Louisiana’s bream fishermen have a pile of fish to choose from. Tops on the list are bluegills and redear sunfish (also called lake runners or chinquapin). And fat-bellied goggle-eyes are always in the mix somewhere. In a lot of places, you can throw in some green sunfish (slick perch) or red-spotted sunfish (stumpknockers).
But without a doubt the prettiest of the bunch are what anglers call sunperch. Not one species but two, the longear sunfish and the dollar sunfish are both stunningly and similarly colored, with green backs and bright red-orange bellies.
Their entire body, and especially the head, is painted with bright turquoise spots, giving the fish a jewel-like appearance. And both have pronounced ear-like black lobes that extend rearward from the back of each gill cover.
What they aren’t
These are the most misnamed members of the bream clan. What they are not is red bellies or pumpkinseeds, two names often misused in Louisiana. Redbreast sunfish (red bellies) are a fish of the northern U.S., found south of the Mason-Dixon Line only on the east coast and only as far south as Georgia.
The other species, the pumpkinseed, has an unusual range. It is found in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas, but completely skips over Louisiana and Mississippi. Its range then resumes in Alabama and extends to the east coast.
Neither occur in Louisiana.
How to identify your sunperch
Dollar and longear sunfish very closely resemble each other. Scientists tell them apart by counting the rows of scales on their cheeks and by counting the rays in their pectoral fins. Fishermen are not likely to do that, but for anglers who care, they can be told apart by where they were caught.
Dollar sunfish live in swamps like the Atchafalaya Basin. Longear sunfish are always found in flowing streams, especially upland streams with clear water and sand or gravel bottoms. Dollar sunfish are found in largemouth bass habitats. Longears are found where spotted bass live.
Another difference is in size. Dollar sunfish seldom grow larger than 4 inches long, usually making better trotline bait than human table fare. Longear sunfish will grow to 7 inches long (rarely to 9), which is still small but big enough to clean. The IGFA world record longear sunfish weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces and was caught in Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico.
What these jewels eat
More is known about the biology of longear sunfish than dollar sunfish. They are definitely creatures of clear water. When a stream becomes predominantly murky or muddy, usually because of human-caused erosion, longears disappear.
Like bluegills — and unlike redear, green and redspotted sunfish — longears feed heavily on items on the water’s surface, such as fallen insects. In spite of their small size, they are aggressive predators.
Their diet includes land and water insects, small crustaceans (amphipods, grass shrimp, etc.), fish eggs, small fish including young bass and sunfish and leeches. Their most important prey is terrestrial (land) insects, followed by fish, aquatic insects and fish eggs. Insects of some sort make up almost 60 percent of their diet.
On sporting tackle, they will take small jigs, lures, spinners, spoons, plastics, flies, and live bait including worms, crickets or minnows. What they will take is limited only by the size of their tiny mouth, one of the smallest in the sunfish clan.
These spunky little fish are not only fierce about chasing food, but will also bully each other. Because of their beautiful colors, they have become popular aquarium fish in Europe. If two longear sunfish are placed in a 5-gallon tank, the larger fish dominates, and chases and bites the smaller fish until it dies. Only if placed in a large enough tank can longear sunfish peacefully coexist.
Like other sunfish, including black bass, which are in the same family, longears construct a nest by sweeping a depression into a water bottom. Gravel and sand are strongly preferred bottom types, and many nests are located in water so shallow that it barely covers their backs.
The nest is constructed by the male with powerful sweeps of its tail as it swims nose-up at a 45 degree angle to the bottom. The dish-shaped nests are 14 to 18 inches in diameter. Longear sunfish nests can be found in colonies with nests almost touching each other, or they may be solitary.
In the clear, shallow water where their nests are located, water temperatures will range from 73° to 88° F. Spawning takes place from late May through August. A male longear sunfish will attempt to lead a mature female to his nest by swimming directly to her, spreading its fins and returning to its nest. Females prefer males with longer ear flaps.
Once in the nest, the pair swim side-by-side in repeated circles over the nest, with the female on the inside. The female will release as few as 100, and as many as 2,800 eggs. After spawning the male chases the female from the nest and vigorously fans the nest with its tail to mix the sperm and eggs and help drive the eggs into the gravel bottom.
After hatching, the young take two to three years to reach sexual maturity. They live on average only three to four years, although 9-year old fish have been recorded from the wild. Aquarium-kept fish can survive to 12 years old.
Crystal clear flowing water is not a requirement for their look-alike relative, the dollar sunfish. It is never found in the waters of rapidly moving streams, seeming to be adapted to slow-moving streams and ponds, pools and lakes in lowland areas. Bottoms in these areas may be sand or clay, but are often silt or muck.
They are not aggressive feeders like their longear cousins and seldom eat other fish, probably partly due to their small mouths. Their diet is heavy in small insect larvae, tiny crustaceans such as water fleas, stringy algae and bottom debris.
During spawning season, from May to August, males will sweep out a solitary nest, preferably on a sandy bottom. After spawning, males rigorously guard the nest. Dollar sunfish mature at 2 years old and have a life span of 6 years.