Wilderness Underfoot: Bluegills and sunfish

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111825199813915.jpg’, ”, ‘Ancient member of the bass and sunfish family – Chaenobryttus sp. lived during the Miocene Epoch, beginning about 24 million years ago. It is most closely related to the modern warmouth, Chaenobryttus gulosus. This fossil was found in Kansas.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-111825188821595.jpg’, ”, ‘Two common Illinois fish –The bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus (upper right) often reaches a length of about 9.5 inches and a weight of 12 oz. The record size for a bluegill in Illinois is 3 lb. 8 oz., but amazing as that is, the world record holder from Alabama was even larger: 4 lb. 12 oz. Those record-breaking fish had probably survived somewhat longer than the bluegill’s average lifespan of 5 or 6 years. The orangespotted sunfish, Lepomis humilis (lower left) may reach the same size as the bluegill, but it is more often found about half as large, in the 4- to 5-inch range. Its average lifespan is about four years. Two other sunfish are common in Illinois – the longear and the redear. The longear sunfish is similar in size and lifespan to the orangespotted sunfish, but the redear may reach a length of 18 inches or more.’);

Anyone who’s ever fished in a pond, lake or stream in this region has caught one of these common fish

One photo you’re sure to find in almost any family album is a kid smiling, holding up a fishing pole and a prize catch of a little bluegill or sunfish. These fish are so prolific that you can spot them even if you aren’t a fisherman. Look into the water on the edge of any reasonably clear pond, lake, or stream, and you’ll see them scooting past in schools of 20 or 30.

Bluegills and sunfish are relatively small. They’re considered “panfish”—a term used to describe freshwater fish that are typically caught on a line, good to eat, and able to be cooked in a pan without having to be sliced into pieces. Warmouth, crappie, pumpkinseeds, and small bass species are also called panfish.

Bluegills and sunfish actively feed in the morning and evening, looking for insects, crustaceans and smaller fish. At the same time, they’re trying to avoid being eaten by turtles, snakes, mammals and shorebirds—and of course, humans! Their flat bodies are an asset both in hunting and escaping from predators. They aren’t built for fast forward motion, but rather for quick turns, short bursts, and slipping through dense underwater vegetation.

How well they eat and how long they escape predators helps determine how large they’ll grow. They do best in water with plenty of vegetation, which provides a habitat for their prey and places for them to hide.

From the June 8-14, 2005, issue

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