Sunfish: The Ultimate Bass Bait

Peter B. Mathiesen

On your next trip as you peer into your bait box, ask yourself if you’re missing a key element that bass feed on.

How often are you throwing sunfish baits? There is a reason fish biologists use sunfish as the primary food source for bass when stocking a pond. It’s as if bass live to eat them. Whether it’s bluegill, green sunfish, rock bass, or pumpkinseeds, all of these fish play a critical role in the diet of bass throughout the U.S.

The relationship between bass and sunfish are inextricably linked together as predator and prey. They are both members of the sunfish family and they make every effort to inhabit the same water. Compared to other food sources and depending on the water shed, largemouth can ingest up to 40 percent of their annual diet from sunfish. In most impoundments, that will be bluegill.

Life as a Bluegill

Adult bluegills spawn from April to mid summer and are dependent on water temperatures that must remain between 67-80 degrees. The risks for the new inhabitants are extreme as they quickly swim to grass before a long list of predators devour them. If grass isn’t available, they will head to the thickest, submergible cover, brush or in deep lakes, treetops.

By late summer the bluegill has reached postage-stamp size and has become the premier target for largemouth and smallmouth.  A bluegill’s growth rate is slow. A hand-sized bluegill takes roughly four-plus years to produce depending on where the bluegill lives. South of the Mason Dixon Line, most bluegill have the opportunity to spawn more than once, and have a long feeding cycle that is only interrupted by cold water for just a few months. Northern bluegill have a lot of work to do in the summer and early fall to get their growth rate moving before winter shuts down their metabolism reducing the food they eat.

A Guide’s View

Size is key. Once a bluegill reaches spawning size it’s only a target for the “largest bass” in the lake. Bill Babler, a fishing guide from Shell Knob, Missouri, has spent years testing Missouri and Arkansas lakes with bluegill baits.

“I have never seen a largemouth crash an adult bluegill or sunfish on a bed,”  said Babler. “Table Rock is different from other lakes, it’s rocky, deep, and if they’ve pulled down the lake, all the grass if left high and dry.”

His favorite trick is to run a chartreuse spinnerbait with a gold Colorado blade through the tops of cedar trees.

“On Table Rock bluegill suspend in tree cover because there just aren’t many other places for them to hide,” Babler said. “We have few grass lines and even fewer docks, compared to places like Lake of the Ozarks which is littered with thousands of docks.”

Babler observed that bluegill behavior is completely different from other forage fish, especially in the way they move. “I watch bluegill all the time. They don’t dive vertically unless they’re being pursued. They seem to move more like a submarine inflating their bladders and slowly lowering and raising vertically up and down. When they’re swimming they stop, start and stop and start, unless fleeing from a predator. I rarely see them swim continually. Other anglers may not agree, but my favorite method for attracting bass to a bluegill bait is ripping jerk baits above and next to brushy cover.”

When he can find grass he usually moves back to a chartreuse spinnerbait or a red, blue and gold lipless crank bait. “Bluegill are the key to most of the bass I catch when they’re not caught crawfish imitations,” said Babler.




Other sunfish also play a roll in the mix of sunfish predation by bass. There are green sunfish, pumpkinseeds, rock bass, longear, and even crappie. Many of these other more aggressive sunfish can force bluegill out of the grass into open water. If the impoundment gets over populated, bluegill will eat their own eggs.

Keep in mind that every 1- to 3-inch bass (also a member of the sunfish family) is fair game in this mix. Sunfish are voracious eaters and stay active in all but the hottest and coldest conditions.

Going Blue

Sunfish can be a consistent key to unlocking catch rates. Anglers continually search for the “consistent” reactionary strike when more often we should be taking in information on the why, when and where. If you’re fishing water that’s less than 10 feet deep with cover and you’re using a jig, swim bait, spinner bait or crank, there’s a substantial chance that the bass you just caught thought he was chasing a sunfish.

Sunfish Baits 

Castaic Soft Baits (pictured above)

Baby Sunfish, hard-head, soft body bait.Very realistic bait, perfect for clear water fishing.

3.5 inch, 1/2oz.MSRP $12.00;  (502-281-5108); 

Strike King 

Imitates little postage-stamp sized sunfish.

1 ½ inch, 1/8oz. Bitsy Pond Minnow #503MSRP $2.95;  (901-853-7606); 


SubWart #392 Bluegill

Great for super skinny water, will dive to 1 foot2-inch,  5/16 oz.MSRP $5.99;

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