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.
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.
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.
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
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.
charts are just that...standard, normal, average, but when referring
to trophy-class sunfish, the term average shouldn't even be in the
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.
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.
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
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).
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.
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
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
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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