Pumpkinseed sunfish (Lepomis gibbosus) are one of three small to medium sized species of true sunfish, along with bluegills and redbreasts. The species common name was earned because of its distinctive body shape. Pumpkinseeds are often recognized for their eagerness to bite at bait and their catchability, making them popular amongst novice fishermen and children (especially when nothing else is biting.) But anglers beware, pumpkinseeds have sharp spines along their fins that can be painful if handled incorrectly. An abundant species, they fulfill an important intermediate role in their ecosystems and are a common site in shallow waters along the edges of ponds, lakes, and slow running streams or rivers. While easy to catch and quite tasty, their petite size prevents pumpkinseeds from being a sport fish.
Pumpkinseeds are small to medium, freshwater fish that reach an average mature length of 4” to 8” (but may reach 10” in length) and a mature weight of .35lb. to .65lb. They have laterally compressed, deep-bodies typical of sunfish, which are likened in shape to pumpkinseeds, earning them their common name. They have small mouths and protective spiny, rayed dorsal, pelvic and anal fins.
Pumpkinseeds are colorful fish. Their bodies are olive, brassy yellow or brown in color and densely mottled with copper, gold, orange, blue-green, or red spots. Irregular, crescent-shaped blue or emerald streaks are present on the cheeks and gill covers. The rear portion of the dark gill cover is marked with a crimson spot contained within a pale crescent-shape. Their bellies range from yellow, to bronze to red1.
Juveniles have vertical banding on their sides and pale spots on their gill flaps (called opercle flaps2.)
Pumpkinseeds are most active during the day, feeding and hiding amongst vegetation in schools. At night they rest below cover along the bottom of shallow, fresh waters. Their home ranges average .5 to 2.75 acres.
On average, wild pumpkinseeds live five to six years but may live as long as eight years. In captivity, these fish have lived as long as twelve years3.
Pumpkinseeds live in cool to warm fresh waters, preferring depths of 3’ to 6’ and a temperature of 70° to 75°F. They tend to school in the shallow waters close to the shores of lakes, ponds and slow moving streams or rivers where ample vegetation provides cover.
Within their native habitats, pumpkinseeds are prey to largemouth bass, pike, perch, pickerel, walleye, freshwater eels, other sunfish, cormorants, herons, mergansers, and humans, to name a few. In addition to hiding in aquatic vegetation for cover, pumpkinseeds are equipped with spiny fins that are used for protection from predators. When threatened, pumpkinseeds spread these spines, making them harder to swallow4.
Pumpkinseeds are found throughout eastern Canada and the United States, with ranges reaching as far north as New Brunswick, as far west as North Dakota and southeast Manitoba and south to South Carolina and Kentucky. Their native range includes the Great Lakes, the Hudson Bay, and upper portions of the Mississippi River. Pumpkinseeds have been introduced in other areas of the United States as well as in South America, Africa and Europe, where they are considered invasive pests5.
: Like other sunfish, pumpkinseeds have a diverse diet including insects, insect larvae, snails, leeches, crustaceans, mollusks, small fish and aquatic vegetation. The majority of their feeding happens in the afternoon, although sunfish are known to feed in varying water levels throughout the day6.
Pumpkinseeds spawn from May through August. During this period, females (of two to five years old) deposit from 4000 to 7000 eggs and males may breed up to once every eleven days. Unlike many species, pumpkinseeds are unique in that males provide parental care to the nests and young during early development while females play no role after spawning.
Male pumpkinseeds build colonies of up to fifteen nesting sites amongst vegetation in shallow, coastal waters. These colonies may contain a variety of species of sunfish, resulting in interbreeding. Males may construct several nest sites that are roughly 12” wide and 2” to 3” deep7. Males habitually fan these sites with their tails in order to remove fine sediment that could smother eggs8. These sites, once established, are aggressively defended by male pumpkinseeds, who charge, chase, bite, and mouth-fight intruding fish. However, when female pumpkinseeds approach from deeper waters to spawn, males will chase them into their nesting sites. During breeding times, males have been observed to change color, which is believed to play a role in breeding. Within the nest, males and females participate in a mating display in which they swim belly-to-belly in a circular motion, until the milt and eggs are released (the eggs released at intervals9.) Females may deposit their eggs in several nests throughout the breeding season and multiple females sometimes spawn with one male at the same time in the same nesting site.
With an optimal temperature of 55° to 82°F, eggs hatch in three to ten days. The young are transparent and have no ocular pigmentation for 48 hours. For the next five days, the young remain in the bottom of the nest, receiving nourishment form their yolks. The adult males guard all their nests and the young for approximately eleven days after they hatch, until the young have dispersed and are free-swimming and capable of feeding on their own (with fully developed mouths and pelvic fins, which are last to develop.) During this time, males continually fan the nests with their tails to keep them oxygenated and clean and have been known to return young to the nest within their mouths if they stray too far. For the first year of life, the young remain near the nesting sites and reach lengths of around 2”.
Pumpkinseeds reach sexual maturity in two years of age.
Notes of Interest: The DEC establishes closed seasons, quantity and size restrictions to protect fish species, particularly during vulnerable life stages, to ensure species survival as well as high quality fisheries for sport fishermen. Popular sport species receive particularly strict regulations, since they often develop slower, and have longer life expectancies. Examples of carefully protected species include small and largemouth bass. Sunfish, on the other hand, are not protected under strict regulations (even though they are a popular catch) as they reproduce rapidly and maintain healthy population numbers11.
Several countries with invasive populations of pumpkinseeds have reported negative ecological impacts due to these small fish. Since this species commonly hybridizes with other sunfish species, their presence often results in rapidly maturing, sterile males that overcrowd waters and stunt the growth of native species.
Pumpkinseeds are often kept as pets in aquariums and are also commonly used as the subjects for scientific studies12.
Pumpkinseeds readily bite at bait and have excellent flavor, but their potential as a game fish is hindered by their diminutive size.
Pumpkinseeds are also called punky, pond perch, sunnies, and sun perch.