On Nature column: Three sunfish species are familiar catches in Indiana

Sunfish are well known as popular sport fish. While at least 10 species may be found naturally or stocked in Indiana waters, bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus), green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus) and longear sunfish (Lepomis megalotis) are the most common and widespread species in central Indiana.

They share the sunfish family (Centrarchidae) with other popular gamefish including crappie, rock bass and smallmouth and largemouth bass. Sunfish are characterized by deep, laterally compressed bodies which give them a narrow vertical profile when viewed from the front. They feed primarily on aquatic invertebrates, including a variety of insect larvae.

The bluegill is perhaps Indiana’s most popular gamefish. Unlike bass that are more often caught for sport, a large percentage of the bluegill catch ends up in the frying pan. Fortunately, bluegill are abundant, prolific and grow rapidly, making them an ideal pan fish. The upper part of the body is bluish-green while they are silvery below. They have a blue band on the lower edge of their snout, cheeks and gill covers. This band intensifies in the breeding males, who also sport an orange breast.

Bluegill are abundant in ponds and lakes, where they are often stocked for sport. They also occur in pools of streams and rivers. In ponds they are often stocked with largemouth bass, which prey on their abundant offspring, preventing the pond from filling with too many stunted, underfed bluegill. The record bluegill caught in Indiana weighed more than 3 pounds, but the vast majority of those caught weigh less than a pound.

Green sunfish are also abundant in most aquatic habitats, including streams, rivers and ponds. They have a more streamlined body, resembling a rock bass in shape and are typically quite small, making them a less popular catch. They tolerate poor water quality and become the most abundant sunfish in waters that are badly silted, stagnant or low in oxygen. Green sunfish are mostly olive green with bright blue flecks on their sides, arranged in lines. A distinctive pattern of wavy, bright green-blue lines are present on the cheeks and gill covers. Like bluegill, green sunfish are easily caught on live bait and artificial lures. They frequently hybridize with bluegill, with the offspring making a more desirable pan fish than pure green sunfish.

The third common sunfish in central Indiana waters is the longear sunfish. Unlike the green sunfish, longear sunfish require better water quality and clean gravel substrates. They are considered an indicator species for high water quality. Their brilliant blue and orange coloration makes the longear sunfish one of the most beautiful fish in North America. The iridescent blue flecks on the sides and face contrast sharply with the brilliant orange background and belly. Longear sunfish are aggressive biters and are frequently caught in White River and its tributaries.

Kevin Tungesvick is a lifelong resident of Madison County. An avid naturalist and self-taught botanist, Kevin is author of a floral inventory of Mounds State Park. He is a founding director of Heart of the River Coalition.

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