How to Find and Catch Sunfish in Lakes

Pumpkinseed Sunfish
Close up of a pumpkinseed sunfish. Wolfgang Poelzer / Getty Images

Fishing for sunfish in lakes can be a great experience if you want a lot of action for small fish, especially when you're taking younger anglers fishing. But it can also be a frustrating experience if you want to catch big fish. Certainly, the fishing and the size of fish available can vary from one body of water to another. In some lakes, anglers don't fish for or keep many of the sunfish, and they can become overpopulated, which produces lots of small ones, and perhaps a population of stunted fish. But where things are more in balance due to natural predation (by bass and other species) and the removal of some fish by anglers, the sunfish can range in size.

In many lakes, you can catch a variety of sunfish species. In the south, that means shell crackers, bluegills, green sunfish, and even redbreast. But it's also possible that only bluegills, or perhaps bluegills and pumpkinseeds, will be the only species. The latter occurs in many northern lakes.

Sunfish are usually in shallow water around some kind of cover, especially back in coves, and they are easy to catch, so they're great for kids. Take along a bucket of crickets, grubs, or worms and you can catch a lot of fish no matter what type of tackle you use.

Where to Find Lake Sunfish

Sunfish like brush, weeds, and rock cover in shallow water, but they will also suspend in deeper water,  especially in the winter. And while they generally prefer moderate temperature water, hot shallow water seems to attract them in the summer.

All sunfish species spawn in late spring to early summer (later in the north and earlier in the far south). Some, like bluegill, will spawn several times, usually on the full moon and during warm weather. Sunfish make beds in shallow water when spawning, which can readily be seen in clear and moderately clear environments. Look for these beds in the back of protected pockets with hard bottoms like sand or gravel.

Natural Baits to Use

Sunfish will eat just about any kind of natural bait. Earthworms are the traditional angler offering for sunfish, and all of the different species can be caught with them. But crickets, grubs, catalpa worms, and even small balls of bread also catch them. Natural baits can be alive or dead (usually having been frozen and thawed), although fresh and alive is always best with natural bait.

Fish live bait two ways: either under a cork (or another lightweight float) to keep it out of the cover or on the bottom without a cork on clean bottoms, especially when bed fishing. Cast small flies and other artificials around weedbeds, brush and rock cover. There are usually many sunfish holding under docks in the shade and brush or weeds around them helps.

Artificial lures that work on sunfish range from dry flies to small spinners, spinnerbaits, and jig-spinner combos. They will strike small jigs, all kinds of small flies, and even small crankbaits and minnow plugs. Larger specimens are sometimes caught on lures used for bass, like crankbaits and minnow plugs, but this is usually an incidental occurrence. If you just fish with larger lures, you will definitely not catch smaller sunfish, and may not catch larger specimens either.

Light and Simple Tackle

Cane poles, certain long fiberglass poles, fly casting tackle, and ultralight spinning tackle is all suitable for sunfish. Keep it simple. For example, a simple 12- or 13-foot pole with 4-pound-test line, split shot, hook, and bait is often all you need. You can add a cork to this for some situations. Go with fly casting gear for extra fun and a good fight, using rubber or foam cricket imitations, popping bugs, dry flies, and wet flies.

Probably most anglers fish with an ultralight spinning rod and reel equipped with 4-pound line. This setup can also fish a cork, sinker, and hook, and will throw small jigs, spinners, and plugs.

Sunfish in lakes give a spirited fight on light gear. A half-pound bluegill will make your line sing, and a larger one will make you work to catch it. And, of course, they're really good to eat, as well.

Edited and revised by Ken Schultz