All About Orangespotted Sunfish

The orangespotted sunfish takes up housekeeping in Midwestern waters some might not expect to find such a colorful fish.

Slow-flowing, sluggish and turbid waters suit the orangespotted sunfish just fine. Where other sunfishes are at home in the clearer, cleaner, and fast-flowing upland streams, the orangespotted sunfish shuns them all together.

Brant Fisher, a non-game aquatic biologist, has seen a few fish in the years he’s worked for the Indiana Division of Fish and Wildlife. Fisher is frequently on the water, seining and trapping fish, monitoring population trends and habitat conditions.

Craig Springer

“I tend to see orangespots more in the bigger rivers,” said Fisher. “They tend to be found on slow moving backwaters where there’s low current; they’re not in the crystal clear water.”

An Abundant Fish
And that speaks to one reason why the orangespotted sunfish is more abundant now than ever before. In 1888, when noted fish scientist, and Indiana University professor, David Starr Jordan, along with Barton Evermann, surveyed Indiana’s fishes for the U.S. Fish Commission (precursor of today’s U.S. Fish& Wildlife Service), they found the orangespotted sunfish only in the lower Wabash drainage, near New Harmony, Ind. Today, the orangespotted sunfish occurs over most of the Wabash system, and in other Indiana watersheds.

“Indiana used to be all woods,” said Fisher. “Our streams were clear and free of silt. Agriculture caused changes.”

Tilling and attendant sheet erosion put sediments in the water, favoring orangespotted sunfish. Their advance upstream stands as evidence. By the 1920s, this little sunfish made its way into the headwaters of the Wabash in Ohio.

Thrive In Low Visibility
This fish clearly has the capability to make a living in Indiana’s rivers. It’s a predator and despite its small size, it can strike at prey with fervor. Among all of the sunfishes, about 30 species in all, the orangespotted sunfish has sensory pores between its eyes and on its upper lip that are larger than all other sunfishes. Those sensory organs, perhaps best described as a modified ear, allow the animal to thrive in waters with low visibility.

Its relatively large mouth, armed with brush-like teeth in its jaws allows it to readily capture small crayfish, beetles, butterflies, and aquatic insects, such as mosquito larvae. Fish make the menu, too. An occasional small shiner makes a meal.

Orangespotted sunfish are not above cannibalism either. With this diet rich in animals, the orangespotted sunfish puts on a couple ounces a year, living about five years maximum. At best, this sunfish may grow 5 inches long. They mature in their second year of life, where they are anywhere from 1- to 2 inches long.

Spawn May To July
Orangespotted sunfish really show off their beauty during the spawning season — usually May to July. On the males, the orange spots glow with fluorescence over a sapphire, blue body, the fins turn orange, and the eyes a deep red. The reddish-orange margin on the fins comes alive. The females, on the other hand, aren’t quite as brightly colored, with most of the spotting staying a coffee color.

The spawning season brings the fish alive. The males in the spring go to work building a nest near the river’s edge in water a few inches to a few feet deep. They nest in colonies and tolerate each other’s company to an extent. Any male that wanders too close to an established nest will get rebuffed by a pulse of water, or rammed at full speed.

Males fan away silt over a sandy to gravelly bottom where his female counterpart will lay her eggs. When he comes across large objects too big to push away with his tail, he may pick it up with his mouth and carry it outside the small, bowl-shaped depression that is the nest.

The current is slower along the river’s edge, and that’s to the male’s advantage, for he will stay with the eggs and with the small fry for a short time after they have hatched. It’s easy for him to maintain his place in the water with the slower current.

Males Guide Females To Nest
When the nest is ready, the male goes courting, inviting ripe females to his nest. Orangespotted sunfish, and a few other sunfish, make a curious grunting sound to attract females. The male guides willing females to his nest, and where the nesting colony is large, and the water shallow, the splashing and maneuvering to procreate can be quite a ruckus.

The females lay sticky eggs on the bottom of the nest; the male will stand guard over these for more than a week. A large, mature female may carry up to 4,500 eggs, tiny and clear, looking more like small bits of quartz crystal than fish eggs.

Large intruders will send the guarding males in the colony into deeper water en masse. Moments later, they return to their respective nests. While the guarding male is away, darters or suckers or shiners may try to eat the eggs. But red shiners and redfin shiners see another opportunity — a chance to borrow a nest. These little minnows lay eggs and let the orangespotted sunfish unknowing guard them.

One of the beauties of fishing in Midwestern rivers is you never know what fish you’ll bring to hand. A little hook dressed with a piece of red worm may be intended for the maw of a bluegill or bass. But despite its small size, when a brightly-colored orangespot is pulled from the murky waters of a quiet pool, anglers can’t help but admire it; now and again they are pleasantly surprised.

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When not penning stories about the outdoors, Craig works in communications for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His work has appeared in Flyfisher, Outdoor Life, ESPN Outdoors, and the New York Times. He holds degrees in fisheries and wildlife management from Hocking College and New Mexico State University, and earned an M.S. in fisheries at the University of Arizona, researching smallmouth bass. He earned an M.A. in English at the Univeristy of New Mexico where he studied rhetoric, and learned to read books with hard covers. He writes weekly for 

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