Keeping Sunfish

Posted in About Fish

By Arthur Masloski (SandTiger)

Not many people think of keeping sunfish, normally people only want to catch them while fishing, use them as bait or eat them. Few people realize that sunfish make great additions to the aquarium. In many regards sunfish are a lot like cichlids, both in personality and behavior and they even look like cichlids as well. Many people keep cichlids without giving sunfish any thought at all but perhaps this article will show you why sunfish make a great alternative to cichlids and other fishes.

What is a sunfish?

I have found that there is often a bit of confusion as to what a sunfish is exactly. Some people regard them as “pan fish” and thus think they are related to other pan fish such as perch and white bass. Panfish is a term used by fishermen to describe fish that fit in pans and is not a scientific means of classification. Then there are some sunfish that people don’t know are sunfish such as the black bass genus that includes largemouth, smallmouth, spotted and all the other black basses. The most well known sunfish are the members of the lepomis genus. The common and popular pumpkinseed and bluegill are both sunfish that belong to the lepomis genus. Despite being very similar to cichlids they are not related beyond being in the same order. All sunfish are native to North America (though are introduced elsewhere) and are all freshwater. Most build nests and males guard the young.

Here is a family tree where you can take a look at what fish are considered sunfish by science. The sizes of the fish are listed next to them in order to help you figure out what size tank you will need.

CLASS: Actinopterygii (ray-finned fishes)

ORDER: Perciformes (perch-likes)

SUB ORDER: Percoidei

FAMILY: Centrarchidae

GENUS: Lepomis

  • Pumpkinseed 6-10”
  • Bluegill 7-12”
  • Green 3-7”
  • Redbreast 5-7”
  • Longear 4-6”
  • Orange Spotted 6” max
  • Dollar Sunfish 4-5”
  • Redear 9-10”
  • Bantam Sunfish 6” max
  • Warmouth 4-10”

GENUS: Acantharchus

  • Mud Sunfish 6” max
  • GENUS: Ambloplites
  • Rock Bass 7-12”
  • Shadow Bass 6-9”
  • Roanoke Bass 8-10”
  • Ozark Bass 7”
  • GENUS: Archoplites
  • Sacramento Perch 17” max
  • GENUS: Centrarchus
  • Flier 8” max
  • GENUS: Enneacanthus
  • Bluespotted Sunfish 5”
  • BlackBanded Sunfish 4”
  • Banded Sunfish 4”

GENUS: Micropterus

  • Shoal Bass 12-18”
  • Redeye Bass 14-17”
  • Spotted Bass 12-17”
  • Largemouth Bass 3’ max (Northern strain is smaller)
  • Smallmouth Bass 2’ max
  • Guadalupe Bass 12”
  • Suwannee Bass 10-12”
  • GENUS: Pomoxis
  • White Crappie 6-12”
  • Black Crappie 9-18”

Now that we know what a sunfish is we can discuss how one must care for them.


All sunfish are from North America, they are not really considered tropical but the temp. requirements really depend on the species. Some species prefer cooler water such as the smallmouth bass while others such as the bluegill can be found as far south as the Florida panhandle and can tolerate warmer temp. up in the 70’s and even 80’s. None of them need a heater.


Most sunfish will happily take dry foods and can be fed the same diet as many American cichlids. Some are more difficult to convert however. The black basses and crappies are two genuses that will often turn down dry foods. If they refuse flakes or pellets give frozen foods a try such as bloodworms, gradually mix some dry foods in with the frozen and with any luck they will realize that the dry foods are edible. Along with flakes and pellets sunfish should also be fed a varied diet that includes frozen foods, live foods such as worms and insects and plant material.


Sunfish are messy like cichlids and can be quite aggressive, refer to the max size of the fish above for reference. A standard 55g works for many species. In a 55g you could house a single bluegill or crappie while if you were getting smaller sunfish you could get away with a couple. Keep in mind that sunfish are aggressive and will often not tolerate their own kind, as with cichlids it is pretty much hit or miss. Some sunfish like the largemouth bass grow to such an immense size that keeping them in aquaria is not often practical.

Tanks should be setup with driftwood, rocks and other natural décor. Make sure you add some open swimming space as sunfish often prefer that. If ever you have gone to a sunfish pond you will notice that many of them often hang out in plain view in the shallows. Most sunfish live in quite still waters in lakes or ponds so a powerhead or fast flowing water is not needed, if you look at the body shape you will see that they aren’t made for fast water. An exception to this is the smallmouth bass, they prefer oxygen rich fast flowing water. As for plants, you can try them but most sunfish will often attempt to eat them or destroy them/dig them up. A heater is not needed for any of the sunfish. Filtration should be excellent but avoid UG filters because like cichlids, sunfish are messy and often like to dig.


Naturally, the best tank mates are fish that inhabit the same waters. Smaller fish will of course be eaten but there are some that can hold their own. As far as natives are concerned bullhead catfish, perch or other similar sized game fish will work well. Larger schooling cyprinids are also a good choice in a large enough tank, if they are large enough and fast enough they should serve as good dithers. Many of the sunfish listed can be housed with tropical fish problem free. Certain cichlids would make good tank mates provided aggression was not an issue, this is difficult to accomplish at times so be careful.


Getting sunfish can be harder then you think, despite many being in your own backyard. Many states have laws against collecting sunfish and other natives. If you are going to collect your own make sure you know your local laws and have a fishing permit…these are needed to collect any fish. Hook and line works well but of course causes damage. Use barb-less hooks and play the fish quickly to avoid stress. You can also use minnow traps available at sporting good stores. These are easy to use, simply bait and toss into the water. I have found that sunfish…at least pumpkinseeds will enter the trap for dog food and chicken. Other capture methods include cast nets and seines. Young fish can be found in the shallows where there is dense weed cover. Sometimes all you need to do is drag a dip net through the water. When collecting try to take younger smaller fish, older fish have a harder time adjusting to captive life and are harder to convert to dry foods. Few LFS carry sunfish, so if you want to buy them it takes a little research and work. Sunfish can be found in bait shops on occasion but if so they are normally there by mistake and you may be hard pressed to find any. A more reliable way to find and purchase sunfish is to buy them online, there are a few dealers who specialize in native fish or you can go to a fish hatchery. They are often very cheap when from a hatchery and used to dry foods.


Breeding sunfish is fun and a bit more challenging then breeding other fish. This is because many of them need a trigger. Depending on the species a trigger may include a temperature change and a change in amount of light received. This simulates the seasons, the closing of winter and the coming of spring when sunfish breed. Males are often more colorful then the females, species depending, and the females will often be larger and full of eggs. The male will dig a pit, not using his mouth so much as just moving it with his body sweeps. The female will enter the pit and breed with the male, sometimes several females will breed with him. The females will often be weak from this process and the male may hurt or kill her in defense of the nest. It is best to remove the female. You can remove the fry as well and treat them as you would cichlid fry. You could also leave them with the male but once they reach a certain size he may attempt to eat them.


I hope after reading this you will give our wonderful native fish a chance to prove themselves as great aquaria fish. They are very owner responsive and very hardy. If you are looking for a nice alternative to common tropical fish or cichlids, or want to own a piece of out natural heritage then sunfish are great starter fish for you. Remember…keeping native fish is patriotic.