- Length: usually about 6-8 inches
- Weight: usually less than 1 lb. (World record is 1 lb. 6 oz.; Wisconsin record is 1 lb. 1 oz.)
- Coloring: sides speckled with orange, yellow, blue, and emerald spots; breast and belly orange to orange-red
- Common Names: yellow sunfish, pumpkinseed sunfish, common sunfish, round sunfish, bream, and sun bass
- Found in Lakes: all Great Lakes (primarily in bays and protected areas)
Identification | Habitat | Life Cycle | Place in the Ecosystem | Fishing
Colorful, abundant, and easy to catch, pumpkinseeds are tremendously popular with anglers of all ages. They have a wide natural range and are native to all areas of the Great Lakes.
Part of the sunfish family, the pumpkinseed is a very deep-bodied, laterally compressed, almost disk-like fish. Theyre one of the most colorful fish found in Wisconsin waters, breeding males especially so. The fishs breast and belly are orange to red-orange, and its back and sides are brown to olive. Its sides and back are speckled with orange, yellow, blue, and emerald spots.
Pumpkinseeds look a lot like bluegills, and they are often found in the same habitat. The best way to tell them apart is by the opercle flap. Its black in both species, but the pumpkinseed has a distinctive crimson spot in a halfmoon shape on the rear edge. Also, pumpkinseeds have 7-8 dark vertical bands on their sides that are irregular and fainter than those found on the bluegill. Additionally, the pumpkinseed has several narrow wavy stripes, alternating orange-brown or light blue.
Pumpkinseeds can be found in shallow, cool to moderately warm water. They are most prevalent in small lakes and ponds or weedy bays of larger lakes. Prefering cover of some type, such as aquatic vegetation or submerged brush, they are seldom found in open water. Ideal water temperatures range from 75 to 89 degrees F. Pumpkinseeds are more tolerant of low oxygen levels than bluegills are, but less tolerant of warm water. Groups of young fish school close to shore, but adults tend to travel in groups of 2-4 in slightly deeper yet still covered waters. Pumpkinseeds are active throughout the day, but they rest at night near the bottom or in protected areas in rocks or near submerged logs.
Some pumpkinseeds have shown a strong instinct for a home range. When captured fish were marked and released in a different part of the lake, a significant percentage of them returned to their original location.
When water temperatures reach 55-63 degrees F (late spring or early summer), male pumpkinseeds start to build nests to spawn. Spawning sites are generally in shallow water from 6 inches to several feet deep on sand or gravel bottoms. The males use their caudal fins to sweep out shallow, saucer-shaped depressions about twice the length of the fish in diameter (about 4 to 15 inches). The fish remove larger objects like rocks by pulling them out with their mouths.
Nests are built in colonies of 3 to 15 nest sites. Sometimes pumpkinseeds build nests in bluegill nest colonies, and the two species will interbreed. Males vigorously defend their nests with typical sunfish aggressive behaviorspreading of the opercula, charging, biting, chasing, and, rarely, mouth-fighting. Pumpkinseeds maintain larger territories than bluegills.
Females arrive after the nests are completed, coming in from deeper waters. At first the females appear to be chased away from the nest by the males, but after a considerable amount of chasing, the females head toward the nest instead of away from it. Once the female is in the nest, the pair swims in circles side by side, with the bellies of both fish touching. The male then releases milt and the female releases eggs. Females may spawn in more than one nest, and more than one female may use the same nest. Sometimes more than one female will spawn with a male simultaneously. Females produce 1,500 to 1,700 eggs, depending on their size and age.
The small eggs stick to gravel, sand, or debris in the nest, and they hatch in as little as three days at 82.4 degrees F. Females leave the nest immediately after spawning, but males remain and are highly protective, guarding the eggs and fanning them. The newly hatched young are minute and transparent, for some time only the eyes are visible. The male guards them for about the first 11 days, returning them to the nest in his mouth if they try to stray. Fathers may even nip at peoples hands or feet that come close to their nests.
The young fish stay on or near the shallow breeding area and grow to about 2 inches in their first year. Sexual maturity is usually achieved by age 2. Pumpkinseeds have lived to be 12 years old in captivity, but in nature most do not exceed 6-8 years old.
Place in the Ecosystem
Pumpkinseeds eat a diverse diet of small prey, such as insects, insect larvae, mollusks, snails and other crustaceans, and small fish. They are effective at destroying mosquito larvae. They feed at all water levels from the surface to the bottom, and they feed throughout the day, with heaviest feeding during the afternoon.
All fish that eat other fish will eat pumpkinseeds, and large pumpkinseeds will eat smaller pumpkinseeds. Because they tend to spend so much time in shallow water, theyre also eaten by cormorants, mergansers, and herons. Pumpkinseeds are accustomed to being low on the food chain, so they reproduce rapidly. However, this means that without pressure from predators they reproduce so rapidly that there isnt enough food and habitat for all of the fish to grow large. This can cause populations of stunted fish.
Human activities can also have an impact on pumpkinseed populations. Shoreline development can destroy pumpkinseed spawning grounds, and increased silt from shoreline erosion can cover spawning sites with sand, disrupting spawning activities. Heavy lake use can also stir up water and disrupt spawning activities.
Because they tend to remain in the shallows and feed all day, pumpkinseeds are relatively easy to catch from shore. They will bite at most baitincluding garden worms, insects, leeches, or bits of fish. They will also take small artificial lures and can be fished for with a fly rod with wet flies or dry flies. They will also hit at grubs early in the winter but are less active from mid- to late winter.
They may be easy to catch and popular with the youngest anglers, but pumpkinseeds are often sought by adults as well. The fish do put up an aggressive fight on line, and they have an excellent flavor and are low in fat and high in protein. Do be careful when handling; pumpkinseeds have sharp spines.
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copyright University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute
Brook Trout illustration copyright 1998 Gina Mikel
Drawing from Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Top color photo from the Shedd Aquarium
Second color photo courtesy of the Ohio Dept. of Natural Resources
Bottom drawing copyright SAREP
Last updated 05 February 2002 by White