An angler on the ice holding a large sunfish

Sunfish, or bluegill, are the most popular and most widespread fish caught by anglers in Minnesota. Minnesota anglers harvest around 16 million sunfish each year, making them the state’s most harvested fish.

With a growth rates as low as an inch a year, a trophy sunfish has probably been around twice as long as a trophy white-tailed deer.

To improve the size of sunfish in a population, the DNR is encouraging anglers to release or limit their harvest of large sunfish. Keeping smaller fish for eating is also encouraged. Anglers can also help by learning more and participating in Minnesota’s Quality Bluegill Initiative.

Defending their nests

Some anglers call male sunfish bulls, and for good reason – these fish are aggressive and it helps them defend their nests.

Sunfish spawn in large nesting colonies during the spring and early summer. Parental male sunfish build and defend nests. Females will select a male, lay eggs, and leave them for the male to protect and fan with his fins.

These nest-building male sunfish are central to spawning, often getting the best spawning sites in the center of the colony.

Angler effects

When anglers keep only the largest sunfish, the remaining small males don’t need to compete with larger males to spawn. Once the larger males are gone, the smaller males devote less energy to growing. Instead, they devote energy to spawning at younger ages and smaller sizes.

What anglers can do

Spawning sunfish are particularly prone to over harvest because they are very aggressive while defending a nest. Anglers can help by:

  • Release spawning sunfish – especially large, nesting males. The DNR generally considers a large sunfish to be eight inches or larger, or roughly the size of an open hand. Released fish have a high survival rate and will typically return to their nests to complete the spawning cycle.
  • Consider what's needed for a meal. Harvest some of the small fish and release the big ones.
  • Consider not keeping more than five fish over eight inches, and only take what you need for a meal.

Read up on sunfish

As the DNR rethinks sunfish management, you can learn more by reading The Sunfish Myth in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.

Want to catch more sunfish? Learn more about when and where to fish, gear, important points and basic biology on the DNR’s webpage how to catch a sunfish.