Eno Sunfish
Riverdave's Journal
This essay appeared in the Durham Herald-Sun on 8/2/98

There are six species of sunfish, all classified in the genus Lepomis, that are common to the Eno River. As a group, they are by far the most beautiful fishes among the rivers' more than sixty species.

I enjoy them so much that I maintain a one hundred and twenty gallon aquarium in my office at West Point Park to proudly display them.  I consider them to be my closest friends among the wildlife of the river, and we constantly exchange both glances and words as I go about my office activities.

I don't keep individual sunfish very long, but regularly release and catch new ones with a scientific collection permit as part of my fish seining classes that I offer for local school groups and the public.

The bluegill and the redbreast are the two most common species of sunfish in our rivers. Their names well describe their appearance. They are generally palm-sized fish, with a giant weighing one pound.  Both species  feed on aquatic insects, crustaceans and other smaller fish.

When the water temperature reaches seventy degrees in the spring, males make a characteristic, bowl-shaped nest by fanning their caudal fins over the sandy bottoms of the still, shallow parts of the river. Females then choose their nesting sites and lay thousands of tiny eggs. The male fans the eggs to keep them oxygenated and to protect them from settling debris and predators. He will continue to guard the nest until the fry are hatched and are ready to be on their own.

The redear and pumpkinseed sunfish are not quite as abundant as their two previously mentioned cousins, but nevertheless show up several times on any serious fishing expedition. Both fish have an orange-red border to their ear flaps which extend over the upper part of the gills. In addition, the pumpkinseed can be quite colorful with its orange and black speckled attire.

Besides feeding on aquatic insects, both fishes also eat freshwater shellfish such as snails and mussels. They possess rough teeth in their throats that allow them to grind up shelled invertebrates. The redear sunfish often is known as a shellcracker.

The remaining two Lepomid sunfish in our rivers are shaped a bit differently. The green sunfish and the warmouth are more elongated and have much larger mouths. For this reason, they sometimes are referred to as bass. They both have colorful rays extending backward from behind their eyes.

The green sunfish has a dark green hue with striking, yellow-orange borders to its fins. The warmouth has a brown and olive mottled pattern to its sides. Both fishes use their large mouths to pursue a more piscivorous diet than other sunfish while not discounting aquatic insects. They are a little harder to find than the four other species of Lepomids and therefore constitute a special discovery when encountered. They are the easy to feed in an aquarium as they readily take minnows added to their tank.

The best way to observe the Lepomid sunfish is not to extract them from the river with hook or seine, but to actually enter their world with a mask and snorkel. By August, the light brown sediment carried by spring and early summer rains has dropped out of our Piedmont rivers. Sparkling, shallow riffles are left with an occasional clear pool from two to four feet deep. These pools are the watery realm of the sunfishes.

A wader on his knees with mask and snorkel will marvel upon discovering the beauty of these fishes in their own habitat.  These shiny, colorful jewels hang suspended in water, and will curiously and boldly face any human willing to enter their realm.

There is yet another way to appreciate a sunfish. On several occasions, I have gently paddled up to a sunfish that is resting just under the surface of the water. By gently lowering my hand into the river, I have been able to encircle my hand around a trusting, palm-sized sunfish and actually lift it out of the water for a few seconds to exchange greetings!. I then lower it back into the river. The transported sunfish will usually remain in the area, peering back at me from below in its clear, aqueous medium.

There is a submerged old stump in the Eno River at West Point Park where I regularly have found a warmouth sunfish resting in its contours just a couple of inches below the surface of the water. When I am out in my boat, I like to paddle up to the stump and speak to my friend, and on occasion, lift it out of the water for a brief face-to-face encounter in my medium of air. After I have snorkeled in their watery realm, i'd call that a fair exchange ...
Photo from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife: Green Sunfish