Is it a bluegill, bream, panfish or sunfish? Learn more about the different types of sunfish and how best to catch them in this post.
What Are the Different Types of Sunfish?
In total, there are 34 native species of sunfish in North America. Four other species in this group are technically extinct. The term “sunfish” has a broad range and refers to a type of freshwater ray-finned fish under the Latin name Centrarchidae.
Due to the variety in this family it can be hard to narrow sunfish down to easily identifiable features. Aside from those classic ray fins, different types of sunfish can be identified by characteristic mouth size, body color, the position of the eye and jaw, and the edge of the gill plate.
Types of Sunfish in North America
Let’s take a closer look at some of the most common and popular sunfish along with characteristic features:
The Bluegill averages 8 inches and is one of the most popular sunfish, native to the eastern and central US but found in southern states as well. The opercular flap on a bluegill is dark in color and pectoral fins are elongated. They also have a small mouth.
Redear Shellcracker Sunfish
Redear Shellcrackers and Bluegill sunfish are easily mixed up, but Redears are slightly larger and have spotting with a red-orange border along the opercular flap. This is the feature that has earned them their name.
The Warmouth is on the smaller side at 7 inches and sticks to the Great Lake and Mississippi River area, but can found in other parts of the United States as well. Large mouths and red eyes easily separate them from other sunfish.
Pumpkinseeds are a favorite of young anglers, and are native to the Atlantic coast. They have blue lines running through their gill plates and a white border along the opercular flap.
At just 5 inches, the Green sunfish have surprisingly large mouths and black opercular flaps. The pectoral fin is rounded and very short. In coloration, they’re green with a yellow belly.
Averaging 10 inches, Redbreasts stick to the east coast but run all the way down to Florida. You’ll be able to identify a Redbreast by their unusually long opercular flap and red-orange belly.
Longear sunfish have a wide habitat range and can be identified by long pelvic fins that point almost straight down. They also have bright blue spotting.
A fishermen favorite, the largemouth bass has an elongated body with a deep notch between the dorsal fins. Their bodies range in color from olive to brassy green with light-colored bellies. Runs 6-18 inches.
Ranging from 6 to 16 inches, the Smallmouth Bass is native to central US and can be IDed by color variations: dark brown fading to green along the back, fading back to brown with bronze and green sides. Unlike the Largemouth, the jaw edge does not extend beyond the eye.
Fliers have a compressed body style with dark spots along the flank and a pale underside. A vertical, dark line runs through the eye in a “teardrop” appearance.
Crappies have large mouths and dark blotches along their body. They’re widely distributed throughout the US and a favorite for anglers.
These fish are easily identified by their red lower fins and bellies, as well as the dark opercular flap. As their name suggests, they’re spotted orange.
One of the smallest sunfish species, Black-banded sunfish reach about 4 inches max. They have a compressed body, small mouth, and noticeable black bands running vertically.
The Rockbass, Often confused for Warmouth, is a larger sunfish that looks like a mix between a bluegill and a black bass. While they have been known to reach 3 pounds they are more commonly found at around 1 pound in size
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Freshwater Sunfish Appearance
Despite the wide range of species in the sunfish group, these fish do have similar characteristics across the lot of them:
- 6-9 anal spines
- 2 dorsal fins (with 6 to 13 spines)
- Usually a compressed body shape
- Small mouths
Of course there are exceptions, such as the Large and Smallmouth bass, which have more elongated bodies. The sunfish in Micropterus and Lepomis have only 3 anal spines.
Freshwater Sunfish Distribution, Population, and Habitat
As with their appearance, sunfish species vary widely when it comes to habitat and distribution. Their popularity has resulted in the fish being introduced outside of their native ranges and, in some cases, becoming an invasive species. While not usually sold in commercial food stores, some anglers find these fish tasty.
Sunfish are distributed heavily on the eastern side of the US with a small pocket having made their way by introduction to the far west. Most species range from the Atlantic border to the Midwest, north into Canada and south to Florida and northern Texas. Outside of the US, the sunfish has been introduced internationally to Europe, Africa, Asia and South America.
These species are prolific and thrive in many water sources, usually making use of bottom feeding. As a whole they prefer slow-moving water and can be found in lakes, ponds, streams, rivers and even swamp. Sunfish congregate near vegetation and downed logs. Each species has specific preferences when it comes to the water column and temperature, though they seek warmer water specifically for bedding.
Sunfish Predators and Prey
As bottomfeeders, most sunfish prey on crayfish, insects, snails and other small invertebrates easily found in their environment. Some species prefer mollusks and small fish. Aside from humans the main predators that sunfish need to worry about are birds of prey.
Sunfish Spawn and average life span
Most sunfish spawn in spring and nest in circular depressions in fine substrate after courtship. Males dig these nests and defend them as well. During courtship, male and female fish “dance” before the female decides to deposit eggs in the male’s nest. Sunfish aren’t necessarily monogamous and more than one female may deposit eggs in the same nest. Females typically look for larger males as the males are the ones defending the nests. These mating rituals and spawning practices don’t vary much across the sunfish species.
On average, the freshwater sunfish lives four to six years. Some species have been found to reach 10 years.
Can you eat freshwater sunfish
While our initial description of sunfish, with their compressed bodies and smaller size, might make it surprising, they’re actually a popular eating fish. The most popular sunfish to eat are the bluegill and crappie. Both are considered panfish due to their size and are known for their light, delicate flavor.
The most popular sunfish to catch are, of course, Large and Smallmouth bass due to their large size and aggression. They’re popular with sports fishermen and can reach up to two feet in size. Eating Largemouth Bass isn’t for everyone, but they’re said to taste great if prepared correctly.
Are sunfish and bluegill the same thing?
Bluegills are a type of sunfish, so you may hear them referred to as a sunfish, but that’s actually just the family of fish they belong to. Not all sunfish are Bluegills, but all Bluegills are sunfish.
Are crappie sunfish?
Both the white and black crappie belong to the sunfish family. They’re two of the more popular sunfish among recreational fishermen.
What is the Largest Freshwater Sunfish Species?
The largest freshwater sunfish species is the Largemouth Bass, which averages 6-18 inches. The world record for biggest Largemouth Bass is 22.311 lbs. caught in Japan, where the Largemouth resides in very low numbers.
What is the Smallest Sunfish Species?
Banded sunfish are the smallest, measuring in at just 1-3 inches in length.
What is the most Colorful Sunfish?
The answer to this question is debatable, however most anglers seem to agree that the Longear sunfish is the most colorful. They have an almost neon blue-green speckling along their bodies with orange and yellow spots on their fins, red eyes, and orange banding along the operculum.
If you’re looking for a family of fish with some variety and challenges, try going after sunfish. Some anglers have made a game of checking each type of sunfish off the list. With a variety of sizes, habitats, and bait preferences, sunfish provide endless entertainment when it comes to freshwater fishing.
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