Freshwater Sunfish

Last updated: October 28, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit Sean McVey/Shutterstock.com

Four species of the freshwater catfish have gone extinct

Freshwater Sunfish Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Actinopterygii
Order
Perciformes
Family
Percoidea
Genus
Centrarchus

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Freshwater Sunfish Conservation Status

Freshwater Sunfish Locations

Freshwater Sunfish Locations

Freshwater Sunfish Facts

Prey
Smaller fish and crustaceans
Name Of Young
Fry
Group Behavior
  • Sociable
Fun Fact
Four species of the freshwater catfish have gone extinct
Biggest Threat
Overfishing
Predators
Larger fish
Diet
Carnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
Type
Fish
Common Name
Freshwater sunfish
Origin
North America
Number Of Species
38

Freshwater Sunfish Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Red
  • Green
  • Silver
  • Light Grey
  • Olive-Grey
  • Grey-Brown
Skin Type
Scales
Venomous
No
Aggression
Medium

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Summary

The freshwater sunfish is a family of freshwater fish, also known as Centrarchidae, that belongs to the order of Perciformes and is one of the most popular angling species in North America. This family includes 38 different freshwater species that fall into three different subdivisions. The most distinctive feature of the freshwater sunfish is its rough scales and two spiny dorsal fins.

This species can be found in warm, diverse habitats and has been introduced out of its native waters in North America and now can be found in lakes, ponds and streams throughout Africa and Europe.

3 Facts About Freshwater Sunfish

  1. Four species of freshwater sunfish have gone extinct out of the 38 identified species.
  2. All species of freshwater sunfish are carnivores and prey on smaller fish.
  3. Freshwater sunfish can reach 18 inches in length.

Freshwater Sunfish Species

There are 38 different species of freshwater sunfish. Four of these have gone extinct. They belong to the Centrarchidae family, which is a family of nest-building fish. One of the largest groups of centrarchids is the true sunfish, or Lepomis, which is a small species.

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Here are some of the most popular freshwater sunfish species:

  • Bass (Micropterus salmoides)
  • Crappies (Pomoxis)
  • Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
  • Redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)
  • Longer sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)
  • Pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus)
  • Warmouth sunfish (Lepomis gulosus)
  • Redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus)
  • Green sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)
  • Orange-spotted sunfish (Lepomis humilis)
  • Black-banded sunfish (Enneacanthus chaetodon)

Freshwater Sunfish Appearance

All freshwater sunfish have a pancake-like body structure that makes them look flat. They have two dorsal fin rays, one that has sharp spines and the second that has soft rays. Each species has between three to nine anal spins and two dorsal fins that are fused but can have a different appearance.

They have six to 13 dorsal spines on the fins, and the smallest species of sunfish, the black-banded sunfish, grows as small as 3.1 inches in length, whereas the largemouth bass grows up to 3.3 feet in some instances. Most freshwater sunfish have an average length of 18 inches.

Some species of freshwater sunfish have a rounder body that is not as flat as the others, with smaller mouths. Other species, usually from the Micropterus genera, have streamlined bodies and much larger mouths. The size of the mouths determines how the freshwater sunfish feeds, as large-mouthed sunfish use ram-feeding (a method of feeding in which the sunfish swims into its prey with an open mouth), whereas small-mouthed species use suction feeding (a method of feeding in which the sunfish sucks in its prey) .

The freshwater coloration varies according to the species, but is generally a reddish-brown, green, blue, or silvery color.

Orange-spotted Sunfish
Orange spotted sunfish is a North American species of freshwater sunfish in the family Centrarchidae or order Perciformes.

M Rose/Shutterstock.com

Freshwater Sunfish Distribution, Population, and Habitat

Distribution

Freshwater sunfish are native to parts of North America, but they have now populated waters in Europe and Africa. You can find freshwater sunfish in New Jersey where they inhabit some of the state’s largest reservoirs, and lakes, along with small farm ponds. The main species found in New Jersey are the redbreast, pumpkinseed, and bluegill freshwater sunfish. The redbreast species of freshwater sunfish are distributed throughout Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, South Dakota, and Arkansas.

Population

There are thirty-eight identified species of freshwater sunfish; four of these species are now extinct. They can be found throughout North America, Europe, and Africa. Larger species of freshwater sunfish are considered to be endangered which has banned the selling and fishing of these specific species to prevent the population from decreasing even further.

Habitat

The freshwater sunfish inhabits a variety of different water systems, from small lakes and ponds to large creeks and rivers. They prefer warm, clear bodies of water. Some species of freshwater sunfish can also be found in low-flow streams and swamps. The Bluegill freshwater sunfish can be found east of the Rockies, whereas others, such as the popular Redbreast inhabits river systems of eastern Canada and the United States.

Freshwater Sunfish Predators and Prey

Young freshwater sunfish start off by eating fish larvae, either through suction or ram feeding. Sunfish are considered to be carnivores, and they primarily eat small invertebrates like insects, mollusks, crustaceans, snails, and smaller fish. Small species of freshwater sunfish that use suction feeding eat fish larvae and very tiny fish. The Micropterus species are ram feeders, and they eat in limnetic zones which are open areas.

Freshwater Sunfish Reproduction and Lifespan

Freshwater sunfish are nest builders and dig round nests along the shorelines of lakes and streams during late spring in preparation for reproduction. The nest will contain mud, sand, and gravel and is usually dug by the male. Sunfish can become quite territorial and aggressive when they make their nests and very protective of their eggs.

While the females are egg layers, the males will build and guard the nest until the larvae develop into a frys and are large enough to swim allow. The female freshwater sunfish will lay eggs in the nest after the male has performed a dancing courtship ritual, and the large the male freshwater sunfish is, the more likely he is to attract a female.

Freshwater sunfish have an average lifespan of four to six years, but some species can live for up to 10 years like the bluegill sunfish.

Freshwater Sunfish in Fishing and Cooking

Freshwater sunfish have been caught in still, baitcasting, drift, and fly fishing. They can be baited with worms and make a popular angler fish. They are better for seasoned anglers, and you will need to find the right location, use the right equipment, and try different techniques to successfully catch freshwater sunfish. Lake sunfish are the most popular to fish for in the United States, but make sure it is legal to fish for this species in your area as some species are endangered.

You can eat freshwater sunfish, and many people say they taste like black sea bass or tuna. They are a good source of essential minerals and can either be baked, grilled, or fried in preparation.

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About the Author

I am a big animal lover that not only enjoys owning and getting to care for them, but also to write about them! I own many fish, along with shrimp, hamsters and a docile tarantula. Writing has become my passion and I am grateful to be able to write about the animals I love so dearly so that I can share my knowledge and expertise in the articles I write.

Freshwater Sunfish FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Where are freshwater sunfish found?

Freshwater sunfish are mainly found in North America, but they have been introduced into Europe and Africa. Here the freshwater sunfish inhabits warm, freshwater ponds, streams, creeks, lakes, and reservoirs.

What are the different types of sunfish?

Freshwater sunfish are broken up into three subdivisions, the black bass, crappie, and true sunfish. You also get marine sunfish which are found in the ocean and are commonly referred to as just “sunfish”.

Are panfish and sunfish the same thing?

The term panfish are used to describe pan frying fish that are small. Sunfish are one of the popular fish species that are small and considered panfish.

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Sources
  1. Wikipedia, Available here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Centrarchidae
  2. LiveAbout , Available here: https://www.liveabout.com/facts-about-freshwater-sunfish-1310894
  3. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commision, Available here: https://myfwc.com/research/freshwater/sport-fishes/freshwater-sunfishes/#:~:text=Freshwater%20Sunfishes%20Many%20different%20species%20of%20sunfish%20are,is%20devoted%20to%20the%20research%20of%20these%20species.
  4. Kapamego , Available here: https://kapamego.com/sunfish-freshwater-fish-in-the-united-states/
  5. Fishing Hand, Available here: https://fishinghand.com/can-you-eat-sunfish/#:~:text=The%20sunfish%20live%20on%20the%20shallow%20water%20level,sale%20and%20fishing%20are%20banned%20in%20most%20countries.

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