The Best Sunnie in the Show [Sunfishes]

by Bob Bock

Many native fish are like spring flowers. Tulips, daffodils, and crocuses erupt from the earth in late March or early April, blazing with brilliant hues of red, yellow, white, and purple. Likewise, many sunfish, darters, and minnows take on their spawning colors after the ice melts and the water begins to warm up. It′s thought that native fish from colder climates need a winter cool-down period before spawning. In spring time, fish that are unremarkable — and sometimes even downright drab — often rival the more colorful tropicals sold in stores.

Mind you now, I don′t keep fish just for their colors. (In fact, my wife once asked — Bob, can′t you bring home small colorful fish instead of big ugly ones?) My interest stems from their role in the eco-system. When I see a body of water, I want to explore it, see what kind of life it holds, and bring just a few of its inhabitants home to learn what they feed on, how they breed, and how they behave towards others of their own species and toward other species. If the fish will color up nicely, so much the better.

Don′t get me wrong, though. I respect the fact that other people are interested in fishkeeping primarily because they like colorful fish. But I′m an ambassador for native fish. It′s part and parcel of my membership in the North American Native Fishes Association. True, we′re an aquarium club, but many of us feel an obligation to let people know about the great fish that reside in the waters of our home country. And recently, I came upon another chance to do just that.

I had been collecting longear sunfish (Lepomis Megalotis) from the C&O Canal, near Tobytown, Maryland. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, the C&O is steeped in history — a shipping channel, financed by George Washinton, to provide a trade route to Ohio. The C&O stopped at Cumberland, Maryland because the railroads made it to Ohio first, but that′s another story.

The canal runs parallel to the Potomac River, which is too shallow and rocky for shipping. It′s a historical park now, no longer used commercially, and consists of a series of locks designed to transport barges uphill.

The relatively calm waters of the canal provide a haven for slack water fish that don′t like the fast current of the Potomac. One such fish, the longear sunfish, isn′t native to the Potomac, but was probably introduced from the Ohio River. (I don′t think anyone knows how it got there.)

However, the longear is native to Western New York state, even though it′s now in very short supply there. Norman Soule, who runs the Cold Spring Harbor Fish Hatchery on Long Island, asked me to ship him some longears from the canal, so he could display them in his exhibit of the Fishes of New York.

Longears are a small sunnie — not reaching the dinner-plate size of the more well known bluegill — and top out at a maximum of 5 inches.

I was angling in the C&O for small longears to ship to Norman when I caught a mature male. He was a beautiful fish, having a rounded shape, slight cephalic hump, and intense colors. The fish was too big to ship to Long Island, but since he was so colorful, I brought him home and put him in one of the free standing goldfish tubs I have in my back yard.

When my local fish club, the Potomac Valley Aquarium Society, announced it was having a bowl [show] last October, I saw a chance to let people know a little more about native fish. The weather had been cool, and I knew that my little sunnie was entering winter dormancy. I brought him in the house the night before the show, and started to slowly warm the water I kept him in. When I got to the show, someone was offering heaters for the show tanks. After acclimating the fish to the show tank, I put the heater in, and set it for 75 degrees. The fish was drab gray, almost white, with only a faint hint of the color he displayed when I took him out of the canal.

When I returned to the show the next morning however, the little sunnie was in full bloom: wavy, incandescent blue streaks on his gill flaps, sky blue speckles on his flanks, an orange yellow underside, and splotches of red in his fins.

I was talking with one of the people attending the show, and let it slip that the fish was my entry. "I caught him in the C&O Canal," I said. "On hook and line."

The man looked and me, started to laugh, and then asked, "No, really. Where′d you get him?" I told him again, and he still didn′t believe me. I persisted, though, and eventually he took my word for it.

A little later, Andrew, the Society′s president, told me that my fish had won the show category. Granted, it was the only entry in category, but I′m proud of the accomplishment anyway.

But what′s even better is that I helped someone to appreciate a local fish that he might otherwise have overlooked.

Reprinted from American Currents, the publication of the North American Native Fishes Association.