Types of Sunfish: This Guide Will Make You an Expert

by Dalvin

There are many types of sunfish that can make positive identification very difficult. When we first started fishing, we often struggled to I.D. the latest catch.  One reason for this is many of the I.D. pages we found were drawings.  As a result, we found it difficult to translate the information to actual catches in our hands.

Keys to Identifying Different Types of Sunfish

This article will focus on the keys to freshwater sunfish identification.   Our goal is simply to provide the information you need to make a quick positive I.D. We will do this by showing you real-life examples from our own catches.

This list will be updated as we catch new species.  Subsequently, this means pictures will be posted in the order in which we catch each species. Finally, we will continue to improve photos and variants as our list grows.

What all Types of Sunfish Have in Common

  • Mouth – The size varies and can play a key role in identification.
  • Opercular Flap – It is located just in front of the gills. Sometimes viewed as the ‘ear flap’ it often distinguishes one type of sunfish from another due to shape and color.
  • Pectoral Fins – These vary in size and shape, from long and pointed to short and rounded.
  • Eyes – A few species have red eyes. When this is combined with other unique traits, these eyes can help make a confident ID.
  • Dorsal Fins – Although there are differences in structure, spines, and soft portion, they are not usually key in making a positive ID.
  • Anal Fins – We are confident you can find them.
  • Pelvic Fins -Located in front of the anal fins.

Bluegill Sunfish

The bluegill may be the most complex ID of all North American Sunfish. We have caught dark ones, light ones, and everything in between.  In addition, there are hybrids with other sunfish species as well. As a result, Bluegills are best identified by observation of all the field markers.

Bluegill Identification and Sunfish Features

  • Black opercular flap
  • Small Mouth
  • 6-8 Faint Bars (May or may not be visible)
  • Blue to Purple on Face or Gill Cover (May or may not be present)
  • Yellow to Orange Belly
  • Pointed Pectoral Fin

Bluegill can reach up to over 4 pounds. Without a doubt, that would be an unforgettable fight!

Longear Sunfish

The longear sunfish is our favorite freshwater sunfish species. It is unquestionably for us the most beautiful.  We have found a small, clear, Texas creek loaded with big males. As a result, they have kept us busy with an almost guaranteed bite! We love them.

  • Small-mouth opening
  • Blue Streaks from mouth to Opercular Flap or Gills
  • They sometimes have beautiful red eyes.
  • Blue specks are often found mottled on a Greenish to Brown Body
  • Orange to Yellow Belly
  • The KEY: Black Opercular Flap with a Light to Bluish Border!

Green Sunfish

These little fish are super aggressive.  We found a small creek with water flowing in from a spillway at a pond.  Following our discovery, we absolutely wore out green sunfish like this one by letting maggots drift downstream!  Not only did we catch numbers but we also caught big ones like this.

Green Sunfish with Identification Markers

  • Larger Mouth (Undoubtedly Larger than All Types of Sunfish but The Warmouth)
  • Greenish Color Throughout
  • Broken Blue Streaks from Mouth to Gills
  • Yellow Tips on Fins and Tail
  • Short and Wider Pectoral Fins
  • Opercular Flap is Black with White to Yellow Border!

Redear Sunfish (a.k.a Shellcracker)

At this time, this is our only redear sunfish! We found its key identifier unmistakable. Undoubtedly, this was our quickest and easiest first-time freshwater sunfish identification.

Redear Sunfish ID Red Dot on Opercular

  • Relatively Small Mouth
  • Red-flakes on a Mottled Body
  • Red to Orange on Tip of Opercular Flap
  • The Long Pectoral Fin Extends Past Eye when Forward

Warmouth Sunfish

Without a doubt, this was Walker’s most sought after and prized sunfish catch.  It came unexpectedly at a library pond and we wanted to be certain of the I.D.  Therefore, we sent a picture to Texas Parks and Wildlife and a biologist confirmed our identification as warmouth.

  • Black Dot on Opercular Flap
  • Largest Mouth of any North American Sunfish
  • Red-eyes
  • Orange Dot at Base of Dorsal Fin
  • Tooth Patch on Tongue

What Types of Sunfish are Coming

Coming Soon!

  1. Red-breasted Sunfish. The lake is picked out and a strategy in place.  Nonetheless, it is an overnight trip, and 2020 happened.  Despite this, we can’t wait to hold a new species in our hands. It will be just as much fun to share the photos, videos, and info with you.
  2. Pumpkin-Seed. We have heard these will give the longear sunfish a run for their money as most beautiful.  While we don’t have a trip outlined yet, we are always ready for a surprise.

In the meantime, check out How to Catch Sunfish: Seasonal Guide to Awesome Fishing if you would like to learn strategies for catching all types of sunfish.

Finally, get out there and discover a new species with your friends and family. It’s tight lines and fin time!

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