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#22169 - 05/15/10 10:47 PM How Does a Sunfish Weigh - Matt Johnson
Matt Johnson Offline
Thorne Bros Pro Staff

Registered: 09/18/06
Posts: 3817
Loc: Ramsey, MN


How Does a Sunfish Weigh?
By: Matt Johnson

How much does a trophy sunfish weigh? Is there a length-to weight way to gauge the weight of a trophy sunfish? What makes a sunfish weigh-out the way it does? Here are a few answers or "theories" to those questions...

The weight of a sunfish can have a pretty big variance depending on the time of year and body of water. Some bodies of water grow thicker and taller sunfish. A 10 inch sunfish in one lake might be a 1/4 pound off from a 10 inch sunfish from another lake. And when you start getting into the 11-12 inch fish it can be even more fluctuated. An 11-12 inch sunfish is going to be heavy no matter the lake, but the weights can still vary quite a bit. I've seen a 10 1/2 inch sunfish that was thicker than an 11 3/4 inch sunfish. But I've also seen an 11 1/2 inch sunfish that was thicker than most 11 1/2 inch bass.

Forage also plays a huge role in this, as does overall quality of life. Some sunfish, but not all, are reaching the end of their rope when they get into that 11 inch range, and they will lose weight and thickness, much like a human does (OK, I'm not comparing a fish to a human, but you get what I mean). A 12 inch sunfish is a true monster and regardless of its weight it's a trophy no matter where it's caught. Most often than not, anything over 10 inches is going to be a decently thick and hefty fish.

Some lakes and bodies of water also have an outstanding forage base. Freshwater scuds, insects, minnows, plankton, frogs and all the other goodies that sunfish favor. Sunfish will rely heavily on a minnow diet at times, even though many anglers don't equate minnows with sunfish. Yes, sunfish will also consume a lot of insects and other organisms too, probably more so than minnows. Having a strong and available forage base is very crucial in growing large sunfish. It's no wonder why those extremely fertile lakes grow monster sunfish, it's because the food base is exceptional.

Weights can also depend on the sunfish species. Pumkinseeds are typically very thick fish to begin with. We've all seen those 6-7 inch pumkinseeds that are shaped like footballs, all plump full of insects and whatnot. And then we've also seen those potato-chip-thin 6-7 inch bluegills that can't weigh more than 1/4 pound. I think there is definitely something to be said about the variance in weight depending on sunfish species as well.

I would have to agree that using a length-to-weight measurement chart of some sort is not always accurate, and in most cases I'd go as far to say they're not very accurate at all (when it comes to trophy sunfish). To me, a couple ounces make a big difference when referring to sunfish, and those charts don't give leeway to the different factors that can change the weight of a fish. Standard length-to-weight charts are just that...standard, normal, average, but when referring to trophy-class sunfish, the term average shouldn't even be in the same context.

Different regions and climates can play a huge role in sunfish weight and the amount of time it takes for a sunfish to reach that weight. As we venture farther south (and also to the west) from my home state of Minnesota, we'll find more fertile and "sunfish-rich" ecosystems. The fat lands of Iowa, Nebraska and the Dakotas are home to many diminutive freshwater gems, which take the form of farm ponds.

These little 20-50 acre puddles might not look like much to the aggressive big lake, more horsepower angler of the Northern states, but what lies beneath the surface will drop the jaw of even the most emphatic angler. We're talking about plate-size sunfish that won't fit in an average person's hand. The "bull" sunfish is what swims these waters. But why do they get so big? What factors make this incredible feat possible? It comes down to a few main characteristics...water temperature, lake fertility and available forage.

Now, I'm not going to say that the fertile areas mentioned above are the only areas and lakes that produce big sunfish, because that would be a lie, but they are the areas that produce big sunfish year after year and they are the areas that grow big sunfish at a rapid pace. Warm water temperature is a key ingredient. So, let's look at the lakes more south (excluding the Dakotas from the list).

Having year-round heat is important in sustaining higher than adequate growth rates. No need for a metabolic slowdown and the nutrient bloom is running on all cylinders and it's running all the time. The harsh Minnesota and Northern conditions are not playing a toll on these lakes. These shallow lakes won't experience winter-kill and activity levels are at a constant high. This is a very crucial part in the rapid growth-rate that the sunfish experience.

Lake fertility will go hand-in-hand with temperature, but it's not always concrete. Fertile waters do need sunlight and other natural powers that allow them to become rich in what causes these exceptional growth-rates. So, given the fact that lakes farther south experience warmer year-round temperatures, it only seems right that fertility levels increase as well. Some of the better sunfish lakes are shallow and stained. Sunlight is soaked up and the underwater world is constantly being flourished.

If these same bodies of water experience natural run-off, then you can expect the effects to increase. Farm ponds are a prime example of fertile lakes with natural run-off, and farm ponds are one of the top bodies of water that I look for when searching for trophy sunfish. They are nutrient-rich environments that cater to the demands of the "bull" sunfish.

A strong forage base is something important for all freshwater species, and more available forage means the better chance of growing big fish. Fish need to eat, and fish need to eat a lot in order to reach trophy class. Much of a fish's life (and sunfish are no different) consists of looking for, and devouring, its next meal. Certain types of forage will help in the growth process, but the amount a fish eats can be even more important. A minnow diet will help provide solid levels of protein, as will as diet rich in scuds, bloodworm and other protein-packed organisms. But, a diet rich in plankton, zooplankton and other micro-organisms is important as well.

Most lakes will have adequate levels of micro-organisms, and usually there is a decent supply of a protein-rich meal too, but often times the areas where the "growth-food" is located are not the areas where sunfish would prefer to be (in reference to large lakes). For example, in some of our large Northern Minnesotan lakes, the large schools of baitfish will roam the open spaces, and sunfish are not always accustom to those areas, especially when these same lakes are stocked full of hungry pike and muskie. Sunfish will hold in the weeds and scrounge up what is left behind, or they will dabble with the minnows that hold tight to the weeds, but more often than not they will resort to a micro-organism diet.

The problem with this is that the protein and other nutrients needed for exponential growth are not there, and the rapid growth-rates will fall short as well. Now, sunfish can and will get big on a micro-organism diet, but it will just take a longer period of time. This is not a universal law and there are exceptions to every "rule," but in large systems like that, it will take sunfish a lot longer to reach trophy status. An 11 inch sunfish in those larger lakes is going to be much older than an 11 inch sunfish of one of the southern area farm ponds. Having the right available forage right in front of their face is a key factor in achieving trophy sunfish status.

And like mentioned earlier, there are always exceptions and lakes that defy the odds. Some farm ponds will grow monster sunfish and you might not even see a single minnow swimming around, which would lean towards the assumption that those sunfish got that way on a micro-organism diet, which could be the case, I'm not going to argue that. Every body of water is a different playing field, and every body of water has something unique which allows it to produce the size of fish it does. There is no uniform rule to why or how a sunfish gets to be the size it does. Yes, there are theories and studies that can show ways and different paths a sunfish can take to reach a trophy size, but there are lakes where those paths are not available and trophy sunfish still exist.

The simple mention that lakes experience change can play a role as well. What used to hold true for a body of water might not be the case anymore. A lake which once used to be a trophy sunfish mecca might now be home to bullheads and turtles, or just small sunfish. No matter the argument, water temperature, lake fertility and a strong, available forage base will most definitely up the ante in pinpointing what bodies of water will have the possibility of growing trophy-class sunfish.

Sunfish are a lot of fun on light tackle, and trophy sunfish will push the limits of any ultra-lite rod. Catching a big sunfish is exciting for an angler of any level and it seems to always have that knack for bringing out the kid in you!!!
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Matt Johnson
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#22179 - 05/16/10 07:36 PM Re: How Does a Sunfish Weigh - Matt Johnson [Re: ]
dutch Offline
Extreme Angler

Registered: 03/31/09
Posts: 1360
I can't talk much about river bluegills, although we take a few and they generally seem to be heavier built than the lake fish. So do the river crappies generally. In the river we take quite a few smaller smallmouths surprisingly often mixed with the greenies depending on the size of the current whether the smallies are as tight to the shoreline as the greenies. We are more apt to find bluegills and crappies in proximity; the greenies more in the same areas with the smallies.

In lakes we very often find sunnies and crappies in the same areas, often seeming to alternate feeding and very often on the same baits. Most of our crappies aren't real slabs, but can go over 12 inches on occasion. That is mostly shoreline fishing, btw.

It is a bit different in my boat experience. Very often scattered crappie schools will have some few very nice sunnies hanging around the edges, especially on the weedline side. That would be bluegills, hybrids, and even an occasional giant greenie up to 9" on one end of the boat and the other with crappies that can be up to and over 13", and very often on the same baits, although even then big sunnies seem to prefer smaller than the crappies. That is in pretty particular spots, though, very likely forage sinks, because there often are largemouths and pike also around and even an occasional walleye. When the big sunnies are there like that the dinks will be more in the weeds and not so much out in the open though. Outside the weedline it is far more likely that it will be bigger sunnies than the dinks associated like that. Concentrated crappie schools, however, will seldom also have any associated sunfish. So some of that depends on how the crappies are grouped. We find smaller crappies and up to 6 or 7" sunnies associated all the time, very often with feeding crappies under an upper layer of active bluegills, sometimes very nice crappies sometimes not, but those are more scattered crappies. When the crappies really turn on the sunfish get out of the way.

The most productive crappie spots I fish from the shoreline always have sunnies around, although the mere presence of sunnies doesn't mean there will be crappies, and they usually won't be in exactly the same spots, but normally pretty close. I use the behavior of the resident sunnies to tell me whether bigger predators have also moved in, especially muskies, since I fish in smaller waters pretty heavily stocked with them. Both the sunnies and the crappies behave a whole lot more cautiously when muskies are around than in the presence of any other predator. The sunnies will hang tight to cover then, and when that happens the crappies don't normally come out at all. Last evening the muskies were extremely active cruising and feeding through one of my more dependable crappie spots. No crappies and the sunnies hung very tight to cover. There were probably half a dozen feeding muskies at least that came through in the hour and a half I watched on my way home from work. I lost count of the number of times I saw sunnies come boiling up out of the water and the major boils when one of the muskies made a pass. One 40" plus musky swam through not 5 feet from my toes, in fact. I got a similar report from a nearby lake. The panfish were scared to death, and the sunfish behavior reflected that, and is pretty dependable for showing the presence of one or more muskies.

What I have noticed is a difference in build between the bigger crappies and sunfish and their smaller relatives in the same waters. The bigger ones are always better filled out, heavier bodied fish, while it is normally the smaller ones that are the skinniest. Harriet and Calhoun crappies are paper thin until they reach perhaps 10 to 12" or more, and very few of them live that long. I also watch the greenies to get a better idea whether the crappies and sunnies will be built heavier. The bigger and heavier the green sunfish, the more apt the bluegills and crappies will be, too.

That tells you a bit about the water you are on, possibly as much about how free the water is from excess predation as about the genetics involved, although being a farm kid I know that build is always partly genetic. The bigger heavier fish may have outgrown a predation point allowing them more freedom to feed, allowing some of the skinnier ones to grow big enough to be able to fill out. No question that a heavy musky population will change that point and may actually erase it, since no panfish will outgrow the appetite of a full-sized musky, although it might outgrow the ability of largemouths, walleyes, and even most pike. IMO stocked muskies cause skinnier panfish in smaller waters where they hunt the entire water column. That becomes much more acute where human harvest is heaviest, too. I don't think that either is more to blame than the other, rather they augment each other pretty heavily.

Last evening muskies were all over the shallows and through the weed tops. It was only some of the pike fishermen that had much of any action. All the panfish had their heads down.
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#22181 - 05/16/10 07:53 PM Re: How Does a Sunfish Weigh - Matt Johnson [Re: dutch]
dutch Offline
Extreme Angler

Registered: 03/31/09
Posts: 1360
I would like to add one thing relating predation and farm ponds. the state of Iowa participates in a lot of private farm pond management, concentrating primarily in stocking bluegills and largemouths. They claim you must manage one or the other for size. Either the sunfish must be treated as forage or you must increase the numbers of smaller bass to get bluegills to outgrow the bass' ability to feed on them. On most average sized farm ponds they advise that you cannot have it both ways. To get the largest pond bluegills you must have enough predation to keep them from overpopulating but it must not be bigger than bluegills can outgrow.

Also in most of Iowa, farm pond fertility is not a problem, but Iowa also advises to manage the shoreline to provide a wild strip of grass and forbs with absolutely minimal woody growth with fencing to keep livestock out and provides as much insect feed as possible. Those can be really solid pheasant hunting strips, too. IIRC Iowa does not recommend stocking a new pond with minnows, there will be enough natural forage for the bluegills as the pond settles down. Those places can be amazing to fish, but they have to be managed, too. They can be both under and over fished very easily.
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#22283 - 05/18/10 04:34 PM Re: How Does a Sunfish Weigh - Matt Johnson [Re: dutch]
dutch Offline
Extreme Angler

Registered: 03/31/09
Posts: 1360
The June/July Infisherman has a very good article on big sunfish that goes right along with Matt's essay and other comments in other threads here on larger baits for bigger panfish. Some points to watch for are the description of the unique bite pattern of the sunfish, the very tiny size of the hook used with the larger plastics, and the sunfish's notorious preference for twister type tails. It is amazing how big a bait a big bluegill will take and still miss a hook set if the hook size is too large, or how small a sunfish will attack a very large twister tail.

I also noted that the bigger bluegills are said to spawn deeper, often quite a bit deeper than the smaller ones, which I have read elsewhere, too. They tend to move everything a bit deeper than the dinks do, if predation allows anyway. In pike only lakes that will be in the gap between the deep trophy females and the shallow water hammerhandle males, formed because the much smaller males don't dare approach the females except when they quit feeding to spawn. So the females get choice of optimum habitat, which includes the cooler depths necessary for them to get best size from their forage. Look for bull bluegills between.

Then Infisherman starts the article with a picture of a "Georgia Giant" type hybrid (bluegill/greenie - not a pure bluegill, no dorsal fin spot), which is the only lapse I could see. The fisher posed with it is pretty enough, though. Otherwise that is a very good article and a very nice companion to Matt's essay and Bob Bohland's one right ahead of this thread on the this same forum.

Between the three articles you have everything basic you need to catch very nice bluegills. From what I have seen that also covers the hybrids who tend to school up with their age mates from about the same spawn, and are often a bit bigger and more aggressive so they normally are the first taken if they are around. If the first fish off a school is a very nice hybrid, expect the associated true bluegills to be a bit smaller. So perhaps the lead picture isn't really that much off base. BTW big hybrids are also a sign of lighter fishing pressure; due to their extra aggressiveness, they tend to be out front on the bite.

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