length and some species can weigh more than 3 pounds. 1 pound is about average.
They are all very aggressive, pugnacious, gregarious (meaning they run in schools), mostly daytime feeders, stay in shallow to mid-depth waters, do not like current, will always be near some structure, are beautiful enough to make any aquarium fish jealous, and absolutely delicious table-fare.
They are one of the best-tasting freshwater fish there is.
The Main Sunfish Species
All of the sunfishes evolved very soon after the last Ice Age. They inhabit pretty much all waters in the US, streams, rivers, lakes, ponds and even ditches. They are a warm-water species and their metabolism slows way down in winter, but they still can be caught, even though the ice. They all spawn in Spring when the water temperatures approach the mid-60s.
They dig beds in sandy or gravelly bottoms, the females lay eggs and disappear, leaving the males to guard the nests. They will attack anything coming near no matter what size. This makes for some very productive fishing. They are so prolific that there is little danger of overfishing, even when they are spawning.
Catching them and keeping them actually helps the populations to be more healthy.
Panfish can over-populate easily, resulting in small stunted fish.
There are many species of sunfish but for fishing, only Bluegills, Redears, Green Sunfish, and Pumpkinseeds are of interest to anglers. The rest are either too small or have limited ranges.
1. Bluegill Sunfish
Found mostly east of the Rockies, they inhabit streams, lakes, ponds, and rivers. They can grow to over 12” in length and can weigh 4” pounds. The average size is around 1 pound. They are beautiful, with bright yellow bellies and bright green with darker stripes.
During the mating seasons, the males get bright orange breasts. They run in schools of 20 to 50 fish, do not like sunlight, and hang in the shadows, vegetation, under docks and bridges…anywhere there is shade and cover.
They will attempt to eat anything that will fit in their mouths, but they are especially fond of crickets and worms. They will hit almost any small lure or fly.
2. Redears Sunfish
A little larger than the Bluegill, Redears have been introduced all over the South, as far west as the Rio Grande River, and as far north as Illinois. They are colored similarly to Bluegills, with a long black earflap and a bright red dot on the end.
They average between 7 to 16” long and can weigh as much a 5 pounds. 1-½ pounds is pretty average. Their favorite food is snails and other mollusks. They can eat the invasive Quagga Mussles, which is why they have been so heavily stocked.
They will eat worms, crayfish, and most small lures. They can be found in mid-depths near underwater vegetation, stumps, and other structures, in slow water.
3. Green Sunfish
Native to the Mississippi River basin, their range has been greatly increased through stocking. They are mostly green with yellow flecks. Their size ranges from 5”-12” and can grow to 2+ pounds. ¾ lb is about the average.
They inhabit slow, sluggish backwaters in lakes, rivers streams, and ponds, usually near vegetation over a muddy, sandy or gravel bottom. They prefer worms, and larvae to almost anything and are a little less prone to hit lures. But they do hit them from time to time.
4. Pumpkinseeds Sunfish
One of the most colorful of the sunfish, but also on the smaller side. They are blue-green colored with turquoise speckles and orange bellies. They have a crimson-tipped ear flap. They range in size from 4” to around 10” and seldom exceed 1-½ lbs in weight.
They can be found just about everywhere in N. America except maybe the upper north parts of Canada. They like slow water with plenty of vegetation and will eat anything they can get into their mouths, including each other. They are very fond of Angleworms.
The other species of sunfish have similar ranges and habits. You will undoubtedly catch them while targeting the other species. They are just a much fun and just as good to eat as all the others.