It's Panfish Time: Tips for More 'Gills, Redears

panfish

Panfish are one of the most fun and best tasting species available. Here are some ways to put more of these fierce fighters in the boat.

"Bream" is used throughout the South to describe a wide array of panfish belonging to the sunfish family. One or more species of sunfish populate virtually all warm water streams, ponds and lakes throughout the region.

The word bream also brings up special memories of cane poles and farm ponds. In fact, most fishermen cut their angling teeth on these feisty little fish. But regardless of age, bream fishing is a wonderful pastime everyone can enjoy.

BLUEGILL

The bluegill is by far the most popular of sunfish that are members of Lepomis macrochirus. Lepomis, the generic name, is Greek and means "scaled gill cover," whereas macrochirus is also Greek and means "large hand."

Bluegills can be easily distinguished by a spot at the base of their dorsal fin, the prominent black spot on the rear edge of the gill cover, vertical bars on their sides and a relatively small mouth. Their spiny dorsal fin contains nine to 11 spines and is broadly connected to their soft dorsal fin. Their anal fin contains three very prominent spines as well.

While coloration is highly variable with size, sex, spawning, water color, bottom type and amount of cover, their back and upper sides are usually dark olive-green blending to lavender, brown, copper or orange on their sides. Their bellies are normally a reddish-orange or yellow color. Males tend to have a copper colored bar over the top of the head behind the eyes. Color is more intense in breeding males, with vertical bars often taking on a reddish hue. 

Bluegills prefer calm waters with abundant cover where they can hide and feed. Although they prefer quiet, weedy waters of lakes and ponds, bluegills can also be found in streams and rivers where they live primarily in shallow pools.

When it comes to feeding, insects, insect larvae and crustaceans are the dominant foods. Other foods, such as vegetation, small fish, fish eggs, mollusks and snails, are of secondary importance. However, these secondary foods may dominate a bluegill's diet during certain times of the year.

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Bluegills are best known for "bedding" in large groups. This spawning activity occurs in water 2 to 6 feet deep over sand or gravel, and often among plant roots when the bottom is soft. Spawning takes place from April through October at water temperatures between 65 and 80 degrees F. Males select a sand or gravel bar and fan out dinner plate size nests for spawning. Before and after spawning (which intensifies around the full moon), the male bluegill defends the nest against all species, but most vigorously against other male sunfish. A female will lay from 2,000 to 63,000 eggs, which hatch 30 to 35 hours after fertilization.

Regardless of whether preferring natural baits or artificial lures, folks need to think small if wanting to catch large numbers of bluegills. Long shanked No. 6 to No. 10 thin wire hooks are the most effective. The most common live baits include nightcrawlers, crickets, grasshoppers and mealworms. And when it comes to artificial lures, small jigs (1/32 ounce and smaller) and miniature spinners work best. Small flies and poppers are also effective for the fly-fishing angler. Some good choices include Wooly Worms, Improved McGintys, Copper Johns and Crazy Charlies. 

REDEAR SUNFISH

Second only to the bluegill in popularity, redears are the heavyweight fighters of the panfish world. On average, they are larger than their bream cousins, which makes them particularly attractive to anglers.

The scientific name is Lepomis microlophus, which is Greek for "scaled gill cover" and "small nape" respectively. However, the name redear comes from the crimson-tipped gill flaps. Redear sunfish are also known as shellcrackers, which comes from the heavy teeth in its throat that allow it to crush hard body invertebrates that can't be used by other sunfish species. 

Similar in shape to the bluegill, redear sunfish lack the black spot at the base of the posterior portion of the dorsal fin and have a red or orange crescent at the edge of the gill flaps. Their body coloration is light olive-green to gold, with reddish-orange flecks on a rather bright yellow breast. The body is heavily spotted with five to 10 vertical bars, which are more or less obvious on the sides, depending on the size of the fish. Although the male is generally more colorful, males and females look similar.

Redears are found in the same aquatic systems as bluegills. However, they tolerate brackish water better than other sunfish. In ponds and lakes, redears can be found in deeper water with sandy bottoms, and are often located near grasses. Redears found in rivers and streams prefer quiet waters and have a tendency to congregate around stumps, roots and logs.

Spawning generally occurs from early May through late August when water temperatures reach 70 degrees F. Redears prefer water 3 to 4 feet deep with a firm bottom to prepare their beds. Bedding sites are often near a dropoff and aquatic vegetation. Their spawning behavior is similar to bluegills', with the males building the nests and guarding the young. A female redear may lay between 15,000 to 30,000 eggs during a spawn.

Redear sunfish are opportunistic bottom feeders, preferring deeper water. Their primary food sources include snails and other hard-bodied invertebrates, aquatic insects, fish eggs, small fish and crustaceans. Because they feed on a wider variety of food items, redears grow faster than other sunfish.

Redears are much more difficult to catch than most other sunfish. While they will strike artificial lures, they can be taken more easily on natural baits. Most shellcrackers are taken on old-fashioned cane poles with small hooks, corks and split shot for weight. Some of the more popular natural baits used during the bedding season would include worms, crickets, grubs and grasshoppers. Later in the season they tend to move into deeper water and heavier cover, making them more difficult to locate.

Although they may be among the smallest of freshwater gamefish, ounce-for-ounce panfish are the strongest and most determined fighters of them all. Or as a veteran fly fisherman once told me, "If a bream weighed 5 pounds, you would never be able to land one."

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