Wild Ideas: Virginia’s feisty little fish

A male Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus). Judging by the dark-orange bib, the photo was likely taken during spawning season.Eric Engbretson/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
A male Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus). Judging by the dark-orange bib, the photo was likely taken during spawning season.

The two lower ponds on the property are loaded with fish – mostly stocked non-natives, including some good-sized bass. There are also lots of one of my favorite Virginia natives, Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus, also known as Sunfish, Bluegill Sunfish, Bream, Brim, Bluegulli or Copper Nose.

When I was a kid, the word “fishing” would send me into a delirious frenzy. My father loved to fish, and going with him was a great treat for me. Sometimes we went to the Potomac River, the Chesapeake Bay or one of its tributaries, or a lake. But just as often it was a small pond on farms owned by one or another of Dad’s Army buddies.

In some ways, those farm ponds were the best. I didn’t have to sit quietly in a boat, or fry my brains out on a shadeless pier. Instead, I could roam around the edge of the pond, looking for a spot where fish were likely to be lurking. And when it got hot, shade was usually nearby – or I could just jump into the pond to cool off.

The odds were also higher that I’d catch something in a pond, and that’s because of Bluegill. While most of the ponds we fished were also stocked with non-native game fish, they all had Bluegill, which don’t require fancy lures and tackle, or even much skill, to catch them. As we kids knew, all you need is a string with a hook and a piece of corn, cheese or even no bait at all. Still, better tackle and bait helped, so I normally used a casting rod and reel and worms.

My father would sometimes whip out his bamboo fly rod, nostalgic for the trout fishing he’d done out West in his youth. Although I never tried it for Bluegill, Dad seemed to concur with the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF) website, which says fly fishing for Bluegills is “especially rewarding.”

With the Bluegill’s voracious appetite, it will go after pretty much anything in or above the pond that it can reach, including worms, crickets, small insect nymphs and larva, leeches, snails, crustaceans, small frogs and other small fish. Its dining habits make it important in controlling insect populations, eating up to six times its own weight over the course of a summer. It will also strike artificial lures.

In the sunfish family (Centrarchidae), Bluegill were originally native only to the eastern half of the United States but are now stocked in ponds throughout the country, often to serve as forage for larger game fish, such as Largemouth Bass. Young Bluegill, especially, are preyed on by other fish as well, including Muskellunge and Yellow Perch, as well as larger members of their own species, and by turtles.

The sunfish family earned its name because most species in it are bright and colorful, and round top to bottom, although flat from side to side. When they occasionally breach the water and bend their sides to the sun, sunfish become a flash of gold. Years later, when I watched bronc riding at rodeos in Wyoming, I was reminded of that every time one of the horses jumped up and twisted its side to the sky to get rid of its rider, known as “sunfishing.”

The sunfish family also includes Bluespotted, Green, Longear, Mud and Pumpkinseed Sunfish and Black Crappie. Bass – Rock, Largemouth and Smallmouth – are also in the family but have a more elongated shape and are generally larger.

Bluegill make up in fight what they lack in size. At an average four to 10 inches in length and weighing in at a mighty one pound, max, they are the bantamweights of Virginia’s game fish. They are also beautiful, in or out of the water. The lower parts of their cheeks and gill covers are metallic blue or green, with a large bluish-black gill flap and dark blotch on the back of their dorsal fins. They have subtle vertical bars going down each side, and a throat that is yellow on females and bright orange on males – even brighter during spawning. These colorful points stand out against an otherwise dark to olive green or brown coloring at the top that fades to pinkish or white on the belly.

Bluegill spawn in late spring and early summer, when water temperatures climb to between 70 and 75 degrees. Using their fins, males fan out nests in firm sand or mud in shallow water close to shore, often joining others in spawning colonies. They raise the resulting broods (up to three in a spawning season), fiercely guarding the eggs and keeping them free of silt.

My father taught me well the ins and outs of finding bait and rigging tackle, so we usually caught lots of Bluegill along with other fish at the ponds. It takes more than one of these little guys to make anything close to a meal. As with other small “pan fish,” we cooked them Southern style, frying them until the skin was crispy. I wasn’t a big fan of eating fish generally, but I did like anything fried and crispy in those days. The tails and skins were my favorite parts.

While it was exhilarating to catch a bucket full of Bluegill, I sometimes had second thoughts by the time we brought them home, usually after dark. My father also taught me early on how to clean fish, and that was often my job. Gutting and beheading a bucket of fish by porch light was not exactly the perfect end to an otherwise glorious day. I was usually so tired by the time I was through that I could barely stay awake long enough to enjoy eating them.

To learn more about nature as it unfolds throughout the year, check out Pam Owen’s blog at wildideasintheblueridge.blogspot.com.

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Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 280 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”