Art Lander’s Outdoors: Kentucky’s abundant sunfish can be caught with live bait and basic fishing tackle
Three of the most common and widely distributed sunfish species in Kentucky — Bluegill, Longear Sunfish, and Redear Sunfish — are also found in many major reservoirs.
The best fishing of the year for sunfish occurs as spring warms into summer.
The sunfish family Centrarchidae includes 18 species of fish native to Kentucky waters. A popular common name for the smaller sunfish species is bream.
Here’s some life-history details on these three sunfish species in Kentucky:
• The Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is arguably one of Kentucky’s most popular sunfish, a real scrapper when hooked on light tackle, and is one of our best-tasting fish. The bluegill’s white flesh is sweet and firm, especially when taken from cool or cold waters.
Adults are four to nine inches long, rarely more than 11 inches.
Large, hand-sized bluegill, about seven to eight inches long, are saucer-shaped, beautiful fish. Their mouths are small, and bodies slab-sided.
Coloration is variable, but generally, they are olive green with emerald, copper, and bluish reflections on their sides, dark above the lateral line. Their lower sides and belly are whitish to yellow. Breeding males may have bright red breasts.
Bluegills are present in all river drainages in Kentucky but are most successful in standing waters.
Bluegills are omnivores, eating both plant and animal material. Young readily consume algae, but the diet of the bluegill consists mainly of larval and adult aquatic and terrestrial insects, crustaceans, and small fish. They often raid the nests of other fish, including black bass, preying on fish eggs, and small fry.
• The Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis ) is Kentucky’s most abundant stream sunfish, that adapts well to large reservoirs impounded from rivers.
This beautifully-colored sunfish often referred to as a sun granny, is moderately small. Males are larger than females, and adults can grow to nine inches in length, but most are usually less than six inches long, weighing less than three-quarters of a pound.
Distinguished from other sunfish by its intense coloration, and having a long “ear flap,” that is black, with a white/reddish border, the Longear Sunfish is deep-bodied with a small mouth and short, rounded pectoral fins.
Its body coloration is orange, with wavy blue lines on the cheek and gill cover, that become smaller dots on the fish’s lowers sides and belly.
Breeding males take on a more reddish, bright red-orange, their markings an iridescent blue, and their dorsal, anal, and caudal fins develop distinctive blueish tips.
In Kentucky, the longear sunfish is found in all nine major river drainages, and the Ohio River.
Its preferred habitat in streams is similar to the spotted (Kentucky) bass — clear, sluggish pools, with a gravel or sand bottom. In impoundments, the longear is found along the gravel shorelines of shallow embayments.
Longear Sunfish are small but scrappy, and their beautiful coloration is a wonder of nature.
• The Redear Sunfish (Lepomis microlophus) is found throughout most of Kentucky, but most common in clear waters where submerged, rooted aquatic vegetation is present.
The redear sunfish is often difficult to catch, in part because they stay close to the bottom in deeper water (up to 10 feet in depth), and if the fish feels any resistance on the line, is apt to drop the bait.
A moderately large, fast-growing sunfish, adults are eight to 10 inches in length and can average three-quarters of a pound or more in productive waters. Trophy-sized fish up to 12 inches are possible.
Deep bodied, slab-sided sunfish, these sunfish have relatively long, pointed snouts and small mouths. Their upper jaw does not extend past the front of the eye.
They have long pointed pectoral fins, which aid in lateral movement, and distinctive opercle flaps — the adult male’s has a bright cherry red margin, the female’s is light orange. Coloration is a mottled blueish-green, with a yellow-orange belly.
The redear sunfish is present in all river drainages in Kentucky but is most successful in warm wetlands, and sluggish flowing streams, farm ponds, and small lakes.
Without question, the top waters in the state for Redear Sunfish are the sprawling “twin” impoundments Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, south of Paducah, Kentucky.
Redear Sunfish feed mainly on snails and insect larvae.
They use their flattened “throat teeth” to crush the shells of snails, clams and mussels, hence its most common nickname — the shellcracker. Another common name is stumpknocker, because of the fish’s attraction to stumps, logs and other submerged wood covers.
Tackle, Techniques and Live Bait
Here’s a few tips on how to catch sunfish:
• Keep the tackle simple and lightweight.
Two excellent tackle options are a pole or an ultralight spinning rod and reel. A 10-to-12 foot pole made from river cane works great. Another option is a telescoping fiberglass pole, light enough for even small children to handle.
Use 10-pound test monofilament line on poles to avoid line twist. A little heavier line also makes it possible to straighten out light wire hooks rather than break the line when snagged on cover.
Rig the line on your pole with a No. 4 lead split shot, balsa wood or plastic float, and No. 8 or 10 long shank light wire hook. The long shank hook is easier to remove when a sunfish swallows the bait. Hemostats are a great help when removing hooks lodged way down in a fish’s throat.
• It’s hard to beat red worms, which can be dug in the backyard, for sunfish bait.
A compost pile, made from grass clippings, vegetable kitchen waste, leaves, and weeds, will attract earthworms to shady areas of your yard. A compost pile will not only keep you in red worms but create rich, organic soil for your garden or flower bed.
Other good baits are bits of nightcrawler, crickets, meal worms, wax worms, and bag worms, found on evergreens, especially Eastern red cedar, in August. The 3/4-inch caterpillars make great bait — just the right size to thread on a bream hook. Use a small pair of scissors to cut open the silk bags and get at the fish bait.
• Spinning tackle has an obvious advantages over a pole because bait can be cast to likely fish-holding structure, far beyond the edge of weed beds. Combine artificial lures with live bait for more success. Tip a small jig with a wax worm and you’ll get more strikes.
Wet flies and tiny jigs can be fished on spinning tackle by the use of a clear casting float, which has eyelets on both ends.
The fly is tied to an 18-inch leader, which is tied to one end of the float. The line from the reel and rod is tied to the eyelet on the other end of the float. The rig is easily cast because of the weight of the float. The best retrieve is a stop-and-go erratic twitching.
• When stream fishing, concentrate of quiet pools, out of the current. Small spinners and crankbaits are effective artificial lures for sunfish.
• Redear Sunfish demand a different approach.
The spawn is the best time to fish, when water temperatures reach into the upper 60s and low 70s, redear sunfish build circular nests, clustered in colonies.
Their nests are typically in deeper water than bluegills. Males make the nests, and guard it, becoming very territorial, biting aggressively, after the eggs hatch.
The first challenge is finding the redear nest sites. They are typically away from the shoreline, not where bluegills are, in five feet, or deeper water. Remember that the bait must be on the bottom, or within an inch or two of it.
Fishing Regulations and Lakes Information
For creel limits and other regulations regarding fishing consult the Kentucky Fishing & Boating Guide.
Looking for a place to fish for sunfish? Consult the 2020 Fishing Forecast and Tips.
Sunfish are a great way to introduce kids to fishing. They are gamers on light tackle, and when hooked, the excitement is contagious.