Gateway to the Classics: Fish Study by Anna Botsford Comstock
Fish Study by  Anna Botsford Comstock


The sunfish likes quiet waters for nesting.

The Sunfish

Teacher's Story

dropcap image HIS little disc of gay color has won many popular names. It is called pumpkin seed, tobacco box and sunfish because of its shape, and it is also called bream and pondfish. I have always wondered that it was not called chieftain also, for when it raises its dorsal fin with its saw crest of spines, it looks like the head-dress of an Indian chief; and surely no warrior ever had a greater enjoyment in a battle than does this indomitable little fish.

The sunfish lives in the eddies of our clear brooks and ponds. It is a near relative to the rock bass and also of the black bass and it has, according to its size, just as gamey qualities as the latter. I once had a sunfish on my line which made me think I had caught a bass and I do not know whether I or the mad little pumpkin seed was the most disgusted when I discovered the truth. I threw him back in the water but his fighting spirit was up, and he grabbed my hook again within five minutes, which showed that he had more courage than wisdom; it would have served him right if I had fried him in a pan, but I never could make up my mind to kill a fish for the sake of one mouthful of food.

Perhaps of all its names, "pumpkin seed" is the most graphic, for it resembles this seed in the outlines of its body when seen from the side. Looked at from above, it has the shape of a powerful craft with smooth, rounded nose and gently swelling and tapering sides; it is widest at the eyes and this is a canny arrangement, for these great eyes turn alertly in every direction; and thus placed they are able to discern the enemy or the dinner coming from any quarter.

The dorsal fin is a most militant looking organ. It consists of ten spines, the hind one closely joined to the hind dorsal fin, which is supported by the soft rays. The three front spines rise successively, one above another and all are united by the membrane, the upper edge of which is deeply toothed. The hind dorsal fin is gracefully rounded and the front and hind fin work independently of each other, the latter often winnowing the water when the former is laid flat. The tail is strong and has a notch in the end; the anal fin has three spines on its front edge and ten soft rays. Each ventral fin also has a spine at the front edge and is placed below and slightly behind the pectorals. The pectoral fins, I have often thought, were the most exquisite and gauzelike in texture of any fins I have ever seen; they are kept almost constantly in motion and move in such graceful flowing undulations that it is a joy to look at them.


The pumpkin seed, the most common sunfish.

The eye of the sunfish is very large and quite prominent; the large black pupil is surrounded by an iris that has shining lavender and bronze in it, but is more or less clouded above; the young ones have a pale silver iris. The eyes move in every direction and are eager and alert in their expression. The mouth is at the front of the body but it opens upward. The gill opening is prolonged backward at the upper corner, making an earlike flap; this, of course, has nothing to do with the fish's ears, but it is highly ornamental as it is greenish-black in color, bordered by iridescent, pale green, with a brilliant orange spot on its hind edge. The colors of the sunfish are too varied for description and too beautiful to reduce to mere words. There are dark, dull, greenish or purplish cross-bands worked out in patterns of scale-mosaic, and between them are bands of pale iridescent-green, set with black-edged orange spots. But just as we have described his colors our sunfish darts off and all sorts of shimmering, shining blue, green and purple tints play over his body and he settles down into another corner of the aquarium and his colors seem much paler and we have to describe him over again. The body below is brassy-yellow.


Male of the sunfish guarding his nest.

The beautiful colors which the male sunfish dons in spring, he puts at once to practical use. Professor Reighard says that when courting and trying to persuade his chosen one to come to his nest and there deposit her eggs, he faces her, with his gill covers puffed out, the scarlet or orange spot on the ear-flap standing out bravely, and his black ventral fins spread wide to show off their patent-leather finish. Thus, does he display himself before her and persuade her; but he is rarely allowed to do this in peace. Other males as brilliant as he arrive on the scene and he must forsooth stop parading before his lady love in order to fight his rival, and he fights with as much display of color as he courts. But in the sunfish duel the participants do not seek to destroy each other but to mutilate spitefully each other's fins. The vanquished one with his fins all torn retires from the field. Professor Gill says: "Meanwhile the male has selected a spot in very shallow water near the shore, and generally in a mass of aquatic vegetation, not too large or close together to entirely exclude the light and heat of the sun, and mostly under an over-hanging plant. The choice is apt to be in some general strip of shallow water close by the shore which is favored by many others so that a number of similar nests may be found close together, although never encroaching on each other. Each fish slightly excavates and makes a saucer-like basin in the chosen area which is carefully cleared of all pebbles. Such are removed by violent jerks of the caudal fin or are taken up by the mouth and carried to the circular boundary of the nest. An area of fine, clean sand or gravel is generally the result, but not infrequently, according to Dr. Reighard, the nest bottom is composed of the rootlets of water plants. The nest has a diameter of about twice the length of the fish."

On the nest thus formed, the sunfish belle is invited to deposit her eggs, which as soon as laid fall to the bottom and become attached to the gravel at the bottom of the nest by the viscid substance which surrounds them. Her duty is then done and she departs, leaving the master in charge of his home and the eggs. If truth be told, he is not a strict monogamist. Professor Reighard noticed one of these males which reared in one nest two broods laid at quite different times by two females. For about a week, depending upon the temperature, the male is absorbed in his care of the eggs and defends his nest with much ferocity, but after the eggs have hatched he considers his duty done and lets his progeny take care of themselves as best they may.

Sunfish are easily taken care of in an aquarium, but each should be kept by himself as they are likely to attack any smaller fish and are most uncomfortable neighbors. I have kept one of these beautiful, shimmering pumpkin seeds for nearly a year, by feeding him every alternate day with an earthworm; these unfortunate creatures are kept stored in damp soil in an iron kettle during the winter. When I threw one of them into the aquarium he would seize it and shake it as a terrier shakes a rat; but this was perhaps to make sure of his hold. Once he attempted to take the second worm directly after the first; but it was a doubtful proceeding, and the worm reappeared as often as a prima donna, waving each time a frenzied farewell to the world.

Lesson XLI

The Sunfish

Leading thought—The pumpkin seeds are very gamey little fishes which seize the hook with much fierceness. They live in the still waters of our streams or in ponds and build nests in the spring, in which the eggs are laid and which they defend valiantly.

Method—The common pumpkin seed in the jar aquarium is all that is necessary for this lesson. However, it will add much to the interest of the lesson if the boys who have fished for pumpkin seeds will tell of their experiences. The children should be stimulated by this lesson to a keen interest in the nesting habits of the sunfishes.


1. Where are the sunfish found? How do they act when they take the hook?

2. What is the general shape of the sunfish's body as seen from above? As seen from the side? Why is it called pumpkin seed?

3. Describe the dorsal fin. How many spines has it? How many soft rays? What is the difference in appearance between the front and hind dorsal fin? Do the two act together or separately? Describe the tail fin. Describe the anal fin. Has it any spines? If so, where are they? Where are the ventral fins in relation to the pectorals? What is there peculiar about the appearance and movements of the pectoral fins?

4. Describe the eye of the sunfish. Is it large or small? Is it placed so that the fish can see on each side? Does the eye move in all directions?

5. Describe the position of the mouth. In which direction does it open?

6. What is the color of the upper portion of the gill opening or operculum? What is the general color of the sunfish? Above? Below? Along the sides? What markings do you see?

7. Where does the sunfish make its nest? Does the father or mother sunfish make the nest? Do one or both protect it? Describe the nest.

8. How many names do you know for the sunfish? Describe the actions of your sunfish in the aquarium. How does he act when eating an earthworm?

Supplementary reading—Chapters XXX, XXXVI, in Fish Stories, Jordan and Holder.

"The lamprey is not a fish at all, only a wicked imitation of one which can deceive nobody. But there are fishes which are unquestionably fish—fish from gills to tail, from head to fin, and of these the little sunfish may stand first. He comes up the brook in the spring, fresh as "coin just from the mint," finny arms and legs wide spread, his gills moving, his mouth opening and shutting rhythmically, his tail wide spread, and ready for any sudden motion for which his erratic little brain may give the order. The scales of the sunfish shine with all sorts of scarlet, blue, green and purple and golden colors. There is a black spot on his head which looks like an ear, and sometimes grows out in a long black flap, which makes the imitation still closer. There are many species of the sunfish, and there may be half a dozen of them in the same brook, but that makes no difference; for our purposes they are all one.

They lie poised in the water, with all fins spread, strutting like turkey-cocks, snapping at worms and little crustaceans and insects whose only business in the brook is that the fishes may eat them. When the time comes, the sunfish makes its nest in the fine gravel, building it with some care—for a fish. When the female has laid her eggs the male stands guard until the eggs are hatched. His sharp teeth and snappish ways, and the bigness of his appearance when the fins are all displayed, keep the little fishes away. Sometimes, in his zeal, he snaps at a hook baited with a worm. He then makes a fierce fight, and the boy who holds the rod is sure that he has a real fish this time. But when the sunfish is out of the water, strung on a willow rod, and dried in the sun, the boy sees that a very little fish can make a good deal of a fuss."

—David Starr Jordan.

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