Spindly box-elders and giant sycamores lined Seven-Mile Creek as it bent its way through the corn fields and wood lots of western Ohio, slipping past tin-colored grain bins and two-story farmhouses. Gray-green limestone slabs, thin and flat and riddled with tiny fossils, lined the creek bottom. And on the bends, Seven-Mile elbowed its way into the foot of the low hills, scouring out sluggish pools where sunfish took up housekeeping in the weedy cover of water willow.
Whenever I think of sunfish, my mind's eye takes me back to the banks of Seven-Mile Creek. I see an excited young boy stooping alongside the edge, clinging to the smooth trunk of a sycamore, oblivious to the whir of mosquitoes and the doughy mud curling around his worn, red high-top sneakers. Armed with determination, he is instead mindful of the tree roots, a yellow stick bobber, and a red worm at the end of his line. Below the glimmering surface, eager sunfish throw caution aside and dart from shelter, taking turns at trying to steal the bait. With some luck another morsel for mom's frying fan is wrangled ashore. Some thirty years later sunfish still hold a fond place in my heart.
Whether you hunt muskellunge in Canada or float the flats for tarpon in Florida, I can say with a great degree of certainty that you probably got your start in fishing going after sunfish. True lovers of the piscatorial pleasures still seek out these bantam-weight battlers called sunfish.
The name is deserved; the twenty-some species of sunfish are a painter's palette of color. Their names speak to their endowments: redear sunfish, bluegill, green sunfish, redbreast, orange-spotted. The longear and pumpkinseed are among the gaudiest of fishes, more brilliant colored than any tropical aquarium fish. Nature dressed them in brilliant yellows, blues, emeralds, and crimsons. Wavy aqua-green bands radiate across the cheek and the turkey-red daub on the ear flap. On pumpkinseed, Henry David Thoreau was impressed writing in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers: "It is a very beautiful and compact fish, perfect in all its parts, looking like a brilliant coin fresh from the mint."
As with all the sunfish, their brilliance is heightened when it comes time to spawn, usually from early May to mid-August. They spawn three maybe four times a season about 20 days apart between each spawn. The nests, built by the males over a bottom of anything from thin silt to gravel, rim the shallow edges of ponds and slow-moving creeks. Solid objects on the bottom, like rocks or sunken logs, give added protection to the nest, both from predators and current in flowing water.
Few species of sunfish are solitary nesters. Most typically nesting in large loose colonies six to ten feet apart. As with people, being in close quarters breeds contempt. Any intruder, particularly other males, are faced with the an angry menace. With gills flared, the guardian swims out to meet unwanted guests, jostling and biting the invader until they swim away. It creates quite a ruckus, breaking the water surface and stirring up mud.
Suitors encourage females to the nest, nipping and bumping each other as they swim side by side in circular paths over the nest. Spawning may last for over an hour. The male spawns with more than one female and the peak spawning takes place around noon. After shedding upwards of 8,000 eggs, females retreat to deeper water and leave the rearing to the male. The eggs incubate in less than a week and the fry stay near the nest for about ten days. The guarding male tries to herd his young near the nest, going so far as to retrieve straying fry in his mouth. It gets to be too much after while, and the young disperse to the weedy cover of shallow water.
As with any fish, the sunfish's growth rates depends greatly upon where they live. A diet consisting mostly of snails and small fishes, ants, worms, dragonfly nymphs, puts the meat on the fish. Some sunnies, by their first year may reach three inches long. In the best of conditions over their life, they may reach a plump pound. Sunfishes are well know for overcrowding, especially in small waters. In such cases, algae may become a principal food source and growth all but stops. The young may mature as early a their second summer and live up to twelve years. But such a long life is rare, about 80 percent of the sunfish population die off every year--typically over winter.
Sunfish feed mostly during the morning and evening in all parts of the water--the surface, the bottom, and all points in between. Bigger fish swim the deeper waters in loose schools rarely more than five fish big. As the sun sets, they move to the bottom where they rest through the night in spaces between rocks or under sunken logs.
Quite ponds and sluggish creeks, from the Maritime Provinces to Georgia and across the upper Midwest to Alberta, are home to our highly decorative sunfish. You will find them wherever weeds and stumps provide shelter and boat docks and overhanging trees, like the sycamores of Seven-Mile, yield shade. Casting a tiny popper or a small hopper will take fish off the top. But if you need to fish deeper a chunk of worm will do the trick.
No other fish has been so widely sought by American youth than the sunfishes. For so many, engaging these bantam-weight battlers has imparted an appreciation for sport fishing and the workings of nature. I was no exception.
Year after year sunfishes continue to be among the most popular of game fishes -- and for good reason.
I've fished for steelhead in the Northwest, largemouth bass is Texas, and Rio Grande cutthroats in the New Mexico sierra. But there are times where I long to hang on to a fat, gray sycamore on the banks of Seven-Mile to wrangle with another sunnie.
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