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Redbreast Sunfish Management and Fishing in Pennsylvania

Prepared by R. Lorantas, D. Kristine and C. Hobbs
PFBC Warmwater Unit


Goal: Maintain or enhance redbreast sunfish sport fisheries through harvest management of naturally sustained redbreast sunfish populations and through habitat preservation and enhancement.

Redbreast sunfish occur throughout Pennsylvania’s Atlantic slope rivers. They are found in streams and rivers within the Delaware River, Susquehanna River, and Potomac River drainages. Redbreast sunfish primarily occupy river and stream (lotic) habitats and are very rare in lakes or ponds. Redbreast sunfish are unknown in the Ohio and Lake Erie drainages.

Redbreast sunfish populations are managed for sport fishing through harvest management. Inland regulations accommodate harvest of 50 panfish, combined species, which includes redbreast sunfish and other species. No minimum size limit or seasonal restrictions apply. Redbreast sunfish are generally considered a prolific species, which has lead to liberal harvest rules.

Biologists regularly sample fish populations and measure their density and size structure, fish habitat is also described by measuring water productivity and aquatic vegetation density. Following such evaluations management plans are prescribed to enhance density and size structure of redbreast sunfish within resource limits. In association with these evaluations growth of redbreast sunfish is examined by measuring length, weight, and taking a scale sample to determine age. In Pennsylvania, a 7 inch redbreast sunfish is approximately 4 years old (Fig. 1) and weighs 0.2 pounds, when redbreast sunfish are 9 inches in length they are approximately 5.6 years old and weigh approximately 0.5 pounds. We have tabulated average ages and weights for a variety of lengths of redbreast sunfish in Pennsylvania (Table 1). Anglers find these tables useful in approximating the weight and age of their catch. In standard biological collections, the decrease in relative or absolute number of redbreast sunfish at each age can be used to describe the total annual mortality rate of redbreast sunfish. In addition to measuring losses, biologists index production of young redbreast sunfish by examining age structure of assessment catches. Growth of redbreast sunfish, recruitment of young redbreast sunfish to the population and loss of older redbreast sunfish are important considerations in developing harvest regulations that produce desirable size redbreast sunfish for harvest.

Figure 1. Average length of redbreast sunfish and redbreast sunfish collected by fisheries biologists in assessment gear in Pennsylvania (July-September).

Figure 1

Inches Pounds Years
4.5 0.1 1.4
5 0.1 1.7
5.5 0.1 2.1
6 0.1 2.5
6.5 0.1 3.1
7 0.2 4.0
7.5 0.2 5.6
8 0.3 > 5.6
8.5 0.4 > 5.6
9 0.5 > 5.6
9.5 0.6 > 5.6
10 0.7 > 5.6
10.5 0.8 > 5.6

Tabulating catch and harvest by anglers from various waterways is essential in developing harvest regulations. Information derived from these creel surveys frequently yields information of interest to anglers since seasonal peaks in catch occur for most species. Redbreast sunfish can be caught most any time of year, generally though, highest catch per hour occurs in fall in rivers (Fig. 2). Since redbreast sunfish defend nests in late spring and early summer in association with spawning and brood guarding, adults can be concentrated and quite vulnerable to anglers. With fishing destinations identified from maps on this site and information describing the best seasons to catch redbreast sunfish, anglers need only select an effective bait or lure. Most anglers catch redbreast sunfish drifting a worm or minnow in any near-shore habitat. Small jigs, spinners, spoons and crank baits are effective baits. The abundance of redbreast sunfish in central and eastern Pennsylvania rivers and streams makes them an especially popular panfish among youthful anglers. Redbreast sunfish, Pennsylvania’s “river sunfish”, are fun to catch by anglers of all ages.

Figure 2. Average catch per angler hour of redbreast sunfish from Pennsylvania rivers.

Figure 2


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