I get a kick out of people who think sunfish are kid’s fish. Sure, lot’s of kids catch sunfish, and it often doesn’t take a lot of skill to get some, but panfish are fun and have filled many stringers of people who’ve struck out on “adult fish.”
Right now is the best time of year to catch big sunfish because this is when they spawn. As spawning draws near, big adult sunfish move into the shallows to fan out nests where they lay their eggs. Nesting usually occurs in shallow, protected areas with one to six feet of water. They prefer to spawn on sandy bottoms with a little weed cover. In Minnesota, nesting often takes place in beds of bulrushes, near lily pads growing on sandy bottoms, and under fallen trees.
Sunfish nests are circular areas where the male sunfish has cleared away shells, sticks or debris. Often the shiny shells and discarded debris around the rim of the nest gives it a “halo-like” appearance. The nests will be from six inches to three feet in diameter. Sometimes several sunfish will fan out nests so close together that they are only a few inches apart.
Adult male sunfish aggressively defend their nest and eggs and chase away other sunfish and perch that eat their eggs. This unique prenatal care lasts until the eggs hatch and the young sunfish leave on their own.
During this protection period adult sunfish will boldly grab any small lure or bait that approaches their nest, which is why the fishing can be so good.
You can locate the sunfish nests by cruising the shallows and looking for them. Wearing polaroid sunglasses will really help you see into the water better. If you spook the sunfish off the nests, just make a mental note of where the nests are and return later.
The secret to catching the sunfish is to get your bait or lure right into the nest or just above it. This requires pinpoint casts, so use an ultralight rod designed to cast tiny lures.
If you like to use a cast and retrieve method, use small 1/64 to 1/16 ounce jigs. Cast the jig beyond the sunfish and retrieve the jig until it is just over the nest and let it fall it. Generally a good sized sunfish will engulf the jig just as it is settling toward the bottom.
When the fish are a little spooky, use a bobber and live bait. Set the bobber so it will suspend the bait just over the nests and use just enough split shot to carry the bait down. Tiny foam or very light pencil bobbers that offer little resistance to a nibbling sunfish are the best. Use a number 10 hook and bait it with a piece of worm, night crawler, cricket, or grasshopper, but the best bait is a tiny leech. Big sunfish just go crazy over leeches, and little sunfish seem to not like them. Just hook the leech once through the sucker end and it will wriggle and turn on the hook in a way that really excites keeper sunfish.
Catching sunfish off their nests may seem unsporting to some, or even unethical, but do not worry about the sunfish populations. Too many of our lakes are filled with schools of tiny stunted sunfish that are a result of over population. Catching sunfish off the nest is not only fun, but contributes to healthy sunfish numbers and bigger fish. So what are you waiting for? Somewhere within a short drive there are sunfish just waiting to bite.
Posted by Jeff Howard on June 24, 2011
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