Bluegills get more press, but the redear sunfish, commonly called a “shellcracker” in the South, is king of the sunfish clan. The world record, a 5-pound 7-ounce specimen, was hauled from Santee-Cooper, South Carolina. Six states boast records over 4 pounds, and two others are within ounces of that mark.
Redear originally ranged on the East Coast from Virginia south to Florida and west to southern Illinois, Missouri, and Texas. Introductions have expanded their range north and west to California, where a 5.3-pound lunker is on the books.
In their native range, shellcrackers thrive in grassy lakes with calcium-rich water, which boosts populations of mollusks, a favored prey that inspired its popular name. Equipped with molar-like teeth on their gill arches, they crush snails, mussels, and clams, digesting the soft innards and spitting out the shells. And they like other invertebrates from aquatic nymphs to shrimp and crayfish.
Though not as wide-ranging or adaptable as bluegills, redear sunfish thrive in Florida’s weedy waters, feeding on grass shrimp and snails that abound in eelgrass, water hyacinths, and other thick vegetation. In western waters, they have adapted to deep, clear impoundments on the Colorado River.
In late spring, redear sometimes cop headlines in Western Outdoor News as anglers at Lake Perris, San Vicente, Casitas, Irvine Lake, and other California reservoirs find schools of spawning fish that run from 1 to 2 1/2 pounds. California’s 5.3-pound record came from Folsom Lake.
Shellcrackers also are fine pond fish, routinely stocked with bluegills in newly built ponds across the Southeast. Ponds should be treated with lime to increase hardness, which boosts the effectiveness of inorganic fertilizers and benefits mollusk populations. Sixteen of 24 state-record redear sunfish have been caught in ponds or small impoundments, from Georgia and Mississippi north to Ohio and Indiana.
As a fishery biologist with the Georgia DNR, I was in my office one morning when an older gentleman was ushered in by our secretary. “Got a brim heah I’d like y’all to take a look at,” he stated, pointing to a cooler by the door. Such requests weren’t uncommon and line-class records for shoal bass and hybrid stripers had been certified at our station in Albany. Carrying the cooler into the lab, I cracked the lid and stepped back.
There on a bed of ice was the most incredible sunfish I’d ever seen, far larger than a dinner plate—more like a serving platter, with a red tab on its gill flap bigger than a quarter. We certified the new state record that day, caught in a Grady County pond, at 3 pounds 15 ounces. The record stood for almost 10 years, until a fish 3 ounces larger was caught in a Richmond County pond.
Fishing for Shellcracker
In Florida lakes, where shellcracker reach the peak of angler popularity in public waters, anglers typically target spawning fish. The redear spawn season starts about when bluegills also move onto beds. In Florida, this sometimes commences in March, though more typically later, when water temperatures rise into the low to mid-70°F range. Many experts use the full moon to time its onset. As with bluegills, males grow somewhat larger and sport brighter colors—bright yellow on the chest and with gold flecks along the flanks, in addition to their telltale red tab on the gill flap.
Like bluegills, they’re colonial breeders, and where big ones are abundant, boats pack into canals and bays where anglers use long poles baited with worms, grass shrimp, or crickets. Experts claim the ability to sniff out bedding bream, while less sophisticated anglers rely on the tried-and-true “follow the crowd” technique. In Florida lakes and similar waters like Lake Seminole on the Georgia-Florida border, colonies can be huge, often filling generous limits (50 fish a day in some cases).
Grass shrimp thrive in eelgrass beds and anglers can dip a bucketful before heading to a favorite spot. Sweep a fine-mesh, long-handled nets through the water between the bottom and the top of eelgrass stalks. Store the little critters in a cool, aerated tank. To keep them lively, use fine-wire #8 or #6 hooks inserted at the junction of carapace and tail.
In other areas, redworms are effective and popular. Carefully threading a thin hook in and out of the worm allows it to wiggle, while upping the odds of hooking a nibbling fish. Crickets also work well, especially where anglers fish for both bluegill and redear.
Baits may be delicate, but tackle needn’t be. In most waters, cane poles called “brim busters,” in some parts, outnumber graphite editions, though 2- and 3-piece poles offer storage advantages. Because redear in vegetated lakes and reservoirs often spawn around maidencane, water hyacinths, alligator weed, and other thick vegetation, 8- or 10-pound-test mono is a good choice. For pond fishing lighter gear works fine.
Because of their preference for mollusks, redear tend to feed on the bottom. Unlike bluegill, they don’t bother with open-water plankton and generally don’t pluck terrestrial insects from the surface. To target them, rigs should place livebaits on or just above bottom.
Tightline fishing works well in close quarters, but floats allow you to spread baits and cover more water. And in clear waters with sparse cover, you must stay back from the fish, so casting is more effective. Slipfloats make great strike indicators, but the bait should be set on bottom, not suspended. Forego the usual bobber stop and let the line, weighted with just the hooked bait and a small shot or two, slide to the bottom. Gently tighten the line to the float, while maintaining bottom contact with the weight.
Using a tall, thin float, the two opposing forces cock it at about a 45-degree angle in shallow water as you slowly pull it across a flat. That angle indicates the shot are easing along the bottom, perhaps kicking up a bit of silt, with the bait close behind. To probe deeper areas use a bottom rig—just a couple of shot set 5 or 6 inches above the bait. Cast and work it slowly along bottom.
Most anglers rely solely on livebait for redear, but some of my biggest fish have come casting artificials, particularly during the Prespawn Period when fish hold offshore. Though they’re not known to eat fish, and despite their tiny mouths, small crankbaits turn on big shellcracker.
Beetlespins and Roadrunnners retrieved over humps and shoreline breaks and parallel to emergent vegetation take big fish, too. Berkley Gulp! Alive! baits work well for redears, particularly the 2-inch Fish Fry, 3-inch Leech, Maggot, and Angle Worm. Redear rely on sense of smell more than sight-oriented bluegills do, so the attractive scents from Gulp! call them in like livebait when they’re bedding or feeding on invertebrates.
As spring rolls across the nation, redear season looms, greatly anticipated by those who’ve mastered the code of the ‘cracker. For anglers who haven’t learned to locate these marvelous panfish, just follow your nose as old-timers do, or else follow those with well-educated noses. It’s big-time action for big sunfish—great sport and great eating, a common connection to all things panfish.