Species spotlight: Warmouth Sunfish

Ethan Cox shows off a chunky warmouth caught on ultralight gear in a millpond. Warmouth are often overlooked or misidentified by fishermen.

Don’t mistake this sporting sunfish for one of its close relatives; it’s special

The warmouth is one of the more interesting and often misunderstood — and just as often, misidentified — species of the sunfish family.

This fish (Lepomis gulosus) is native to the southeastern United States, and while many people believe it is a cross between a crappie and a bass, a crappie and a bream, or a bream and a bass, it’s actually not the product of any crossbreeding, but is its own species of sunfish. It is closely related to bluegill and redbreast.

The very name “warmouth” has some mystery behind it. Some believe the name comes from the markings that extend from the mouth to the eyes, which resemble the war paint used by Native Americans. Others think the sheer size of its mouth, which is similar to the mouth of a bass, gives the fish its name: “Mouth so big you could have a war in it!” Still others believe it’s the mispronunciation of “more mouth,” which this fish has over it’s sunfish relatives.

Proportionately longer than most other sunfish, warmouths typically have red eyes, a mottled or splotchy body of olive brown with a purple sheen and prominent lines that run down the body, as well as away from the mouth. The dark ear flaps are short, stiff and sometimes sport a small, reddish spot. And previously mentioned, their mouths extend to about the midway point of their pupils, allowing the lips to flare like that of a bass or crappie.

When spawning, male warmouths often display a bright red or orange spot at the base of the dorsal fin.

Where to find them

These fish are usually found in slower-moving water, like swamps, small streams or brown- and blackwater tributaries of rivers, but it’s not unheard of to find them in ponds and some lakes. They have a high tolerance for dirty, muddy water. Warmouth do most of their feeding on smaller fish, insects, crayfish and shrimp.

A short ear flap, a long mouth, red eyes and dark, vertical bars are markers of warmouth sunfish.

Like most sunfish, the males build nests mainly by fanning out areas with their tails, and big groups of nests are often built together, sometimes among dozens of other warmouth nests. In tight quarters, warmouth will also construct nests among the nests of other sunfish species. They spawn throughout late spring and summer as long as water temperature is warmer than 70 degrees.

Females lay between 2000 and 20,000 eggs and divide them up between multiple nests. Warmouth guard their eggs and stay with hatchlings for a short time period.

How to catch them

Anglers can catch them with live worms, crickets, small crayfish, minnows and small artificial lures like Beetle Spins, Roostertails,and ultralight crankbaits such as the Rebel Wee Craw and Crickhopper lures. Fishing tight to cover like stumps, logs, vegetation and river banks is a good bet for anglers. Incoming waterways like smaller creeks or even rainwater runoff are always promising spots, too.

Using ultralight rods and reels will ensure anglers a fun and good battle and will make these spunky fighters feel much bigger than they are. They are often caught among bluegill, redbreast shellcracker, and other sunfish.

These fish are often misidentified as bluegill, redbreast, smallmouth bass, crappie and green sunfish.

Warmouth are known by several other names across the south, including stumpknocker, limb bream, mo-mouth, molly, goggle-eye, red eye, red-eyed perch, and red-eyed bream.

The average warmouth ranges from 6 to 8 inches long and has a life expectancy in the wild of about 8 years.

Records

The Louisiana state record is a 2.13-pound warmouth caught by Frank Dean, Jr. in the Atchafalaya River in July 1987.

The world record warmouth was caught from the Yellow River in Holt, Fla., in 1985. It weighed 2 pounds, 7 ounces.