Food Factor Sunfish

For more panfish action all season long, play the forage card.

Most any kid with a cane pole can identify silver-dollar “sunnies” hovering beneath the dock by their familiar disk-like profiles and bright-colored bellies. Serious sunfish fans, however, recognize different species within dockside clouds of small fish.

Of the many North American sunfish, bluegills, redears and pumpkinseeds rank among the most sought-after. Though closely related, each exhibits telltale traits, along with differences in diet and design. And understanding it all can help you consistently target the largest members of each family in any lake or river.

Let’s start with a biological look at the Big Three, then delve into the nitty-gritty of species-specific presentations to put you on more pans all season.

Sunfish Science
Thanks to a confusing quirk of science, not all sunfish are sunfish—at least not in the sense of the species we’re talking about here. Known to biologists as Centrarchidae, the sunfish family also includes black bass such, rock bass and both black and white crappies.

Bluegills, redears (known in some parts as shellcrackers) and pumpkinseeds are considered true sunfish—not just to panfish purists, but to fishery scientists as well. Others include a host of species such as redbreast, banded, bluespotted, mud, warmouth sunfish and more. Many of these are too small to interest anglers. Some, like the redbreast, attain decent sizes in Southern waters and elsewhere in certain situations. While we’re not covering these species—other than touching on green sunfish and hybrids—the scientific and tactical tips outlined here can be applied to them if you learn their critical forage in the waters you fish.

Before reading on, be clear that the spawn throws the forage factor out the window. Large male sunfish feed little if at all on the nest. Catching fish hinges on triggering defensive strikes, not matching the hatch. The tips outlined here pertain to the rest of the year, when there’s more to the game than finding a bedding colony and irritating the fathers-to-be into striking.

When it comes to panfish biology, few anglers know the subject like Dr. Gary Mittelbach. A zoology professor at Michigan State University—and an avid fisherman—he’s authored and reviewed reams of research related to the feeding behavior of panfish and other predators.

“Physiologically, redears and pumpkinseeds have strong pharyngeal teeth used to crush shells and snails, while bluegills have small mouths and gill rakers designed for eating zooplankton. But they’re all opportunists, and they love to eat worms if you give them a chance,” he says.

Mittelbach explains that panfish are adaptable and readily roll with what’s on the lake’s menu, which can vary greatly due to a lake’s physical characteristics and environmental factors. In other words, if zooplankton in short supply, ’gills focus on the next best choice—minnow fry, shrimp, plant matter, whatever provides sustenance.

Mittelbach calls this “optimal foraging,” and notes that when a lake’s contingent of mature panfish zeros in on a food item, they form a collective “search image” for it. This helps explain why a vertical presentation may work wonders on one body of water, while a horizontal hanger rules the bite a mile down the road.

The take-home for anglers is to identify what your quarry is eating in the lake you’re planning to fish at the time you’re going to fish it. Do this by studying panfish stomach contents and experimenting with presentations.

’Crackers Offshore
Veteran guide Randy Kuhens of Gilberstville, Kentucky, makes a living plying the hallowed waters of Kentucky and Barkley lakes. And, though he operates under the label of Kick’N Bass guide service, many of his clients request redear and bluegill trips.

“You give folks the option of catching 5-pound bass or trophy sunfish and most want to chase sunfish,” he says. Since catering to the customer often means tapping the big bluegill or redear bite, Kuhens is a serious student in the ways of each species

“Most of the time, a redear acts more like a bass than a bluegill,” he says. “They spend a lot of time on deep-water ledges and shellbeds. Redears also eat mollusks off the bottom of the lake, so they’re more bottom- oriented than bluegills.

“On the flip side, bluegills tend to occupy shallower water near shore, often associated with wood or weeds.” Kuhens notes that in and around such sheltering habitat, ’gills ride higher in the water column than their ’cracker kin.

When redear hunting, he studies a detailed hydrographic map, seeking likely contours—think flats and gradual ledges lying near the main channel—to support a fish-friendly shellbed. A good bed, he says, nurtures a rich ecosystem where mature shellcrackers gather to wax fat on a virtual underwater buffet.

“There’s a rich forage base with everything from phytoplankton to small minnows and mollusks,” he says. On Kentucky and Barkley, these offshore ’cracker barrels—largely overlooked by the masses—generally lie in depths of 15 to 20 feet. Depending on the lake, however, you might find them deeper or shallower.

Potential structure sighted, Kuhens motors to the site and uses sonar to confirm his hunch—searching for clouds of plankton, baitfish and bottom- hugging blips indicating larger predators.

Once satisfied a spot is worth fishing, Kuhens fancasts the area with a “Redear Rig.” The setup begins with a 4- to 6-foot leader of 8-pound fluorocarbon. At the business end, he tips a size 4 long-shank panfish hook with a worm, mealworm or cricket. He affixes a 3/32- to 1/16-ounce split shot or rubber-core sinker six inches above the hook, and uses a double-uni knot to secure the leader to 8-pound high-vis superbraid.

Retrieves vary from a gentle drag-pause to a steady sideways drag—using the rodtip to move the bait and the reel to take up slack. When a redear bites, he executes a smooth reeling hookset.

“Set too hard and you’ll hook and release it in one motion,” he cautions. In contrast to his depth-dredging readear program, his bluegill tactics hinge on suspending baits over and around woody and weedy cover.

“Look for stump fields, flooded brush and vegetation,” he says. “I use sonar to pinpoint the depth at which bluegills are holding, then hang a live cricket— the filet mignon of panfish baits— in the strike zone under a slip bobber.” Casting and slowly retrieving allows him to cover water in search of fish.

It should be noted that redears are also fond of woody cover—enough to earn the nickname “stumpknocker.” Keep this in mind as you experiment with key locations in the lakes you fish.

’Seeds, Greens & Hybrids
’Crackers and ’gills are fine, but panfish fiend Bob Bohlund often selectively pursues pumpkinseeds, green sunfish and hybrids of the two.

“Pumpkinseeds weigh more for their length than bluegills, so I target them during tournaments,” he explains.

Outside of that, a passion for their beauty and brash behavior fuels a quest so compulsive, Bohlund often dons skin-diving gear, grabs an ice rod, and takes to the water for field research he calls “snorkel fishing.”

“Once panfish reach a certain size, they start acting like top-line predators,” he says. “It’s amazing how close you can get to them underwater, and what you can learn.”

For example, he’s found that pumpkineeds, greens and hybrids are more aggressive than bluegills, and are apt to hit jigging spoons, small crankbaits and such. Another key difference influences fish location.

“Bluegills often scatter around; the others tend to use ambush points,” he notes. “Pockets in weeds, rocks and wood are all worth checking.”

Together, these two characteristics pave the way for high-octane tactics other anglers overlook. One involves a float-and-hardbait setup akin to a saltwater popping rig. The approach entails tying a 1 1/3-inch Lindy Darter under a round foam float, then popping it on the surface. The noisy float attracts curious panfish, which are then tempted by the swimming, falling hardbait.

“Set the float so the lure rides anywhere from six inches to two feet off bottom. Cast the rig into a pocket or other ambush area, and once the lure settles, rip the rod sideways— keeping the line low and the float in the water—to create as much surface commotion as possible.”

As the float settles, point the rodtip at it and take up slack. Strikes typically come at this time and are aggressive. “If you know fish are in the area but they’re not hitting, wiggle the bobber,” he says. “This causes the bait to twitch, like a baitfish tensing up before darting away, and often triggers a strike.”

Since the fish aren’t line-shy, Bohlund uses an 8-pound leader of Berkley Trilene XL or fluorocarbon to limit bite-offs from pike, as well as break-offs when broad-shouldered pans get tangled in the salad.

When packs of pumpkinseeds, greens and hybrids prowl pencil reeds, Bohlund quietly push-poles through the weedbed and uses a spot-and-stalk approach.

“I cast a topwater bait, like a Scum Frog, to find fish,” he says. “Big greens, ’seeds and hybrids are very aggressive, and can’t resist taking potshots at the frog. When they give away their positions, I use an 8- or 9-foot rod to dip a jig-and-plastic in front of them.”

His one-two punch is a 1/32-ounce jighead tipped with a 1 3/4-inch Lindy Watsit grub body, and notes that pumpkinseeds run shallower than green sunfish, favoring two- to four-foot depths compared to five to seven feet for greens.

“Hybrids are mixed in, though they hang more with the greens than the pumpkinseeds,” he says.

’Gill Getters
Noted panfish guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl also plays the biology card, factoring forage into the hunt for bull ’gills on every trip. “Outside the spawn, forage is a huge factor in fish location,” he says. To pinpoint where the biggest bluegills are holding, and what’s on the menu, he focuses on not-so-obvious food items that become big players at certain times.

“During prespawn, bluegills eat young-of-the-year perch,” he says. “It’s the one time they key on baitfish.” A float rig armed with a 1½-inch tube sweetened with a waxworm, or 1/32-ounce jig-and-softbait, is perfect for tapping the pattern, which heats up as bluegills enter bulrush beds prior to nest-building.

Where available, freshwater shrimp are another early-season bluegill candy. “Big ’gills dart among the weeds and feed on shrimp,” he says. “Twitching a small black-and-yellow jig tipped with waxie under a float is deadly. Later, I’ll switch to a small leech or chunk of ’crawler, though I like leeches because they’re more active.”

As the water warms, more bloodworms and mayflies come off the bottom, adding variety to the menu. “About the time the lily pads and rushes green up, you can hear little sucking sounds around the lake—that’s bluegills picking bugs off the surface.”

Poppers work then, but Bro favors probing thick stands of pads and reeds. A 9-foot, graphite St. Croix Panfish Series rod is perfect for pitching and dipping slip-float rigs with small ice jigs and waxies.

“Forget the split shot or you’ll pendulum into the bulrush stalks,” he warns. “I run a bead between the jig and bobber, and that’s it.” When the spawn subsides, Bro avoids the rush for deep water and targets bluegills lollygagging along the deep edge of bulrush beds and midsections of cabbage or coontail.

“Here they prefer flash-and-flicker, like a small spinner blade and bead above a size 12 Northland Gill-Getter jig. Tiny circle hooks are also good, especially for aggressive fish, and they slide through vegetation.”

Whatever the season, forage oriented strategies are key to catching trophy-class panfish on every trip. Take the time to learn the seasonal specials on your favorite lakes and make this your best year ever.

North American Fisherman Top Stories