Knowing Your Sunfish: How to Identify Different Species

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For many anglers, our fascination with fishing began at an early lake. Whether we fished a creek, a pond, a lake, or a river, there isn’t much that compares to getting a bite, setting the hook, reeling in, and watching your catch come to the surface.

For many of us, that first catch came while using a simple hook, bobber, and worm rig.

On the other end of the line, you were likely to find a fish that the majority of folks would simply call a “bluegill.”

And there’s a good chance it was.

What surprises lots of people — some of whom have been fishing for years — is that there are actually over a dozen distinct species in the same genus as the bluegill.

Even more so, you may be surprised to find that the term “sunfish” can be used to refer to a much larger pool of species than expected.

Below, we are going to take a look at the different species of sunfish and how to identify each.

What is a Sunfish: A Quick Biology Lesson

If it’s been a while since your last biology course, it might help to do a quick review of the hierarchy of biological classifications.

Biological Classifications List
Biological Classifications Chart (photo via Peter Halasz/Pengo/Wikimedia Commons)

When we are talking about freshwater fish — or, at least in terms of simple classifications on a fishing website — we are generally going to be talking about the bottom three categories: Species, Genus, and Family.

From a biological standpoint, when we are talking about “sunfish,” we are actually referring to a family of ray-finned, freshwater fish known by the Latin name Centrarchidae.

Under the Centrarchidae are eight specific genera, which include:

  • Pomoxis (Crappie)
  • Ambloplites (Rock bass)
  • Micropterus (Black bass)
  • Centrarchus (Flier)
  • Enneacanthus (Banded sunfish)
  • Acantharchus (Mud sunfish)
  • Archoplites (Sacramento perch)
  • Lepomis (Sunfishes)

Across these eight genera are 38 distinct species, 34 of which are currently living. As you can tell from the list above, popular species like largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, black crappie, white crappie, and others can technically be classified as “sunfish.”

Likewise, there are several species of fish that carry the word “sunfish” in their names (such as the mud sunfish) despite being classified differently than those that are normally considered part of that category.

Generally speaking, however, there are thirteen species that most people generally think of when they are using the term “sunfish.” Below, we will take a deeper look at those species.

13 Different Species of Sunfish: How to Tell the Difference Between Bluegill and Other Species

As we stated at the beginning of this article, there are quite a few species that, in some way, may resemble the ubiquitous bluegill. We assume that you are on this page because you are looking for information on how to tell the difference between bluegill and other sunfish.

First, we should clarify that there are thirteen different species in the genus Lepomis. These species include:

  • Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
  • Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus)
  • Bantam Sunfish (Lepomis symmetricus)
  • Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)
  • Longear Sunfish (Lepomis megalotis)
  • Redspotted Sunfish (Lepomis miniatus)
  • Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus)
  • Redear Sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)
  • Northern Sunfish (Lepomis peltastes)
  • Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)
  • Orangespotted Sunfish (Lepomis humilis)
  • Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus)
  • Spotted Sunfish (Lepomis punctatus)

All of these species can be found in various locations across North America. Given the fact that same closely resemble the bluegill, it is easy to see where there may be some confusion.

Below, we will be taking a look at each individual species.

What is a Bluegill?

Common Name: Bluegill

Species Name: Lepomis macrochirus

Current World Record Bluegill: 4 pounds, 12 ounces (caught on Lake Ketona, Alabama, in 1950

Where can you find bluegill: Bluegill are native to the eastern United States and parts of northern Mexico, but can also be found in South Africa and parts of Europe.

In the United States, bluegill can be found in the following states: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming

Physical Characteristics of the Bluegill:

  • Black Spot Near Ear: Bluegill will generally have a round black spot on each side. This is located at the base of the dorsal fins near the edge of the gills.
  • Dark Blue Head: Depending on the location and various factors, the bluegill will generally have a dark blue coloration on the sides of its head and chin. This can be so dark at times, however, that it almost appears black.
  • Number of Spines: A bluegill is notable for having between six (6) and thirteen (13) dorsal fin spines, eleven (11) or twelve (12) dorsal rays, twelve (12) to thirteen (13) pectoral rays, ten (10) to twelve (12) anal fin rays, and three anal spines.
  • Vertical Bars: Bluegill tend to have between five (5) and nine (9) vertical bars on the sides of its body. Depending on location, age, water conditions, and other factors, there bars may not be pronounced.
  • Yellow Breast: A significant indicator of a bluegill is often a pronounced yellow breast and abdomen. This color may be more orange in breeding males.
  • Light Blue “Chinstrap”: While some bluegill may have a light blue “chinstrap,” this characteristic is not found on all fish and should not be used as a definitive indicator of the species.

What Sunfish Do Bluegill Most Resemble: The physical characteristics of a bluegill most closely resemble those of the Orangespotted Sunfish and Redear Sunfish.

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What is an Orangespotted Sunfish?

Common Name: Orangespotted Sunfish

Species Name: Lepomis humilis

Current World Record Orange Spotted Sunfish: N/A (max length is reported to be roughly 15 centimeters (via fishbase)

Where can you find orange spotted sunfish?: Circulated through the Midwest and Central United States, orange spotted sunfish (both native and non-native) have been found in states like North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Wisconsin and West Virginia. They can also be found near Ontario, Canada.

Physical Characteristics of the Orange Spotted Sunfish:

  • Length: Slightly over 7 centimeters, with a maximum length of 15 centimeters
  • Red lower fins and bellies
  • Dark earlobes that have pale (white, light yellow, cream) borders
  • Large mouth (in proportion to the body) that extends to the front of the eye when closed
  • Ten spines on dorsal fin
  • Long gill flap
  • Distinct orange spots on each side

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What is an Longear Sunfish?

Common Name: Longear Sunfish

Species Name: Lepomis megalotis

Current World Record Orange Spotted Sunfish: 1 pound, 12 oz (or 0.79 kg) in 1985 on Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico

Where can you find longear sunfish? As a native species, the longear sunfish is found through parts of the Midwest, south, and central United States. Particularly, you can find longear sunfish in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, Florida, Mississippi, New Mexico, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana and Illinois.

As a non-native species, longear sunfish have also been caught in South Dakota, California, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Vermont, Connecticut, Maryland, and Massachusetts.

Physical Characteristics of the Longear Sunfish:

  • Back ranges between brown and olive green coloration
  • Olive green fins with hints of orange and brown
  • Belly color ranges between white and orange
  • Younger fish lack distinct bands on the sides while these may be pronounced in mature fish
  • Breeding males tend to have red or orange heads with bright blue spots with stripes extending across the body and to the back of the head (but not to the throat)
  • Five (5) to seven (7) cheek scales
  • Three 3 anal spines
  • Between six (6) and thirteen (13) dorsal fin spines
  • Ten (10) to eleven (11) dorsal rays
  • Eight (8) to ten (10) anal rays

What is a Warmouth?

Common Name: Warmouth

Species Name: Lepomis gulosus

Current World Record Warmouth: 2 pounds, 7 ounces (or 1.10 kg) in 1985 in Holt, Florida

Other popular nicknames: Strawberry perch, google-eye, red-eyed bream, molly, redeye

Where can you find warmouth? As a native species, the warmouth can be found across the Midwest, central, and southern United States. It is found in Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.

As a non-native species, the warmouth has been found in Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Idaho, Utah, Washington, Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Physical Characteristics of the Warmouth:

  • Dark brown coloration (in adults)
  • Golden or light-brown belly
  • Usually has red gill flaps
  • Males have bright red or orange spot at the base of the dorsal fin
  • Between three (3) and five (5) red/orange/brown horizontal streaks extending from the eyes
  • Three (3) anal fin spines
  • Ten (10) dorsal fin spines
  • Small teeth on tongue
  • Typical length between four (4) and ten (10) inches, with maximum length of around fifteen (15) inches

Catch more warmouth with the Shimano Sedona FL Spinning Reel, a mid-range reel that is versatile enough to tackle anything from sunfish to largemouths.

What is a Green Sunfish?

Common Name: Green Sunfish

Species Name: Lepomis cyanellus

Current World Record Green Sunfish: 2 pounds, 2 ounces (or 0.96 kg) in 1971 on Stockton Lake, Missouri

Where can you find green sunfish? Much like the other species on the list so far, green sunfish are indigenous to the American Midwest, Central, and South. You can find them in numerous states, including Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, South Dakota, South Carolina, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.

As a non-native species, green sunfish have been found throughout the rest of country in states like California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Montana, North Dakota, Arizona, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Physical Characteristics of the Green Sunfish:

  • Green/blue coloration on its back
  • Yellow’ish, body scales and coloration on the ventral side
  • Side of head and gill covers have staggered bright, blue stripes
  • Dark spots located near the ear plate, bases of the anal fin, and back of the dorsal fin
  • Large mouth and long snout that extends to the middle of the eye
  • Short, round-edged pectoral fins with thirteen (13) to fourteen (14) pectoral fin rays
  • Ten (10) dorsal spines
  • Length is generally between three (3) and seven (7) centimeters, with a maximum length of twelve (12) centimeters

Other notes: Green sunfish are known to frequently hybridize, so identification may be particularly challenging at times. Their shape and coloration often causes them to be confused for bluegill.

If you’re looking to land green sunfish (or any other species on this list), consider checking out the St. Croix Panfish Spinning Rodsa personal favorite of the Premier Angler staff when it comes to catching panfish.

What is a Pumpkinseed Sunfish?

Common Name: Pumpkinseed Sunfish

Species Name: Lepomis gibbosus

Other popular nicknames: Punkie, sunfish, kivver, sunny, pond perch

Current World Record Pumpkinseed Sunfish: 1 pound, 8 ounces (or 0.68 kg) in 2016 near Honeoye, New York

Where can you find pumpkinseed sunfish? The pumpkinseed sunfish is indigenous to the northern Midwest and east coast of the United States. It can be found in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, West Virginia, Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

As a non-native species, the pumpkinseed sunfish can also be found in Washington, Montana, Oregon, California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Tennessee, Mississippi, Kansas, Missouri, Alabama, Arkansas, and northern Louisiana.

Physical Characteristics of the Pumpkinseed Sunfish:

  • Generally have a yellow, orange, or blue coloration with speckled sides
  • Orange or yellow coloration to breast and belly
  • Ctenoid scales are very bright, and often carry an olive/brown or a blue/orange coloration
  • Faint, vertical blue or bright stripes run down the sides
  • Clear or amber pectoral fin
  • Black dorsal fin
  • Orange/red spot at the back of its black gill cover in the shape of a half moon — this is often used to tell the difference between a pumpkinseed and a bluegill
  • Small mouth — jaw stops right below the eye
  • Body is shaped like a pumkinseed, hence the name

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What is a Redbreast Sunfish?

Common Name: Redbreast sunfish

Species Name: Lepomis auritus

Current World Record Redbreast Sunfish: 1 pound, 12 ounces (or 0.79 kg) in 1984 on the Suwannee River in Florida

Where can you find redbreast sunfish? The redbreast sunfish is indigenous to the eastern coast of the United States. It can be found in Florida, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

As a non-native species, the redbreast sunfish has been found in South Dakota, Texas, Arkansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri and Alabama.

The redbreast sunfish has also been introduced to numerous countries like Mexico, Italy, and Germany.

Physical Characteristics of the Redbreast Sunfish:

  • Deep, moderately compressed body
  • Green/blue coloration on the body
  • Yellowish color on belly, breast, and lower parts of the head — this area can take on a red/orange complexion for breeding males
  • May have up to a dozen vertical bars on its side, which often become more faint as the fish matures and becomes larger
  • Bright, broken lines are often present on the creek and near the eyes
  • Ten (10) to eleven (11) spines on dorsal fins
  • Nine (9) or ten (10) anal fin rays
  • Thirteen (13) to fifteen (15) pectoral fin rays

The Okuma Celilo Spinning Rod is a great starter rod for anglers who are just breaking in to the world of panfishing.

What is a Redear Sunfish?

Common Name: Redear Sunfish

Species Name: Lepomis microlophus

Current World Record Redear Sunfish: 6.3 Pounds in 2021 on Lake Havasu in Arizona

Other Popular Nicknames: Cherry gill, stumpknocker, shellcracker, sun perch

Where can you find redear sunfish? The redear sunfish has one of the smaller natural habitats among sunfish, situated in pockets of the American South and parts of the Central and Midwest U.S. It can be found in Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas.

As a non-native species, however, the redear sunfish has a much wider distribution. It has been found in California, Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Oklahoma, Colorado, Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware, New York, New Hampshire, and Vermont.

Physical Characteristics of the Redear Sunfish:

  • Has many similarities to the bluegill, though the redear is generally larger in size
  • Faint vertical bars running down from the dorsal fin
  • Has a green/yellow ventral coloration, while dorsal coloration is usually darker
  • Bright red coloration on the opercular edge for males and bright orange coloration for females
  • Length is usually between 7.9 and 9.4 inches, with an average weigh of roughly 1 pound

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