Trophy Lone Star Sunfish
The challenge isn’t getting them to bite, it’s finding the size fish you want.
By Paul A. Cañada
There was nothing special about this specific Saturday morning. The old man sat on the porch of his lakeside home every morning, greeting the new day. Following his retirement, he developed the habit of waking up extra early, in order to take full advantage of the early morning bite.
Today he does it simply because it pleases him. He counts himself twice lucky when the coffee is strong and memories of pan-sized redear rising to take a popper greet him on the porch. His desire to wet a line or tie a fly still remains strong, but he no longer has the strength to follow his lifelong pursuit.
Following his retirement from the Burlington Railroad, the old man and his wife moved to the community surrounding Lake Athens.
They planned to live out their remaining years together in the cottage, but his wife died suddenly, several years ago.
Returning from a successful morning of “perch” jerkin’, he found her with eyes closed, sitting upright on the porch swing. A ball of yarn lay at the bottom of the porch steps, leading up to her dainty feet. At first, he thought she had fallen asleep. When he realized she had passed, he was stricken with grief, and a few days later suffered a disabling stroke. Despite the objections of his children, he insisted upon staying at the lake, where his memories would sustain him.
I’ll always remember the day my son Chris and I met Sam. We were in pursuit of sunfish, but we’d landed only a few small ones in the main part of the lake, so I turned the boat into a cove.
“Good morning son,” Sam said. “How you doing this morn? Catching many?”
Startled, Chris looked up, waved and managed a simple “Hello.”
I let off the trolling motor and began explaining to our friend about how our morning had transpired.
“We normally fish for bass but are after sunfish today,” I explained. “We’ve been catching fish, but can’t seem to find the real big ones yet.”
“Well, where would you normally find the largest spawning bass?” Sam asked.
“I look for a flat near a drop-off,” I answered. “And I normally fish a bit deeper when looking for the bigger spawners.”
“Exactly. Try the coves and points near the dam. The bigger fish are a bit deeper than the spawning colonies you see,” he said.
I thanked him and I headed back out to the area we had just left. I grabbed a weighted Wooly Bugger from my fly box and tied it on. I gave Chris the ultra-light spinning outfit and tied a miniature crankbait, called the Wee-Crawfish, to the end of his line.
Just as Sam instructed, we found the bigger spawners in relatively deep water. Chris was the first to hook up. He struggled to maintain some semblance of control, as the large redear fought for control on the other end. After coaxing the fish to boatside and into the waiting net, Chris let out a shout of triumph.
We easily caught and released more than a dozen fish. And after awhile, Chris put the conventional gear down and began catching them using his favorite fly outfit. We eventually culled the morning’s catch down to seven palm-sized keepers.
Just as my boy demanded, we headed back to see the old man. This time around, Chris had more to say to Sam than hello.
“Hiya Sam,” Chris yelled out. “We caught ’em just like you said. Do you want to see ’em?”
“Sure son,” Sam replied. “Let’s see what you have.”
I tied the boat to Sam’s dock and helped Chris put two or three of the bigger fish in the net. He ran over to Sam and dipped the net to show off his prized catch.
“I caught these three,” Chris exclaimed. “Dad caught the smaller ones.”
“Oh my, those have got to be lake records,” Sam replied. “What you going to do with them? Clean and cook them?”
“Nah, I am going to release them under your dock so you can catch them again another time,” Chris replied.
And without any hesitation, Chris turned the net over and dumped the fish into the water. He then walked back to the boat and released the remaining fish. We spent more than an hour chatting with Sam about his angling adventures, while sharing a couple of glasses of his best sweetened tea.
That chance meeting several years ago sparked a lasting friendship with Sam and a family tradition of visiting Lake Athens annually during the sunfish spawn. Sam has since passed away, but the tradition lives on in his memory.
Natural Family Fun
Sunfish are the perfect game fish for introducing children to angling and the outdoors. Particularly during the spawn, the better fish are relatively shallow and aggressive, and so easy to find. Whether anglers choose to float live bait below a thin, feather-like float, or enjoy working small crankbaits or spinners, or prefer working a popper along the surface — sunfish are sure to cooperate.
Like many anglers, some of Jeff Kirkwood’s earliest memories are of sunfish tugging on the business end of his line. Kirkwood, a bass tournament angler and fulltime guide on Lake Fork, remembers well the summer afternoons he spent in pursuit of sunfish with his father.
“My father started taking me to Lake Athens when I was 7 years old,” says Kirkwood. “And today, I take my 9-year-old, Preston, there to fish during the sunfish spawn. Fishing for sunfish is the ideal outdoor adventure for both parent and youngster.”
As many parents already know, the attention span of younger anglers is typically short. That lack of continuous action usually results in boredom, restlessness and eventually complaining. Children respond well to a timely tug on the end of their line and fish in hand. Sunfish provide this kind of nonstop action.
However, as family-friendly as sunfish are, Kirkwood is quick to warn, too much of a good thing can spoil an enjoyable day of angling.
“The action can be real fast once you find the fish,” says Kirkwood. “In fact, it can be too fast. As silly as it might sound, children often get just as bored with too much action as they do with very little action. That’s why I carefully schedule the number of hours I spend fishing with kids.”
He suggests limiting the trips to between two and three hours. Kirkwood also warns parents about having inflated expectations for younger children. Catching minnows, looking under rocks and skipping stones are all part of discovering and experiencing the outdoors.
Whether fishing from the bank or a boat, one of the better ways to catch plenty of fish and hold the attention of a child is to use live bait. Crickets, meal worms or small night crawlers work equally well. Kirkwood suggests fishing the baits on a small hook, placed about 6 to 8 inches below a thin diameter, feather-light slip float.
“Nothing sounds better than a child’s giggle while handling a wiggly worm or squirming cricket,” he adds. “Also, the bobber helps the child see what’s going on. When that bobber dips, they instantly understand — fish on!”
Locating Spawning Colonies
The key to nonstop angling action is finding a good concentration of fish. The game fish’s nests are concentrated in a very tight area, and the activity around the colony is frenzied. Any bait, whether live or artificial, placed within close proximity of the colony is quickly pounced on.
Like Kirkwood, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Dick Luebke grew up fishing for sunfish with his family. Surprisingly, Luebke, the Research Program Director for the Heart of the Hills Research Station, prefers angling for sunfish over other game fish. In fact, he excels at locating and catching trophy-sized panfish.
Typically, sunfish begin spawning in May in most parts of the state. Sunfish prefer warmer, sustained water temperatures and so spawn later than black bass and crappie. However, Luebke notes that spawning can take place all summer long in impoundments where food is plentiful and the sunfish population is healthy and fast-growing.
According to Luebke, sunfish prefer to spawn on sandy bottom. The fish will not use muddy or heavily silted bottoms. Where adequate bottom structure is unavailable, the fish will often spawn on stumps, timber and underwater foundations of manmade structures. Typically, the largest colonies are found on a shallow flat, near cover. The clearly visible, plate-shaped clearings are an easy target for novice anglers.
“My experience has shown the bigger sunfish don’t spawn in the large colonies normally associated with the species,” says Luebke. “You typically catch about a half dozen of the larger fish before moving on to another nesting area. Also, you have to fish a little deeper to find the real big ones. I target points, humps and flats adjacent to deeper water.”
Both Kirkwood and Luebke prefer to use live bait, dragged 12 to 15 inches behind splitshot when targeting sunfish. However, Kirkwood uses a local night crawler, impaled on a small hook, while Luebke favors meal worms. When fishing with children, both anglers prefer crickets fished under a float system.
Admittedly, the most difficult element of targeting the bigger fish is getting the bait past the smaller spawners. Because of this, many anglers prefer artificial lures to live bait. Although most fly fisherman prefer to work a small popper across the surface in spring, a weighted streamer just below the surface produces better quality fish. Small in-line spinners and panfish-sized crankbaits, with a touch of chartreuse coloring, are also effective at targeting bigger spawners.
“Regardless of the depth they’re found at,” concludes Luebke, “sunfish are always feeding. Unlike bass and other game fish, sunfish are always willing to take bait. In fact, the biggest problem you face isn’t getting them to bite, it’s finding the right size of fish to catch. Of course, their willingness to bite, comparably strong fight and availability make them the ideal family outing.”
Finding Trophy-sized Sunfish
Most experienced anglers know of at least one fishery that supports a tremendous sunfish population. The truth is, large sunfish approaching and surpassing a pound in size can be found in most types of water — river, pond or lake — throughout much of Texas.
When most people think of trophy sunfish destinations, they first consider East Texas’ large, relatively shallow, cover-filled impoundments like Toledo Bend and Caddo Lake. Both of these impoundments have nationwide reputations for producing great numbers of pan-sized sunfish. According to TPWD fishery biologist Dick Luebke, all of these fisheries share a number of traits that allow for trophy-sized sunfish.
“You will find the largest sunfish in fisheries that have a great amount of habitat and a large food base,” explains Luebke. “The conditions of the fishery must allow for fast growth rates and healthy populations. If there’s not enough harvesting and predation of the younger fish, the sunfish population becomes too large. The competition for food is high, and growth rates are stunted. This is a common occurrence on many southern reservoirs.”
Because of these population dynamics, it’s important for Texas anglers to practice selective harvesting whenever possible. Most guides recommend anglers keep their limit of eating-size fish while releasing the trophy-sized “bulls.” Sensible angling practices equal good stewardship of the resources and help guarantee there are plenty of pan-sized sunfish for our children to enjoy with their children.