Even sunnies have a value in fishing

This week my brother took our family’s boat down to Ocean City, Md., in hopes of catching a few fish. After his first day out on the water he sent a text informing me his crew landed more than 100 croakers.

I jokingly replied, “The sunny of the ocean.”

My text obviously was meant to compare the small sea-going fish to our well-known freshwater fish. He knew that my reply was not a compliment toward the croaker population of the bay.

The reason I compared the two species of fish is because both are known to bite on nearly anything and waste your time when you are trying to target other types of fish. Each are usually found in large numbers of very small fish and can entertain, but normally not satisfy, anglers.

That made me think, is the sunny the most disrespected fish in the Juniata Valley?

Before I go any further, I will be sure to acknowledge that sunny is a name I, and most others, use for a collection of panfish that include the many species of sunfish as well as pumpkinseeds and bluegills. It is basically the same as referring rainbows, brookies and brownies all as simply trout in my eyes.

My feeling on whether or not you may think of sunnies as junk fish depends on how often you fish. If you are an avid angler like me, you may be on the same side that hates to be bothered with taking one off a hook. If you are an occasional fisherman who just likes to catch fish, they may be your favorite quarry.

The main reason I have little respect for sunnies is just how easy they are to catch. I can’t tell you how many of them over the years I have actually caught on bare hooks. I do not know if there is something that you could put on the end of your line they would not try to devour.

I spend most of my time fishing in the valley with fly equipment for trout or topwater lures for smallmouth. I also like an occasional trip for crappies on one of our final local lakes. But it seems that no matter where I go, I cannot escape without having a sunny take what is on the end of line.

My last four outings have all resulted in hooking sunfish when they were far from being my intended target.

While I love fly fishing for trout on the Penns Creek and other local streams, I also spend many hours on Pine Creek. During my last outing I caught several nice brown trout on blue-wing olives. After an hour of fishing, I had a hit on the surface that did not resemble a trout (or smallmouth of fallfish). A few seconds later, I landed the first sunny I ever caught on Pine.

I have caught plenty of sunnies fly fishing on streams locally. The fish from Lycoming County did the same thing that all others have done before, destroy my fly. While my flies can often withstand plenty of trout on a nightly basis, sunnies usually require some reviving of a fly or even tying on a new one. That is definitely a reason they are on the top of my least appreciated fish.

While tossing large topwater lures for smallmouth bass on the Penns Creek out of my kayak, I am always surprised how many sunnies will be able to get them in their small mouths. On my last float I easily landed half a dozen of them on lures that were half the size of the fish.

I am not the only member of my family who is not exactly excited about catching a sunny. My son River, who just turned 4, has quite a disdain for them already. I am pretty sure it is my fault since kids pick up tendencies from their parents.

On our only crappie outing of the year, we headed to Faylor Lake to try and catch a few of my favorite panfish. The crappie bite was slow, but the sunnies were active. As soon as our live bait hit the water, we would reel in another one.

“Not another one of those,” he said repeatedly through the evening.

He expressed the same feelings about sunfish while reeling them in from the Pennsylvania Canal in Lewistown.

While waiting for family members to arrive for a picnic along the Juniata River, I tried to kill some time by fishing in the canal. I had not planned to fish, but found a packable fly rod in the back of our family SUV. With no flies tied for bass in my possession, I had to use what I could find. I put on a popper made from an old flip flop and went for a walk with River.

Without being able to target fish due to the muddy water, I threw to areas where I thought fish may be located. Sunnies were hitting it as soon as the line splashed down on the water. My little guy was able to reel in a bass and crappie, but the majority of action came from schools of tiny sunfish.

Most children would have been happy constantly reeling in fish, but the youngest Knepp told me he wanted to catch bass. I could only respond with “Me too, buddy.”

Apparently there are two ways I could look at the sunfish. I like catching fish I find rewarding, and I doubt they will ever be in that category for me.

However, the fact that on any given day, on most bodies of water, they can entertain those who wish to simply catch a fish, they are actually a valuable species to the sport of fishing. Not only do they serve as a baitfish for so many game fish species, but they are what so many start out catching when learning the ropes of the sport.


Zach Knepp writes about the outdoors for The Sentinel.