CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Pound-for-pound - well, perhaps ounce-for-pound - sunfish might be the gamest fish that swim.
"If sunfish grew to the same size as the smallmouth bass, no one would ever land one," said Mark Scott, a district fish biologist for the stateDivision of Natural Resources.
Scott was joking, of course, but he makes a strong point. Sunfish, humble of stature as they are, are loads of fun for anglers to catch. Funny thing is, many of the people who fish for them don't really know what they're catching.
"The tendency is to call everything that size and shape a 'bluegill,' " Scott said.
Bluegills are indeed members of the sunfish family. But West Virginia is home to at least four other sunfish species: green, longear, pumpkinseed and redbreast. All of them are smallish, with flattened oval-shaped bodies and dark elongated tabs on their gill covers - just like their cousin, the bluegill.
What's more, sunfish species sometimes interbreed, which further blurs anglers' ability to identify them correctly. "You might end up catching something that is the result of one species hybridizing with another," Scott said.
Perhaps because people tend to identify all sunfish as "bluegills," the DNR maintains only one record category for bluegills instead of five for all the state's common sunfish species.
A quick glance into the record books reveals why sunfish are considered lightweights among game species. The longest one, caught from a Fayette County farm pond in 1964, measured 13.75 inches. The heaviest one, caught from a Randolph County pond in 1986, weighed 2.75 pounds.
Those were giants. Scott said the average sunfish caught in West Virginia measures 4 to 6 inches in length and weighs considerably less than a pound. "If you catch a 6-incher, that's a pretty decent one," he said.
Like many small fish species, sunfish reproduce like crazy. It doesn't take them long to overpopulate a small pond, and the resulting lack of food keeps them from growing. That tendency to "stunt" is why so many sunfish don't exceed 6 inches.
What they lack in size they make up for in abundance and ravenous appetite. With the right lures or bait, anglers can easily catch 50 or more. The DNR doesn't impose a creel limit for sunfish, and it's not uncommon to see anglers with stringers that contain dozens of them.
"I kind of hate to see that, though," Scott said. "In my experience, most fishermen's eyes are bigger than their stomachs. They catch a big pile of sunfish and believe they're going to eat them all.
"Then they start filleting them. After a while they get tired and quit, and a lot of fish go to waste. My advice is when you go after sunfish with the idea of having a mess for dinner, it's probably best to think about how much filleting you'll have to do and adjust accordingly."