Sunfish are one of the most common fish found in North America and one of the very best for table fare too. These little fish average 7.9 to 11.8 inches in size and most people prefer to keep those over 9 inches to eat. They are plentiful in most Minnesota and Wisconsin lakes that have healthy populations of weeds. These fish prefer to live in and around aquatic vegetation so they can have adequate protection from their predators such as bass and northern pike. They also prefer slow moving water such as lakes, or slow moving rivers. They are very social fish and like to travel in schools so finding a few fish usually means finding a whole school. They like to feed off the bottom, but will rise to surface feed on insects and other tiny animals.
Finding sunfish can be pretty easy. On warm sunny days they can be seen along weed edges and hanging in deeper weeds. They also can be found in deeper water especially in the midsummer when the water temperatures reach the mid-seventies and low eighties. Often the larger sunfish can be found all the way down to thirty feet. It is in the deeper water that some of the biggest sunfish can be found.
One quick technique for finding sunfish is trolling small crankbaits along weed lines. Many companies make tiny crankbaits for pan fish and trolling these small baits can be a great way to find sunfish and crappies. Once a sunfish is caught trolling, stop and mark the spot and see if more fish can be caught using small jigs or bait under a bobber. I like to use very tiny bobbers with small leeches, worms, or artificial bait like Berkeley Gulp Maggots. 1/32nd ounce jigs work nicely for covering water along the weed line looking for activity feeding fish. To find bigger fish I look for marks on my depth finder in the deeper water. Then I drop down heavier jigs off deep weed edges and points to see if those deep fish are willing to bite. My rule of thumb is to release any sunfish over ten inches in length. These are true trophy fish and deserve to be released.
Catching sunfish is the fun part for most people but cleaning them -not so fun! There are two common ways to clean sunfish. One is to scale them with a small hand fish scaler. The other is to fillet them and throw away the skin and the scales. I like to scale them but I use a commercially produced five-gallon pail that is designed to spin the fish in water and remove about eighty percent of the scales. The remaining scales I remove by hand. Twenty sunfish can be scaled in about 4 minutes using this technique and the skin, where most of the flavor is, is left on to eat. Mm, fresh sunfish- as good as it gets.
So when you get to the dog days of summer go find some sunfish and enjoy a real treat.