By John Kwoka
At this time of the year; most of my time is spent thinking about last hunting season and the upcoming fishing season which is the case for a lot of Delmarva outdoorsmen and women. But hunting season is over till turkey season in April and the weather isn’t nice enough to go fishing. So you are limited to putting the guns and bows away and getting the fishing tackle prepared while watching Outdoor shows on the television.
So jonesing for some outdoor activity took me back to early bow season this year when I had options. The weather made it feel more like fishing weather than hunting season. So while sitting in a tree fending off mosquitoes and bees and even watching hummingbirds during one hunt but seeing no deer; I thought to myself that maybe I should have just went fishing. Walking through poison ivy and briar bushes in 90 degree heat is not exactly fun. Since the hunt wasn’t successful; I convinced myself on the drive home that I should have just took the jon boat out and went after bluegill.
Now bluegill is used a lot as a catch-all phrase in the Mid-Atlantic area for sunfish much like the term Bream or Brim is used in the South. In Delmarva ponds; there are actually 3 main sunfish species that offer some fun pullage on ultralight tackle. They are: the Bluegill, Pumpkinseed, and Redear (aka Shellcrackers). While they all are similar in appearance and do occasionally hybridize; they really are three different species with different habits. But all three are fun to catch and just as good to eat. There is also another often overlooked (and misidentified) sunfish species that inhabits the moving waters of Delaware and Maryland that can battle with the best of all panfish; the redbreast sunfish. To most people these are all just sunnies but they are all separate species with differing markings that one can easily identify.
The most common one we come across in the millponds across the Delmarva area is the bluegill. These guys are in almost every pond, stream and lake that you will come across. In addition to being plentiful; they are also relatively easy to catch and put on a great fight when matched with an ultralight rod with 4 lb. test or on a lightweight fly rod. These guys are willing takers of all lures and baits.
The next species of panfish-sized sunfish that inhabit the still, freshwater impoundments of the Delmarva Peninsula is the somewhat forgotten but very colorful Pumpkinseed. Now this is the smallest of three main sunfish species but they fight just as hard and have almost tropical markings. Pumkpinseeds can be caught alongside bluegill but they do have different habits. Pumpkinseeds have special features in their throat to crush shells which allows them to feed on their favorite meal: gastropods aka snails. Now these guys can be caught on the surface also but they are set up to incorporate snails in their diet.
The last of the Delmarva sunfish triumvirate is also the newest to our waters: the Redear Sunfish or Shellcracker. This is the biggest of all sunfish and can pull an ultralight like a freight train. The Redear is what is known as an introduced species. They were not here thirty plus years ago but somewhere along the way; they got put in some Delaware ponds and have become somewhat established. As their nickname suggest; they prey on snails like the Pumpkinseed does and have a similar a throat structure to dispatch the shells. The larger Redears can also handle eating clams and other freshwater mollusks. These diet habits make it have different characteristics of other sunfish as they can tend to be deeper in the water column and usually do not compete with the other sunfish in the shallows. These guys can be harder to locate and to catch but when you find them…trust me; you will know it. The do not do the circles like a bluegill does during a fight. They straight-up pull like a bass and will even take drag on lighter outfits.
The last sunfish species that I will mention is the Redbreast Sunfish. This guy likes moving water and he has distinctive markings from other sunfish and their colors rival the Pumpkinseed. It also has a relatively large mouth for a sunfish and has sharper teeth than the other sunfish. This type of sunfish has a special place in my heart. The first fish I ever caught was a Redbreast when I was 5. I caught it from the White Clay Creek out of the well-known hole named “Little Falls”. These guys hit anything from worms, minnows, spinners to rapalas. They fight great especially in the current-laden habitat that they reside in.
My favorite way to catch all these sunfish species is simple. Just a very small feather jig or Hali chain jig tipped with a waxworm or butterworm under a small bobber on an ultralight rod. The waxworms and butterworms are a lot easier and cleaner to handle than nightcrawlers and are available in bulk. Just cast the tipped-jig near a falldown and hang on. Places like Trap Pond, Smithville Lake, Waples Pond and Diamond Pond are known to hold some big examples of these feisty panfish. Now, I like to catch a 5 lb. bass as much as anyone; but catching a bunch of stump-knocker bluegill and redears is heck of a way to spend a morning.