MARCH 2009 — Fishing and boating, as favorite activities on the Connecticut River are sometimes one and the same event. People use boats or canoes to get to their favorite fishing area and for good reason. We have many species of fish to angle for. In this article we are going to look at one of our most successful fish species, the sunfish family of fishes.

The sunfish family is diverse. It is comprised of 30 different freshwater species here in North America. The different species range in size from the one inch Banded Pygmy sunfish to the 2 foot 20 pound largemouth bass. Sunfish comprise one of the larger families of fish in the Connecticut River. Despite being one of the most successful species in our river, our recent geo-history explains why most of the sunfish species found here are not native to the river.

Glaciers were the last great shapers of our valley. The last great glacier extirpated all fish from the North Country pushing them southward to refugia in southern areas below what is now New Jersey. Sunfish are nothing if not survivors — having been around for 60 million years so, as the glacier melted and new waters reopened they along with other species migrated northward.

One anomaly is that the best known of the sunfish family, bass are not native to the Connecticut River but they are native to Lake Champlain. The Green Mountains separated the Connecticut River watershed from Lake Vermont during glacier melt. Lake Vermont became the Champlain Sea that became the present day Lake Champlain. Lake Vermont was connected to the Hudson River. Conditions changed and the ensuing Champlain Sea was then connected to the St Lawrence River that at that time drained the Great Lakes.

These different connections between major waterways changed over a 5 thousand year period allowing bass from those western waters where they were native to migrate into Lake Champlain. The water levels of Champlain never rose high enough to breach the Green Mountains. Consequently as bass migrated eastward they were stopped from crossing into the Connecticut River watershed from the west and bass were not found in the southern waters where fish were pushed while the glacier was on the land.

The sunfish found in our river include the largemouth and smallmouth bass, rock bass, redbreast sunfish, redeared sunfish, bluegill and pumpkinseed. This is not an exhaustive list but shows the diversity within the sunfish family. Of these only the redbreast sunfish and pumpkinseed are native to the river. Humans have either intentionally or by happenstance introduced the other species.

Some speculate that smallmouth bass were moved into eastern waters in the 1860s by means of water buckets that hung off the side of steam trains. It seems the buckets occasionally had some residual water in them and contained young bass. When buckets were thrown into an eastern waterway to get water for the train the young fish swam off into history. And bass will be bass; they not only survived but prospered in their new home rivers.

All of the sunfish share a number of spawning traits. The male digs out a circular shallow depression in the river bottom called nests using its tail to sweep away silt and gravel. The diameter of the nest is usually twice the length of the fish. The nest building starts in the spring when water temperatures reach 60 degrees F with spawning taking place when the temperature reaches 65 degrees. There are slight variations in the temperature triggers depending on the species.

Once the nest is ready the male entices a ripe female to the nest where with their heads pointed into any current side by side both eggs and milt are released simultaneously. The sticky eggs settle into the nest. The male may then drive off the female and look for another female with as many as 3 females placing eggs into one nest. Fertilized eggs will hatch in 2-10 days depending on the species and the water temperature. Once spawning is completed the male stands ferocious guard over the nest and the young once they hatch. In the case of bass the young are “herded” together and protected by the male for up to a month after hatching.

Bass are aggressive when foraging for fish, crayfish and macroinvertebrates. The seemingly always hungry bluegills and pumpkinseeds are a kids’ favorite requiring little fishing expertise and simple equipment to catch. Largemouth bass, as the largest of the sunfish are considered a first-rate game fish but to many the top of the line is the smallmouth bass. To quote from “Freshwater Fishes of New Hampshire,” “He is plucky, game, brave and when hooked unyielding to the last.” A smallmouth bass has no quit at all.

David Deen is River Steward for the Connecticut River Watershed Council. CRWC has been an articulate voice for the Connecticut River for more than half a century.