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Name that Sunfish!

By Dave Votaw


One hot 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 memorable morning.


I 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.


All 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.


Lepomis, 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 pointed.


Bluegill (L. macrochirus) – distinct black spot near base of last dorsal rays; opercular flap all black; pectoral fins long and pointed.


Longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis) – elongated opercular flap trimmed in narrow red margin; pectoral fins short and rounded.


Redear 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.


Green 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.


White crappie (Pomoxis annularis) – dorsal fin has a maximum of 6 spines; dark vertical bars around the body.

Black crappie (P. nigromaculatus) – dorsal fin has 7 or 8 spines; no dark vertical bars around the body.


These brief 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.


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