The poor man’s gamefish

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-114426709825007.jpg’, ”, ‘A pumpkinseed sunfish cannot resist the lure of a popping bug presented via a fly rod.’);

Most freshwater fishermen will agree that inch for inch and ounce for ounce, the sunfish is the gamest fish that swims in fresh water. When hooked, this pint-sized cousin of the bass, crappie, and warmouth is plucky, determined and unyielding to the end. It has the arrow-like rush of the trout, the stamina of the bass, and the strength of the pike. Unfortunately for anglers, it seldom reaches a length greater than 8 inches or a weight in excess of a half a pound.

Some pompous fishermen tend to look down their noses at the undersized sunfish, but there is no fish that has been sought more often by young anglers or that has brought more fishing pleasure to Americans of every generation and age. These dynamos of the depths occur in all of the lower 48 states and are sometimes called sunnies, shellcrackers, bream or perch in various parts of the country. All sunfish are members of the genus Lepomis. The bluegill, green, pumpkinseed, orange spotted and redear sunfishes are the ones most often encountered in Illinois.The bluegill is the most common of these species found in the waters of the Rock River Valley, and I would guess the pumpkinseed would come in second.

Frequently, in the absence of sufficient numbers of predators such as bass, pike and muskies, sunfish populations will explode and insufficient food will stunt the growth of the population. When this occurs, it will be rare to catch one larger than 3 or 4 inches in length. In most areas, anglers are advised to keep all the sunfish they catch to prevent overcrowding, but at Pierce Lake in Rock Cut State Park, there is a limit on the number one may keep. This regulation is to ensure a constant supply of food for the lake’s muskie population.

Sunfish are stimulated to spawn when the temperature of the water reaches 68 degrees. Then, the male creates the nest by fanning out a shallow depression. He then rounds up an egg-laden female and drives her over the nest to deposit her eggs. He fertilizes the roe by swimming over them and releasing his spermatozoa. To ensure his genetic material is preserved, he may go through the same procedure with several females.

The father then selects a nest to guard during the incubation period, and will viciously attack any intruder he deems to be a menace to his offspring. Almost any small artificial lure a fisherman may cast in the vicinity will be considered to be a menace:

As noted previously, the bluegill and pumpkinseed are common in our area, and are easily distinguished from one another. Frequently, however, a sunny will be caught that has the characteristics of both species. Such a fish is a hybrid and probably resulted from an error made by its father. Blinded by the instinct to spawn, the male carelessly induced a female of another species to lay her eggs in his nest. Though the hybrid will be as strong and robust as either of its parental species, it is sterile and cannot reproduce. This results from different chromosome patterns of the parents, and viable reproductive cells are incapable of being produced.

Hybrid sterility is a common genetic isolating mechanism used by nature to keep species separate. Without such reproductive barriers, biological chaos would result in the natural world. A more familiar example of hybrid sterility is the mule. A mule results from the mating of a mare and a jackass, and is actually more robust than either of its parents, but, alas, it, too, is sterile due to chromosome incompatibility.

Though most sunfish are caught on cane poles or rods and reels baited with earthworms on the end of a 10- to 20-pound test line, a thrill awaits the angler who goes after them with ultra-light tackle. I prefer the fly rod with a leader testing no more than 2 pounds. Light spinning rigs will do almost as well, but weight must be added to cast wet or dry flies and small, surface-popping bugs.

In Maryland, where I previously lived, I was fortunate to have fresh water canals behind my house. One day while fishing in the late afternoon, I was stunned when what I thought was a large bass had sucked in my popping bug, but I was even more agog when I landed the fish, and it turned out to be an 11-inch bluegill that weighed exactly 1 pound. (Those canals in back of my house were good to me because in 1975 I took the largest chain pickerel caught in the state that year and was awarded a pewter cup by the Baltimore Sun newspaper).

If any of my readers have caught a sunfish that was larger than the one I caught, I would be delighted if you would report it to me.

From the April 5-11, 2006, issue

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