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Americana Sunfish Folklore

By Russ Bassdozer

Here's 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 cousins.

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 work-out.

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 summer.

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 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 their lures.

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 or 300 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 spots.

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.

 
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