Man Catches Rare Golden Fish Whose Unusual Color Is Caused by Mutation

A fisherman in Minnesota has caught a sunfish with a rare genetic mutation that makes its skin golden.

Terry Nelson was fishing for sunfish and crappies on Lindstrom Lake, in Chisago County, when he snagged the completely golden fish on December 30, 2021, he told Newsweek.

Nelson was fishing in about 12 feet of water and using wax worms as bait. When he saw the creature for the first time, he couldn't believe his eyes.

"I thought, 'What is this? I have never seen anything like this before,'" Nelson told Newsweek.

"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."

Sunfish are a family of freshwater ray-finned fish, known scientifically as Centrarchidae. The group contains more than 30 species, including popular North American sport fish such as rock bass, bluegill and crappies.

The term "sunfish" is also used to refer to a genus (group of species) within this family called Lepomis, which includes the bluegill.

Nelson took a photo of the fish and released it back into the lake. He then contacted the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, who told him it was a "very rare" golden-colored sunfish, most likely a bluegill. The golden color is the result of a pigment mutation.

Loren Miller, a fish geneticist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, confirmed to Newsweek that the fish was most probably a bluegill sunfish (Lepomis macrochirus) and "certainly" a sunfish of the genus Lepomis.

"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," she said.

Bluegills are a small game fish that are characterized by a dark-blue flap at the rear of their gill cover. The body color of the bluegill varies significantly. It can be bluish or greenish, but shades of brown, orange and pink may also be found. The sides of the fish often feature several dark vertical bars.

The fish that Nelson caught, however, had no markings and was entirely golden in color—which Miller attributes to a "xanthic mutation, or xanthochromism." This is a similar condition to albinism, but involves different pigment genes.

"Dark pigments are suppressed, leaving the yellows additionally enhanced. This type of pigment mutation affects many fish species, as well as amphibians and reptiles," she explained.

"It appears to be a recessive mutation, meaning two 'normal' carrier parents mate and produce some double-recessive mutants."

This is not the only fish with xanthochromism to have been caught in Minnesota recently. In February, Rick Konakowitz snagged a completely golden crappie while ice fishing on Clear Lake.

A golden sunfish with xanthochromism
The golden sunfish with xanthochromism caught by Terry Nelson at Lindstrom Lake, Minnesota, on December 30, 2021. Terry Nelson