Overview of Freshwater Sunfish

Learn About This Popular Angling Species in North America

Bluegill (foreground) photographed in an aquarium with related species. Photo © Ken Schultz

Scientifically, sunfish are members of the Centrarchidae, meaning nest-building, family. This family is mostly categorized by ichthyologists as “sunfish,” but some ichthyologists categorize it as “sunfish and bass.” Terminology differences and cross-usage of some words attributed to the various species have made for a good deal of confusion to the non-scientist. That confusion extends to the use of the word “panfish” to describe these fish. “Panfish” is a non-technical generic term for an assortment of relatively small freshwater fish that are widely utilized for food as well as sport. That includes many species that are categorized as sunfish, as well as such non-sunfish species as yellow perch and white perch. But the terms “panfish” and “sunfish” are not synonymous, as the latter, technically and scientifically, refers to members of the Centrarchidae family.

Centrarchid fish in North America number some thirty strictly freshwater species and include three generalized subdivisions: black bass, crappie, and the true sunfish. All of these are warm water species with similar or overlapping habitat. They have rough scales and two dorsal fins that are united, the first of which is heavily-spined. Their anal fins all have three or more spines, and their tail is typically broad. Nearly all are nest spawners, with nests built by the males, who also guard the nest and the young briefly. All are carnivorous, with the larger members preying on small fish.

Bass and Crappies Are Actually Sunfish

Black bass belong to the genus Micropterus. They have more elongated bodies than other centrarchids and include the largest and most famous family member, the largemouth bass, as well as smallmouth bass, spotted bass, and several other species.

Crappies belong to the genus Pomoxis. They have a longer anal fin, generally equal in length at the base to their dorsal fin, than any of the other centrarchids, and are capable of larger growth than most of the sunfishes. There are two species of crappie; however, a smaller crappie-like species, the flier, Centrarchus macropterus, is sometimes lumped with crappie by ichthyologists, but generally grouped with sunfish by the public.

The True Sunfish Species

The largest group of centrarchids is the true sunfish. Most of these species are small and not of much angling interest, although of great importance in their respective environments as forage for larger predators and for the foraging they do themselves.

The larger-growing and more widely distributed sunfish are extremely popular with anglers throughout the United States and provide countless hours of angling enjoyment. They are widely valued for their excellent, white flaky flesh, and their abundance and high rates of reproduction generally allow for liberal recreational harvest. Commercial fishing for these species is illegal in all places where they are found.

The most wide-ranging and best known true sunfish is the bluegill; it and many others species of sunfish are colloquially known as “bream.” Other popular species are the green sunfish, pumpkinseed sunfish, redbreast sunfish, redear sunfish, longer sunfish, warmouth sunfish, and rock bass. In some places, anglers may encounter such sunfish species as the Sacramento perch, Archoplites interruptus; the Roanoke bass, Ambloplites cavifrons; the orangespotted sunfish, Lepomis humilis; the mud sunfish, Acantharchus pomotis; and the spotted sunfish, Lepomis punctatus.

Sunfish Are Widespread, Accessible, and Popular

Sunfish are tolerant of diverse and warm environments and are very adaptable. They have been widely introduced beyond their native range in North America, sometimes deliberately and other times by accident, and have also been introduced to Europe and Africa. In some places, they are kept in balance by angling and natural predation, but in others they become overpopulated, resulting in stunting.

The generally shallow nature of true sunfish makes them accessible to shore-based anglers, and they are collectively the number one warm water pursuit of non-boating anglers. They are characteristically strong, although not flashy, fighters for their size. They are a very pleasing catch on light spinning, spin casting, and fly tackle, as well as with reel-less poles, and they are especially conducive to introducing young and beginning anglers to fishing.