Sunfish 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.
To protect big sunfish and avoid stunted populations of sunfish, the DNR is encouraging anglers to release large sunfish, and keep smaller fish for eating.
Why protect big sunfish?
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 play an important role in repopulation with the largest sunfish often getting the best spawning sites.
When anglers keep only the largest sunfish, which are usually males guarding nests, the remaining small males don’t need to compete with larger males to spawn. Instead of growing, they devote their energy to spawning at younger ages and smaller sizes.
Spawning sunfish are particularly prone to over harvest because they are very aggressive while defending a nest. Anglers can help by releasing spawning sunfish, especially large, nesting males. Released fish have a high survival rate and will typically return to their nests to complete the spawning cycle.
As the DNR rethinks sunfish management, you can learn more by reading “The Sunfish Myth” in the Minnesota Conservation Volunteer.