Monday, August 7, 2017

Identifying CT's Sunfishes

The last two fishing days have been a physical and mental beat down for me. I really didn't feel like they provided the material I needed to do a good report today, so I've opted to do something else entirely and put a short report at the end. Enjoy.

I frequently see people misidentify sunfishes, and also get questions now and then about what species a given sunfish is. I watch a lot of fishing youtubers, and when I watch those that come from a primarily bass fishing background, I find myself shaking my head a lot. Every sunfish is a bluegill to them. I myself was a culprit before I really got into multi-species angling, but once you take a little bit of time to look at and distinguish the different species and hybrids, it becomes second nature. I can confidently identify any sunfish species or hybrid shown to me from this region. The further south you go, though, the more variety there is, and I don't know how well I'd do distinguishing such species as orange spotted sunfish, long ear, and shell crackers. But I do have a pretty good handle with the fish we have in the North East and much of the Mid Atlantic. To clarify, yes, crappie, rock bass, and black bass sunfish biologically, but if you can't distinguish them you really need to start from scratch... there are books that would be a far bigger help to you then anything I have time to do here. So let's dive right in.

Perhaps the king of this humble but well dressed group of fishes is the bluegill, Lepomis macrochirus. Bluegills are a fish we've all caught, and for many of us it was the first fish species we ever caught on rod and reel. Bluegill come in a broad range of color patterns:

Because bluegills have such a broad range of color patterns and numerous different strains and subspecies, identifying based on body color is imperfect. Absence of bright spots on the body is a indication that the fish is a bluegill, but does not dismiss the possibility that it could be a hybrid. 

key features:
-round body shape
-dark spot on rear dorsal fin
-short, black opercular flap
-light blue-blue grey coloration on lower operculum or mouth.
-small mouth 

The bluegills body shape is only shared by two other sunfish in CT, the most common of the two being the states largest native sunfish, the punkinseed, Lepomis gibbosus. Like bluegills, they have a very broad range of colors, but are almost always more vibrantly patterned than bluegills. 

Key features:
-round body
-short opercular flap with red, and often some white, bordering black. 
-orange and blue marbling on operculum and face
-mid-sized mouth opening
-no spot, some banding on rear dorsal fin
-alternating blue and orange or white and orange spotting or striping on body, often grading to green towards the back.
-mid sized mouth

The third round bodied sunfish found in CT is the banded sunfish, which is the last common non-hybrid sunfish in our waters. They are far smaller on average than either bluegills or punkinseeds and have a distinctive banded body with bright white spots. They are rarely caught on rod and reel unless targeted. 

Now for the long/ellipse bodied sunfish species, of which there are two. The more common, native species, redbreast sunfish, Lepomis auritus, is often caught in freestone streams that contain trout so it is a particularly frequent bycatch for fly fishers. Like pumpkinseeds, they have blue and orange marbling under their eyes. Unlike pumpkinseeds, the blue is very thin lines, not nearly as large an prominent as the blue on pumpkinseeds. 

Key features: 
-long, all black opurcular flap
-bright orange or red breast
-orange tipped anal, caudal, and rear dorsal fin
-blue or white shaded dorsal spine tips (varied among different populations, look at the difference in the three above
-light blue or green sides with some small orange spots
- orange with light blue stripes under eye, rarely all the way to the end of the operculum. 
-large mouth

Green sunfish, Lepomis cyanellus, are the second long bodied sunfish in CT. They have the same basic body shape and fin structure as redbreast sunfish, except their opercular flap which is short and colored. 

Key features:
-dark green body with small blue spots
-green operculum and face with small blue lines/spots
-short opercular flap with a light half ring
-yellow or white fringe on caudal, anal, and rear dorsal fin
-large mouth 
-vertical lines on middle of body, especially in larger specimens

Now here where things get really funky. All four of these sunfish species are capable of hybridizing with eachother under the right circumnstances, resulting in infertile specimens with striking combinations and variations of traits. I have caught three hybrid varieties in CT: 

Bluegill x redbreast sunfish
Key features:
-round body
-long black opercular flap
- orange-green operculum with light blue marbling 
-some dark shading on rear dorsal fin
-mid-size mouth

Redbreast x green sunfish hybrid
key features
-bright orange on anal, caudal, and rear dorsal fin. 
-short opercular flap with light orange half ring
-orange to green face with thin blue lines
-yellow to orange belly grading to green back, blue spots throughout
-large mouth

Bluegill-pumpkinseed hybrid
key features:
-no black spot on rear dorsal fin. 
-short black opercular flap, sometimes with a purple tip
- small mouth
- orange and blue marbling under eye and on operculum

Now, herein lies the issue with hybrids: There are so many possible combinations of traits, there really are no universal "key features" The ones I listed above apply only to the examples in the photos below. I've caught bluegill-pumpkinseed hybrids that had red on their opercular flap and a big black spot on their rear dorsal. And redbreast-pumpkinseed hybrids look so similar to green-redbreast hybrids it took me until yesterday to cleanly identify fish I had caught in two different streams early last year as green-redreast hybrids, and not ps-rb hybrids as I had thought they were. If you catch a sunfish that exhibits traits of two different species, photograph it as clearly as you can and do a mental ven-diagram later to determine what two parents produced your catch. If you can't accurately identify it and want to brag about your weird catch, just call in a hybrid sunfish. It's what most multi-species anglers do. 

I hop that helps avoid some future confusion, but I can't recommend enough that you do some reading and research on your local fish species. Misidentification is no laughing matter. Last thing you'd want is to get caught with a longear sunfish in you bait bucket in Pennsylvania... I'll let you PA residents find out why that is on your own. 

So here's the gist of my last two outings: The sound was windy and rough, and subsequently dirty, and therefor not so productive. I caught a snapper blue and a blue crab. 

Carping on the lake this morning was actually worse than it was the last two times. I'm actually kind of pissed about this endless awful carp season on my home waters. It's getting old, it really it's not fun, but I don't really have any other place to go for carp that's so close

I've said it before and I'll say it again, anyone who says a bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work hasn't experienced a bad day on the water. This whole season has left my with sucky mornings on the water, mornings that ended with me looking out over the lake with my two longest fingers extended. Yeah, it's not the worst thing in the world to have bad fishing, but that makes it no less frustrating. I'm jonesin' for some big rubber lipped fish and the water is not helping.


  1. Rowan
    Very informative on the Ct Sunfish!! Some are very pretty and some are slabs!!
    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Thanks for writing this. Seems almost custom-made for me. Haha. Between previous replies and the reality that I've become somehow obsessively fascinated with these little fishes. Another 5 or 6 a brief period before dinner...

    1. You aren't the first one that's asked about sunfish ID, and frankly I have felt for some time that there just isn't enough information out there about hybrid sunfish readily available to anglers.

  3. The hybrid sunfish look pretty cool. This is a nice post, especially since I can have a hard time identifying anything other than a very generic looking bluegill.

    1. Any time you get cross between two different species the result is interesting!