redbreast sunfish

WaterLine photo by Capt. Ralph Allen

If you caught this fish, what you call it? A lot of anglers would just say bluegill or bream and be done with it, which is probably why this species has stayed under the radar locally for so long.

I blew it. I made a mistake identifying a fish and then, to make matters worse, I stuck with my misidentification for more than a decade.

The palm-sized fish in question at first glance looked like a bluegill. It was caught in Prairie Creek, which is home to plenty of bluegill, swarms of stumpknockers (spotted sunfish), and some shellcrackers (redears) and warmouth. But when I looked more closely, I realized this fish was not any of those — and nothing like it appeared on Florida’s list of non-native exotic species either.

The most notable difference between the mystery fish and a bluegill was that the indigo “ear” on its gill cover was much more elongated than the namesake ear on a bluegill. I did a little research and discovered that there is a fish called a longear sunfish that is native to Florida. The fish I’d caught looked like a sunfish, and it had a long ear, so easy-peasy: I’d caught a longear sunfish. End of story.

Over the years, I caught a few more of these fish in Prairie Creek. I confidently proclaimed each of them to be longear sunfish to whomever I was bragging to at the time.

But a year or so ago, I ran into a problem while casually perusing species descriptions for Florida’s fish. A closer read of the life history information for longear sunfish revealed that they are only found in the very northernmost portions of Florida, primarily in the panhandle. Further, an examination of photos of longear sunfish revealed that they weren’t really a great match for my mystery fish.

Maybe it’s because better information became available online during the decade since that initial catch, or maybe it’s because I was just too lazy to do diligent research back then. But during a new search for an answer, I found an image for a Florida native freshwater fish that was a perfect match for my mystery bream: It appeared to be a redbreast sunfish.

But there was a catch — redbreast sunfish were not supposed to live in Southwest Florida. If you look at the FWC’s species information on MyFWC.com, the description of the range of redbreast sunfish is a little vague: “Common in rivers of north Florida, but absent from south Florida.”

My male ego was still bruised enough from having to admit that I’d erred on my initial species identification, so I needed to make absolutely sure to get it right on my second attempt. I started digging through literature in a search for information on redbreast sunfish. I discovered that the closest water body in which they were documented to exist was in the Kissimmee River drainage. That’s much nearer to Prairie Creek than the Florida panhandle home of the longear sunfish, but still it’s a pretty long way away.

Now what? I sent a photo of one of my mystery catches to Rob Robins, Collection Manager of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Division of Ichthyology at the University of Florida. He confirmed that the fish did look like a redbreast sunfish and that this species was not documented as existing in Prairie Creek or anywhere else in Southwest Florida. He asked for an actual specimen to be used for a definite species identification, so I saved the next one I caught, froze it and sent it to him.

The mystery has finally been solved: It was indeed a redbreast sunfish, and it was not previously known to live here. That frozen fish is now thawed and soaking in a jar of preservative in Gainesville (lot #UF 243928), and the literature regarding this species is being updated. If I don’t accomplish anything else while I’m on this planet, at least I’ll have that 8-inch fish in the museum as a legacy after I’m gone.

By the way, even though that’s the only place I’ve seen them, it seems unlikely that the only place that these fish live locally is in Prairie Creek. So if you’re fishing somewhere else and you catch a bluegill-looking fish with a long ear flap, take a photo of it and send it to rhrobins@flmnh.ufl.edu along with details about where and when it was caught.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

Capt. Ralph Allen runs the King Fisher Fleet of sightseeing and fishing charter boats located at Fishermen’s Village in Punta Gorda. He is an award-winning outdoor writer and photographer, and is a past president of the Florida Outdoor Writers Association. Contact him at 941-639-2628 or Captain@KingFisherFleet.com.

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