Home | Aquarium Livestock | Sunfish Care – Keeping Pumpkinseeds, Bluegills and their Relatives

Sunfish Care – Keeping Pumpkinseeds, Bluegills and their Relatives

Pygmy SunfishHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  The world’s 30-35 freshwater sunfish species (Family Centrarchidae) range throughout Canada, the USA and Central America.  Although popular among European aquarists, sunfishes have been largely been neglected in American aquaculture. This is a shame, as all are colorful, interesting and active, and most adjust well to aquarium life. From the tiny Black-Banded Sunfish to the 39 inch long Largemouth Bass, there is something for everyone.  I’ve had the good fortune of working with a “sunnies” ranging from the tiny Black-Banded Sunfish to the massive Largemouth Bass, and would enjoy hearing from readers who have also come to know them, or wish to (please post below).

Obtaining Sunfishes

Although rarely offered in the pet trade, many species are easily collected via seine net or minnow trap (check state regulations).  While their diversity is greatest in the southeastern USA (my friend in Louisiana collected 8 species in the lake behind his house!), sunfishes can be found most everywhere in the USA. New York, where I reside, is home to 14 species.

Seven species in the genus Elassoma, known as the Pygmy Sunfishes, have recently been placed in their own family.  They are delightful aquarium subjects, packing all of the typical sunfish traits in 1-2 inch long bodies. Banded, Okefenokee and Everglades Pygmy Sunfishes are available from specialist breeders in the USA and Europe.

Commercial fish hatcheries often stock sunfishes.  Fish Creek Fish Farm accepts small orders for sunfishes and other US natives.

Housing

A pair of Longear Sunfishes, Bluegills or other large species will require a 55-75 gallon aquarium, but others will get along well in smaller quarters.  Included among these are the brilliantly-clad Banded, Blue-Spotted and Black-Banded Sunfishes (Enneacanthus spp.).  Young sunfishes will often form mixed-species schools, but adults generally become quite territorial and each pair may require a tank to itself.  All do best in heavily-planted aquariums.

PumpkinseedAlthough Pumpkinseeds and certain other adaptable species can tolerate a wide range of conditions, strict attention should always be paid to water quality.  The needs of other sunfishes vary; Banded Sunfishes and their relatives, for example, require soft, acidic water. Please write in for information on individual species. 

One of my favorites, the Pumpkinseed, is also among the most widely distributed.  But being common in no way detracts from its interest and beauty.  I remain baffled that these gorgeous fish, with their fascinating, “cichlid-like” behaviors, remain so underappreciated by aquarists.  Please read on, and write in with your thoughts and experiences.

The Pumpkinseed, Lepomis gibbosus

Oval-shaped with a golden-brown background mottled in iridescent blue and green spots, this alert fish rivals the beauty of any tropical species.  The spotted pattern gives way to lines of blue-green around the head, and there is a bright red edge to the “ear flap” on the gill cover.  Males become especially brilliant (and aggressive!) during the breeding season. 

Range

Found throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada, the Pumpkinseed may reach 9 inches in length. Like the closely related Bluegill, with which it commonly hybridizes, the Pumpkinseed has been widely introduced.  Established populations have been recorded in Hungary, Russia, Switzerland, Morocco, Guatemala and elsewhere. Transplanted Bluegills have traveled even further, and may now be found in countries as far flung as Malawi, Swaziland and Korea. 

Beauty and Attitude

Pumpkinseeds are extremely active and inquisitive fish, and take notice of everything that occurs around their aquarium. I’ve found them to be somewhat bolder than others.  In my teens, I kept 6 small Pumpkinseeds with a Largemouth Bass in a 75 gallon aquarium.  When they reached 4-5 inches in length, they ganged up on their larger relative and nearly killed it before I could intervene.

I recently removed a 2-inch-long specimen from an aquarium that was home to several much larger Bluegills. Bluegills housed with larger fishes usually stick to heavy plant cover until they have put on some size. The minute Pumpkinseed, however, established a territory within hours of his introduction, and soon after began attacking his tank-mates.  I now have 3 fingerling Pumpkinseeds in with the Bluegills; they are getting along, but make no attempt to hide and are right out there competing at feeding time.  

Adults become quite aggressive towards each other and are best-kept as a pairs.  Males in breeding condition cannot be housed together, and should be separated from females by a divider until she appears receptive.

Breeding

BluegillAs with all sunfishes, the male Pumpkinseed evacuates a circular nest in the substrate and stands guard over the developing eggs (please see photo of nesting male Redear Sunfish). During this time, he can be seen cleaning the nest and aerating the eggs with his pectoral fins. Breeding is most likely to occur in large, well-planted aquariums that have been subjected to natural temperature and light fluctuations. 

The male will not to venture far from the nest. Try not to disturb him, for he is quite high strung, even to the point of attacking hands placed in the aquarium. Please write in for information on rearing the fry.

Feeding

Pumpkinseeds and other sunfishes are carnivorous and prefer to feed upon insects, worms and small fishes.  Newly-collected individuals may refuse other foods, but in time can be induced to accept fresh shrimp, frozen bloodworms, freeze-dried krill, cichlid pellets, flakes and similar foods. 

I’ve had good success with diets comprised of approximately three quarters live foods (earthworms, blackworms, guppies, crickets, sowbugs) and a quarter cichlid pellets freeze dried and fresh prawn, and trout chow. In the warmer moths, I collect moths, beetles, tree crickets, and other insects around my outdoor lights each evening. The strong reaction of my sunfishes (and, indeed, most tropical fishes) to these novel foods always fascinates me.

I’ve observed wild and captive Bluegills feeding upon aquatic grasses, so some experimentation with plant foods for other species may be worthwhile.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible. 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

The North American Native Fish Association: a great resource for sunfish enthusiasts

Sunfish: Species List, Photos and Natural History Details

Sunfishes of New York

Sunfishes of Alabama

 

Pygmy Sunfish image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Brian Gratwicke
Pumpkinseed image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Tino Strauss
Bluegill image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Ltshears

14 comments

  1. avatar

    Nice article…..I love sunfish, some of them like the Western dollars, Orangespotted, Redbreast, Longears are some of the most beautifull fish in the world.

  2. avatar

    But the one species I feel has the most potential as a aquarium species is the green sunfish. Extremely agressive, stays small, and I have seen them in colors rivaling the discus in beauty in the spawning season.

  3. avatar

    Thanks Adam…wondeful fish, I agree. I hope to cover them in the future, Best, Frank

  4. avatar

    thanks for the information. been keeping S/A cichlids for years and have now turned my attention to there north American cousins. I currently have four pumpkin seeds, two black crappie and a small mouth together in my 70 gallon tank. I was just wondering if I should get a bottom feeder. cause they like to hide and so do catfish and I don’t want a territory war.

  5. avatar

    Hi Wayne,

    Sorry for the delay…I missed your comment somehow.

    Great choices, will make a very interesting tank! I’d stay with the fish you have now…even if they are young, in time they will grow and you’ll likely need to move 1-2 out. Native cats such as the various bullheads are fascinating to keep, but get quite large and will put additional strain on water quality. If you can locate some tadpole madtoms or related species, they should work out, at least until the others grow into adulthood. Another option would be any of the Corydoras cats. Most do fine at room temps. even into the mid 60’s F; the bronze or Green Cory is a good choice,,,..very robust (one of mine is age 23 years or so); your other fish will likely ignore, but watch teem at first.

    Even more so than most SA cichlids, dynamics in a sunfish tank can change very quickly…agression can develop overnight among fish that have lived together for years. Also, watch the bass; I once had small laregmouthed bass in with a mixed group of similar sized sunfishes. All went well for about a year, then the sunnies turned on the bass, nearly killing it…a preemptive strike?

    Enjoy and pl keep me posted, Frank

  6. avatar

    I have a long eared sunfish in a 55gl tank with a black crappie, all was good for about a month. Then the sunfish started taunting the crappie and the other day the crappie was charging/chasing the sunfish, so i moved the sunfish to another tank. I would really like the sunfish in the big tank with other fish. Do you have any suggestions on how to do this or what fish would make good tank mates for the sunfish?

  7. avatar

    My son caught a warmouth sunfish and we put him in my aquarium and he ate all my minnows in a week and now we feed a mix of worms and grasshoppers. he is an adult would he attack younger warmouths?

  8. avatar

    Hello Lee,

    Unfortunately it’s difficult to generalize…I’ve had them get along well for months, only to have aggression breakout suddenly. Adults tend to chase off smaller ones, but sometimes ignore them until they become mature. Groups do best in very large, heavily planted tanks that allow the fish to avoid one another. I would add 2-3 (may be better than adding a single fish, chasing is distributed) and watch closely. If all goes well, try others if space permits but monitor behavior as they grow. Another adult of the opposite sex could also work out, beast, Frank

  9. avatar

    As a teenager I caught a small green sunfish while fishing. I brought it home and kept it in an aquarium. It would actually jump 5-6 inches out of the water to take a grasshopper from my fingers. My friends were fascinated by my fish that would jump high out of the water to take an insect from my hand.

  10. avatar

    Thanks, Allen….another great fish that is ignored by aquarists. I’ve had some hand feed, but never jump like that! best regards, Frank

  11. avatar

    I have kept 4 longear sunfish and 2 rock bass in my 150 gallon back yard pond all summer and they are doing great. I’ve attempted to add a couple green sunfish(the same size as the other fish) three times now and every time they jump out of the pond within a few days and die. Is this normal behavior for green’s or are my established fish just bullying them out?

  12. avatar

    Hi Jamie,

    I’d agree they are being stressed by the other fish..very hard to add new sunnies to an established group, as territories will have been formed, etc. 150 sounds like a nice size for the fish you already have; could add a small bullhead , but watch size as they grow quickly. Do you over-winter the fish in the pond? best, Frank

  13. avatar

    I’m considering. Getting a sunfish, and I’ve learnd that some sunfish stay a decent size. Might it be possible to keep a dollar sunfish in a 20 gallon species aquarium?

  14. avatar

    They are a great choice for a well-filtered 20 gallon. This supplier carries them and many other natives; also other small species – Bantams and Pygmies. Enjoy and please let me know if you need anything, best, frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.