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Green Sunfish

Green Sunfish are one of the many native Alabama fish that are sometimes lumped together under the generic name “bream.”

Greens are not as common as their better-known cousins, such as Bluegill and Redear sunfish. They are smaller fish and have a reputation problem when it comes to managed fishing ponds.

The scientific name for Green Sunfish is Lepomis cyanellus, which is slightly confusing because the word cyanellus means blue; however, this fish has both blues and greens in its coloration.

This fish is native to Alabama and most of the central United States – west of the Appalachians and east of the Rocky Mountains – but it has been transported to and is now found in most U.S. states except for Florida and some of the northeastern states. It is also found in many other parts of the world, where it is sometimes kept as an aquarium fish.

Green Sunfish are adaptable to many different types of freshwater, such as clear and murky; slow-moving streams, creeks, lakes and ponds; and muddy, weedy or gravel bottoms. In Lake Martin, they are most likely to be found in swampy areas, the backs of sloughs or the mouths of slow-moving creeks feeding into the lake. 

One of the most obvious identifying features of the Green Sunfish is its large mouth and long body. Other sunfish have a more rounded body. It is mostly a blue-green color with black or bluish dots on the upper body, and a lighter yellow or orange belly. There is a dark spot on the lower rear part of the dorsal fin and the upper rear part of the anal fin. Greens are one of several sunfish with vivid blue dots or lines on their faces. The edges of their pelvic, anal, caudal and dorsal fins are much lighter than the rest of the fins, usually a yellow or orange color. During the spring breeding season, the males’ fins get a brighter orange tint and their anal fins become black, orange and white. Most Green Sunfish are between 4 to 8 inches long and live four to six years in the wild.

During the breeding season, Green Sunfish build beds in shallow water, usually in open places with lots of sunshine through some low cover items, such as logs, grass clumps or rocks, which are also preferred near their nests. Sunfish make nests by forcefully waving their fins to create shallow depressions in the bottom, which appear dark to people above the water. Bream beds are typically built in large colonies, though Green Sunfish sometimes make a single bed away from the crowd. Male Greens will aggressively defend their beds, which makes fishing easy during the spawning season. They will strike almost anything that comes near their beds, including fishing lures.

When water temperatures hit 70 degrees, spawning begins. Males and females swim in circles above the bed before they release eggs and sperm into the nest. Some male Greens spawn with multiple female partners during the same season. Scientists have found that a female Green Sunfish can produce up to 50,000 eggs, though most broods are between 2,000 to 25,000 eggs. The tiny eggs are deposited in the bedding depression, which keeps them together until they hatch.

Once the eggs are fertilized, the male Green Sunfish will fan the eggs with his fins to help provide oxygen. In just two days the tiny fish will hatch, and the male continues to patrol and defend the nest for about a week.

When it comes to managing fishing lakes, the Green Sunfish are usually not welcome since they grow much faster than Bluegills that are typically stocked in ponds, and they compete for food and bedding space on the pond bottom. If the Greens win, then a pond will not produce panfish large enough for the dinner table.

That doesn’t mean that Green Sunfish never grow large.

The Alabama state record Green Sunfish was caught 16 years ago by Caleb Miller in McLamore Pond, located in Walker County. That fish was caught on August 10, 2005, and weighed 1 pound, 9 ounces, which is a big sunfish in any fisherman’s book. The largest recorded Green Sunfish was caught in Missouri in 1971 and weighed 2 pounds, 2 ounces. But the average size Green is much smaller than the average Bluegill.

In Florida and New Jersey, Green Sunfish are considered invasive species, and in New Jersey, state fishing laws say that if you catch a Green Sunfish you are required to kill it.

These fish will eat almost anything they can find, from other fish to eggs, aquatic insects and terrestrial insects that fall on the water’s surface, worms, mollusks and plankton. Green Sunfish, in turn, are preyed upon by other fish like largemouth bass and catfish, as well as wading and fish-eating birds.

Green Sunfish are known to commonly breed with other sunfish, producing hybrid offspring. It is common to find hybrid Bluegill-Greens and Redear-Greens in waters that harbor both species. 

Some information for this article came from the Animal Diversity Web from the University of Michigan, Outdoor Alabama and the U.S. Geological Survey.