Friday, June 14, 2019

In Search of a New Species (Redbreast Sunfish Mission)

Beautiful Specimen of a Redbreast Sunfish.
Back in January I found a post on a Facebook group called "Panfish on the Fly" that showed a beautiful fish called the Redbreast Sunfish. Instantly this little beauty caught my eye. I had never heard of these fish before so I decided to do a google search to see more photos of this beautiful little panfish. When I clicked the image tab on my google search window my jaw dropped at how colorful these fish were and I instantly fell in love with them. So now what? How would I be able to catch one of these fish?

A rebreast Sunfish that took one of my Lively Legz double trouble nymphs.
I started off by searching the web with the search "Redbreast Sunfish in Pennsylvania".  The first link that popped up on google was to the Fish and Boat Commission's Website. The link took me to a page that covered a huge variety of aspects of the Redbreast Sunfish. Everything from fishing tips to species ID, habitat, and life history was spelled out for me right on the web page. I wanted to learn more about these fish and the water they live so my first click was on the "species overview, identification, habitat....." tab.  From this click I was then taken to a large overview of all panfish species within the state as well as bass. I read up a little on the fish and went back to the main page for Redbreast Sunfish.

Female Redbreast Sunfish that is full of eggs.
My next click was to search the biologist reports for streams in my area. I clicked the biologist reports link and found a map with a pile of markers and picked a few that were close to me.


After a few stream searches I found a stream that showed a population of Redbreast Sunfish. We are lucky to have access to this type of technology in Pennsylvania. Not every stream is sampled, but it can give you a reference on what streams contain what species of fish. Another Amazing feature of the map is that you can get "general directions" to the sample site. I opened the biologist report and read the results.

Screenshot of the biologist report I referenced for my Redbreast adventure.
From this survey I was happy to see that there were 58 Redbreast Sunfish caught during the survey. Not a huge number of fish, but enough that I could expect to catch a few on my trip. The survey also let me know some of the other species present that I may be able to catch. You can use this information in a variety of ways. If the stream you are looking at has multiple survey points, you can then determine which area increases your odds of catching your desired fish. If White Suckers were your desired catch this stream would be perfect. If you were chasing Smallmouth Bass you can see that you may want to search for a different stream. Had this stream had a lower survey conducted that showed 200 Redbreast Sunfish captured this would let me know that I have better odds of catching one down stream. After conducting this recon I now decided that I was going to make an effort to cross the Redbreast Sunfish off of my list of species I have caught on my fly rod in the spring.

Redbreast that took a Lively Legz Nymph in a deeper eddy off of a main channel.
After my information gathering I went back to the "Panfish on the Fly" group to learn about what types of fly patterns worked for this fish. I found that small streamers and nymphs would be effective. Now the wait was on. I am a die hard winter trout fisherman so much of my winter angling was targeting wild brown trout and native brookies. Once spring comes around and the opening day of trout is over my trout fishing takes a back seat to turkey hunting. Once spring gobbler season is over, and my kids are done with school, I no longer have to get three kids ready before I go to work. My wife is a teacher and is also off for the summer. This is my time to fish. It sounds crazy but I get up before work nearly every day and fish. I make up for lost time during my relentless pursuit of the wild turkey. This spring Pennsylvania was blessed with some above average rainfall and cooler temperatures. These conditions are perfect for the trout angler. So the first ten days of "summer vacation I spent catching stocked and wild trout on spinners and flies. I really hammered the trout lately and my quest to catch the Redbreast Sunfish came back into my focus.

Large wild Brown Trout I caught during my first week of "Summer Vacation" on one of my hand made spinners.
With having caught around sixty to 70 trout this week I decided that the time to chase my first Redbreast Sunfish was now. Last night I tied up some small baitfish patterns, a few hellgramite/leech patterns and a few crayfish. I set my alarm for 4:00 and hit the hay. It was tough to wake up at four this morning and I hit the snooze button a few times before finally dragging myself out of bed. I got a shower, and was off to chase my hitlist fish.

My first Redbreast Sunfish took a crayfish fly that I tied the night before.
My excitement of crossing this fish off of my list grew as I neared the stream I found on the biologist report. After reading the habitat section of the Fish and Boat Commissions website I learned that the Redbreast prefers shallow pools and eddies so I skipped some rather "trouty" looking water to pursue my preferred target. I started off with one of the crayfish flies. My first few casts were pretty far and I could feel some sort of fish tapping my fly, but kept missing the strikes. I had a notion that these fish were aggressive and would hammer my flies but that was just not the case. After a few failed hook sets I finally had a fish on the end of my line. I brought the fish to hand and was overjoyed seeing that my do-diligence had paid off.

A lightly colored Redbreast that fell for my Lively Legz March Brown Nymph.
I continued to fish the same pool expecting a congregation of Redbreasts and was rewarded with a few more fish. I learned that nymphs were going to be the ticket to catch these guys. I opted to put on a GHOSTech Indicator as these fish had such subtle takes. I like the GHOSTech Indicator because it cause little splashing and disturbance when it lands on the water. Targeting a fish in such shallow pools I feel stealth is vitally important. I don't feel that the Redbreast is as weary as a wild brown, but they are not an extremly easy fish to catch.

A nice Brown that was caught while exploring a riffle for Redbreast.
I was extremely happy that I was catching my target species and had accomplished my goal, but wanted to explore what else may be in these waters, and also see if larger Redbreasts could be found in other water conditions. I was fishing an eddy and decided I would add some depth to my indicator and fish the deeper riffle behind me. On my first cast into the riffle my indicator took a fast rip upstream. I set the hook and instantly knew that I wasn't dealing with another redbreast sunfish. My first thought was a Fallfish, but was surprised when I pulled in a beautiful brown trout.

A solid little Rock Bass caught in a deeper pool.
I continued upstream after catching the brown and fished a few other habitat types. I found the Redbreast along the shallow edges of banks morsoe than in the deeper pool sections and eddies. In on particularly deep pool my indicator took off and I reed in an awesome little rock bass. These guys hit hard and put up a nice fight on my 10' 3 weight fly rod. I am a huge fan of Rock Bass so this fish was a very pleasant bonus.

A downright gorgeous Redbreast Sunfish.
The warning alarm went off on my phone signalling me that I needed to make my way back to my car, but I was greeted with one last Redbreast before the alarm was snoozed. To some it may seem may seem insane to wake up at four in the morning to chase four to eight inch fish. With my busy lifestyle as a parent of young children I need to fish when I can. I take advantage of my "Summer Vacation", and the fact that I can sneak in a few hours before work to hit the stream.

I hope that this article meets those of you who may be tired of catching trout, or some other species of fish, and sparks an interest to persue the unknown. I am an avid blue line fisherman, so doing research on streams is just second nature to me. Catching these little panfish was an awesome experience and was especially excited exploring new habitats. With trout I can read the water pretty well and pretty much know exactly where they will be laying. With the redbreast I am totally green. I had a snip of information of the habitat they preferred and took in information as I fished as to where more productive areas would be. I challenge you to give something like this a try. Utilize the same tools that I did to find a new species a try. Your hard work may just pay off as it did for me, and you too may feel how rewarding it is to cross a new species off of your list. 


  1. Great story...I might have to strike this one of my list as well!

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