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Sunfish

Note: This article first appeared in the July/August 1990 issue of The Conservationist magazine. Recently updated. Author- Eileen C. Stegemann. Fourth in a 14-part series describing the Freshwater Fishes of New York.

The Sunfish Of New York

Almost everyone loves sunfish! From the smaller, plentiful pumpkinseed to the highly prized smallmouth and largemouth bass (yes, they are members of the sunfish family), sunfish provide good fishing opportunities for beginner and expert anglers alike. Sunfish are found in most waters in the state, fight hard when hooked, and taste delicious.

While bass are the most popular sportfish of New York State anglers, few other fish can make a youngster's eyes light up or save an adult's otherwise uneventful fishing trip the way the smaller sunfish do. They are usually found in schools, are relatively easy to catch, and are often the first fish caught by children.

The smaller sunfish are pretty fish. With the possible exception of the darters, these members of the sunfish family are the most colorful fish found in the state. The brilliant shades of yellow, orange, green, and red displayed by such species as the pumpkinseed, bluegill and redbreast are beautiful to see.

About the Sunfish Family

With the diversity of species included in this family group, sunfish live in a wide range of habitats. Rocky, cool lakes and streams, warm, vegetated lakes, ponds, and slow-moving streams are all home to one or more members of the sunfish family.

Sunfish are small- to medium-sized fish with a single anal (bottom rear fin) and a two-part dorsal (back) fin. They are spiny-rayed, with one or more sharp spines found on their dorsal, pelvic (bottom front) and anal fins. These spines help protect adult fish from being eaten by larger fish and can prick the fingers of any angler who is not careful when removing the hook.

Reproduction (spawning) takes place from spring until summer. Male sunfish build nests by using their fins to fan the bottom to remove fine materials that might smother developing eggs. Females will often deposit eggs in several nests. Males, however, remain in one nest and guard the eggs and young. Some male sunfish may stay in the nest for up to three or more weeks. Sunfish are important to recreational fishing in New York State. Smaller sunfish can often be taken from shore with nothing more than a string with a bobber and worm. Larger members of the sunfish family, such as smallmouth and largemouth bass, challenge even the most experienced angler with the best equipment.

Fourteen species of sunfish are found in New York State waters. Of these 14, seven are commonly encountered by anglers and are the subject of this article. These seven species are separated into three groups: 1) true sunfish; 2) black bass; and 3) rock bass and black crappie. The other less common sunfish species not discussed here are the mud sunfish, bluespotted sunfish, banded sunfish, green sunfish, warmouth, longear sunfish, and white crappie. For more detailed information on the sunfish family, refer to, "The Inland Fishes of New York State," by C. Lavett Smith.

True Sunfish

The true sunfish are small-sized fish and include three species: bluegill, pumpkinseed, and redbreast. They are flat and deep-bodied in appearance and are bright and colorful - hence the name sunfish. All are usually easy to catch, good to eat, and extremely popular with anglers, especially children.

Bluegill

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Bluegills are generally found in slow moving or standing water where there is plenty of vegetation or other shelter. They are a pretty fish, green to brown on their backs and upper sides shading into brown, orange, or pink with traces of vertical bars along their bottom sides. The breast is yellow to copper-orange, and the sides of their heads have metallic blue and green overtones. The large, square-shaped, blue black gill flap and conspicuous dark blotch on the back of the soft-rayed portion of their dorsal fins distinguishes bluegills from their close relatives, the pumpkinseed. Bluegills average four to ten inches in length.

Like other true sunfish, the bluegill eats mostly insects and crustaceans. But unlike its cousins, the bluegill will also consume some plant material.

Bluegills spawn from May to July. Nests are usually built close to shore in firm sand or mud in two and one-half feet of water. Bluegills often nest in colonies with nests sometimes right next to each other. Some male bluegills have been known to raise two or three broods during one spawning season.

Bluegills fight hard when hooked, providing good sport for anglers. They bite just about any bait, artificial fly, or small lure dropped in the water. Because of these qualities, they are frequently stocked in farm ponds and other impoundments.

Pumpkinseed

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Of all the sunfish in New York State, the pumpkinseed is the favorite of children. It is one of the most catchable of all freshwater species, occurring in large numbers in shallow water close to shore and readily biting small pieces of bait.

Pumpkinseeds are the most abundant and widespread species of sunfish in New York State. They live in a wide range of habitats from small lakes and ponds to shallow, weedy bays of larger lakes and quiet waters of slow moving streams.

Pumpkinseeds are a small- to medium-sized fish, averaging four to eight inches in length. They are one of the most colorful warmwater fish, with a bronze to red-orange belly and irregular, wavy interconnecting blue-green lines over a golden brown to olive background. Although often confused with bluegills, they can be recognized by the pale margin surrounding a bright scarlet spot on the rear portion of their gill flaps and the wavy emerald or blue streaks on the sides of the their heads. In addition, pumpkinseeds have long, pointed pectoral fins and no spot on the soft portion of their dorsal fins.

Pumpkinseeds have similar feeding habits to other true sunfish. They eat a wide variety of prey, including insects, crustaceans, and small fishes. Spawning takes place from May until August. Like bluegills, pumpkinseeds construct their nests close to shore in colonies. Nests are usually found in areas of submerged vegetation in six to 12 inches of water.

Pumpkinseeds provide hours of fishing fun for all anglers. They are strong fighters and have sweet-tasting fillets. Pumpkinseeds often provide good sport when other fish are not biting.

Redbreast

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The redbreast sunfish is confined to the eastern portion of the state and is of lesser importance to New York State anglers. While it inhabits lakes and ponds, redbreasts mostly live in clear, slower moving streams with sandy and rocky bottoms.

The redbreast is a relatively small sunfish, usually growing four to eight inches long. Its body is golden brown to olive on top, with lighter sides having reddish spots and vague blue streaks. The redbreast gets its name from its bright yellow to orange-red breast. It closely resembles the pumpkinseed but can be identified by its long, narrow, black gill cover and small, rounded pectoral fins.

Redbreast sunfish have similar spawning habits to other sunfish. They spawn from early June to mid-August and build their nests close together in six to 18 inches of water.

Although they are not an important sportfish in most areas of New York, redbreast sunfish can provide good sport. Like other sunfish, they will put up a fight when hooked and make a tasty meal.

Black Basses

Smallmouth and largemouth bass are New York State's two species of black basses. They are the largest members of the sunfish family and have a more elongated, robust body shape. Both species are highly prized sportfish, generally requiring more effort and skill to catch than other sunfish.

Smallmouth Bass

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Smallmouth bass are one of New York State's most important gamefish. They are famous for their fighting ability when hooked and have the reputation for being, inch-for-inch, the best sporting fish around.

Smallmouths are probably the most cold water adapted species of sunfish. They prefer cool, clear water areas of lakes and flowing streams with a gravelly or rocky bottom and moderate vegetation. Adult smallmouths are usually found near the protection of rocks or near submerged logs.

Smallmouth bass closely resemble their cousins, the largemouths, in appearance but can be identified by looking at their mouths and body color markings. The upper jaws of smallmouths do not reach beyond the rear edge of the eye, as do the largemouths, and there are a series of eight to 11 thin vertical dark bars on the smallmouth's sides, rather than the often pronounced dark horizontal stripe typical of largemouths.

Smallmouths are opportunistic predators, eating whatever live prey is available. The bulk of their diet consists of insects, crayfish, and other fish, but they will occasionally eat tadpoles and frogs. Early morning and evening are their most active feeding times.

Spawning takes place from late May to early July. Males usually build the nests on sandy, gravel, or rocky bottom areas near the protective cover of rocks, logs or dense vegetation. Unlike other members of the sunfish family, smallmouths usually build their nests many feet apart from each other.

Smallmouth bass may require more effort to catch than other sunfish, but it is worth it. When hooking a smallmouth, anglers are often rewarded with a series of leaps and runs that add to the excitement of the catch. Two effective methods for catching smallmouths are still fishing with crayfish, minnows or frogs, and casting live bait, spinners and plugs.

Largemouth Bass

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Largemouth bass are another major sportfish in New York State. While they are not the spectacular fighters their cousins the smallmouth are, largemouths can be just as challenging and exciting to land because of the habitat they prefer.

Largemouths thrive best in warm, shallow, well-vegetated areas of ponds and sluggish streams. They are rather solitary fish, preferring to stay among dense aquatic vegetation or close to submerged cover, such as stumps, logs, or dock pilings.

The largemouth bass is the largest member of the sunfish family and has been known to reach weights in excess of ten pounds. It closely resembles the smallmouth, but differs by its long upper jaw which extends well beyond the eye, and its pronounced wide, solid black lateral band. In addition, the largemouth is more of a dark green color than the smallmouth.

Largemouth bass are primarily fish-eating predators. They lie in wait in the cover of weeds and ambush prey as it swims by. Crayfish, frogs, and small animals, such as mice, are also eaten by this large sunfish.

Like smallmouths, largemouths are also late spring to midsummer spawners. Largemouth nests are less elaborate than smallmouth nests. Nests are built near protective cover in a variety of bottom types and are usually located far apart from each other.

Largemouth bass are a popular gamefish with New York anglers. They can be taken in weedy, stumpy areas by still fishing or casting with live bait or a wide variety of lures, including plastic worms and surface plugs. Since largemouths can thrive in small, warmer waters where other game species do not, they play an important role in fishery management by providing a highly desirable fishery in these waters.

Rock Bass and Black Crappie

Rock bass and black crappie are both popular panfish. They generally live in the same areas as bluegill and pumpkinseed, but will frequent open water areas more often. Although not as colorful, they resemble the true sunfish in body shape. However, both rock bass and black crappie have five sharp spines on their anal fins, whereas the rest of the sunfish family have three.

Rock Bass

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Rock bass are found in many waters across the State. They are most abundant in rocky and gravelly shallow water areas in lakes and ponds, and the lower, warm reaches of streams. Rock bass are abundant in most of New York State's large rivers. Often, they occur in the same areas as smallmouth bass and compete with the bass for food. Rock bass are small to medium sized sunfish, reaching six to ten inches in length. They are brownish in color with several dark bars or blotches mottling their sides. Their bright red eyes have earned them the nickname "redeyes" among many New York State anglers.

Rock bass have similar feeding habits to other sunfish, eating mostly aquatic insects, crayfish, and small fishes. Spawning occurs from mid-May to mid-June, usually after black bass, but before other sunfish. Nests are built in a variety of bottom types, including gravel, mud, and in vegetation. Like the black basses, rock bass also keep their nests well separated.

Rock bass are popular with many New York State anglers. They generally occur in groups and readily bite live bait, small spinners, plugs, and poppers. Since rock bass are often found with smallmouth bass, bass anglers sometimes consider them a nuisance.

Black Crappie

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The black crappie is common in waters across New York State. It is usually found in clear, quiet waters of lakes, ponds, and larger rivers where there is abundant vegetation.

Black crappies average eight to twelve inches in length and are easily recognized by their highly compressed, diamond shaped bodies. They are dark green to golden brown in color, with mottled patches of dark scales.

Typical sunfish, black crappies spawn from May to July. The nests are built in ten to 24 inches of water in sand or gravel areas with some vegetation. Most nests are kept five to six feet apart.

Black crappies provide good fishing opportunities. Usually occurring in large schools, they can provide fast and furious action for anglers. This is especially true in early to mid-spring when large numbers gather prior to spawning. And, like the rest of the sunfish family, black crappies make a delicious meal.

Sunfish and People

Fishing can greatly influence fish populations. Left unchecked, anglers could unknowingly overharvest a particular species and affect both the abundance and size quality of the fishery.

To ensure that healthy fish populations are maintained, DEC has set closed seasons and established creel (number of fish that can be taken) and size limits for many fish species. These regulations have been created to protect fish during vulnerable life stages. For example, seasons are closed to coincide with spawning times, and large size limits are set to enable fish to reach spawning age and provide for quality fisheries.

Each species has its own set of regulations. Popular sportfish, such as smallmouth and largemouth bass, often require strict size, creel, and season limits. These bass live longer and mature more slowly than other fish species. Regulations are necessary to make sure enough adults are left to provide both continued good fishing and sufficient reproduction.

Other species, such as pumpkinseed and bluegill, generally do not require such strict fishing regulations. Unlike bass, these two sunfish species usually reproduce very rapidly and successfully and can withstand larger limits on angling regulations. The goal of these panfish regulations is to maintain size quality in fisheries. While DEC sets fishing regulations, maintaining healthy fish populations also needs the cooperation of anglers. For instance, today many bass anglers practice catch-and-release fishing, voluntarily returning their legal-size, mature fish to the water for other anglers to enjoy, and so these adult fish can spawn again. Such cooperative programs will help ensure there are plenty of fish for future anglers.

Scientific Names

Many species of fish look alike, making it difficult to tell them apart. In addition, many types of fish have different common names in different parts of the country. To distinguish one organism from another, biologists give each a scientific name that is unique to that organism. The names are derived from Latin and consist of a genus and a species. The genus name is first and is capitalized. The species is second and is in lower case. Both the genus and species are either underlined or italicized when written. While several organisms in the same family share a common genus name (like family members sharing a last name) they have different species names. Occasionally, two members of a family are so similar that one is considered a subspecies of the other. In these cases, the organisms are given two species names. Here are the common and scientific names of New York State's sunfish:

Scientific Names of Fish Species
Common Name Scientific Name
Smallmouth Bass Micropterus dolomieui
Largemouth Bass Micropterus salmoides
Bluegill Lepomis macrochirus
Pumpkinseed Lepomis gibbosus
Redbreast Lepomis auritus
Rock Bass Ambloplites rupestris
Black Crappie Pomoxis nigromaculatus

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