Sunny With a Chance of Fun
Sunfish provide more enjoyment per pound than any other Texas fish.
By Larry D. Hodge
Whether it’s the best kind of fish, the best place to fish or the best bait to use, it’s hard to get anglers to agree on anything.
But ask them what kind of fish is best for getting kids hooked on fishing, and the answer will almost certainly be the same: sunfish.
Sunfish refers to a whole group of small fishes that are pretty, plentiful and pugnacious. Bluegill, redear, green, redbreast and warmouth sunfish — often referred to as bream, collectively — are commonly found in Texas creeks, rivers, stock ponds and reservoirs. Wherever they are found, they provide perhaps more fun per pound than any other fish. Famed Texas author John Graves observed that fishing for bream with a fly rod is “as pretty fishing as a man can want.”
With an official big-fish pose, TPWD fisheries technician Shane Carter shows off a bluegill.
Sunfish are often referred to as panfish, and for good reason: Cleaned, scaled, corn-mealed and fried whole, sunfish provide some of the tastiest eating Texas waters have to offer. A stringer of sunfish and some potatoes, onions and bacon fried up streamside in a skillet make a breakfast (or lunch or dinner) that is the epitome of “eating local.”
Fishing for sunfish isn’t about size. It’s not the size of the fish in the fight that counts; it’s the size of the fight in the fish. And as Graves alluded, a feisty sunfish on a fly rod or ultralight tackle rewards the angler with an exciting experience. Sunfish are deep-bodied, which gives them a lot of surface area to leverage against the water during a fight, and their flat, slender bodies and fins allow them to accelerate and change direction quickly.
“Pound for pound, bluegills will rival any freshwater fish in Texas in fighting ability,” says Ben Neely, formerly a fisheries biologist in Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Abilene office. “There is nothing quite like catching a 10-inch bluegill on ultralight gear.”
Part of the charm of fishing for sunfish like bluegills is the simplicity of it.
“Bluegill fishing gets back to fishing the way it should be,” says Neely. “You don’t need fancy electronics, high-dollar equipment or a boat to find quality bluegills. All you need are a few hooks, split shot, bobbers, some nightcrawlers and a light-action rod rigged with light line.”
That’s the gear Neely, Lance Benson and I use on a day spent fishing on Lake Athens. That trip reveals a whole new aspect of bluegill fishing to me. Neely and Benson are friends, but when it comes to seeing who can land the biggest bluegill, the gloves come off and it’s bare-knuckles fishing. The barbs traded between the two over the size of fish being caught are sharper than the hooks being used.
It’s obvious both Neely and Benson are not just casual sunfish anglers. They’re addicts who have studied their quarry and stalk it with the intensity of a half-starved subsistence hunter.
“When I’m going after bluegill I look for two things — vegetation and bottom structure,” Neely says. “I want to find an area with rocks or stumps that border aquatic vegetation. I’ll set my bobber to suspend a chunk of nightcrawler a few inches off the bottom. A small split shot between the hook and the bobber makes sure the bait gets to the bottom but still allows it to flutter down slowly.”
Neely’s technique is based on bluegill behavior. Adult bluegills, as befits a species often preyed upon by bass and other predators, are ambush feeders: They hide among underwater vegetation or structure and dart out to nab food that comes within reach.
Although they are always aggressive, male sunfish redline their macho meters during the spring through summer spawning season. Males scoop out spawning beds in sand or gravel in shallow water, often congregating in large numbers. Besides fertilizing any eggs laid in its nest, the male guards the nest and its eggs from all other fish, even the female that produced them. The males will chase anything that violates their space, including baited hooks. Toss your bait into the middle of a bluegill’s bed and let it sit. He may dart off when the bobber hits the water, but soon he will return to charge the intruding hook.
Neely recalls a Lake Athens trip in April 2011.
“I was looking for a 10-inch fish for a nice photo,” he says. “We found an area in the back of a cove where big bull bluegills were cruising in shallow water. For the next hour or two we caught big fish as fast as we could take them off the hook. At one point we caught four consecutive fish, each bigger than the last that exceeded the lake record by nearly half a pound. I knew bluegill fishing was a lot of fun, but that trip opened my eyes to their trophy potential.”
Neely didn’t catch the 10-incher he was looking for, but the nearby Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center casting pond provided just such a trophy bluegill for Kaylee Nicholson of Athens. On National Fishing Day in 2009, Nicholson pulled in a 1.14-pound, 10.5-inch bluegill that was the junior angler state record at the time and remains the water body record today.
At the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens, Kaylee Nicholson, right, and friend Shelly Bruyere hold Nicholson’s 1.14-pound bluegill that was the state junior angler record at the time.
Sunfish, especially bluegills, are favorites in farm ponds and other private fishing lakes both for the fishing they offer and for the forage they provide for largemouth bass and other fish. Many a lifetime memory has been made with a cane pole, bobber and supply of locally sourced crickets, grasshoppers, worms or — for the squeamish — canned whole-kernel corn.
Public waters almost always offer sunfish as well.
“Caddo Lake, Calaveras, O.H. Ivie and Toledo Bend are good places to start,” Neely advises. “Lake Dunlap is an excellent choice for anglers looking to tangle with a trophy redbreast or redear sunfish. In fact, there’s a decent chance that a state record redbreast is swimming in Lake Dunlap right now.”
If a record is what you are looking for, your hunt could take you to a sprawling East Texas reservoir or a tumbling Hill Country stream. But if you’re fishing to have fun, or to enjoy an outing with friends or family, or just to hear a kid squeal, almost any place with water will do. California may be the “Sunshine State,” but Texas is the “Sunfish State.”
Live bait is the ticket to a successful sunfishing trip. Crickets, nightcrawlers and red wigglers are all good choices. Add excitement and anticipation to a fishing trip with kids by digging your own worms or chasing down small grasshoppers (use a butterfly net or swat them).
Use long-shanked hooks to make hook removal easier. No. 6 or 8 cricket hooks are a good size.
A cane pole with eight to 10 feet of line and a bobber makes line management easy and also allows bank anglers to get the bait far enough out over the water to avoid spooking the fish. Kids will enjoy rigging their own gear and will get more satisfaction out of catching fish with something they “made.”
Bigger fish often hang out in deeper water than smaller fish, so start fishing deep and work your way shallow.
Target spawning fish in late spring and early summer. Look for light-colored, circular beds the male fish have cleared. There will often be a number of nests in the same area. These are easy to spot when there is no wind to ruffle the water’s surface, but fishing will probably be better with a light wind since the fish won’t be able to see you as clearly.
If fish keep spooking, try hiding behind vegetation, kneeling or standing a little farther back from the edge of the water. Remember: If you can see them, they can see you.
Fishing tends to be best under low light conditions at dawn and dusk, but sunfish can be caught any time of day, especially when fishing deep around stumps or rocks from a boat.
Sunfish, especially the abundant bluegills, have sharp spines on their dorsal fins. This makes them harder for prey fish to swallow, and it also makes them hard to handle when removing the hook. Grasp the fish around its belly with your thumb on one side of the fish and your fingers on the other to avoid the spines.
Sunfish are easy to clean: Insert a sharp knife into the vent on the belly and cut upward toward the head. Cut the head off just behind the gills. Scale the fish using a tool made for that purpose or the blade of a knife raked from the tail toward the head. Scaling fish is best done outdoors with a water supply handy as scales tend to fly everywhere when removed.
Sunfish are usually cooked whole because of their small size; once cooked the flesh flakes easily from the bones.
The Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center in Athens offers an easy way to introduce your family to fishing for sunfish. The annual Bluegill Family Fishing Tournament takes place Sept. 29. It’s a team event with each team consisting of one adult over age 18 and one youth under age 18.
Each team can weigh in a maximum of four fish. Multiple teams can fish from the same boat, making it possible for both parents to partner with different children and still fish as a family. Team members are not required to be related.
Teams may choose to fish either on Lake Athens, which is adjacent to TFFC, or in TFFC’s ponds and streams, some of which have been stocked with bluegills.
For more information or to request an entry form, contact Craig Brooks at (903) 670-2222.
Sunfish in Texas
● Most common sunfish in Texas
● Easily identified by black spot at base of dorsal fin
● State record is 2.02 pounds from Lampasas River in 1999
● Largest of Lepomis species in Texas
● Native to eastern two-thirds of Texas
● Identified by red tab on opercle (ear) flap
● State record is 2.99 pounds from Lady Bird Lake in 1997
● Common throughout Texas
● Identified by relatively large mouth and turquoise markings around mouth
● Commonly found along rocky dam faces
● State record is 1.30 pounds from Burke-Crenshaw Lake in 2005
● Not native to Texas but currently found in the eastern portion of the state
● Identified by long, black opercle (ear) flap and yellow belly
● State record is 1.63 pounds from the Comal River in 1997
● Found throughout Texas but seldom in large numbers
● Similar in appearance to green sunfish but has a more mottled appearance
● Ambush predator that hides in rocks, stumps or vegetation to wait for prey
● State record is 1.30 pounds from Lady Bird Lake in 1991
Other sunfish species in Texas include longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis), spotted sunfish (Lepomis punctatus), dollar sunfish (Lepomis marginatus), bantam sunfish (Lepomis symmetricus), redspotted sunfish (Lepomis miniatus) and orangespotted sunfish (Lepomis humilis). These sunfish species usually aren’t large enough to provide recreational value.
Read more about fishing in the Texas Fishing 2012 digital magazine.
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