Pumpkinseeds are one of many members of the sunfish family (Centrarchidae) that are frequently encountered by anglers over a broad swath of North America. Often mistaken for bluegills, pumpkinseeds (Lepomis gibbosus) have several distinguishing features, notably a dash of crimson on the ear tab that is typically less pronounced than on redear sunfish. Some of the confusion with bluegills stems from natural hybridization between panfish species, making identification difficult.
Spawning typically occurs in late spring and early summer at water temperatures between 55°F and 65°F. Like other centrarchids, males build nests in shallow water. Females don't participate in nest building or defense. Solitary nests are common, but loose groups of 5 to 15 nests can be found in areas of favorable habitat. These aggregations typically are smaller and less dense than bluegill spawning colonies. Pumpkinseeds and bluegills are often seen nesting within the same area, facilitating hybridization.
Male pumpkinseeds exhibit a dazzling array of colors during the spawning period, making them one the most visually striking of North America's freshwater fishes. Not all males that build a nest successfully attract a mate. The red color on the ear tab is prominent on dominant males, and the size and color intensity of the ear tab likely plays important roles in establishing territory, and attracting a cooperative female that deposits eggs in the nest.
Pumpkinseeds are opportunistic and eat a variety of small insects, crayfish, fish, and zooplankton. A specialized set of pharyngeal teeth allows them to crush the shells of snails and mussels. They are typically found around stands of aquatic plants throughout most of the year. Areas of bulrush sprinkled with pockets of coontail and pondweeds often hold large numbers during summer.
While larger bluegills may move out to deeper habitats with less vegetation after spawning, large pumpkinseeds often linger in the salad, even under the ice. However, food availability strongly influences habitat selection. Feeding can be competitive during summer, and larger fish that have a lower risk of predation may venture outside the weededge.
In some populations, pumpkinseeds rarely surpass 7-inches, while others consistently produce bull specimens. Growing an 8-inch fish might take nearly a decade in some waters. Although little has been studied about the effects of angler harvest on pumpkinseeds, systems that consistently produce large fish are comparatively rare, suggesting that harvest can reduce fishing quality, especially at northern latitudes where growth rates are slow.
Most fishery agencies make no distinction among sunfish species when implementing harvest regulations, so bag limits are set for sunfish as a group. Regulations remain liberal — daily bag limits of 10 fish or more per angler in most jurisdictions — are common. Releasing the largest pumpkinseeds is a wise step towards ensuring quality fishing.
Male pumpkinseeds are aggressive when guarding nests and readily take small jigs and livebaits in their vicinity. They also attack larger offerings that are perceived as a threat. Larger baits help to selectively target bigger fish, especially where smaller sunfish are abundant and annoying. Due to the sporadic distribution of nests, it's often best to be mobile to contact large numbers of fish, and sight-fishing is productive when water clarity permits.
Most pumpkinseeds prefer to spawn over clean substrates of sandy gravel, but nesting males may be more tolerant of vegetation than bluegills, so also look for nests scattered along inside weededges. Long telescoping rods are effective for dabbling small jigs (1/64- to 1/32-ounce) in front of individual males, or in areas where fish are abundant. Dress jigs with crappie-sized softbaits or a chunk of nightcrawler. Two-inch curlytail grubs and small tubes are good options. A slipfloat rig is hard to beat when nests are scattered, or during periods just before nesting when fish are roaming the shallows. Mini crankbaits are top bets when fish are scattered. You might also try 2- to 3-inch fathead minnows freelined around loose concentrations of nests. Some of the largest male pumpkinseeds I caught last year came on this presentation. It also kept puny seeds at bay.
Dr. Daniel Isermann, frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications, is an assistant professor of fisheries at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.
1 Clear Lake, California
The largest lake in California (43,000 acres near Lakeport) is known for lunker largemouths, but houses overlooked giant 'gills, yielding the 3¾-pound state record last year, along with others over 3. The bite by docks and at the edge of tules is strong from mid-April into September. Nearby Collins Lake, renowned for trophy trout, also produces massive sunnies — 2 to 3 pounds. The best bite starts in April and lasts into the spawn in May and early June. Contact: Clear Lake Information, lakecounty.com; Clear Lake State Park, 800/444-7275, parks.ca.gov
; Collins Lake, collinslake.com
6 Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
This impoundment in the northwestern corner of Maryland yielded the state record 3-pound 7-ounce 'gill, giving evidence of its productivity. With a deep basin, the Prespawn and Spawn periods are protracted, with prime action from mid-April into early June. Contact: Fish Deep Creek, 240/460-8839, fishdeepcreek.com
; Guide Ken Penrod, 301/937-0010,
7 Coastal Impoundments, Virginia
Four reservoirs near Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, are regular producers of big bluegills and shellcrackers. Fertile lakes Cahoon, Western Branch, Prince, and Burnt Mills have a history of trophy fish production. Western Branch (1,265 acres) reopened to public fishing in 2010 and is known for outsize redear, with certified specimens approaching 3 pounds. Boating permits required. Contact: Burnt Mills Reservoir Manager, 757/441-5678; Chesapeake Bay Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 757/465-6812, dgif.virginia.gov
5 Kentucky & Barkley Lakes, Kentucky-Tennessee
These massive impoundments — Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Barkley on the Cumberland — are joined by a canal and offer outstanding fishing for big redear sunfish, as well as bass and crappies. Contact: Jack Canady, Woods and Water Guide Service, 270/227-2443, woodsandwaterguideservice.com
2 Lake Havasu, Arizona-California
Lake Havasu, impounding about 45 miles of the Colorado River, has become redear central after producing the all-tackle record 5-pound 7-ounce fish, along with many others over 2 pounds. The record was 16¾ inches long and boasted a 19-inch girth. Best action runs from April through June, when fish gather in coves to spawn. Locals fish livebait but small spinners and cranks catch some monsters. Contact: John Galbraith, basstacklemaster.com; Captain Jerry's Guide Service, 760/447-5846, havasufishingguide.com
; Havasu Fishing, havasufishing.com
3 Pelican Lake, Nebraska
Nestled in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Pelican Lake consistently produces the biggest 'gills in the region, many over a pound and occasional 2-pounders. Blessed with abundant and diverse large invertebrates, growth is fast in this shallow waterway. Abundant vegetation provides habitat for bugs and a sanctuary for big sunfish. Most giants are caught through the ice or in early spring. Contact: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Labeled 'Earthquake Lake, ' a mighty tremor of the New Madrid Fault in 1811 diverted the Mississippi River, backing up this highly productive 11,000-acre waterway in northwestern Tennessee. Big bluegills and shellcrackers roam the shallow lake's cypress forests and lily pad fields, yielding prime pole-fishing opportunities all spring and summer. Contact: Bluebank Resort, 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
; Eagle Nest Resort, 731/538-2143, eaglenestresort.com
9 Richmond Mill Lake, North Carolina
Located near Laurel Hill, North Carolina, Richmond Mill likely offers the best shot at a 2-pound bluegill, truly a rare animal. This pay-to-play waterway, owned by the Kingfisher Society, is managed to ensure balance between bluegills and largemouth bass and habitat quality. After refilling in 2000, it's approaching prime productivity. Giants sometimes require finesse presentations, such as tiny jigs tipped with a bit of 'crawler. Contact: Kingfisher Society, 910/462-2324, kingfishersociety.com
10 Santee-Cooper, South Carolina
This lowland jewel produced the former world record shellcracker and continues to yield amazing numbers of platter-sized bluegills as well as redears, not to mention big catfish, bass, and crappies. Spring comes early and a fine bedding bite starts in late March, lasting into May, but recurring on a monthly basis until September. Anglers also take jumbos in the Diversion Canal between the paired impoundments in fall and winter. Contact: Santee-Cooper Country, 803/854-2131, santeecoopercountry.org
8 Tidal Rivers, North Carolina
Flowing into Arbemarle Sound in the northeastern part of the state are a series of blackwater rivers that represent the northernmost range of the coppernose bluegill, the southern subspecies known to attain large size. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw picks the Pasquotank, Yeopim, Perqimens, and Chowan rivers, with loads of 9- to 11-inch fish and some over 1½ pounds. Local expert Jeffrey Abney scores with hair jigs tied in a grass shrimp pattern. Contact: bigbluegill.com
; Pembroke Fishing Center, 252/482-5343; Bethel Fishing Center, 252/426-5155.