In the world of sport fishing, a 7 ½ inch sunfish is hardly worth mention. In the world of Dollar Lake, it is. This tiny weedy lake is populated by approximately sixteen trillion micro sunfish, 5 million wiener-sized bullheads (calfheads would be more appropriate), 16 decent perch, five sub-legal pike and a one-eyed bass of undetermined size. We’ve personally hooked nearly every one of those sunfish and bullhead in our quest for something edible, but all takers barely exceeded the size of the bait. So, when my wife finally hooked into “the big one” we were naturally excited. She had managed to reel in one of the largest and most colorful Pumpkinseed Sunfish I had ever seen.
Pumpkinseed Sunfish rarely grow old and long in nature. They are food for everything else, so you could call them the mice of the aquatic world. Some individuals do manage to stay on the right side of the “big fish eat little fish” scenario. In one aging study, conducted in Michigan, a typical two year old fish was about 4 inches long. The lucky 5 years olds they were slightly over 6 inches in length and the wise old 8 year olds were nearly 8 inches long. There were few if any fish older or larger in that particular study, but it is believed that they can get to be 10 years old and 10 inches in length. Those tipping the scale at one pound would be considered fish of legend. Ignoring the laws of nature and fish ecology, I could estimate our whopper sunfish at around 8 years of age.
I suppose it would be expected that I throw the fish back out of respect but frankly that was not the case. It so happened that I caught a few sizable perch and we had the makings of a meal. There is some advantage at being at the top of the food chain. I was not about to let this creature pass into my digestive system without giving it a good look-over, however. It was a beautiful thing there on the cutting board.
Pumpkinseeds are members of the sunfish family – with which they share billing with the likes of bluegill, warmouths, green sunfish, and large and smallmouth bass. I suppose they get their general name (sunfish) from their rounded shape and their specific name (pumpkinseed) from their flat oval squash seed outline. Scientifically they are known as Lepomis gibbosus which is latin for “scaly gilled moon fish”, or something like that. They are the shape of the full gibbous moon and therefore have the heavenly distinction of simultaneously being a sun and moon fish.
The most distinctive feature of Pumpkinseeds are the wavy sky blue lines that cross the cheeks and those scaly gill covers. A flexible flap which extends out from each gill cover is richly marked with a white-edge black spot and a scarlet half moon crescent that has to be seen in order to be believed (see here). There is more design packed into this little flap than over the entire fish. Bright orange and powder blue side spots and a burnt orange belly completed the colorful Poisson palette of this stunning male specimen.
I could find no obvious fault with this fish and hesitated for quite some time before cleaning it. “Cleaning” a fish actually means “messing” it up by rendering it scaleless, headless, and gutless so I wanted to make sure I recorded this creature for posterity. Closer inspection of the long side fins, the pectorals, revealed black dots imbedded in the flesh. These were the resting stages of a parasitic flatworm that use the fish as a temporary home. Their ultimate goal is to find their way into the gut of a Kingfisher where they complete their development.
So, for the sake of saving our local Kingfishers from parasitic infection, I filleted the sunfish and, along with a few of the perch, roasted them to perfection over a wood fire. Complimented with roasted garlic and a few mystery spices, this beautiful sunfish became a beautiful evening meal. There is nothing like eating a sun fish under the glow of a rising moon (even if that moon was hidden behind rain clouds).