In search of jumbo sunnies
Large sunfish are scarce in many Minnesota lakes, and local fisheries managers with the Minnesota DNR are responding to angler desire for bigger sunfish by seeking out specific lakes that would be a good fit for improving sunfish size quality by reducing sunfish bag limits.
Some angling groups have been asking the DNR for several years to consider modifying the 20-fish bag limit for sunfish and adding length restrictions, but angler survey data show apprehension over a statewide bag limit reduction or length restrictions. In response, the DNR is seeking to identify individual lakes that have the right biological characteristics, and local angler support, to benefit from reducing the sunfish bag limit.
“Sunfish grow slowly, about an inch per year. We could grow two trophy bucks in the time it takes to grow a trophy bluegill, but for decades we didn’t think twice about keeping big sunfish,” said Dave Weitzel, Grand Rapids area fisheries supervisor. “Now we’re working locally to identify lakes capable of producing higher quality sunfish.”
Starting this summer, fisheries managers will be meeting with local angling groups to gauge support for reducing the sunfish bag limit on some lakes through the DNR’s process of proposing special regulations. Angler input is an important part of that process – without support these regulation changes will most likely not go into effect.
Special regulations are specific to individual waters. Through the DNR’s Quality Bluegill Initiative, fisheries managers aim to increase the number of special regulation lakes for sunfish from about 60 to between 200 and 250 lakes statewide by the year 2023.
“Just like anyone else, we want fishing for sunfish to be enjoyable and to a lot of folks that means catching a big sunfish. Without a management change, it’s likely sunfish size will continue to decline, largely because of the influence we as anglers exert on their populations,” Weitzel said.
On any lake, anglers can voluntarily help protect big sunfish by releasing or limiting their harvest of large sunfish, which are considered about eight inches or bigger.
Sunfish spawn in large nesting colonies during the spring and early summer. Parental male sunfish build and defend nests. Females will select a male, lay eggs, and leave the eggs for the male to protect and fan with his fins. These nest-building male sunfish play an important role in repopulation, with the largest sunfish often getting the best spawning sites.
When anglers keep only the largest sunfish, the remaining small males don’t need to compete with larger males to spawn.
Once the larger males are gone, the smaller males devote less energy to growing. Instead, they devote energy to spawning at younger ages and smaller sizes.
Spawning sunfish are particularly prone to over harvest because they are very aggressive while defending a nest. Anglers can help by releasing spawning sunfish, especially large, nesting males. Released fish have a high survival rate and will typically return to their nests to complete the spawning cycle.
More information about sunfish biology and management can be found at mndnr.gov/fish/sunfish.