September 11, 2017
By Steve Quinn
Understanding biological basics fosters fishing success. That mantra was one of the cornerstones of In-Fisherman philosophy that changed the world of fishing in the late 1970s. This approach continues to be particularly pertinent when it comes to finding and catching fish during the sunfish spawn.
Scientific observations of the timing and activities of sunfish species in various regions assist the process. Spawning in clear shallow water, they're a natural for fishwatchers, amateur and professional. And with planning and help from Mother Nature, you may catch the biggest fish of the year.
Bluegill Spawning Biology
Bluegills are the most widely distributed sunfish, thriving in waters large and small and coast to coast, since their popularity among eastern anglers led to western introductions in the late 1800s. In the southern fringe of their range in South Florida, bluegill may start spawning in late February as water temperatures rise toward 70°F. Populations farther north spawn progressively later, but at similar water temperatures.
As with black bass and crappies, northern fish often begin to spawn at lower water temperatures than fish in more temperate areas. It's as though they want to get the deed done as soon as possible, knowing the summer growing season is short for offspring and parents alike. Moreover, large bluegills tend to spawn first, occupying the best areas.
Nest building and defense of eggs and fry improve survival of hatchlings but make adults more vulnerable to attack by predators as well as harvest. The spawn can be broken down into 5 stages: 1) Male establishes a territory; 2) he constructs nest; 3) male courts one or more females with lateral displays and fin movements, chasing, and nipping; 4) egg laying and fertilization; 5) male defends developing eggs, larvae, and fry from predators and fans the nest to oxygenate it and prevent silt buildup.
A combination of increasing day length, warming water, and an internal biological clock seems to cue male sunfish to move shallow and start building nests. Because this species nests in colonies, there may also be some involvement of pheromones from males and females that draws more fish to the colony, where over 100 adults may be in various phases of the spawn.
Because eggs typically hatch more successfully in protected areas, sunfish select quiet bays, protected flats, and the backs of feeder creeks for nesting sites. Typical nest depth is just a couple of feet, though in extremely clear water, fish may bed from 10 to 15 feet deep, possibly even deeper. Bluegills form nesting colonies on flat, sandy areas, but if some cover is available, such as lily pads or sparse brush, they tend to use it.
Male sunfish are able guardians, chasing off fish that come too close, no matter their size. Larger males react to intruders at a greater distance than smaller ones. This might be due to greater aggression, or else better vision since visual acuity increases with age in this species.
After fry depart the nest, males may build another or occupy one fanned by other fish if spawning activity continues. Typically, however, spawning subsides after a few weeks. In northern waters, ovaries of prespawn females contain both large and small eggs, the larger are released first with the remainder developing weeks later. Secondary spawning aggregations are smaller and less synchronized.
In temperate and southern waters, bluegills spawn throughout summer, peaking at intervals of about a month. Extremely warm water or dense weedgrowth may inhibit spawning but it resumes in early fall, as late as October in south Georgia and Florida. Fry production from successful nests typically ranges from 10,000 to 20,000 but can exceed 100,000 under prime conditions. In southern waters, females just a few months old may begin spawning. Egg production increases with size and age.
The best catches often come at the onset of the Spawn Period, before fishing pressure mounts and when the first wave of big fish arrives. Track water temperatures in traditional spawning bays and shallow areas likely to attract fish. Morning temperatures are important. If a bay warms from 62°F to 70°F during a warm day, that isn't enough to jump start the spawn. It takes morning temperatures in the upper 60°F range for fish to be metabolically ready to begin nesting.
On the water, scan shoreline flats that have a sufficiently hard bottom for nest building. Males sweep silt off a layer of sand, often leaving round, lighter circles against a darker background. Once a colony develops, the terrain resembles the dimpled surface of a golf ball.
Once you find spawning fish, it's generally best to anchor. The fish can be skittish and spooked by the sound of a motor or shadows coming too close. They may dart away when you arrive but resume their activities within a few minutes.
A great new shallow-water anchoring option is the Power-Pole, a hydraulically powered, 8-foot fiberglass pole that mounts on the stern and can be deployed in seconds. Poking into the bottom, it holds the craft in place so a spot can be precisely fished.
Male bluegills rarely feed during the spawn but strike small jigs or livebaits presented near or on the nest. When not actively spawning, females hold in nearby brush or vegetation and are generally eager to feed. Underhand pitching works well with a 10- to 12-foot pole and 8-pound line, a small slipfloat, and either a baited hook or small jig.
Particularly in water less than two feet deep, and where cover is sparse, spawning fish can be spooky. Move too close and they abandon the beds. Long-distance casting with a long, medium-light spinning rod is the answer. A slipfloat or fixed float like Rainbow Plastics A-Just-A Bubble helps propel the cast and keeps the bait in the zone. Fish may dart away as the rig splashes down, but wait a minute and they're back at it.
An extreme ultralight spinning rod, 8 to 10 feet long, can propel ice-style jigs that land softly and slowly drift along. It's a fun and effective option when you find bedding sunfish of any species.
While tiny softbaits on jigheads generally draw bites, the biggest fish can be wary. Top livebaits include crickets, medium garden worms, and small leeches. Even in the act of chasing a plump female, a male sunfish can be distracted by a wriggling morsel dropped near his path.
In most waters, bluegills share the shallows with other members of the Lepomis genus. Most northern natural lakes also contain pumpkinseeds, and many also have green sunfish. In the Central U.S., longear sunfish join the mix in rivers and reservoirs. Along the East Coast, shallow rivers contain redbreast sunfish along with bluegill. And farther south, redear sunfish (shellcracker) are common, along with several smaller species that are only regionally popular among anglers: flier, warmouth, spotted sunfish.
Pumpkinseed: Originally found in lakes along the Atlantic slope from Maine to north Georgia and throughout the Great Lakes region, pumpkinseeds have been transplanted into many western states. Compared to bluegills, they favor shallower, weedier waters. They're omnivorous and use flat teeth in their throat to crush snails. While rarely exceeding 3/4 pound, they generally meet "eating size" expectations, providing sport and nutrition wherever they occur.
Males begin to fan nests when water temperatures reach 68°F to 70°F. Overlap occurs with bluegills, but pumpkinseeds don't form colonies, keeping at least 4 or 5 feet from the nearest bed. But where the substrate is the right mix of sand, clay, and marl with low-growing grass, you often find more than a dozen beds.
Nest diameter generally increases with size of the builder, ranging from 3 to 3½ times his length. Courtship and spawning behavior are similar to bluegills, leading to occasional hybridization. Pumpkinseeds produce fewer eggs than bluegills — under 1,000 for early maturing 1-year-olds to about 30,000 for large females. Parental care and hatching time are similar to bluegill.
Pumpkinseeds are among the most easily caught freshwater fish and their choice of shoreline areas makes them accessible. But because they build solitary nests in shallow water, it can be hard to find them without spooking the bedders. Once they spot you, they may be reluctant to bite, even if they don't flee. Long-distance casting with small worms generally turns some fish. Nests built near snags or weeds usually contain more catchable fish, as adjacent cover blocks their view of the angler.
Pumpkinseeds have smaller mouths than bluegills, so use #8 or smaller hooks. Barbless hooks ease handling and save fish. And carry a good disgorger.
Redear Sunfish: Exceeding four pounds in many regions, redear sunfish attract trophy hunters to shallow pockets on large reservoirs, as well as farm ponds. Shallow lakes, rivers, and reservoirs with abundant vegetation and hard water are prime habitat. And this species tolerates slightly salty water, thriving in coastal estuaries of the Southeast.
They eat a variety of invertebrates but get the common name, shellcracker, from their preference for snails, mussels, and clams that they crush with molarlike teeth on their gill arches. In Florida where they're abundant and large, redear may spawn when less than a year old, if they reach a size of at least 5 inches, not uncommon in managed ponds.
Spawning can begin as early as late February in south Florida, or into June at the northern extent of their range in Michigan and Pennsylvania. In some areas, there's a second fall spawning peak when waters cool and vegetation and algae thin out.
Redears are social spawners and hundreds of closely spaced beds can be found in shallow bays and protected flats with a substrate of sand and decayed organic matter. Bedding areas may have thick cover, including water lilies and water hyacinths, as well as the roots of cypress trees.
The red tabs on opercular flaps that give redears their name are larger and brighter in spawning males. Their normal yellowish color also turns almost black in some large fish at this time. And to attract females, male redear make a popping sound, different from the deep grunts of other sunfish species.
In murky water, anchoring near a redear spawning colony means nearly constant action with a pole, float, and bait. Their mode of feeding is more bottom-oriented than bluegills, so set baits just above bottom.
Redbreast sunfish: Redbreasts thrive in diverse waters, from cold mountain streams to brackish coastal marshes. They reach maximum size (a little over a pound) in rivers. Their bright color and pugnacious nature make them very popular gamefish in some locales. On Georgia's Satilla River, for example, biologists estimated over 60 percent of all fishing effort was for redbreast. Their willingness to hit lures, including tiny topwaters, spinners, and flies reflects their frequent diet of fish and large insects.
Redbreasts spawn a bit later than other sunfish: mid-April in Florida, June in mid-Atlantic states, and July in New England. They typically build solitary nests close to shore and adjacent to logs, stumps, and snags in depths from 1½ to 5 feet. They favor sandy bottoms for their large (about 3 feet in diameter), deep beds.
Nesting males are colored even more brightly than usual and are larger than females. Fecundity ranges from about 300 to 10,000 eggs, depending on size. Males are aggressive in nest defense, charging at small plugs and spinners retrieved nearby. Like largemouth bass, released males return to guard duty and often bite again.
Sunfish Spawn ProcessUnusually large sunfish are as difficult to catch as trophy-size walleyes or muskies. They're scarce and often wary. Moreover, they may require almost as long to replace once removed from the system.
This situation begs for Selective Harvest, the choice to release fish that are scarce and contribute to the quality of populations far more than their numbers suggest. Panfish are plentiful and can withstand considerable harvest. But plan to keep a fair number of mid-size fish, releasing, for example, redbreasts over 8 inches and 'gills over 9 inches.
The importance of releasing jumbo bluegills is compounded by the spawning activities of this species. Small, "sneaker" males often try to dart into nests of large parental males to fertilize eggs that the large fish then defends like his own. Studies have shown that removing large parental males from a population boosts the number of undersized ones, diminishing fishing quality. The tendency for males to follow these alternative life history patterns has a genetic basis, too, so removing too many large fish can cause long-term damage to a lake's potential.