To most of us, even some of us who fish a lot, we view the small group of fish, collectively known as "sunfish" or "sunnies," as just that. These are the fish that originally got us into this fishing game. I have always said … if it weren't for bluegills, I'd probably take up golf.
Admit it … most people who fish got their introduction to the sport from an uncle, parent, grandparent or close friend by way of the common sunfish. But did you know there are over a dozen major species of sunfish, with many sub-species, and add to that an endless group of both naturally occurring and lab created hybrids? The fish of everyone's dreams are seldom this small, yet they remain among the most popular and sought after fish in the United States. Sunfish are still a major component of most fish frys south of the Mason Dixon Line and they are the staple for many family outings in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes locales.
You will not see a Sunfish Masters TV show on cable, nor will you excitedly open your latest edition of Sunfish Pro Shops Catalog. Few TV shows will dare to focus on such diminutive critters. But believe it or not, various sunfish and panfish species are finally starting to get their due as more and more tackle manufactures are making panfish gear, rods, lures, bait containers and more for the little fish known as sunnies.
Here is just a partial list of sunfish species that are available in our region, with a list of top waters to find them…
Bluegills: The common bluegill sunfish is just about everywhere, and local farmponds tend to have some of the biggest ones. Cunningham Falls Lake, Deep Creek Lake and Eastern Shore public millponds are the best in the state for these.
Red Eared Sunfish: Not native to the state, they grow bigger and can get to two pounds and 13 inches, much bigger further south. Rocky Gap State Park, Cunningham Falls again and nearby Lake Hashawha have them.
Pumpkinseed sunfish: Although small, some impressive fish can be found in Greenbriar State Park, Deep Creek Lake and many public and private venues along the Mason Dixon Line.
Redbreast Sunfish: Mostly found in small streams and rivers, this colorful and aggressive sunnie can save the day when the stream smallmouths have lockjaw. Potomac and Susquehanna tributaries have them in high number.
Flier: Many of our local anglers have never seen one. They look like a cross between a crappie and a bluegill, with a very small mouth. Native to most southeastern coastal rivers, fliers are native to southern Maryland, with Saint Mary's Lake being a stronghold for them in our state.
If you live anywhere south of Richmond, Virginia, most folks will call sunfish "brim." Red-eared sunfish will be called "shellcrackers" and redbreast sunfish, very popular in southern streams, are called "robins." And throughout the country, there are many more names and other species. They are all fun to catch, and you don't have to be a kid to enjoy them. Most of them are in a spawning phase and in the shallows right now. A light rod, small hooks, can of worms and a willing spirit are all that is needed to cash in on the joy of sunfishing.