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The sunfish family speices, habitats, characteristics, fishing methods.

The sunfish family has more than 30 spiny rayed species that are native to the North American continent. The family includes many most widely-recognized and popular fishes. like Largemouth and Smallmouth, Rock Bass, sunfish species, White Crappie and Black Crappie members, and the Bream. This family also includes many colorful and attractive fishes, such as the little-known Bluespotted sunfish and the almost ubiquitous Pumpkinseed.
This family is one of the most popular and widely known gamefish groups in North America. Black basses probably attract the most angling attention, especially with the bass tornaments anglers, but for most of the people interested in fish for the fry pan and sport, the sunfishes and crappie provide unsurpassed angling.
Anglers like sunfish because of their fierce tenacity when caught by hook-and-line; their firm, white flesh; and their favored status as “bread and butter fish.” Some members of the Perch family and Drum family are confused with sunfishes, but upon close inspection none have all sunfish characteristics.

    The sunfish family species all characterized by having at least 1 spine ray at the front part of the dorsal fin, which is continuous with the rear portion. Their body is deeply compressed laterally, and the attachment of the pelvic fins is far forward, nearly beneath the pectoral fins. There are 3 or more spines at the front of the anal fin, and the scales are ctenoid, which means they have rough edges.
Sunfish Family Species diagram

    Their fins often have both soft rays and 6-13 stiff spines that provide protection from predators. The sunfish dorsal fin located on the top or back of a fish is divided into spiny and soft-rayed sections, and the front section of the anal fin has 3 or more spines at its origin. The caudal fin located on the tail is notched or slightly forked. Paired pectoral and pelvic fins are located towards the front of the fish (pelvic fins are below pectoral fins), and provide members of this family with the ability to make short movements with frequent turns, rather than cruise quickly through the water. Pelvic fins have 1 spine and 5 soft rays; there are 17 principal caudal fin rays. The lateral line is complete in all but one species of Lepomis family (The most recognizable of this genus is the Bluegill), and scales are ctenoid except in the genus Acantharcus (Mud sunfish), and occur all over the body, including the breast, cheeks, and opercles. Sunfish generally thrive in warmwater, fertile lakes with abundant shoreline aquatic plants or other protective cover within which they can easily maneuver.

    The sunfishes reproduce in the spring and early summer. All sunfish are nest builders, and their saucer-shaped nests located along the shoreline of ponds, lakes and streams. These nests usually consist of a circular depression in silt, sand or gravel that is lighter in color than the surrounding substrate because an adult male has consistently scraped silt, algae or other organic material, substrate and sediments from accumulating within the nest area with his caudal fin. Spawning is ritualized, with the males and females circling about the nesting site punctuated by short encounters when the female lies on her side while eggs are extruded and fertilized; two or more females may spawn within the nest of a single male. An active, nest-guarding male are swimming within the nest vicinity, guarding both eggs and newly-hatched young. After the hatching in couple of days, the young emerge from the nest, and the guarding parent leaves them to care for themselves.
    Overlaps in spawning habitat and behavior have led to frequent hybridization among species of sunfish, primarily in the genus Lepomis family. It may be difficult to identify very young sunfish or hybrids.
    Several species of the family inhabit cool-flowing streams, while others prefer quiet, warm, mud-bottomed ponds and lakes. Smallmouth Bass are most abundant in streams, Largemouth Bass prefer quiet waters of lakes and large rivers, Crappie are found in both moderate to large-sized lakes and streams, Green Sunfish and Orange-Spotted Sunfishes are found nearly everywhere, and Bluegill prefer lakes, ponds and the backwaters of large rivers.
    Sunfish are territorial or occur in small groups, and they are often associated with a particular haunt such as a submerged log, rock, vegetation, or overhanging bank. Sunfish are sight feeders and procure food either by lying in wait or making a sudden lunge or, in some species, actively foraging on the bottom.
    All sunfish are carnivorous and prey upon small fishes. Small species and young individuals of larger species eat small invertebrates such as aquatic insects, crustaceans, larvae, mollusks and small fish. Larger individuals feed more frequently on fish and crayfish. Most of the sunfishes are quite aggressive in their behavior toward other fishes and, in many instances, toward their own kind. They are opportunistic foragers, always on the alert for a drifting, helpless fish or insects to devour. Most sunfishes are very alert to terrestrial insects or other food items falling on the water surface and will instantly rush to the scene with the first arrival engulfing the food. The maximum size of sunfish varies greatly; the Longear Sunfish seldom reaches 5 inches or weighs more than a few ounces, while the Largemouth Bass may reach 2 feet and exceed 10 pounds.


    The bluegill may be the most well known of all the sunfish, and it is certainly the most popular with anglers and consumers. Originally distributed from the Great Lakes south to the Gulf of Mexico, it has been stocked throughout North America as a gamefish. It is equally at home in lakes or streams, but is most abundant in shallow, eutrophic lakes and ponds. The bluegill is identified by its deep, laterally compressed head and body and small mouth. The opercular flap is black, and individuals longer than 2 inches (51 mm) have a dark blotch at the posterior base of the dorsal fin. The sides usually have eight to ten sets of double vertical bars that are chain-like in appearance. Body colors range from olivaceous to purple, with a white to orange belly.

Redear Sunfish

    The redear, like the Bluegill, has been widely introduced throughout much of the U.S. and North America as a gamefish and a companion to the bluegill in managed systems. Its common names are “shellcracker” and “chinquapin.” The redear prefers sluggish waters. It is identified by its olive-yellow to straw-yellow body with gray or dusky spots. The breast is bright yellow to orange, and the opercular flap is short with a distinct scarlet outside margin or spot.

Warmouth Sunfish

    The warmouth, also called “goggle-eye,” inhabits sluggish waters, preferring weeds or debris such as logs, stumps and brush piles. This species has not been widely stocked in recreational waters, but is popular with anglers where it is abundant. Its primary importance to aquaculture has been in the production of hybrids with the other primary species. It has a dark, olivaceous to brown body, with dark splotches on the sides and the fins. The cheeks and opercula have three to four dark bars radiating posteriorly from the eye, and the eye is often reddish. The mouth is larger than that of the bluegill and the redear, and the body is not as laterally compressed as in these species.

Green Sunfish

    The green sunfish may be one of the most adaptable, abundant and environmentally tolerant of the sunfishes. It is found in a wide variety of habitats ranging from ponds and lakes to river systems. This hardiness makes it of interest as a “bait” fish, especially for setlines or trot-lines for catfish. In some states, however, this fish is classified as a game fish, and thus cannot be sold for this purpose. Characteristic colors of the green sunfish include a blue-green to dusky dorsum and sides, with a yellow to white belly. A dark basal spot is usually present on the posterior base of the dorsal fin. All fins are yellow to orange tinted, with occasional bright orange areas and white margins. The green sunfish is the species used most often to produce hybrids with either the bluegill or the redear sunfish.

Identification of Sunfish Family Species

  • A spinous dorsal fin with 6-13 spines followed by a soft dorsal fin.
  • Three or more anal fin spines.
  • Scales ctenoid.
  • Caudal fin rounded, emarginate or forked.
  • The males of certain genera display bright colors during the breeding season.

  • Sunfish

  • Caudel fin slightly rounded.
  • Dorsal fin with 8 or 9 spines.
  • Anal fin with 3 spines.
  • Often brightly colored, especially \ during the breeding season.
  • Dorsal fin with 9 to 12 spines and 10-12 rays.
  • Anal fin with 3 spines.

  • Black basses

  • Body elongate.
  • Distinctive notch between spinous and soft dorsal fin.
  • Dorsal fin with usually 10 spines and 10-15 rays.
  • Anal fin with 3 spines.

  • Rock basses

  • Typical bright sunfish coloration absent.
  • Sometimes called "redeye" due to distinctive red iris.
  • Lower jaw projecting.
  • Dorsal fin with 10 or 11 spines.
  • Anal fin with 5 or more spines and 11 or fewer soft rays.

  • Crappies

  • Body deep and compressed.
  • Dorsal fin with 5 to 8 spines and 14-16 rays.
  • Anal fin with 5-7 spines.

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