Are bluegills and sunfish the same? Well, that depends! The popular names of our favorite fish species often cause confusion. For example, your basic black crappie is a calico bass in Massachusetts, a speckled perch in Florida, and a sac-a-lait in Louisiana. The truth can be found in the scientific names of fish, which have been carefully catalogued by naturalists and ichthyologists over the past 150 years or more.
Bluegills and the other 7 species of the genus Lepomis that can be considered “gamefish” are members of the rather inclusive sunfish family (Centrarchids), which also includes black bass, crappies, the four rock bass species, and several lesser-known fish.
To continue the confusion, the term “sunfish” is commonly applied by biologists as well as anglers to all members of that Lepomis genus, including the bluegill, redear, pumpkinseed, green, redbreast, spotted, longear, and warmouth. In some states, bag limit regulations limit how many “sunfish” may be possessed, a total that can include several species. So . . . in a nutshell, all bluegills are sunfish but not all sunfish are bluegills.
In addition to being an important sportfish and excellent table fare, many of the sunfish species exhibit vivid color that contrast with the rather monotone countenance of walleyes, bass, and muskies. Around spawning time, males of several species show an array of color contrast of blues and greens, reds and oranges that’s only surpassed by tropical reef species. Aquarists have made them popular for this reason, as well as their accommodating nature in captivity.
Bluegills and Sunfish
Bluegill—Though only the second-largest sunfish, the bluegill is king of the clan for their wide distribution and popularity among anglers of all ages, summer and winter. They’re found in 49 states and several Canadian provinces. Though the all-tackle record stands at 4 pounds 12 ounces, caught in Alabama in 1950, specimens over a pound are considered trophy-size across their range. Fisheries agencies have begun placing more emphasis on managing bluegills, to maintain good numbers of larger fish that anglers seek.
Redear Sunfish–This largest sunfish (record of 6.3 pounds caught in Lake Havasu, Arizona, in May 2021) is native to the southeastern states and parts of the Mississippi and Rio Grande drainage, but they’ve been widely transplanted from southern Michigan to California. They’re most popular in Florida, Georgia, and other southeastern states. Redear diet is primarily invertebrates and they specialize in consuming snails and mussels. In Lake Havasu, their enormous size is due in part to their steady diet of zebra mussels.
Green Sunfish–Greenies aren’t highly prized despite their larger size (record of 2-2, from Missouri’s Stockton Lake), but often caught by accident where they’re found with other sunfish species. Flathead catfish anglers prize smaller specimens as bait, due to their tough disposition and ability to tolerate poor water quality.
Redbreast Sunfish—Redbreasts are highly prized wherever they’re abundant, particularly in coastal streams from Massachusetts to Florida. Their brilliant coloration, large average size (close to half a pound; record 1 pound 12 ounces from the Suwannee River, Florida), and willingness to strike a variety of small lures contribute to their popularity.
Pumpkinseed–This is a common catch across the Upper Midwest, often coexisting with bluegills in northern natural lakes. Their original range was along the Atlantic Coast states and Maritime Provinces of Canada, west through the Great Lakes region. But pumpkinseeds have been widely introduced to many western states and British Columbia. Though the maximum size is only 1 pound 8 ounces (from New York’s Finger Lakes in 2016), they commonly exceed one-quarter pound, a good “eating size” and are scrappy battlers on ultralight tackle.
Of the other four common species, the warmouth is the largest, with a record of 2 pounds 7 ounces from the Guess River, Florida. They have the largest mouth of the Lepomis sunfish and commonly eat small fish as well as crayfish, hence are often caught by bass anglers in the waters of southern and midwestern states where they’re found. The spotted sunfish occupies the southeastern U.S. from East Texas to Florida, and as far north as central Illinois. They favor ponds and slow-moving streams with vegetation of woody cover. Longear sunfish are widely distributed across central North America from southern Canada into Mexico, occasionally approaching a pound in weight. They thrive in small clear streams of the Midwest and have adapted to life in reservoirs as well, where they stand out for their very long black opercular tab. The colorful but small orange-spotted sunfish (record 5 ounces) occurs in ponds and small streams from North Dakota east to Ohio and down the Mississippi drainage to Texas. They’re generally caught incidentally, often by anglers who often wonder what the !#/?& it is.
Our favorite sunfish are generally very common wherever they’re found and several species often occupy the same waters. This sometimes leads to hybridization between species, producing offspring that typically look like a mix of the two. In Minnesota, bluegills and pumpkinseeds occupy similar habitats and often hybridize, so much so that the DNR maintains a “hybrid sunfish” category in their list of state records. In waters where they’re common, anglers recognize “gill seeds” or “pumpkin gills,” as they’re informally known.
Not as common, but no less colorful and sporty are crosses between green sunfish and bluegill. In southern states, hatcheries breed these hybrids for stocking in small private ponds, since they grow fast to well over a pound, bite eagerly, are tasty, and don’t reproduce much. They can grow large, even pushing 3 pounds in prime waters. They must be stocked every few years, however, but that precludes problems of overabundance and stunting, which often occurs with bluegills in those types of small waters.
The sunfish group is a splendid and fascinating bunch—at times difficult to decipher, sometimes almost too eager to bite. They provide a great look at some of the smaller but impressive types of species found across North America. Enjoy their abundance and beauty, while working to keep their habitat healthy.