You don’t have to be a bass fisherman to enjoy these beautiful fish. The sunfish family is widely distributed in North America, and some species have been introduced elsewhere. Learn about the eighteen different species of sunfish, including the largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Types and Species of Sunfish
Anadromous (eels) Sunfish
Occasionally, freshwater species become semi-aquatic, and their life cycle changes from an aquatic to a fresh water life. In their deep, tropical and brackish water environments, they’ll die before reaching the open sea. The adaptation is the same for our largemouth and smallmouth bass here in the U.S. Their early development is a kind of evolutionary game of leapfrog. They use their riverine home as a nursery to nurse their young.
Soon after birth they follow streams into the lakes or rivers and settle into the benthic habitat for the first year. At about twelve to fifteen inches they begin to branch off and move up into the nearshore and near reef habitats. Sometimes a fish will spend up to seven years in a single habitat.
The second largest of the sunfish family, the largemouth bass will find a spot with a drop-off into the water column in the tules or areas of deeper water near the shore. Although fish tend to lie on their sides, if you look closely you can usually find a fish looking up, which indicates that they are on the move, either toward the shallows to spawn or to areas of relatively shallow water. To catch this sunfish, fish over sand, cobbles, or rubble in deeper water. The bites are fast, but often fish struggle when the line gets taut. This is because the largemouth bass does not hold its breath when it is struck. Use a conventional or crankbait, with a small tungsten blade, and drag it through the open areas of the tules.
Numerous smallmouth bass species inhabit lakes and ponds in the midwestern and southern U.S., where they form big-bucket eating schools during the summer. Because they can survive in nearly any water temperature, these popular game fish can be found almost anywhere throughout the Northern Hemisphere.
Smallmouth bass are not picky about fishing tackle. In fact, one of the best fishing lures for smallmouth bass is a popping cork. All smallmouth bass, including brown bass, common bass and white bass, also feed on aquatic insects. A quality insect imitator is the best imitation smallmouth lure available.
My go-to smallmouth lure is the yellow and black Adams Minnow, a simple, effective imitator.
These are the most common sunfish. They have a very strong and distinctive flight pattern. The northern flier may have a slightly longer flight pattern and a brighter color than the southern flier.
Bass Pond Cuckoos
If you want to catch more bass, try “pond cuckoos.” These are not actual cuckoos, and they are not actual cicadas, but they are flies that mimic these birds.
This is a type of catfish that is not part of the sunfish family. These are called hitchhiking catfish because they crawl into the mouth of smallmouth bass during feeding.
This is a very common baitfish for walleye and bass. They spend most of their lives in the mud and gravel where they are extremely difficult to catch.
Bass anglers can sometimes use these dainty but hard-fighting sunfish to help liven up a dead-slow bite. Find a sunfish on the bottom, and your bass-hunting lures should do the rest.
You Can Catch More Sunfish with Surface Locating Sticks Than You Think
During the summer, the sunfish will stay at the depths where they feel safe. That’s a problem for those of us who want to use surface-seeking stick baits. However, with a little skill and imagination, you can become an excellent surface-locating sunfish angler. Learn more about the effective techniques.
Don’t Forget About Sunfish During Winter
Yes, the sunfish will stay in the shallows during the winter, but their populations may not be quite as high as in warmer months.
Long known as a native of the Mississippi River, these are often referred to as the “southern sunfish.” They have a long history of being caught in major catfish competitions, including the Bassmaster Classic and the Pippin Power Bass Federation. Here you can see their powerful back fins in action.
These fish are often mistaken for bass, but they are actually sunfish. They have a more flattened appearance than the typical sunfish, and the body is a creamy black with small spots and bands of blue.
You’ll often see these sunfish in groups, either in the midstream or upstream.
Large mouth and small mouth bass, both of which prey on sunfish, call the golden topminnow, also known as the black minnow, their wintertime lunch. Large mouth bass eat the little minnows almost exclusively during the month of November, and small mouth bass and freshwater drum sometimes also join in on the fun. After a few days without sunfish, it’s easy to see why bass may be predisposed to eating minnows and drum.
This bass-specific diet results in very little harm to the sunfish population.
Keep a few sunfish at the bottom of your live well, near the water surface where you’re planning to feed on sunfish. Place a small plastic container of milk in the top of the live well to attract the little guys, then bring the container up to your target fish’s eye level.
I’ve included several fishing lure options at this point, so choose whichever one you think would be best for you. For the sunfish, I like the designs of the Bit-Rig Lures, along with the Thunderbird Divers. If you like the streamer, try the Flying Jinger-Style Long-Hook Lures, or you can get away with the easily transportable mini-jig version.
If you want to get even closer to the fish, try using a live bluegill or crappie for bait. Often, fishermen will use an artificial minnow to mimic the feel of a bass bite, and it can be very effective. Small mouth bass often seek out the shallow, sluggish bottoms for spawning areas.
Keep in mind that both sunfish and largemouth bass can be caught by other fishing methods, so be sure to try your luck with other methods of catch-and-release fishing.