Sunfish Care – Keeping Pumpkinseeds, Bluegills and Their Relatives

Pygmy SunfishHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  The world’s 30-35 freshwater sunfish species (Family Centrarchidae) range throughout Canada, the USA and Central America.  Although popular among European aquarists, sunfishes have been largely been neglected in American aquaculture. This is a shame, as all are colorful, interesting and active, and most adjust well to aquarium life. From the tiny Black-Banded Sunfish to the 39 inch long Largemouth Bass, there is something for everyone.  I’ve had the good fortune of working with a “sunnies” ranging from the tiny Black-Banded Sunfish to the massive Largemouth Bass, and would enjoy hearing from readers who have also come to know them, or wish to (please post below).

Obtaining Sunfishes

Although rarely offered in the pet trade, many species are easily collected via seine net or minnow trap (check state regulations).  While their diversity is greatest in the southeastern USA (my friend in Louisiana collected 8 species in the lake behind his house!), sunfishes can be found most everywhere in the USA. New York, where I reside, is home to 14 species.

Seven species in the genus Elassoma, known as the Pygmy Sunfishes, have recently been placed in their own family.  They are delightful aquarium subjects, packing all of the typical sunfish traits in 1-2 inch long bodies. Banded, Okefenokee and Everglades Pygmy Sunfishes are available from specialist breeders in the USA and Europe.

Commercial fish hatcheries often stock sunfishes.  Fish Creek Fish Farm accepts small orders for sunfishes and other US natives.


A pair of Longear Sunfishes, Bluegills or other large species will require a 55-75 gallon aquarium, but others will get along well in smaller quarters.  Included among these are the brilliantly-clad Banded, Blue-Spotted and Black-Banded Sunfishes (Enneacanthus spp.).  Young sunfishes will often form mixed-species schools, but adults generally become quite territorial and each pair may require a tank to itself.  All do best in heavily-planted aquariums.

PumpkinseedAlthough Pumpkinseeds and certain other adaptable species can tolerate a wide range of conditions, strict attention should always be paid to water quality.  The needs of other sunfishes vary; Banded Sunfishes and their relatives, for example, require soft, acidic water. Please write in for information on individual species. 

One of my favorites, the Pumpkinseed, is also among the most widely distributed.  But being common in no way detracts from its interest and beauty.  I remain baffled that these gorgeous fish, with their fascinating, “cichlid-like” behaviors, remain so underappreciated by aquarists.  Please read on, and write in with your thoughts and experiences.

The Pumpkinseed, Lepomis gibbosus

Oval-shaped with a golden-brown background mottled in iridescent blue and green spots, this alert fish rivals the beauty of any tropical species.  The spotted pattern gives way to lines of blue-green around the head, and there is a bright red edge to the “ear flap” on the gill cover.  Males become especially brilliant (and aggressive!) during the breeding season. 


Found throughout the eastern half of the United States and Canada, the Pumpkinseed may reach 9 inches in length. Like the closely related Bluegill, with which it commonly hybridizes, the Pumpkinseed has been widely introduced.  Established populations have been recorded in Hungary, Russia, Switzerland, Morocco, Guatemala and elsewhere. Transplanted Bluegills have traveled even further, and may now be found in countries as far flung as Malawi, Swaziland and Korea. 

Beauty and Attitude

Pumpkinseeds are extremely active and inquisitive fish, and take notice of everything that occurs around their aquarium. I’ve found them to be somewhat bolder than others.  In my teens, I kept 6 small Pumpkinseeds with a Largemouth Bass in a 75 gallon aquarium.  When they reached 4-5 inches in length, they ganged up on their larger relative and nearly killed it before I could intervene.

I recently removed a 2-inch-long specimen from an aquarium that was home to several much larger Bluegills. Bluegills housed with larger fishes usually stick to heavy plant cover until they have put on some size. The minute Pumpkinseed, however, established a territory within hours of his introduction, and soon after began attacking his tank-mates.  I now have 3 fingerling Pumpkinseeds in with the Bluegills; they are getting along, but make no attempt to hide and are right out there competing at feeding time.  

Adults become quite aggressive towards each other and are best-kept as a pairs.  Males in breeding condition cannot be housed together, and should be separated from females by a divider until she appears receptive.


BluegillAs with all sunfishes, the male Pumpkinseed evacuates a circular nest in the substrate and stands guard over the developing eggs (please see photo of nesting male Redear Sunfish). During this time, he can be seen cleaning the nest and aerating the eggs with his pectoral fins. Breeding is most likely to occur in large, well-planted aquariums that have been subjected to natural temperature and light fluctuations. 

The male will not to venture far from the nest. Try not to disturb him, for he is quite high strung, even to the point of attacking hands placed in the aquarium. Please write in for information on rearing the fry.


Pumpkinseeds and other sunfishes are carnivorous and prefer to feed upon insects, worms and small fishes.  Newly-collected individuals may refuse other foods, but in time can be induced to accept fresh shrimp, frozen bloodworms, freeze-dried krill, cichlid pellets, flakes and similar foods. 

I’ve had good success with diets comprised of approximately three quarters live foods (earthworms, blackworms, guppies, crickets, sowbugs) and a quarter cichlid pellets freeze dried and fresh prawn, and trout chow. In the warmer moths, I collect moths, beetles, tree crickets, and other insects around my outdoor lights each evening. The strong reaction of my sunfishes (and, indeed, most tropical fishes) to these novel foods always fascinates me.

I’ve observed wild and captive Bluegills feeding upon aquatic grasses, so some experimentation with plant foods for other species may be worthwhile.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible. 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio


Further Reading

The North American Native Fish Association: a great resource for sunfish enthusiasts

Sunfish: Species List, Photos and Natural History Details

Sunfishes of New York

Sunfishes of Alabama


Pygmy Sunfish image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Brian Gratwicke
Pumpkinseed image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Tino Strauss
Bluegill image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Ltshears

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