Facts About 6 of the Most Common and Popular Sunfish Species

Facts About Green, Longear, Mud, Pumpkinseed, Redbreast, and Redear Sunfish.

The term “sunfish” refers to a scientifically defined group of species, as detailed in this article. This includes many of the most popular angling targets in North America, among them largemouth bass and smallmouth bass. Of the true sunfish, bluegill are perhaps the most popular and commonly caught in North America. Crappie are not far behind. Here are facts about the life and behavior of six other commonly found and popular species: green sunfish, longear sunfish, mud sunfish, pumpkinseed sunfish, redbreast sunfish, and redear sunfish.

01
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Green Sunfish

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Green sunfish. Art by Duane Raver, courtesy USFWS.

The green sunfish, Lepomis cyanellus, is a widespread and commonly caught member of the Centrarchidae family. It has white, flaky flesh like other sunfishes, and is a good food fish.

ID. The green sunfish has a slender, thick body, a fairly long snout, and a large mouth with the upper jaw extending beneath the pupil of the eye; it has a larger mouth and a thicker, longer body than most sunfishes of the genus Lepomis, thus resembling the warmouth and the smallmouth bass. It has short, rounded pectoral fins and, like other sunfishes, it has connected dorsal fins and an extended gill cover flap, or “ear lobe.” This lobe is black and has a light red, pink, or yellow edge, while the body is usually brown to olive or bluish-green with a bronze to emerald green sheen, fading to yellow-green on the lower sides and yellow or white on the belly. 

Adult green sunfish have a large black spot at the rear of the second dorsal and anal fin bases, and breeding males have yellow or orange edges on the second dorsal, caudal, and anal fins. There are also emerald or bluish spots on the head, and sometimes between seven and twelve indistinct dark bars on the back, which are especially visible when the fish is excited or stressed.

Size. The average length is 4 inches, ranging usually from 2 to 8 inches and reaching a maximum of 12 inches, which is very rare. Most green sunfish weigh less than half a pound. The all-tackle world record is a 2-pound 2-ounce fish taken in Missouri in 1971.

Habitat. Green sunfish prefer warm, still pools and backwaters of sluggish streams as well as ponds and small shallow lakes. Often found near vegetation, they may establish territory near the water’s edge underbrush, rocks, or exposed roots. They often become stunted in ponds.

Food. Green sunfish prefer dragonfly and mayfly nymphs, caddisfly larvae, midges, freshwater shrimp, and beetles, and will occasionally eat small fish such as mosquitofish.

Angling Summary. Green sunfish are a common catch, taken with standard panfishing methods. See the profile on bluegill for general angling information. 

02
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Longear Sunfish

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Longear sunfish. Art by Duane Raver, courtesy USFWS.

Similar in size and general appearance to the pumpkinseed sunfish, and a member of the Centrarchidae family of sunfishes, the longear sunfish, Lepomis megalotis, is a small, excellent gamefish on light tackle, though in many places it is generally too small to be avidly sought. The white and sweet flesh is excellent to eat.

ID. With a stout body, the longear sunfish is not as compressed as the bluegill or the pumpkinseed, its close relatives. It is one of the most colorful sunfish, particularly the breeding male, which is dark red above and bright orange below, marbled and spotted with blue. 

The longear generally has a red eye, orange to red median fins, and a blue-black pelvic fin. There are wavy blue lines on the cheek and opercle, and the long, flexible, black ear flap is generally edged with a light blue, white, or orange line. The longear sunfish has a short and rounded pectoral fin, which usually does not reach past the eye when it is bent forward. It has a fairly large mouth, and the upper jaw extends under the eye pupil.

Size. The longear sunfish may grow to 9½ inches, averaging 3 to 4 inches and just a few ounces. The all-tackle world record is a 1-pound 12-ounce fish taken in New Mexico in 1985. Males grow faster and live longer than females.

Habitat. This species inhabits rocky and sandy pools of headwaters, creeks, and small to medium rivers, as well as ponds, bays, lakes, and reservoirs; it is usually found near vegetation and generally absent from downstream and lowland waters.

Food. Longear sunfish feed primarily on aquatic insects, but also on worms, crayfish, and fish eggs off the bottom.

Angling Summary. Longears are caught with standard panfishing methods and are especially caught on live worms and crickets. See the profile on bluegill for general angling information. 

03
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Mud Sunfish

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Mud sunfish. Art by Duane Raver, courtesy USFWS.

Strongly resembling the rock bass in general color and shape, the mud sunfish, Acantharchus pomotis, is not actually a member of the Lepomis sunfish family, though it is called a sunfish

ID. It has a rectangular, compressed body which is dusky reddish-brown on the back and pale brownish underneath. The lateral line scales are pale, and along the arch of the lateral line is a broad irregular stripe of dark scales about three scale rows wide. Below the lateral line are two straight dark bands, each two scale rows wide, and an incomplete third, lower, stripe one scale wide. It is distinguished from the similar rock bass by the shape of the tail, which is round in the mud sunfish and forked in the rock bass. Also, young mud sunfish have wavy dark lines along the sides while young rock bass have a checkerboard pattern of squarish blotches. 

Habitat. Mud sunfish usually occur over mud or silt in vegetated lakes, pools, and backwaters of creeks and small to medium rivers. Adult fish are frequently seen resting head down in vegetation.

Size. The mud sunfish may reach a maximum of 6 ½ inches. No world records are kept for this species.

Angling Summary. This species is generally an incidental catch for anglers. See the profile on bluegill for general angling information.

04
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Pumpkinseed Sunfish

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Pumpkinseed sunfish. Art by Duane Raver, courtesy USFWS.

The pumpkinseed, Lepomis gibbosus, is one of the most common and brightly colored members of the Centrarchidae family of sunfishes. Though small on average, it is especially popular with young anglers because of its willingness to take a hooked worm,  its wide distribution and abundance, and close proximity to shore. Its flaky white flesh also makes good eating.

ID. A brilliantly colored fish, the adult pumpkinseed is olive green, spotted with blue and orange as well as streaked with gold along the lower sides. There are dusky chain-like bars on the side of juveniles and adult females. A bright red or orange spot is located on the back edge of the short, black ear flap. Many bold dark brown wavy lines or orange spots cover the second dorsal, caudal, and anal fins and there are wavy blue lines on the cheek.

The pumpkinseed sunfish has a long, pointed pectoral fin which usually extends far past the eye when bent forward. It has a small mouth, with the upper jaw not extending under the pupil of the eye. There is a stiff rear edge on the gill cover and short thick rakers on the first gill arch.

Size. Although most pumpkinseed sunfish are small, about 4 to 6 inches, some reach a length of 12 inches and are believed to live to 10 years old. The all-tackle world record is a 1-pound 6-ounce fish taken in new York in 1985, although the IGFA does not show this in their all-tackle list.

Habitat. Pumpkinseed sunfish inhabit quiet and vegetated lakes, ponds, and pools of creeks and small rivers, with a preference for weed patches, docks, logs, and other cover close to shore.

Food. Pumpkinseed sunfish feed on a variety of small foods, including crustaceans, dragonfly and mayfly nymphs, ants, small salamanders, mollusks, midge larvae, snails, water beetles, and small fishes.

Angling Summary. These fish are a common catch, taken with standard panfishing methods, though their small mouths make them nibblers, requiring small hooks and baits. See the profile on bluegill for general angling information.

05
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Redbreast Sunfish

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Redbreast sunfish. Art by Duane Raver, courtesy USFWS.

The redbreast sunfish, Lepomis auritus, is the most abundant sunfish in Atlantic Coastal Plain streams. Like other members of the Centrarchidae family of sunfishes, it is a good fighter for its size and excellent to eat.

ID. The body of the redbreast sunfish is deep and compressed but rather elongate for a sunfish. It is olive above, fading to bluish bronze below; in the spawning season, males have bright orange-red bellies while females are pale orange underneath. There are several light blue streaks radiating from the mouth, and the gill rakers are short and stiff. 

The lobe or flap on the gill cover is usually long and narrow in adult males, actually longer than in the so-called longear sunfish. The two species are easily distinguished by the fact that the lobe of the redbreast is blue-black or completely black all the way to the tip and is narrower than the eyes, whereas the lobe of the longear is much wider and is bordered by a thin margin of pale red or yellow around the black. The pectoral fins of both species are short and roundish in contrast to the longer, pointed pectoral fins of the redear sunfish, and the opercular flaps are softer and more flexible than the rigid flaps of the pumpkinseed sunfish.

Size. Redbreast sunfish grow at a slow rate and may reach lengths of 6 to 8 inches, though they can attain 11 to 12 inches and weigh about a pound. The all-tackle world record is a 1-pound 12-ounce fish from Florida in 1984.

Habitat. Redbreast sunfish inhabit rocky and sandy pools of creeks and small to medium rivers. They prefer the deeper sections of streams and vegetated lake margins.

Food. The primary food is aquatic insects, but redbreasts also feed on snails, crayfish, small fish, and occasionally on organic bottom matter.

Angling Summary. These fish are a common catch, taken with standard panfishing methods. See the profile on bluegill for general angling information.

06
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Redear Sunfish

Redear sunfish. Art by Duane Raver, courtesy USFWS.

Also known as shellcracker, the redear sunfish, Lepomis microlophus, is a popular sportfish because it fights hard on light tackle, reaches a relatively large size for a sunfish, and can be caught in large numbers. Like other members of the Centrarchidae family of sunfishes it is an excellent panfish, with white, flaky meat.

ID. Light golden-green above, the redear sunfish is roundish and laterally compressed; adults have dusky gray spots on the side while juveniles have bars. It is white to yellow on the belly, with mostly clear fins, and the breeding male is brassy gold with dusky pelvic fins. 

The redear sunfish has a fairly pointed snout and a small mouth, with blunted molaform teeth that make shell cracking possible. It has connected dorsal fins and long, pointed pectoral fins which extend far beyond the eye when bent forward; the latter distinguish it from both the longear sunfish and the redbreast sunfish, which have short, roundish pectoral fins. The ear flap is also much shorter than in the other two species and is black, with a bright red or orange spot or a light margin at the edge.

It can also be distinguished from the pumpkinseed sunfish by its gill cover flap, which is relatively flexible and can be bent at least to right angles, while the flap on the pumpkinseed is rigid. The redear sunfish is somewhat less compressed than the bluegill, which contrasts with the redear sunfish by having an entirely black ear flap without any spot or light edge.

Size. The redear sunfish can become rather large, reaching weights over 4½ pounds, though it averages under half a pound and about 9 inches. The all-tackle world record is a 5-pound 12-ounce fish taken in Arizona in 2014. It can live up to eight years.

Habitat. Redear sunfish inhabit ponds, swamps, lakes, and vegetated pools of small to medium rivers; they prefer warm, clear, and quiet waters.

Food. Opportunistic bottom feeders, redear sunfish forage mostly during the day on aquatic snails, from which they derive their common name “shellcracker.” They also feed on midge larvae, amphipods, mayfly and dragonfly nymphs, clams, fish eggs, and crayfish. 

Angling Summary. Shellcrackers are taken with standard panfishing methods. See the profile on bluegill for general angling information.