Once-in-a-Lifetime Golden Bluegill Caught in Minnesota

by Amy Myers

When a Minnesota resident went ice fishing in late December on Lindstrom Lake, he didn’t think he would find a rare golden bluegill on the other end of his line.

Terry Nelson is a frequent cold-weather angler and is no stranger to the typical bluegill that nibbles on his line. But this particular panfish had peculiar coloring that the fisherman had never seen before.

“I thought, ‘What is this? I have never seen anything like this before,’” Nelson told Newsweek, per Outdoor Life. “Then I figured it had to be a sunfish but [I’d] never seen one like this before and I have been fishing my whole life all over the place. This was a first for me.”

Before releasing the sunny swimmer, the angler snapped a photo of it. Later, Nelson heard from Minnesota’s DNR officials who told him that he had found a rare golden bluegill. According to one DNR staff member, the fish’s golden coloring is actually the result of a genetic mutation. It’s a type of “xanthic mutation, or xanthochromism,” which cause the usually dark-pigmented bluefish to appear yellow, hence the nickname, “sunfish.”

This sunfish is different from the ocean sunfish, also called the common mola. Unlike the tiny bluegill that Nelson found, the ocean sunfish is one of the two heaviest bony fish in the world. The second, the southern sunfish, is of the same genus. Their odd, oval-like shape and fake fin make them quite a spectacle. And when around human visitors, they tend to be quite friendly and curious. They also tend to stick to more tropical waters, so this was definitely not the sunfish that the Minnesota native found under the ice.

How the Golden Bluegill Gets Its Rare Coloring

The genetically-mutated sunfish has dozens of subspecies, but given the size and shape of the fish, DNR ascertained that this golden beauty that Nelson caught was, in fact, a bluegill. That said, the fish still lacked the typical markings of a bluegill. So, the best the DNR could provide was a well-educated guess.

“It’s hard to be certain because normal coloration patterns help distinguish the species and sunfish species commonly hybridize—so even normally colored fish hybrids are hard to distinguish,” said Loren Miller, a Minnesota DNR fish geneticist.

And fish aren’t the only species that experience this mutation.

“Dark pigments are suppressed, leaving the yellows additionally enhanced,” Miller continued. “This type of pigment mutation affects many fish species, as well as amphibians and reptiles. It appears to be a recessive mutation, meaning two ‘normal’ carrier parents mate and produce some double-recessive mutants.”

Oddly enough, Nelson wasn’t the only recent Minnesota angler to find a sunfish. A short drive away, fellow fisherman Rick Konakowitz found a golden crappie in Clear Lake.