Finding Giant Shellcracker Sunfish
June 28, 2017
Growing up fishing the Upper Midwest, redear sunfish were one of those "other" panfish, like fliers or Sacramento perch. They had a certain mystique because their range was outside our fishing area. Plus, they grew larger than bluegills and pumpkinseeds and had a cool nickname — shellcracker.
The shellcracker name seemed more fitting for a saltwater species like sheepshead than a sunfish. Then again, these weren't your typical "pan-size" sunfish. Adding to the lore was the conventional wisdom of fishing the full-moon phase in spring for the best shot at a trophy fish. Again, this was more reminiscent of saltwater fishing for marlin than pursuing panfish.
Hearing stories during the 1990s of bruiser redears topping 2 to 3 pounds caught from the Diversion Canal of South Carolina's Santee-Cooper lake was mind-boggling. In the Midwest, a 10-inch bluegill was and still is a much coveted fish. Then in 1998, Amos Gay caught the world-record 5-pound 7-ounce redear from Santee-Cooper. The iconic photo of Gay posing with that freakishly large sunfish would become etched in the minds of a generation of panfish anglers.
South Carolina was a long way from home and I never chased that redear dream during the glory days at Santee-Cooper. The passion to catch a trophy-size redear never faded, however, and finally brought me to Lake Havasu last year. The wait was well worth it, and my time on the water helped to confirm my previously gathered redear data and develop several new successful tactics for reservoir redears.
Quest for Havasu Giants
On the border between California and Arizona, Lake Havasu stretches more than 40 miles from Topock to the Parker Dam, which forms this large impoundment of the Colorado River. Cool, clear waters support an excellent striped bass fishery, along with largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, channel catfish, and world-record redears. Record-class redears have been caught here on a recurring basis. An enormous 5-pound 8.8-ounce specimen was caught in 2011, only to be topped in 2014 by a 5-pound 12.8-ouncer, the current world record. More fish of nearly this caliber also are showing up throughout other southern California reservoirs, and local anglers surmise that 6-pound-plus redears exist in Havasu.
My goal at Havasu was a 3-pounder or better. Realistically, anything in the mid-2-pound range would have sufficed. While the ultra-clear waters of Havasu don't give up trophies easily, it certainly didn't disappoint by trip's end.
Joining me was Chris Salmon, a panfish aficionado with extensive knowledge of fishing reservoirs throughout his home state of California and elsewhere. Salmon is also the owner of and chief lure designer for Slab Jiggies. Knowing he'd prefer to use his own company's tackle, I brought along a variety of other jigs, spoons, and plastics. Fishing a wide assortment of gear and using multiple techniques helped increase our success and broaden our knowledge of reservoir redears.
To start, an examination of the anatomy and feeding habits of redears helped us focus on how and where to fish. Redears feed primarily on mollusks, such as snails, clams, and mussels. With molar-like teeth on the gill arches at the back of their mouths, they crush and expel the hard shells of these prey while consuming the soft insides. They feed primarily near the bottom or around aquatic vegetation that supports snails, grass shrimp, and insect larvae. They tend not to feed in open water or divulge their location with surface-feeding activity.
Havasu has the best of both worlds for growing these mollusk eaters. Its endless coves are lined with reed-like tules. These tule fields support large snail populations and provide cover for nesting fish. Also, quagga mussels were discovered in the lake in 2007 and have spread throughout the system. To gain a sense of how prolific quagga mussels are, an adult quagga can produce upward of a million larvae in a year. They can gather in densities of more than 40,000 mussels per square meter on the lake's bottom. This has created a seemingly unending food supply for redears.
We started our search at the easiest and most obvious places — the backs of sheltered bays where spawning fish were guarding their nests. When we found the right bays, it was like looking at the surface of the moon. Crater after crater greeted us, with one or two redears making tight circles in each disc-shaped depression as they guarded their turf.
These complexes of beds, situated in less than 4 feet of water, were easy to spot in clear water. This also made redears skittish. Accordingly, we used a stealthy approach of anchoring a long-cast distance from the fish and targeting the closest fish first, before proceeding farther into the complex of beds. Initially, the most aggressive fish would race out to engulf any offering tossed into the area. But, their eagerness quickly waned and the task of fooling individual fish began. Unlike bluegills that have a relatively short memory after being displaced or harassed on their beds, the redears seemed to remain disturbed longer. If they vacated their beds, they wouldn't return for a significant period of time.
Salmon quickly realized that larger redears were particularly aware of the drop speed of baits and preferred a slow fall. In the area we fished, less than 4 feet deep, the fall rate of a 1/32-ounce Slab Jiggies Buggie Jiggie was ideal. The Buggie Jiggie's living rubber wiggling appendages offered added attraction as it fell past the face of agitated redears. The feeding habits of redears are driven by scent, and we found that a piece of nightcrawler or scented baits like Berkley Gulp! or PowerBait provided a boost in catch-rate.
Into the Jungle
We discovered that larger fish favored deeper water in every setting we found them. Most shallow bedding redears, ranged from 1/2 to 11â„2 pounds. Not bad, but not a trophy in anyone's book. To locate bigger fish, we needed to explore areas that were less-obvious and more difficult to access.
We moved out off shallow flats and focused on edges and openings within massive tule fields. In depths of 6 to 10 feet, this vegetation supported more redears in the 11â„2- to 21â„2-pound range. They were either stationed at the base of reeds and in the early stage of making beds or cruising near the bottom in search of food. The farther we got into the jungle of tules, the bigger the redears got.
Short rods helped for precisely pitching jigs into tight pockets and lanes within the tule fields. I opted for a 6-foot 3-inch 13 Fishing Muse Gold ML fast-action rod and Pflueger President LE 25X spinning reel spooled with 4-pound-test Sufix NanoBraid, which withstood the punishment of being rubbed against tule stalks by jumbo out-of-control redears.
A 3-foot fluorocarbon leader was added for stealth.
Buggie Jiggies were again the top lure choices, along with 1/32-ounce Mr. Derk's Tackle Bunny Jigs. Designed primarily for steelhead, Bunny Jigs, with natural rabbit hair construction, offered added bulk and breathing action. They fish large for their weight and retain their form better than marabou in the water, parachuting down at a slower fall rate. Larger redears responded to these differences in presentation.
Wow Factor Deep
Fish topped out at close to 3 pounds in the tules. That put us within our target size range, but below the upper echelon of western-reservoir redears. For the balance of the trip, we swung for the fences in deep water and wound up hitting grand slam after grand slam. Focusing on deep contours in the 25- to 35-foot range, we targeted feeding fish that had yet to move shallow to spawn. We located redears from 2 to 4 pounds on main-lake points that offered easy transition routes for fish moving on and off structure where quagga mussels were present. These were primarily pods of cruising fish that weren't relating to any particular structure. Fish were fewer but the "wow" factor made up for it.
To target deep redears, my initial search lures were small sinking rattlebaits like the Rapala #4 Rippin' Rap and Dynamic Lure's HD Ice. Redears ignored larger baits. I worked lures parallel to points, kept rod sweeps short, and allowed baits to contact and periodically rest on the bottom. Bites came on the pull, as well as when lures were stationary. Redears were less inclined to chase baits than bluegills. When we pinpointed the depth of redears, we used spoons and jigs to entice them.
Appealing to the redear's senses of smell, sight, and hearing, we used rattle spoons with modifications. First, the rear treble hook and split ring were removed from compact rattle spoons like the Acme Rattle Master, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, and VMC Rattle Spoon. Then a 2-inch length of 12-pound monofilament was snelled to a #6 Eagle Claw Aberdeen hook and attached to the rear of the spoon, with two 1-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Floating Pinch Crawlers threaded on the hook. The spoon provided flash on the fall and noise as it was hopped and dragged across the bottom. The Gulp! Pinch Crawlers added scent and a slight buoyancy to the hook. The light wire Aberdeen hook also helped save snagged lures by straightening slightly after being lodged in mussels or rocks.
To detect light bites in 25 feet or more of water, concentration and ultra-sensitive equipment was required, including superline (no stretch provides sensitivity) and an 8-foot leader of 4-pound-test fluorocarbon to go undetected in the clear water. A long fast-action rod helped pick up slack line on the strike and provided cushion when fighting big fish on light line. My rod of choice was a 13 Fishing Envy Black 7-foot 2-inch ML finesse rod, while Salmon used a 6-foot Phenix Iron Feather rod. Quality rods were among the most important components to our success in feeling light bites in deep water.
Few bites came on the initial drop of the spoon. Most times, it needed to be popped several times a few inches off the bottom to get the attention of redears, then allowed to rest for up to a minute or more. We patiently watched the line for any minor hop or tap that signaled a bite. If there wasn't a bite, we dragged the spoon a few feet and twitched the rod tip to impart a rocking action to the spoon, again patiently waiting for a bite.
While 4-pound Sufix NanoBraid was perfect for working search lures and spoons in deep water, our catch-rate suffered using braid with light jigs. Instead, running monofilament with a 1/16-ounce Buggie Jiggie or Mr. Derk's Marabou Jig and a half 'crawler offered a fall rate preferred by trophy redears. We also got more bites on 2-pound mono than 4-pound. The light line created anxious moments doing battle with sumo-sized redears as they pushed tackle to the max. After the slightest tick as they breathed in the bait, the biggest redears would immediately swim around bottom obstructions or rub their heads on mussels to cut the line.
After waiting more than 20 years to battle trophy redears, the experience of catching a 4-pound sunfish was surreal. Even sweeter was releasing each trophy fish with the hope of returning to catch them again as a world record. These are the things of which panfish dreams are made.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan of the Chicago area travels extensively in search of the largest specimens of a variety of gamefish.