In North Carolina, the spotted sunfish has suffered from low esteem, quietly living out its life in the tannin-stained, acidic waters of the coastal plain.
The fact that it was limited in range was one reason a state record category did not exist for the fish, although it is a native species. Most of them are small in comparison to say, the redear or “shellcracker” sunfish, which can grow to 5 pounds in weight. They do not form large schools or tightly packed beds like sunfish such as the bluegill. The spotted sunfish is rather drab, olive green to brown with distinct black or reddish spots, compared to other sunfish.
Other names for the spotted sunfish include “bank bream” and “stumpknocker” because of the way they stand solitary guard duty around stumps, logs, standing trees and cypress knees. Most anglers who catch one think it is merely another sunfish to lump into the generic fish basket. They may also think it is not a distinct species, but a hybrid.
Thanks to Elijah Crabtree, 12-year-old seventh grader at Bladenboro Middle School, the spotted sunfish has finally earned the place of respect it deserves as one of the state’s native freshwater fish. On June 25, he caught a 7.7-ounce spotted sunfish that established a new category for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission’s state-record fish list as well as setting the first state record for the species.
“We were in two kayaks and it was about 20 feet from the bank the boat ramp where we launched our boats,” Crabtree said. “I caught it on the second or third cast and knew it was a spotted sunfish. My father and sister were fishing from the bank. When we went back to the house it weighed 8 ounces.”
He knew it was a spotted sunfish because he and his father, Kevin Crabtree, had been fishing out of the same kayaks in the same area of Big Swamp, a tributary to the Lumber River, back in May. They caught one at that time, but did not know the fish’s identity so it aroused their curiosity.
“We started fishing in the spring and targeted sunfish,” said Kevin Crabtree, a N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission Hunter Education Coordinator from Bladenboro. “When I caught a spotted sunfish, I did some research and looked at some photos online. I sent pictures to other people I know who are good anglers and some of them called it a bank bream. I had also taken a 1.5-pound redbreast sunfish to a taxidermist for mounting and he looked at one of the photos called it a stumpknocker. I thought it might have been a hybrid between a bluegill and a flier.”
When he sent some images to NCWRC District 4 Fisheries Biologist, Michael Fisk, he confirmed it was a spotted sunfish. Fisk also said that if he or Elijah caught another, larger one, he would start the process of establishing a new state record category for the fish.
Elijah was casting a green Beetlespin on an ultra-light rod with a Zebco close-faced, under-spin reel filled with 4-pound monofilament when he caught the larger spotted sunfish he wanted on June 25. They kept it on ice inside a cooler for three days before weighing it on certified scales at Southern Peanut Company in Dublin. They also arranged to have it examined by Fisk, who confirmed its species. The fish may have lost a little weight after sitting in a cooler for so long, but it was still large enough to become the first state record stumpknocker.
“There’s a good possibility it will be mounted,” Kevin Crabtree said. “I have caught smaller ones that were 4 or 5 inches long, but nothing nearly as big.”
“I have caught a 15-pound channel cat, a 10-pound blackfish, a 7-pound largemouth bass and a 4-pound chain pickerel,” Elijah Crabtree said. “I go fishing every chance I get. When I caught the state record spotted sunfish, my teachers got excited and my friends were asking a lot of questions.”