Which Type of Bass and Bluegill are for you?

A question we often get on the Pond Boss Forum is, “Should I “Go Florida”? In other words, should I stock Coppernose Bluegill and Florida Bass or go with their northern/native counterparts “regular” Bluegill and Northern Largemouth Bass. To answer that question, you should look at the traits and use fish that work best for the particular goals for your water…and where you live.

As we all know, traits come from genetics. You might ask why is there a difference in the genetics of Coppernose vs. “regular” native strains of Bluegill and Florida vs. Northern Bass? Well, it started a long time ago and it took a long time to get there. Here is the basic story.

A healthy mixed-pool of sunfish collected in a sport fishing lake. Some bluegills in this photo are native strains, but you can see distinct vertical markings of young coppernose, too. Notice the redear sunfish in the middle of the photo, and a hybrid immediately to its right.

Millions of years ago peninsular Florida was, like it is today, connected to the mainland. Bluegill and bass were present all over the eastern United States. Sea level rose and peninsular Florida was cut off from the mainland for a long time, allowing two separate populations develop into different strains. Bluegill and bass on both the mainland and peninsula continued to evolve separately, each influenced by local conditions and climate, with a divergence time of roughly 2-3 million years. After a few million years of this separate path, sea level fell and the two land masses were connected again. However, the two bluegill and bass sub-species were now a little different genetically. Rivers and lakes were reconnected and the two subspecies migrated and integrated in a zone along the deep southeast where the two sub-species mixed. Surely, as a pond owner you have heard this bass and bluegill story.

Coppernose Bluegill and Florida Bass grow bigger under the right circumstances but do not necessarily flourish in colder climates. In fact, they are susceptible to poor results and substantial winter kill in regions parallel and north of I-40. As we study these different gene pools and effects of climate, we are seeing some influence of Florida genetics in healthy northern ponds which develop significant ice cover that insulates those waters from rapid temperature fluctuation. Florida Bass (at least the females) get bigger but do not bite as readily.

So, how do you tell the differences between Coppernose and regular Bluegill?

Take a look at the pictures included.

The Coppernose has:

  • A copper band across the head/nose in adult males
  • Fewer and wider vertical bars,
  • Orangish/red fin margins and tail coloration
  • 12 anal fin rays and often light/white fin edges most visible when young.

Prime example of pure strain coppernose bluegill sunfish.

Pure strain coppernose bluegill. Notice the lavender color above the copper band on its nose, and the orangish-color fins and tail.

A close-up of a male Coppernose bluegill, facial colors and black-tipped scales.

Regular Bluegill have:

  • 11 anal fin rays
  • None of the other traits mentioned.
  • Tails and fins often exude an iridescent light-bluish tinge.

How do they compare, you might ask? Here are some points from a study (1) on the subject, looking at growth (size at age), survival and catchability.

Coppernose Bluegill were significantly larger than Native Bluegill in all scenarios tested with the largest observed difference being 19.2 mm total length (.756 inch) and 33.5 grams (1.18 ounces) over 2 years. At 3 years there was a 16 mm (.63 inch) difference on average and at 4 years 24 mm (.945 inch). With other fish species present there was no difference in angling vulnerability (catchability) between the types. Spawning activity of the brooders began at the same time (last week of Feb in 1995 and first week of March in 1997) and produced the same size offspring for tagging at the same time each year ( mid-April) in what appeared to be similar numbers. Survival of young of the year Coppernose was substantially greater than for Native Bluegill.

Before you draw too many conclusions, note this was in Texas where the weather is close to that of the Coppernose’s native range in the southeastern United States. That is a critical key to success with Coppernose. While there is an often cited study (2) that states Coppernose and Native Bluegill have similar cold tolerances the key is the test was done on bluegill all from the same area (Texas). Its purpose was to determine if Coppernose could survive the Texas climate. There is substantial observed and anecdotal evidence that Coppernose do not do well in cold climates (north of I-40 +-). In the far northern U.S. Coppernose become subject to high winterkill rates. This would be consistent with their similar relationship to Florida Largemouth Bass which have repeatedly been tested to do poorly and die in cold climates. The study first cited above was also in ponds with no supplemental feeding.

Reported scientific evidence is substantial that in ponds, the most common cause of reduced growth is a shortage of food. It is not known how much, if any, of the early growth difference between the two sub-species was due to limited forage. The two sub-species will integrate (inter-breed) with the offspring exhibiting mixed traits and no apparent negatives but there is very little published data on them.

While this fish exhibits some of the traits of coppernose, it’s actually a cross. No profound copper or orange color fins, and a light copper-colored band across its nose.

So the answer to the question, “Should I stock Coppernose Bluegill or Regular (native) Bluegill or both?” is – it depends. Your location (climate) and goals are key factors. If you are in the Deep South or the Southwest (including Southern California) and not at high elevation (Appalachian, Rocky or Sierra Mountains) Coppernose should be considered. Is your temperature profile similar to those areas? To some extent, management practices and the existing bluegill population, if any, are also possible factors. Whichever type you choose keep in mind that the most important factor to growing nice bluegill is to be sure they have enough food to eat and not too much competition.

As to whether to choose Florida or Northern Bass, there is more information available and the existence of another hatchery-reared choice F-1 Bass (a Northern/Florida cross – sometimes called a Tiger Bass). In my opinion the only practical way to tell the difference between the three available choices is by genetic test. It is very hard to positively identify the differences by sight. There is, however, a substantial amount of information on how each of the three types perform in different climates and under certain conditions. The evidence is clear that if you have a northern location then you can forget about using Florida Bass. They seem to be even less cold tolerant than Coppernose Bluegill. There are other differences as well. Florida Bass females get bigger than Northern Bass but the Florida Bass males are small. If you are in the south and want trophy sized bass then Florida Bass genetics are the way to go. However, evidence suggests Florida Bass are much less apt to be caught by fishing. That is they have a low tendency to bite. So if you want high catch rates then add some northern genes to the mix. Florida/northern crosses (F-1s and FXs) are a good southern choice for both catchability and size but do research on the hatcheries you consider buying from as all are not equal. I have not seen any evidence on the results of F-1 Bass in northern climates. My guess is the further north you go the less well they do. Another southern option is using some of all three Bass types to try and cover all genetic bases.
I hope this information helps you make the best choice for your waters and your goals. There is much more on this and many other topics on the Pond Boss Forum and in Pond Boss magazine (subscribe today!). 



(1) "Performance Comparison between Coppernose and Native Texas Bluegill Populations" by John A. Prentice and J. Warren Schlechte in the 2000 Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Vol. 54 at pgs. 196-206 

(2) "Cold Tolerance in Two Subspecies of Bluegill" by A. J. Sonski, K. E. Kulzer, and J. A. Prentice, in the 1988 Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Southeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Vol. 42 at pgs. 120-127, 

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