July Saturday this past summer I parked the car at a familiar new bridge
over a Southern Indiana limestone creek that I’ve fished since the age of
five. High summer, the creek was glorious with its beds of dark green
water weeds at the edges and the old covered bridge upstream showing off a
fresh coat of white wash. Crayfish scurried in every direction as I
stepped into the warm, clear-green water flowing lazily south towards the
Ohio River some 30 miles away. Carrying the 7-foot, medium-light St.
Croix Avid spinning rod with a 1/12 ounce orange
hair spinner, this day I was shunning my favorite gamefish species, the
smallmouth bass. This slow moving section of creek is “sunfish” paradise,
and I wanted to take some the too-beautiful-to-be-believed tropical orange
and turquoise sunfish in full breeding colors.
My cast to
a quiet weedline didn’t disappoint as it produced the first of numerous
panfish I’d connect with in the next two hours. Cast after cast the
ornery sunnies whacked the spinner, furiously circling in the shallow
water once hooked. And the occasional rock bass or smallmouth interrupted
the sunfish frenzy, providing a pleasant change of pace and making for a
had enjoyed this kind of fishing many times with Dad, usually employing
live bait, and my thoughts turned to him as I waded back to the bridge.
In Dad’s world of fish, panfish were divided into four groups: bluegills,
crappies, goggle-eyes (rock bass), and “red sunfish.” The fish I’d been
happily catching and quickly releasing that morning were the latter –
generic “red sunfish.” Of course, red sunfish describes no species in
particular; it was just an Indiana farmboy’s description of the fish he
was taking home in a bucket, fresh from the Wabash River some 90 years
ago. Were these fish I enjoy so much longears, pumpkinseeds, red breast
sunfish, red ears, or something else? Were those chunky, stubby fish rock
bass or warmouth? They tend to all look a lot alike, and I began to wonder
if we fishermen really know one species from another.
I like to
be able to identify specifically the fish I’m catching; it seems to make
the fishing experience more satisfying, and makes for better story-telling
too. Here is a checklist of the more common sunfish, with a few
identifying characteristics, you’ll likely encounter when fishing the
creeks and lakes of the Midwest.
27 species of freshwater sunfish belong to the family Centrarchidae,
including the genus Micropterus – largemouth, smallmouth, and
spotted bass. The scope of this discussion will be limited to the
“panfish” members of the sunfish family that are commonly caught in the
Midwest. A species list will be somewhat different, with some
overlapping, if you’re a fisherman in Texas, Florida, Virginia and
elsewhere outside the Midwest.
meaning scaled gill cover (operculum), is the major genus within
Centrarchidae, but not the only one. Here are a few of the various
species you may run into during an average outing. See how many you
can identify next time you're on the water!
Pumpkinseed (L. gibbosus) – distinctive crimson spot on
posterior edge of opercular flap; 3 – 5 wavy, bluish lines radiating
back from the eye; pectoral fins long and pointed.
Orangespotted sunfish (L. humilis) – no crimson spot on
opercular flap; no bluish wavy lines on cheek; pectoral fins long and
Bluegill (L. macrochirus) – distinct black spot near base of
last dorsal rays; opercular flap all black; pectoral fins long and
Longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis) – elongated opercular
flap trimmed in narrow red margin; pectoral fins short and rounded.
sunfish (L. microlophus) – opercular flap with red edge
(orange in females), but not greatly elongated as in longear sunfish;
pectoral fins long and pointed.
Redbreast sunfish (L. auritis) – opercular flap longer than
longear sunfish, often reaches a length of one inch or more; rare in
Ohio and Indiana.
sunfish (L. cyanellus) – pectoral fins short and rounded;
large mouth with no teeth on tongue.
Warmouth (L. gulosus) – 3 spines on anal fin; small teeth on
tongue; generally larger than rock bass.
Rockbass (Ambloplites rupestris) – 6 anal spines.
crappie (Pomoxis annularis) – dorsal fin has a maximum of 6
spines; dark vertical bars around the body.
crappie (P. nigromaculatus) – dorsal fin has 7 or 8 spines;
no dark vertical bars around the body.
descriptive characteristics should allow species identification in most
cases. However, an interesting and confounding aspect of sunfish life is
their potential for hybridization in the wild (laboratory hybrids are
easily achieved, indicating that these are recently evolved species).
Many of these species live in the same waters and spawn under the same
environmental conditions, often sharing the same bedding areas. Given the
external method of fertilization that takes place in moving water,
hybridization can occur; some specimens taken while fishing will not fit
these characteristics exactly. Hybridization is not usual in the wild,
but biologists do not know exactly how distinct species that look so much
alike to us tell one another apart during spawning.
information can be accessed at the following Web sites: