HJ-ED-DHJHerald Journal Columns
July 23, 2007, Herald Journal

Sunfish not so stupid after all


We used to laugh at how stupid sunfish are. Back when my husband was a smoker, he tossed a lit cigarette butt off the edge of the dock. It sizzled in the water, and a sunfish came up and ate it.

Sunfish also are incredibly curious. If you hold still in the lake for awhile, a sunfish will come up close to you and study a mole or liver spot on your skin. It might even try to suck on it, as if there’s a possibility it’s something to eat.

Most of the sunfish that mill around our dock move slowly and stare dully into the water in front of them. The only time they move quickly is if they are startled, and then they dart a short distance away.

Sunfish also bite on bait and hooks that are impossibly large for them to swallow.

Sometimes, if you drop a line into a school of them, they will continuously bite on a baited hook and get yanked out of the water, one after another. You’d think they’d see what happens to their fellow sunfish, but they can’t seem to learn that the baited hook is dangerous. Often, it seems the same sunfish that was thrown back into the water for being too small, will bite again and again on the same hook.

My nephew recently caught a sunfish off the dock. Even though the sunfish was thrashing about, and in obvious danger, another sunfish nearby, who was probably watching and wondering what was going on, got tangled in the same line. My nephew pulled in both mental midgets at once.

It made me wonder if sunfish had even two brain cells to rub together.

As of last week, I now have a new respect for the intelligence of sunfish, though.

I was lying on a lawn chair on the dock when I saw a sunfish speeding in a beeline to the shore. I have never seen a sunfish swim that fast over a long distance. They also rarely go that close to shore. I sat up and took notice.

A loon torpedoed past me under the dock. It was chasing the sunfish underwater. The loon couldn’t follow the sunfish into the shallow water, because the loon was so much bigger.

I was impressed. The sunfish must have made some mathematical calculations that he could swim in 2-inch deep water, but an adult loon could not. The sunfish also must have known that loons are awkward on land. The loon’s legs are set so far back that by the time it climbed up on shore, the sunfish would be long gone. This shows some knowledge of ornithology.

Also, we don’t swim on the east side of the dock. That’s where the boats tie up, so the lake bottom is full of weeds. Did the sunfish remember this, and know he could hide where the loon couldn’t see him? It’s a 124-acre lake. Did the sunfish remember the topography and vegetation on the lake bottom?

That’s one smart cookie.