Freshwater species can get confusing, especially when they have so many traits in common. It can be hard to tell one apart from another, so in this post we’ll be comparing Bluegill and Sunfish. Read on to find out what differentiates these fish, what stands out about each variety, and where you can fish for them.
Is a Bluegill the Same as a Sunfish?
Bluegill vs. Sunfish can be confusing to many anglers, and it’s easy to see why. In short, a Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is a Sunfish, but not all Sunfish are Bluegills. Confused yet?
Let’s try to simplify things here: the Bluegill is a freshwater fish native to North America that is a distinct species. It falls under the umbrella of Sunfish, a family of fish better known to scientists as Centrarchidae.
What’s the difference between Bluegill and Sunfish?
The difference between Bluegill and Sunfish is a little hard to pin down because, as stated above, Sunfish are actually a family of several different species of fish. The Bluegill species resides in this “family.”
Here are some key differences between the two.
- A family made up of 38 species of fish
- This family includes Rock Bass, Pumpkinseeds, Green Sunfish, Crappies and more
- Freshwater fish that are ray-finned (AKA have bony spines)
- Can be found throughout North America as well as on other continents
- Can be found in a wide variety of habitats
- Some, but not all Sunfish are also known as panfish
- One species belonging to the Sunfish family
- One of the tastiest freshwater species
- Have distinct purple/blue coloring along the gill area
- Can be found throughout most of North America, but is truly native to the midwest and east
- Prefers shallow lake and pond water
- Known as a panfish due to its small size
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What is a Bluegill?
Bluegill are some of the most-loved Sunfish among freshwater fishermen. They’re relatively easy to find, aggressive enough to be fun to catch, and delicious if you’re up for a pan fry! Bluegill fish reside mostly in lakes and ponds, but can also be found in slow-moving rivers and streams. This species loves hiding among vegetation and spawn from May to August depending on the location.
Bluegill have a varied diet, meaning they won’t be too picky about your bait. They feed on insect larvae, water fleas, small crustaceans, other small fish, dragonflies, crayfish, worms and much more! Some of the best Bluegill lures mimic live and natural prey.
What is a Sunfish?
Sunfish have been the start of many a fisherman’s career. These little fish are everywhere in North America! Depending on where you live and/or where you’re fishing, you’re likely to find at least a few species.
Sunfish, as a group, are known for being “laterally compressed,” meaning most have an almost disc-like shape to their bodies. This is also part of why they’re known as panfish, as they fit perfectly into a frying pan! As a rule, Sunfish have 6-9 anal spines, 2 dorsal fins (with both soft and spined rays) and are often found near vegetation.
However, there’s a lot of variety in the Sunfish family. These fish can be as small as 2 inches in length or reach up to 3 feet (such as the ever-popular Largemouth Bass). They also prefer a variety of different habitats, water columns, temperatures and spawning seasons.
How To Identify a Bluegill
Luckily, ID’ing a Bluegill is relatively easy! These guys truly stand out against other fish in the Sunfish family. Here are a few key ways to tell Bluegills apart from other species:
- Longer dorsal fins than most Sunfish with 6-13 spines
- A dark opercular flap (where the “ear” of the fish would be)
- A dark spot at the end of the dorsal fin
- Characteristic neon-blue to purple coloration around the gill area
- Bright orange to yellow breast/abdomen
How Can You Identify Other Freshwater Sunfish Species?
As we pointed out earlier, there are 38 total species in the Sunfish family with 34 still living. That’s a lot of fish to weed through, especially if you’re fishing in different areas of North America. But even within smaller destinations, quite a few different species can reside. Below you’ll find some of the most common Sunfish species and their identifying features.
These fish are found in creeks and streams, but may also wander into lakes and ponds. They’ll stay near vegetation and prefer gravel, sand, or rocky bottoms. Green Sunfish are able to tolerate poor water conditions. This species is blue-green along the body with bright blue stripes on the gills. They have larger mouths than their Bluegill cousins, but are actually smaller in size.
The Shellcracker is a fun little fish known for feeding on snails and freshwater mollusks. They can be found in the southeast, but also as far west as Illinois and Missouri. Shellfish will congregate near logs and vegetation in warm, quiet ponds and lakes. Shellcrackers are larger than Bluegills and can reach up to 5 lbs. They’re a dark olive in coloration with light greenish-yellow midsections. Look for orange and red spots around the gill area.
Warmouth, also known as Warmouth Bass, are known for hitting your line hard. They hang out in ponds, streams, springs, lakes and rivers with muddy bottoms. Warmouths can survive in low oxygen water and are hardier than most other Sunfish. They avoid fast-moving water and prey on other small fish, crayfish and insects. When it comes to eating, Warmouths have a good amount of meat on their bodies and can reach up to 12 inches in size.
These are perhaps the most whimsical of the Sunfish family, often confused for bluegills, and well-known as childhood favorites. Pumpkinseeds are distinctly colorful with orange, yellow, blue and green. They’re also speckled with dark blotches. Pumpkinseeds have small mouths and usually weigh less than a pound. They feed at all water levels and aren’t picky about bait, so they’re relatively easy to catch.
The Rock Bass is a Sunfish often confused with the Warmouth due to the similarity in body structure. These fish live in slow-moving and shallow water, congregating around any underwater structure. They’re native to the Mississippi drainage and are widely stocked by anglers. Rock Bass are usually smaller than the similar Warmouth and have a golden brown to olive body with a white belly. They blend in well with their surroundings.
Sunfish Size Differences
While Sunfish are generally on the smaller size and known as panfish, that isn’t true of all species in this family. One of the smallest Sunfish is the Orangespotted, reaching 4 inches maximum if this species is lucky.
Some of the largest Sunfish, on the other hand, are Largemouth Bass, which can reach over 22 lbs in weight and 3 feet.
Most commonly, Sunfish average anywhere from 6-12 inches depending on the species, location, and age.
Where Can You Find Sunfish?
You can find Sunfish in most places across the North American continent. As far as native habitats, these usually reach from the east to west coast, into lower Canada, and northern Mexico. However, Sunfish have also been introduced far outside of their native range–it isn’t uncommon to hear that record-setting Sunfish are being caught in countries like Japan or England.
Sunfish Fishing Tips
Let’s wrap things up with some Sunfish fishing tips that’ll help you land one on the line. Here are a few things to pay attention to when tracking Sunfish:
- Know your habitat. Are you fishing in Sunfish-friendly waters? Think shallow, slightly warm, and vegetated.
- What do Sunfish in your area eat? Prey are an important consideration when picking out bait, so know what they’re munching on in these water sources. Are you going after Shellcrackers, who prefer mollusks, or the Largemouth Bass, more geared toward smaller fish and minnows? Stock your tackle box accordingly.
- Come prepared with the right rig. The Sunfish is such a wide-spread family that you can find species in all levels of the water column. Choose rigs that will allow you to fish more than one way. Micro drops hots are a great option, as are Mule Rigs or realistic chatterbait.
- Keep things light with gear that’ll let you know when you have something on the line. Ultralight fishing gear is easy to carry, but strong enough to hold up against Largemouth Bass, for example, if you happen to come across one. Pick out an appropriate line weight for the fish you’re after and make sure your reel has great castability.
No matter where you are in North America, chances are you’ll come across a Sunfish at one point or another in your fishing career! The biggest tip we can give you is to be prepared. Know your species, stock up on a variety of bait, and be ready for anything with appropriate tackle. Happy fishing!
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