One of the most beautiful fish in the waters of Lake Martin is the Longear Sunfish, which is bejeweled with electric blue spots and stripes and a bright orange belly.
The top of this striking sunfish is usually brown or green while its belly and fins, especially where they connect to the body, are orange. Breeding males have exceptionally bright, metallic blue spots on their backs extending close to the belly, and their faces are striped with horizontal, broken blue lines.
The Longear Sunfish mouth is small and downturned, and the top of the jaw doesn’t extend back to the eye position.
This is a small sunfish, reaching 5-7 inches in length at maturity. The Alabama state record Longear was caught in the Yellow River in May of 1990 and weighed a whopping 8 ounces; however, the International Game Fish Association All-Tackle World Record was a truly gargantuan Longear from Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico that pushed the scale all the way to 1 pound, 12 ounces.
Longear Sunfish are native to North America and are found in most Alabama waterways. Their range extends from the Appalachian Mountains to the Midwest and from the Gulf of Mexico north to Canada. The Apalachicola River between Alabama and Georgia is the eastern border of their southern range. This species has also been found in some isolated areas outside of that range, including New Mexico (where the world record was caught), Florida and central Mexico.
These small panfish live in many aquatic habitats, from large reservoirs like Lake Martin to small flowing streams, but they do not typically live in silty or murky water. In fact, populations have been reduced by human activities that cloud water, such as farming, building or industrial practices that increase erosion and add particulates in the water.
Longears are daytime fish, becoming more active and feeding during the middle of the day, while laying low or hanging around shadowed cover in mornings, evenings and at night. They feed on aquatic insects near the surface, like midgeflies and gnat larvae, as well as tiny dragonflies that touch down on the water, crustaceans, fish eggs and young fish, including bass and sunfish. They will even eat small Longears.
Longear Sunfish are aptly named – well sort of – in that they have a long “ear” or opecular flap at the rear of the gill covering, located approximately where an ear would be on a person’s face.
It’s scientific name, Lepomis megalotis, means the same thing in Latin, literally “scaled operculum large ear.”
That “long ear” is black with a pale red, yellow or white border.
And in the case of Longear Sunfish, size does matter.
Biologists have done experiments that show female longears prefer males that have longer opercular flaps. Males with elongated flaps are also dominant over males with shorter flaps, chasing the lesser males. When scientists artificially lengthened a guy’s opercular flap, “the abnormally long-flapped males were dominant significantly more often than the ‘normal’ males,” according to a 2000 study by Goddard and Mathis.
Longear Sunfish usually stake a claim to a certain stretch of water that can be 100-200 feet long. If you move a longear from its home water and release it, it will quickly swim back.
During the late spring to summer breeding season, males will build a bed in gravel – or if that is not available – sand or a solid mud bottom. These are social fish, like most of the sunfish, and they build large colonies of beds very close together in shallow water.
After a male has made his bed, he guards it from other males and waits for a female to swim into the colony. At that point, the male tries to attract a mate by spreading his fins, swimming toward his love interest and attempting to lead her directly to his nest. If she follows, the pair will circle the nest, swimming upright, and every minute or so, the female will turn on her side, releasing her eggs at the same time that the male releases sperm. After several times, the male will chase off the female, face the surface and use his tail to fan the nest for about an hour while chasing off any fish that get too close.
The female that was chased off then visits other males in the colony and repeats the spawning process.
Eggs, which can number between 140 to more than 2,800, hatch in about five days, and the male continues to guard his nest until after the young are hatched.
Some less dominant Longear Sunfish called sneakers take a different approach to mating. Generally smaller and less colorful than the dominant males, sneakers dash into a nest during a couple’s spawning circles and release sperm. A third approach is taken by satellite males that hover near the surface above the colonies, acting like females; they slowly descend into spawning couples’ nests before also releasing sperm.
During one 20-minute spawn, scientists observed a dominant male chasing away 15 would-be suitors.
Wild Longear Sunfish live 4-6 years and become sexually active between ages 2-3.
Like all sunfish, longears are sometimes called panfish, but because of this species’ small size, they are not generally kept by fishermen, instead winding up as dinner for larger fish like bass or wading birds.
Some information for this article came from the University of Michigan’s www.animaldiversity.com website and Outdoor Alabama.