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Trophy Sunfish - Why?
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's 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 bit. I've seen a 10 1/2 inch sunfish that was thicker than an 11 ¾-inch sunfish. But I've also seen an 11 ½-inch sunfish that was thicker than most 11 ½-inch bass.

Matt Johnson with a nice bluegill.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 is 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 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 taking their toll on these lakes. These shallow lakes won't experience winterkill 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 kind of 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 nourished. If these same bodies of water experience natural run-off, than 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 microorganisms is important as well. Most lakes will have adequate levels of microorganisms, 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 accustomed to those areas, especially when these same lakes are stocked full of hungry pike, bass 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 microorganism 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 microorganism 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 as 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 microorganism 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!!!

Good Fishin,
Matt Johnson

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