By Ken Poor

    Last week’s warm weather raised the water temperatures on many lakes into the prime range for the bluegill spawn. While this is a relatively late start, compared to past years and more normal seasons, it is a great time to target these great tasting panfish.

     Actually, bluegill is a loose term often used by anglers to identify several members of the sunfish family. Panfish or bream is another one of those “loose terms” used by fishermen that covers most species of sunfish, but it may also include perch, crappie, rock bass and other types of small fish, depending on where you live.

     Actually, there is no species of fish in the waters of the United States that is named a bream or panfish. Generally speaking, panfish is a northern term and bream is a southern term, primarily the southeast United States, and both terms refer to or include about the same species of fish.

     In the south, bream is sometimes spelled “brim”. Bottom line, depending on the part of the country you live in, and no matter what you choose to call them, sunfish, bluegill, bream or panfish – now is when you should be fishing for them. I guess, not everything was resolved by the Civil War.

     Throughout most of the south, anglers call most sunfish bream, which including the southern accent, is pronounced “brim”. The term bream is believed to have originated from early American settlers who thought the fish resembled a flat-bodied European species of fish called a bream.

Check with your states Department of Natural Resources fort a full-size chart.
Check with your states Department of Natural Resources fort a full-size chart.

     The bluegill, redear, pumpkinseed, redbreast, warmouth, green and long-ear are the most popular sunfish with anglers. Most sunfish have other “local” names. For example, the redear sunfish” have grinding teeth in their throats for crushing shells of small mollusks that they feed on. For this reason, in the south they are typically called “shellcrackers.” Several types of sunfish, such as the spotted sunfish and dollar sunfish do not grow big enough to interest anglers.

     The sunfish family also includes black and white crappie, also called Sac-a-lait in South Louisiana, largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass and other species of fish not typically called sunfish. In this article I’ll only be discussing the types of sunfish typically referred to as bluegill, bream and panfish. The name sunfish refers to the bright, sunny colors typical of these great tasting fish.

     Different types of sunfish crossbreed, resulting in hybrids that have some characteristics of both parents. Hybrids may cross with other hybrids or with their parents. Even experienced biologists have trouble identifying some fish from a hybridized population. Small hybrid sunfish are a nuisance in many lakes. But some hybrids are superior to the parent fish. For example, redear sunfish, when crossed with green sunfish, produce a fast-growing, hard fighting hybrid.
     Sunfish can adapt to almost any type of water, with the exception of cold water lakes and streams. They live in small ponds, natural lakes, reservoirs and river backwaters. Typically, sunfish species seek out warm, shallow, slack-water areas. Some types of sunfish such as the redbreast, prefer flowing water.    

     Most sunfish spawn from mid-to late spring. Some spawn several times at intervals throughout summer, which explains why anglers often catch egg laden sunfish weeks after the spring spawning season. Spawning is normally completed by late July.
     Sunfish have a strong homing instinct and return to spawn in the same vicinity each year. Prior to spawning, males choose a nest site, and then use their tails to sweep the bottom clear of debris. The typical spawning bed measures 1 to 2 feet in diameter and several inches deep. The beds appear as round, light-colored spots on the bottom. Sometimes the nests are so close together they form one massive spawning colony.
     After depositing their eggs, females abandon the nests. The males remain for several days to guard the eggs and the newly hatched fry from predators.
     Some species of sunfish produce so many young that they overpopulate a lake or pond. An individual spawning bed may contain as many as 200,000 fry. If a high percentage of young fish survive, they deplete their food supply, resulting in a population of stunted fish. Overpopulated lakes seldom produce keeper sunfish. The largest fish usually come from lakes with relatively low numbers of sunfish.
     Most sunfish eat larval and adult insects, invertebrates, mollusks and small fish. They rely heavily on their senses of scent and sight to find food. Sunfish usually feed in the morning and early evening, but will also feed during midday. They will bite on sunny or cloudy days. Night fishing is best on clear nights with a bright moon, or around lighted docks.

     When sunfish are in clear shallow water they will be very spooky and you will need to make long cast and slow retrieves to position your bait. In dark or stained water fish will normally be less spooky.

Photo01.jpg Use a slip-float set-up on a 6-foot light action spinning rod and spool your reel with 4 or 6-pound test clear monofilament line. The slip-float rig can be adjusted for various depths and the long rod is great for making long cast. Check out the slip-float article for additional information about rigging a slip-float.

      When practical, cast well past your target so that the splash of your float doesn’t spook the fish and then slowly retrieve your float back to the spot where you want to fish. If there is a breeze, position your boat so that you are casting into the wind, and then let the wind carry your float back to the target area.

     While some fishermen may laugh at the concept, around heavy cover such as weed beds, brush or lily pads, or in dark stained water a cane pole and slip-float rig may be a better choice than spinning gear. In the southern states fishing for bream with cane poles is much more popular than it is in northern states. With a little practice anyone can learn to use a cane pole and it is a very fast and effective method for catching sunfish.

     Typically, sunfish will school by size. If you are only catching small fish move to another location. Pay close attention to the depth that hits come from and use a bobber stop to set the depth on your slip-float so that your bait is always in the strike zone.   

Sunfish like to feed on bait that is in front or slightly above them and will often rise and hit your bait on the fall. If your bait is below them, you are out of the strike zone and hits will be few and far between. Good baits for sunfish include grubs such as wax worms, wheat worms, or spikes, leaf worms, small pieces of a nightcrawler or crickets. 

     Most lakes have enough sunfish that it is not necessary to practice catch and release. On lakes with large numbers of small sunfish it is important to keep the small sunfish and put the bigger ones back. Eventually this will help improve the overall size of the population in the lake.

     If you have kids that like to fish or you want to introduce them to fishing – this is the time of year to do it. Kids have a short attention span and they need the action to hold their interest. Given the choice of catching one or two big fish or a bunch of little ones – kids will go for the smaller fish and lots of action. It doesn’t get any better than kids, a cane pole and plenty of action from sunfish.