Catching sunfish is fun. Almost all anglers got their fishing feet wet by landing these prolific and plentiful little guys, but I confess to taking the activity a little too seriously. My legitimate excuse is that they are really good to eat.
In early April, Lucky Jim and I visited our favorite little conservation lake, and in true fisherman fashion, I refuse to tell you how to find it. In general, these free public fishing opportunities are all about the same. You are likely to encounter other anglers at any of them, but probably not too many trying to catch sunfish almost exclusively.
What might be considered too seriously? We spent more than five hours trying to catch a limit of 20 fish apiece. The average weight of all our keepers was probably less than 8 ounces each. We did manage to catch quite a few that were larger than that, which is the exact reason it’s our favorite conservation lake.
Most of the biggest fish we caught were red-ear sunfish. While it is not necessary to know the difference between the subspecies, it can be helpful in making the most of your daily limit.
common sunfish in Missouri is the bluegill. Farm ponds and just about every other body of water in the state are filled with them. A really good-sized bluegill is 10 inches long and weighs about three-quarters of a pound. They have small mouths, dark green backs and sides, and a small black patch on the edge of their gill flaps surrounded by just a bit of blue.
Red-ear sunfish are similarly shaped and colored, but their gills have a white border and a prominent red or orange spot. That distinct mark is the best way to tell the difference, but another telltale sign is size. Red-ear sunfish can be more than 12 inches long and closer to a full pound.
The other difference is where to catch them. While all sunfish move to shallower areas of the lake or pond for spawning in the spring, red-ear are commonly in deeper water. Also known as shell crackers because of their taste for snails, they are regularly looking for food on the bottom of the lake.
On the other end of the size spectrum of the common sunfish in the state is the long-ear. Their maximum size is about 7 inches and about a quarter of a pound. They are much more likely to be found in streams than lakes and are best recognized by their bright coloration. They look like something almost tropical.
Some people call them pumpkinseeds, and they do look like the non-native Missouri fish with that name, but they are different. The telling trait is the feature that gives the long-ear sunfish its name. The black spot on the gill edge is elongated on the side of its head and looks like a long ear.
The coloring of the green sunfish is much like its brethren with green, blue, yellow and white features, but its shape is distinctly different. The others are more round, almost plate-shaped, while the green sunfish is much longer than it is tall. Its mouth is also significantly larger than those of the three others. They are similar in length and weight to the bluegill and red-ear sunfish. What sets them apart is noticeable during the cleaning process. Their flesh is not as firm as the other two.
Many ponds are stocked with hybrid sunfish that are a cross between green sunfish and bluegills. They grow quickly, which makes them desirable for stocking, but they don’t reproduce to provide food for other predator fish, and they have the mushy flesh of their green sunfish parents.
Other sunfish found in Missouri include the somewhat rare flier and warmouth, and the secretive rock bass, also known as goggle eyes. Technically, crappie and black bass – like the largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass – are also part of the sunfish family. Most everyone else on the lake that day was trying to catch any of those while we targeted our little favorites.
While I won’t tell you where that was, I will offer one sunfish catching tip. Early April is not as good as May or June, so the next time out is bound to be much better.
John J. Winkelman is community relations manager at Mercy Hospital Jefferson. If you have news for Outdoor Guide Magazine, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow John on Twitter at @johnjwink99.