• Fletcher Stone

Lepomis Guide of North Carolina

The Lepomis genus of Sunfish is arguably the gateway drug for the majority of fishermen. The Bluegill, perhaps the most ubiquitous fish in North America, is often the first fish and the beginning of the addiction for kids and adults alike. In this guide I'm going to go over all the Lepomis members that call North Carolina home, as well as a few extraneous sunfish that proliferate the waterways of the Old North State.

Definitions to Know Before Reading:


Opercular Flap/Lobe - This is a part of the fish which gives many sunfish their name. it is the flap, or rather structure, that protects the gills in some fish. They can be colorful at times and often are an identifying factor of a fish. See http://www.iowas.co.uk/fish%20anatomy.html for more information.


Blackwater - This is a term used to refer to the swampy areas of southeast North Carolina where the water is so dark it appears black, or tea-colored. This coloration is due to the presence of tannins, substances released when organic matter slowly decomposes. They make the water more acidic, thus allowing habitat for several unique species of fish. Find more information at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blackwater_river.

Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)

The Bluegill is a surly, aggressive, and omnipresent member of the genus, and probably the most commonly encountered freshwater sport fish in the state of North Carolina. They grow decently big, among the bigger members of the genus, and can have very different patterns depending on where they were caught.


Habitat

They can be found nearly everywhere there is water; farm ponds, stocked residential ponds, large lakes and rivers, small streams and creeks, rocky flows, swampy backwaters and even brackish areas in the eastern portion of the state.


How to Catch Them

I could probably write less detailing how not to catch these fish, because it really is that easy. They're widespread range, voracious appetite and nonstop aggressiveness mean they are an easy catch even for the most inexperienced anglers. I catch most of mine on a mix of artificial and natural baits, the best being Joe's Flies and similar small spinners and red worms, respectively.


Gallery

These fish were caught in the following locations: Crabtree Creek (Raleigh), Middle Creek (Fuquay-Varina), James Creek (Southern Pines), and Contentnea Creek (Wilson County).


How to Identify

Bluegill have a rounder body and often show vertical bars with slight speckling. They have small dark opercular lobes typically, but they can be larger in adults. In young specimens there is a black dot on the base of the dorsal fin near the caudal but as they age it fades.

Redbreast Sunfish (Lepomis auritus)

The Redbreast Sunfish is another ubiquitous species of sunfish found in a plethora of habitats throughout the state. Compared to the Bluegill, they typically prefer moving water, though not always. It certainly seems they are the primary fauna of mountain streams and rocky Piedmont creeks. They often have beautiful coloration and can get to decent size, but rarely outpace the Bluegill in terms of growth.


Habitat

Redbreast Sunfish prefer typically rockier streams with more flow to them, where they occupy the eddies and wait for food. Well-aerated streams and larger rivers are guaranteed to have these fish, but they can also be found in slower streams and some lakes.


How to Catch

Redbreast Sunfish more or less will take the same sort of baits as bluegill, anything from spinners to beetle jigs to red worms will be prime forage. Fishing behind rocks or in calmer water in faster moving streams is the best bet for getting one of these fish.


Gallery

These fish were caught at the following locations: Crabtree Creek (North Carolina), Middle Creek (Fuquay-Varina), Avent's Creek (Harnett County), Buckhorn Creek (Holly Springs), Eno River (Orange County), and the Little River (Cumberland County).


How to Identify

Redbreast Sunfish possess a less rounded body and longer ear than most other native NC sunfishes. They possess light blue lines on the cheek as well. They have a bright red or orange "breast" beginning on the bottom of fish around the pectoral fin but sometimes extending across the whole underside. They have red to orange speckles across the lower body, sometimes forming faint vertical bars.

Redear Sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)

The Redear Sunfish, or Shellcracker, is a surly, aggressive, and larger member of the Lepomis genus. They are no less common in North Carolina than many other species, but I have found them quite hard to come by.


Habitat

They typically inhabit larger lakes and ponds where they are stocked, but also inhabit larger rivers and creeks. The only Redear Sunfish I have ever confirmed in North Carolina came from a slow moving Piedmont creek.


How to Catch

They are aggressive fighters and will hit any normal artifical or natural bait with as much or more gusto than any other sunfish species. I caught my lone specimen on a piece of nightcrawler.


Gallery

This fish was caught from Buckhorn Creek (Holly Springs).


How to Identify

These are often harder to identify from some other species, but a few key traits can make them recognizable. They typically have a sandier to duller gray base coloration with light red to brown speckling across the lower body, and sometimes vertical banding across the top of the body. Their lower fins as well as the breast area are typically yellow to green and this coloration permeates the whole extreme lower portion of the fish. Another defining characteristic is the coloration on the opercular flap, or ear, which is typically a faded reddish color, unlike the stark and defined red of the Pumpkinseed. They typically have a smaller mouth than most other sunfish species.

Green Sunfish (Lepomis cyanellus)

The Green Sunfish has a big head and a bigger appetite. They are colorful and tenacious fish, and often a pest because of their ability to beat other species to a hook. They can tolerate a wide variety of habitats and thus can be found in a variety of locations.


Habitat

The habitat of the Green Sunfish is varied. It can survive in retention ponds, small creeks, large lakes and rivers, flowing water and swamps. It can tolerate low oxygenated water and rivers with flow. I've caught them across the state.


How to Catch

They will inhale any normal panfish fare, natural and artificial, and have such a big mouth they even pop up on the end of bass fishing set ups sometimes.


Gallery

These fish were caught from the following locations: Panther Creek (Cary), Buckhorn Creek (Holly Springs) and an unnamed pond (Apex).


How to Identify

The Green Sunfish possess a shallower body than most other Lepomis members, and a big mouth. Body shape wise they are akin to the Warmouth, but they possess typically blue streaking on their fins and their cheeks. Sometimes they possess faint to strong dark vertical bars. They're pectoral fins are typically are more pointed and possess a green fringe on them.

Spotted Sunfish (Lepomis punctatus)

The Spotted Sunfish is more of a southern species of sunfish, its range terminates around central North Carolina but it has a much higher presence in the swampy creeks and cypress swamps of southeastern North Carolina. They are, in my opinion, probably one of the most beautiful freshwater fish in NC.


Habitat

Because of their range they almost exclusively habitat small, blackwater swamps, creeks and rivers throughout the southeastern portion of the state.


How to Catch

Spotted Sunfish, or stumpknockers, are voracious eaters. They hit very hard for their size and have a good fight compared to most other sunfish species. I have found the Joe's Flies Short Striker is a magical charm for these fish, but any other form of small lure will do wonder on them.


Gallery

These fish were all caught from an unnamed swampy creek in Fairmont.


How to Identify

The easiest way to identify these sunfish is to identify them by the black dots on the edge of their scales, which gives way to their name. They also sometimes have a defined teal streak below the eyes, which can be seen slightly in some of the specimens featured.

Pumpkinseed (Lepomis gibbosus)

The Pumpkinseed is another rather common fish species that has on the whole eluded me in my fishing throughout the state. They are common in most places the other Lepomis members frequent, typically farther east rather than the foothills or the mountains.


Habitat

They frequent swamps and muddy creeks and slow flowing rivers, but are also frequently stocked in lakes and ponds.


How to Catch

I have found they are slightly more responsive to natural bait, but bigger specimens are equally as fond of attacking a small lure as any other panfish.


Gallery

The only photo-worthy specimen I have was caught from the swampy pool in the outflow of the old mill at Horton's Pond in Chatham County.


How to Identify

Pumpkinseed are typically brilliantly mottled fish and at first glance more ambiguously hued specimens an be confused for other species. The easiest way to identify them is to look for a well defined red or orange mark on the opercular flap, or "ear". They have wavy blue barring on the cheek and yellow across the breast.

Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus)

The Warmouth is a surly brute, the enforcer of the sunfish clan, a big mouthed brute ready to engulf any bait or lure that dares to cross its path.These fish are mainly limited to the Piedmont area of North Carolina eastward.


Habitat

Warmouth almost exclusively inhabit slower moving rivers in warmer portions of the state. They can inhabit rivers about the fall line, as I have caught them in the Eno River, however even hear they will only be found in the most sluggish parts of the river. They love structure, and are typically right at home among a lay-down or aquatic vegetation.


How to Catch

These fish have big mouths, they will happily take any artifical up to those used by bass fisherman, as well as larger portions of natural bait. Running lures along logs and grass lines in swampy creeks is almost sure to attract interest from one of these aquatic denizens.


Gallery

These fish were caught from the following locations: Unnamed creek (Fairmont), Indian Swamp (Columbus County), Eno River (Orange County) and an unnamed canal (Fair Bluff).


How to Identify

Warmouth are truly unique looking but its hard to pinpoint exact design characteristics that are formulaic in identifying them. They have huge heads and shallow bodies, and the dorsal fin often starts farther back on the body than in any other Lepomis member. They have black, brown and goldish speckling and can have goldish fringing on their lower fins as well.

Dollar Sunfish (Lepomis marginatus)

Dollar Sunfish are one of the smallest sunfish, and like the Spotted Sunfish, are native to the southeastern United States. Also like the Spotted Sunfish, their range terminates in central NC, around the Tar River, where they mainly live in sloughs and swampy creeks beyond the fall line.


Habitat

Dollar Sunfish, from my experiences, prefer sluggish, black (tannin-stained) waters of small to medium creeks. They often seek refuge in overhanging vegetation or roots in a creek to avoid predators. They rarely are found in fast flowing creeks or creeks with little structure. Black water flows common across counties from Moore to Columbus are best bets for these fish in NC.


How to Catch

Dollar Sunfish are voracious little fish and will attack most baits with a gusto. However, artificial baits are rarely used for them. They have relatively smaller mouths and even the biggest ones don't grow to sizes capable of nailing most regular sized panfish lures. They will however chow down on natural baits, and red worms free lined on hooks size 10-14 is the best method for catching them.


Gallery

These fish were caught from the following locations: James Creek (Southern Pines), and Aberdeen Lake (Aberdeen).


How to Identify

These fish can be hard to distinguish from other sunfish, particularly the Pumpkinseed at small sizes, but it has at least one key defining characteristic. The opercular lobe of the Dollar Sunfish is a dead giveaway; unlike a Pumpkinseed, whose ear is checkered with red, the Dollar Sunfish's is completely outlined in white or some other lightly colored hue. Otherwise, the white speckling across the body and white streaking of the cheek is another way to define them.

Other Cool Sunfish of NC

Disclaimer: There are many more cool sunfish in NC but I am only reporting on what I have caught, so in that sense this blog is a living blog. As far as I know I have caught every Lepomis in the state (the Longear is a bit tricky and maybe someone can help me on that) but that still leaves Micropterus, Amblopites, Enneacanthus and Elassoma. I will now be featuring some more sunfish of NC that I particularly like.


Roanoke Bass (Amblopites cavifrons)

The Roanoke Bass is a surly member of the Amblopites genus, which it shares with the Shadow Bass, Rock Bass, and Ozark Bass, the Rock Bass being the only other member found in North Carolina. The Roanoke Bass is endemic in its range, it only occupies Piedmont rivers from the Eno/Neuse basin in NC up to I believe the Nottoway in Virginia (Bobby can help me with that).


Habitat

These fish typically live above the fall line in medium to large creeks in rivers. They occupy slack water among rocky pools and riffles in well-aerated rivers. Both fish I caught in the Eno were caught in deep rocky pools fed by waterfalls.


How to Catch

These fish can be caught on much of the same tactics used for Largemouth Bass fishing in rivers. I have heard of them caught on everything from senkos to whopper ploppers. They are aggressive fish with relatively big mouths, and will not hesitate to take anything. I have even heard of quite a large following who fly fish for them. As for natural baits, smaller ones will take normal panfish fare where larger ones are typically caught on minnows. Fishing in eddies or deeper pools between rapids is the best bet for catching them, finding slack water where they are likely to be ambushing distracted prey is the most likely bet for getting one on your line.


Gallery

These fish were both caught from the Eno River State Park in Orange County.


How to Identify

These fish are bronzeish in color with a solid back that descends into dotted lines down the body of the fish. They have bright red eyes and are often called Redeye Bass, not to confuse with M. coosae. Typically range is the best identifier though, and depending on what watershed you are in it can be a big hint as to what you have caught.

Flier (Centrarchus macropterus)

One of my favorite sunfish to catch, the Flier is a common backwater sunfish found across the south and central United States. They are the only member of their genus, and are often identified by their strikingly large anal and dorsal fins.


Habitat

These fish primarily habitat slow, dark and vegetated backwaters in the coastal plain. However, they can be found above the fall in some cases in slower moving creeks. They typically live among heavy structure or thick aquatic vegetation.


How to Catch

These fish are nippy fighters, not often packing on weight like their distant cousins but are eager biters on lures and baits. Small spinners and jigs are sure bets as far as artificial go, and they will also hit on bits of nightcrawler or red wrigglers. Fishing these lures in heavy structure, along logs, grasslines, or in shaded areas near banks will yield bites from these fish. In many areas across the Coastal Plain of NC they can be caught in droves all day long.


Gallery

These fish were caught from the following locations: Unnamed creek (Fairmont), Horton's Pond (Chatham County), unnamed creek (Fairmont), and an unnamed canal (Fair Bluff).


How to Identify

These fish are strikingly unique and hardly need a description. Small mouth, relatively round body, golden-light coloration with dark freckling and the large anal and dorsal fins make this fish a unique sight.

Mud Sunfish (Acantharchus pomotis)

The Mud Sunfish is one of the most sparsely encountered but widely distributed sunfish out there. It can found west to Alabama, south to the top of Florida and north to New Jersey. It is rarely encountered, even with such a large range, due to its timid nature and nocturnal preference. For those who seek this sunfish, research, dedication, secrecy and a bit of luck is always necessary. For those who manage to catch one, it is often one of the most impressive or rewarding catches one can accomplish.


Habitat

Small creeks with thick vegetation and structure. Typically found in shallow, winding, small black water creeks from central NC to the coast. I have found them in Moore County but I have seen reports of them from Columbus County and Carteret/Craven County. Truth be told, anywhere across the Sandhills region to the swampy cypress regions of the Coastal Plain where there are small, tea-colored flows are possible hiding spots for these guys.


How to Catch

Assuming the spot is nailed down, they are not impossible to catch. Like any sunfish, they have big mouths and are wiling to take in a solid bait. They don't grow big however and are rather timid, especially in daytime. They prefer to stay holed up among leaf matter and roots on the fringes of creeks, and pop out to nail food passing by. In the small creek where I caught mine, the more aggressive Dollar Sunfish and Bluegills occupied the middle of the creek, but it only took one cast into the rip rap on the side to see a little Mud Sunfish dart out and attack my offering. Small bits of red worm are best for them all around, but I have heard of them being caught on artificial.


Gallery

These two fish were caught in James Creek (Southern Pines).


How to Identify

As with all fish that occupy their own genus (see Flier) they are pretty unique looking. Some recognizable characteristics are the body shape and dorsal fin placement, similar to a Warmouth or small Green Sunfish perhaps. They often have traces of gold on their opercular lobe and have a light brown to green stomach. They display faint horizontal lines more prominent in the first specimen featured. In some specimens, these horizontal lines may be very prevalent.

This is the current sunfish list for myself. I decided against featuring White/Black Crappie, Largemouth/Spotted Bass for the sake of saving time and space, but they may be added in the near future. I am looking to add more species to this such as Enneacanthus members and the Rock Bass.


Please do note that this is not necessarily a biologically accurate report, as these descriptions are largely based off my experience fishing for them and observing them in NC as well as the research on these species I have done. If you would like to correct me, please I encourage you to shoot me an email or DM me on my Instagram (@ncangling). Please visit Scott Smith's website (ncfishes.com) to find a lot of good information written by an actual scientist. Thanks for reading once again.


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