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Fun with the sun

John McCoy
In this case, the fish most West Virginians call a "bluegill" really is a bluegill. The state also is home to several other members of the sunfish family, most of which are mistakenly identified as bluegills by anglers who catch them.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pound-for-pound - well, perhaps ounce-for-pound - sunfish might be the gamest fish that swim."If sunfish grew to the same size as the smallmouth bass, no one would ever land one," said Mark Scott, a district fish biologist for the stateDivision of Natural Resources.Scott was joking, of course, but he makes a strong point. Sunfish, humble of stature as they are, are loads of fun for anglers to catch. Funny thing is, many of the people who fish for them don't really know what they're catching."The tendency is to call everything that size and shape a 'bluegill,' " Scott said.Bluegills are indeed members of the sunfish family. But West Virginia is home to at least four other sunfish species: green, longear, pumpkinseed and redbreast. All of them are smallish, with flattened oval-shaped bodies and dark elongated tabs on their gill covers - just like their cousin, the bluegill.What's more, sunfish species sometimes interbreed, which further blurs anglers' ability to identify them correctly. "You might end up catching something that is the result of one species hybridizing with another," Scott said.Perhaps because people tend to identify all sunfish as "bluegills," the DNR maintains only one record category for bluegills instead of five for all the state's common sunfish species.A quick glance into the record books reveals why sunfish are considered lightweights among game species. The longest one, caught from a Fayette County farm pond in 1964, measured 13.75 inches. The heaviest one, caught from a Randolph County pond in 1986, weighed 2.75 pounds. Those were giants. Scott said the average sunfish caught in West Virginia measures 4 to 6 inches in length and weighs considerably less than a pound. "If you catch a 6-incher, that's a pretty decent one," he said.Like many small fish species, sunfish reproduce like crazy. It doesn't take them long to overpopulate a small pond, and the resulting lack of food keeps them from growing. That tendency to "stunt" is why so many sunfish don't exceed 6 inches.What they lack in size they make up for in abundance and ravenous appetite. With the right lures or bait, anglers can easily catch 50 or more. The DNR doesn't impose a creel limit for sunfish, and it's not uncommon to see anglers with stringers that contain dozens of them."I kind of hate to see that, though," Scott said. "In my experience, most fishermen's eyes are bigger than their stomachs. They catch a big pile of sunfish and believe they're going to eat them all."Then they start filleting them. After a while they get tired and quit, and a lot of fish go to waste. My advice is when you go after sunfish with the idea of having a mess for dinner, it's probably best to think about how much filleting you'll have to do and adjust accordingly."
Sunfish are considered a warm-water species, and are usually found in lakes, ponds and large rivers."You don't find them much in fast-flowing waters, but you can find them just about anywhere else. You'll even find them in the pools of fairly swift rivers like the New and the Greenbrier. Primarily, though, they're a lake or pond species," Scott explained.
Regardless where they're found, they're seldom difficult to catch."They're a great beginner's fish," Scott said. "Probably everyone's first fish was a sunfish. My first one was bluegill, caught from a pond. A great way to introduce a kid to fishing is to get some waxworms or mealworms for bait, put a bobber on the line, take the kid to a pond and let them catch some sunfish."Earthworms, grasshoppers and crickets are also popular sunfish baits. Anglers who prefer artificial lures lean toward soft-hackled wet flies, foam spiders and small rubber-legged popping bugs.Scott said fly anglers can catch a lot of sunfish in a very short time, especially in late May and early June when most sunfish species tend to spawn."The prime time to hit them is while they're on their nests," he said. "You don't have to be a great caster, either. Just flop a fly out there and you'll get some."DNR officials award Trophy Fish Citations for sunfish that measure 10 inches or more or weigh more than 1 pound. Scott said two bodies of water consistently produce bragging-sized specimens.
"[Fayette County's] Plum Orchard Lake has some big ones, and so does [Greenbrier County's] Lake Sherwood," he said. "But there are big ones just about everywhere; you just have to find them."Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or   
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