The sunfish family is made up of many different species, many which are not typically associated with the word sunfish. Crappies, largemouth, and smallmouth bass are included in this category. There are also a large number of fish that many people would simply call a “sunfish”. These include such species as the warmouth, pumpkinseed, red ear, redbreast, green, hybrid, orange- spotted, long ear, and the ever popular bluegill.
Minnesota has bluegill, pumpkinseed, green, and hybrid sunfish in many of it’s lakes. Other places they can be found include man-made impoundments, rivers, streams, ponds, and swamps. Within these waters the fish can be found roaming in small loose schools, often not reaching more than 20 fish. The bluegill is Minnesota's largest and most popular sunfish. It is found in about 65% of the state's lakes and many of its slow streams.
All of the Minnesota species fore mentioned are generally carnivorous. They mainly eat aquatic insects and insect larvae. Additionally, they will eat smaller fish, crayfish, and snails. When other food is in short supply, they will also feed on lake algae.
The breeding habits of the sunfishes are also the same. Sunfish begin spawning when water temperatures reach about 70°F. Spawning may peak in May or June, but continues until water temperatures cool in the fall. Because of their long spawning season, sunfish have very high reproductive potential, which often results in overpopulation in the face of low predation or low fishing pressure, thus stunting the overall size of the fish in that particular body of water. Nests are created in shallow water, one to two feet in depth. Gravel bottom is preferred. Fifty or more nests may be crowded into a small area, thus creating a spawning bed. A single female can deposit more than 50,000 eggs., however few females lay all their eggs in one nest, so each nest contains the eggs of several females. Males guard the nest until the eggs hatch and fry leave. Young fish feed on plankton, but as they grow the diet shifts to aquatic insects and their larvae.
Fishing for these small plentiful critters is a thing that can’t be overlooked. All of us have memories of catching sunfish from shore or a dock as a child. They are probably the best fish for children, as they can often times provide non-stop action. Adults can also get into fishing for sunfish as well. They are pound-for-pound one of the toughest fish swimming, and are great table-fare as well. Small jigs tipped with a small leech, night crawler, wax worm, or small plastic can be effective under a bobber. Beetle Spins and Poppers are also great tools for late Spring and early Summer sunfish.
Sunfish are a very volatile species, and should be taken in moderation. Size is also a thing one must look at when determining their catch for the day. Big male sunfish ensure that our children have the great panfishing that we’ve had available to us. Remember to only keep enough for a meal, and let the big boys go!