Americana Sunfish Folklore
a hunk of words I whittled down into a good piece of Americana
sunfish folklore. I hope you'll appreciate reading it as much as
I enjoyed carving it for you.
There are few feasts I relish more than spoon-cleaned
Southern-fried sunfish and crappie. So it's no wonder bass like
munching on sunfish too. Add the fact that sunfish are always
found nearby bass, they're just like the obligatory bag of chips
found within arm's reach for Sunday afternoon football
broadcasts. Couch potato bass count on sunfish as a staple snack.
They are a forage source that's prolific and in proximity.
Bass themselves are actually members of the sunfish family.
Yes, smallmouth and largemouth are just big green or brown
sunfish. So it's no wonder bass and sunnies inhabit the same
places and compete for the same food supplies, even feeding on
each other, depending which fits inside the other's mouth.
Anyone who's ever seen bass guard eggs on beds, has likely
seen wolf packs of sunfish incessantly taunting the bass to chase
one, so the other water wolves may fill their cheeks with bass
eggs or gobble up the small black fry clouds.
Yet it doesn't end there. There is a constant competitive
situation in the food chain between sunfish and bass. Sunfish are
voracious predators in their own right, and can rule the littoral
benthos, dominating the food chain whenever small to mid-sized
food is in supply. Like a bass, whatever moves that sunfish can
fit into their mouths will be consumed - and lots of it. Multiply
that by the many marauding mouths in a wolf pack, and bass cannot
effectively compete for food against cohorts of their sunfish
Fortunately for bass, one way to eliminate the competition is
to eat them! End of problem. I recall one June day when I
tried all my very best bass lures off a fishing dock. I could not
get anything but small bass. However, several kids were fishing
for sunfish there. Every ten minutes, big bass would lumber out
from under the dock and take struggling sunfish off the kids'
hooks for them! Those Snoopy rods were really getting a SolarFlex
Nevertheless, most dock talk features far more conversation
about shad, shiners and minnows as bass forage, and most of
today's popular lures are patterned after such svelte,
shiny-sided baitfish. Less people talk about sunfish as bass
fodder; few intentionally cast sunfish lure imitations.
Yet in late spring, dense sheets of newly-hatched sunfish and
crappie spawn are a phenomena that helps lure bass away from the
spawning shallows and out towards the post-spawn outer weed beds.
During that time of year, look for butterbean-sized sunfish fry
up on top near the surface of the offshore grass beds. You'll
know the bass are keying on them when you see sheets of sunfish
and crappie fry sprinkling out of the surface of the grass beds
by the hundreds and thousands in unison. A passing shadow or
lunging bass may spook them. This happens especially on overcast
days and in the late afternoon (not yet evening) hours. After
being spawned, the dense panfish clusters drift to the offshore
grass beds for a few weeks until they get bigger and better able
to maneuver under their own power. Then the fry clusters will
disperse into smaller schools and become individualistic and
solitary hiders in order to survive, moving back into the inshore
cover to hide.
Round river rock is great hiding as there's plenty of
crawlspace between the rounded rocks, but any jumble of chunk
rock or gravel that has crawling room between the stones will
have postage stamp-sized sunfish hiding under the rocks in early
At dusk when ravenous crayfish come crawling, these mini-sunnies
migrate out from under the rocks and filter one-by-one into the
thin fringes of the shore, finding safe harbor for the night in
mere inches of water ringing the shoreline. It is a thin band of
comfort an inch deep and six inches wide where gamefish won't
easily pursue them at night, and stalking shore birds can't see
them in the darkness. Yet as dawn breaks, the nocturnal crawfish
retire, the gamefish and birds reap sustenance from the shallows.
The young sunnies must once again reach the solace of the rock
crawl spaces by day, making a perilous migration from the night
fringes to the rubble rock beds. On the way, they become
vulnerable and exposed to attack. They are literally the living
fuel that fires the early morning bite. As the young'uns make it
back under the rocks, no longer exposed, the morning bite
dwindles. With all the sunnies safely tucked under cover, the
gamefish march off over the deepwater edge until the fading
afternoon sun signals the mini-sunnies to run the gauntlet again.
These morning and evening migrations fuel two bites a day.
At this one to two inch size, the sunnies really haven't any
worthwhile swimming power yet. They can't outswim predators. They
stay low to the bottom in the same cracks as crawfish.
Fortunately, Yamamoto Hula jigs, single tail grubs, Ikas and tube
baits fished near bottom imitate both crayfish and sunfish now.
Lightweight 1/8 to ¼ ounce jigs flutter slowly near bottom and
mimic the slow hovering and poor swimming ability of the mini-sunnies
as well as craws.
When lifted out of the water, sunfish are boldly-colored in
many bright hues of the rainbow. Yet they look like pale drab
smoke when viewed in the water. Especially small sunnies are not
nearly as boldly-colored as large ones. Good small sunfish
imitations are Yamamoto's smoke-based colors: 214 (smoke
w/black, blue & gold); 166 (smoke
w/black & chartreuse); and 180 (smoke
w/black, red, green & orange). However, most any june bug,
grape, blue, chartreuse, watermelon green, pumpkin orange
or brown color can imitate a sunfish or a craw - two major
sources of food for bass.
Sunfish patterns can at times be enhanced by chartreuse tail
dye. It does not sound like such a simple thing may matter, but
this extra effort pays off big! See if there is chartreuse to the
sunnies' tails (by catching one and holding it in the water). If
so, dip or mark your bait tails. It can be a definite advantage
for the few who do take the time to add sunfish color accents to
When bass are doting on these mini-sunfish morsels, it's easy
to spot. Bass will be spitting up partially-digested skinless
stamp-sized sunfish as you land them. Especially smallmouth will
chase a hooked crony, grabbing any regurgitated sunfish. Being
skinless, they're bone white. An effective teaser rig can be made
with a chubby 9C
Senko in 036
rigged ahead of any other lure (where such a rig is legal). The
9C teaser imitates a barfed-out sunfish ahead of the primary
lure. Double-headers are common.
As the sunfish grow larger than a few inches, they become more
mobile and are not really bottom-skulkers any more. They become
strong swimmers that tend to aggregate in cohesive groups that
suspend in or slightly above cover. Especially if you can find
brush or wood cover, bass may be feeding on sunfish that cluster
up in the crowns of the brush. Swim bulkier skirted Hula grubs
slightly above and through the upper portion of cover to imitate
suspended mature sunfish. Never let the hula grub get all the way
to the bottom, but start cranking it out by swimming it around
the cover or any areas that seem like potential bass holding
One last thing about sunfish and then I'll say goodbye. I have
heard of scientific studies that say gamefish (given the choice)
prefer soft-finned prey like shad, shiner and minnows over
sharp-finned prey like sunfish. Have you heard this? The theory
goes that spineless species slip down the gullet smoother than
thorny ones like sunfish. On the other hand, I have also heard
that bass (again given the choice) prefer crayfish over anything
with fins. So, I ask you: What could be sharper-edged going down
the gullet than a heavily-armored spine-festooned claw-pinching
crayfish? Kind of blows the bass-prefer-soft-finned-preyfish
fellows out of their socks, eh?
Given the choice, bass eat sunfish, sunrise to sunset.