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Bluegill vs Sunfish – What’s the Difference?

Pumpkinseed Sunfish

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Bluegills and sunfish are common freshwater fish found in North America’s streams, ponds, and lakes. Unlike bottom-feeders like catfish or carp bass which often find deep water to feed and live, bluegills and sunfish are often found in shallow water with vegetation and shelter, such as downed trees or manmade docks.

Bluegills and sunfish are often confused with one another because of their similar shape, size, and coloring. That’s why it’s important to know the differences between bluegills vs sunfish so that you know how to fish for these two species of fish and which type you’re reeling in.

What Are Bluegills?

What are Bluegill

Bluegills are in the sunfish family of fish. Their species is Lepomis macrochirus. This means that all bluegills are sunfish, but not all sunfish are bluegills. Bluegills are sometimes called perch, panfish, or bream because they look similar to these fish species.

However, bluegills get their name from the blue color surrounding the fish’s gills. The gills can be a deep blue—almost purple color—while the body of the bluegill is yellow with olive green bands. The belly of bluegill can be bright yellow or orange.

Bluegills are a larger fish and can grow up to 12 inches long and weigh as much as 4 ½ pounds. Most bluegills caught while fishing is typically only about 6 to 8 inches long and may weigh up to one pound. It’s only when bluegills are allowed to grow into aged adults that they can weigh over four pounds and measure as long as 12 inches.

Where Do Bluegills Live?

Bluegills live in freshwater streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. They prefer shallow water with warmer water temperatures between 65°F and 80°F with plenty of vegetation to seclude themselves. This includes grass, fallen logs, or manmade structures like docks and walkways.

Bluegills enjoy the heat of warm water but typically stay out of direct sunlight, which is why they can be found in vegetation or under a structure in the water. Bluegills will only travel to open, deep water during the summer to feed.

Most of their time will be spent in shallow water where the water temperature is warm. In the summer, when the water temperature is above 65°F, bluegills will travel to deeper water.

How to Fish for Bluegills

Bluegills feed on insects, worms, and minnows. You can often catch bluegills on the bank of a stream, pond, or lake because they like the heat of the shallow water—especially if there is grass or debris nearby that they can seek shelter within.

Bluegills are sight feeders, which means they rely on their eyes to find food. This doesn’t mean that you can’t fish the bottom with live bait to land bluegill—it simply means that you will need to use a live bait that will catch the bluegill’s eye. The mouth of the bluegill is small, so you will need to use live bait when bluegill fishing that has a small hook so that the hook can fit inside their mouth.

The best time of day to fish for bluegills is in the early morning or late evening because they prefer low light and will avoid direct sunlight.

What Are Sunfish?

What Are Sunfish

Sunfish are a genus of freshwater fish that includes the bluegill. In fact, there are approximately 30 species of freshwater sunfish—many of which are common sunfish species you may have heard of before.

These sunfish species include pumpkinseed sunfish, redspotted sunfish, orangespotted sunfish, banded sunfish, crappie, bream, bass, and the bluegill. This is why all bluegills are sunfish, but not all sunfish are bluegills. Freshwater sunfish are easily identified by their size, shape, and a single continuous dorsal fin that runs along their back.

Many people consider sunfish to be small, flat panfish because they can fit in a pan, but the largemouth bass also belongs to the sunfish family! That means when you catch largemouth bass, you have actually caught a sunfish! It’s just that no one calls them by their sunfish family name. Largemouth bass are so identifiable that they are always called by their species name—the largemouth bass.

Where Do Sunfish Live?

Because there are so many species of sunfish—up to 30 to be exact—they can live in different places and environments. Freshwater sunfish are completely unrelated to ocean sunfish. They live in streams, ponds, and lakes and prefer plenty of coverage to stay hidden from predators.

They are completely unrelated to ocean sunfish. This is why you can often catch sunfish from the bank of a lake or near a fallen tree. Like the bluegill, sunfish prefer water temperatures between 65°F and 80°F.

How to Fish for Sunfish

Sunfish are game fish which means they are carnivores. They feed on insects, insect larva, worms, and other smaller fish. They like to chase prey that catches their eye, especially if sheltered within the grass or under a log.

Anglers can fish for sunfish by using live bait or artificial lures. The size of the sunfish species that you’re fishing for will determine what size hook you should use. For smaller sunfish like bluegill and crappie, you should use a smaller hook that will fit inside the sunfish’s mouth without tearing it when you set the hook. For larger sunfish like largemouth bass, you will need to use a larger hook.

Bluegill vs Sunfish: What’s the Difference?

Bluegills are a species of sunfish with a flat body with a single, continuous dorsal fin with spines, while sunfish are a family of fish with several different species. If you catch bluegill, then you have also caught a sunfish—however, if you catch a sunfish, that doesn’t mean you have caught bluegill.

Bluegills are identified by the blueish color located around the gills and cheeks of the fish. You haven’t caught a bluegill if there are no blue or purple-colored gills. You have likely caught a bream, crappie, or one of the many species of sunfishes (spotted, red-breasted, or pumpkinseed sunfish).

Final Thoughts

The next time you reel in a small fish, take a look at the gills. If they have a blue or purple color around the gills and near the mouth of the fish, you’ve caught a bluegill. You’ve caught a sunfish if there is no dark blue or purple coloring around the gills.

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