The Sunny Side of the Stream
Longear sunfish are the most numerous and widely distributed sunfish over the southern half of Missouri. They're the brilliantly colored fish that spawn in groups along the shallows of stream pools from mid-May through early-August.
Longear refers to the elongated opercula or gill flaps especially prominent in males. The color of spawning males--bright orange-red along the belly with mottled emerald back and sides--rivals that of the most beautiful tropical fish.
Longear sunfish may be confused with another colorful panfish, the pumpkinseed. Pumpkinseeds, common in the northern United States, have been recorded only twice in natural waters in Missouri.
Though many stream anglers stop to admire clusters of spawning longear sunfish, most do not try to catch them because they are small. Adult longear sunfish average between 5 and 6 inches long and weigh less than 6 ounces. Yet longear sunfish more than make up for their small size in their abundance and their willingness to bite. They are also wonderful to eat.
You can catch longear sunfish with a variety of artificial and live baits. They readily take small jigs, spinners and spinnerbaits. If you prefer to use live bait, a small minnow or a piece of a big minnow threaded on a size 6 hook works well. Longear sunfish also eagerly strike crickets, grasshoppers and worms; however, these are often stripped from the hook by small longears before larger ones have a chance to bite.
To catch longear sunfish when wading or floating clear creeks, locate and approach a cluster of spawning males. Cast a minnow weighted with a small split shot past them, then drag the weighted bait onto a bed and wait. A strike is all but guaranteed. When floating some of the larger, deeper streams in the Missouri Ozarks, where a lack of water clarity might prevent spotting clusters of spawning longears, cast small lures to rocky or weedy cover. A small grub and spinner usually will do the trick.
When caught on ultralight gear, a hooked longear sunfish puts up quite a fight. They pull and tug, darting this way and that. And you can catch and keep large numbers--both on and off spawning beds--with a clear conscience. Longear sunfish are officially recognized as non-game fish. Accordingly, limits are liberal. You can bring an aggregate of 50 non-game fish home in a day.
Like longear sunfish, green sunfish in Missouri also are considered non-game fish. Often called black perch or pond perch by anglers, green sunfish are the hardiest of all sunfish species and live statewide. Their backs and sides are bluish-green, and they have emerald mottlings and streaks on the sides of their heads. You can catch green sunfish using the same lures and baits that catch longear sunfish, but green sunfish have a bigger mouth and also will take larger enticements.
Unlike the longear sunfish, green sunfish are solitary in their nesting habits, and it's unusual to find concentrations of them guarding beds during the spawn. To find good numbers of green sunfish, look for them in cover. Promising spots to check include snags, rootwads and downed trees in quiet pools 3 feet or more deep. Typically such places hold numerous green sunfish, and it often takes little effort to put together a full stringer. If you want even more fun, try catching green sunfish with a fly rod.
When catching longear and green sunfish to eat, don't cull the smaller ones. You can eat longear or green sunfish 4 inches or longer. Bite-sized fillets can be removed from such fish, and they make for superb eating.
To be sure, it takes delicate work with a knife, and filleting a large number of smallish longear and green sunfish to feed a family involves time. But the results are well worth the effort: sweet, tender fillets--every bit as good as crappie.
Don't overcook them. Some folks like their fried fish to have the consistency of potato chips, but they are missing the true texture and flavor of the catch.
A simple way to prevent overcooking small fillets is to prepare them in a deep fryer. When the fillets float--often in less than a minute--they are done.
On our family overnight float trips, longear and green sunfish are almost always slated for the main course of one meal. Fried in a sauce pan over a propane camp stove, the cooking is easy and the results are delicious.
If you are an Ozark stream angler who prefers to release bass and other game fish but one who likes to eat fish, consider putting together a good stringer of green and longear sunfish. Both the catching and the eating are a pleasure.
Bully on Bullheads
Bullhead catfish also live in Ozark streams. Two species are common to the Ozarks--the black bullhead and the yellow bullhead--and they closely resemble one another. Caught from clear, gravel-bottomed creeks and streams, both are good to eat.
Handle bullheads carefully. Like all catfish, bullheads have needle-sharp fin spines that they hold erect when threatened. Being "horned" by a bullhead is an unpleasant experience. Bullheads also have powerful jaws that they readily use to clamp down on fingers.
Like longear and green sunfish, bullheads are abundant and recognized officially as non-game fish. The limit of all non-game fish is an aggregate of 50. Bullheads do not grow large. Most weigh less than a half pound, but their flanks support thick muscles. Any bullhead over 7 inches long will yield nice fillets.
Bullheads live around snags and rootwads--the same cover that houses longear and green sunfish. Live-baiting for panfish in such places usually attracts the attention of bullheads, sometimes a half dozen or more. They bite readily and add taste and enjoyment to any fish fry.