King Of The Panfish: Fishing For Redear Sunfish (Shellcracker)

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INTRO......

Hello again gentlemen!....and the probably 4 or so ladies on the forum! In the middle of getting ready to follow up my lessons on trophy bass fishing, I realized I had forgot about the lot of you guys out there who fish for other species. There is actually a pretty surprising number of people who enjoy fishing for panfish and trout than I thought, particularly for big bluegills, shellcracker, redbreast sunfish (or redbellies depending on who you ask), perch and rainbow trout. So, before I continue with the bass lesson, I figured I would fire off a couple short threads off the top pf my head for those who aren't really looking to catch the ever so popular green fish everyone is always after. Here is a quick guide to targeting the king of the sunfish family, the Redear Sunfish...

ALL ABOUT SHELLCRACKER....

Also known as Yellow Bream, Golden Bream, Stumpknockers, Sunfish, Sunnies, and most commonly shellcrackers, The redear sunfish is a very popular panfish species among southern anglers. They are plentiful, easy to catch, easy to find, agressive and will readily take both natural and artificial baits. They also happen to be the largest of the sunfish family, averaging over half a pound, with the world record being over 5lbs (yes, I did just say somebody caught a 5 pound BREAM) with fish over a pound actually not being very hard to come by and even a 2 pounder isn't a rare catch.

They are eager biters normally, widely available, they put up a pretty scrappy fight on an ultralight or fly rod and are tough customers on light line partly due to their shape, size and agressive behavior, and they are considered excellent table fare by most folks, producing thick and tasty fillets with a rather mild flavor. (I like em battered and fried with cajun seasoning and a squeeze of lemon myself) A bright red spot on the gill flap sets them apart from the other members of the sunfish family. They are also less round and plate shaped than other sunfish.

Normally featuring variable speckles and markings down the sides, an olive green back and a bright yellow belly, these fish arent hard on the eyes either. They spawn in the spring time normally in shallow, sandy or slightly mucky bottoms. Spawning often takes place a little earlier than bluegill, mostly around the two moons in march, but if a cold front comes through it will push them into the last full moon in march and the first one in april. Unlike bluegill, these are true warmwater fish and they have a zero tolerance policy for cold water and seldom feed in temperatures below 45 degrees.

Think of shellcracker vs bluegill in the same way as you would largemouth vs smallmouth bass. Cold water or otherwise unfavorable conditions shut largemouth down normally. On the other hand, the worse the conditions get, the happier smallmouth and spotted bass are, and they don't care how cold it gets. These fish tend to spawn and live in water a little deeper than other sunfish and often prefer protected bays and flats with some deep water access nearby.

You can find them bedding by just following your nose this time of year, as they leave a kind of fishy smelling scent in the air. Males have a larger and wider ear flap than females on the gill plate. They commonly bed at 3-7ft depending on water clarity and envioronmental conditions.
They produce less offspring than other sunfish species so it's harder for them to become stunted than others and they grow to bigger sizes faster than other sunfish species as well.

Like bluegill, these sunfish spawn in "colonies" or groups of fish. Males turn very dark, even almost black in color, and they dig out a bed. They appear as bright round spots on an otherwise dark bottom and are called "elephant footprints" by many. Hybridization with bluegill, green sunfish, longear sunfish, and pumpkinseeds are fairly common, so don't be surprised if you catch an odd looking shellcracker here or there. The red ear flap is still present on most hybrids. Spawning occurs mostly in late spring and early summer when the water is in the high 60 range and some will linger on into the 70 range. By the time the bass are in post spawn, your shellcracker are on bed. Some bluegill colonies may be bedding in shallower water too, but they're normally not bedding along with shellcracker and their bedding sites are separate.

In both species, the male is the one who guards the eggs. For this reason it's actually more acceptable to keep females over males. Females carry less eggs than other sunfish species, but they are still sunfish and are in large numbers usually but because bedding success after eggs are laid is dependent on the male, it has been decided by fisheries biologists and panfish experts that the larger males are vital to the species. If you catch a big dark one, especially off a bed, let him go. Keeping a 12 incher isn't such a bad thing post spawn, due to the rapid growth of this species in comparison to other sunfish. They are also longer lived with a lifespan of up to 8-10 years.

These fish are bottom feeders mostly, but will sometimes come to the surface and grab insects with a diet of invertabrates like worms, insects, mollusks, freshwater shrimp, small crayfish and tons of snails, hence the name "shellcracker" as they are lovingly reffered to.

They can be seen scouring the bottom tailing like redfish feeding on crabs or sheepshead on dock pilings as they feed in a very similar way. Like the two inshore saltwater species, they have teeth in the backs of their throats that help them feed on crustaceans like grass shrimp and other food items with a rough exterior.

WHERE TO FIND SHELLCRACKER....

Like many other sunfish species, shellcracker prefer clear and weedy waters with a sandy bottom. They don't like current very much and can be found in the slower pools and sloughs of rivers and creeks as well as lakes and large ponds. Stumps roots, logs and weed beds are all favorite hangouts for them. They prefer shade and can be caught in much deeper water than other panfish.
Sometimes what you think is a school of crappies in 20-35 feet of water is actually a school of big shellcracker. Native to the southeast, they have been stocked across the country to a few southwest and northwestern states. They do favor larger lakes and reservoirs but can be found in just about any small lake, pond, river, stream, and creek in the state and can even be found in brackish waters on the coast being that they are more tolerant of salinity than most sunfish.

SHELLCRACKER FISHING FACTS...

These scrappy panfish are not as easy to catch as other sunfish species and can be a real challenge. They are less inclined to take artificial baits, but can be taken on many live baits. They will still strike artificial baits but less of them work than on other species, being that redear sunfish are bottom feeders and less inclined to chase lures or rise to the surface.

The majority of redear sunfish are caught during the spawn. Much like crappie, it seems everyone is filling a bucket with them during the spawn and then loses track of them the entire rest of the year once they move into deeper water, only catching one here and there by chance unless they're an active pursuer of the species. Anglers who know where the deep shell beds are can stay on fish almost year round.

Like mentioned earlier, they are true warm water fish and prefer temperatures in the mid 70 range. When the water is too hot in the summer for other species like bass or striper, some warm or "hot" water fish like Flathead catfish (who prefer lots of current and water temperatures in the low to mid 80 range believe it or not) and shellcracker may still be very active and willing to bite. This can save you an unproductive fishing trip or two. Can't catch any bass or anything else and just want to catch a fish? Break out the ultralight and catch some big redears.

Grass shrimp are a top shellcracker bait and are commonly overlooked. Many don't even know freshwater shrimp exist. Old timey bait shops used to sell them as well as Leeches, catalpa worms and grubs. You can find grass shrimp with a dip net by picking through clumps of hyacinth weeds.

When it comes to growth comparison, it takes up to 9 years to grow a 10 inch, 1 pound bluegill on average in most waters across the country. When it comes to shellcracker however, a 10 inch, 1lb fish is normally no older than 5 years old. On a well managed lake with an ample food supply, that same fish may be 3 years old.

Lake Havasu is considered one of the top shellcracker lakes in the country, producing several fish over 4 pounds due to the bottom content and the lake mussels that are prevalent there. It's not uncommon to catch a 3 pounder or a couple on almost any given trip.

With a 5 pounder being the world record, 5lbs, 12oz to be exact, it's believed that somewhere out there is a 6 pound behemoth of a bream swimming around waiting to be caught by some lucky angler...... Here goes hoping they realize what they have and that fish ends up in a display tank with a replica mount instead of on somebody's dinner plate.
 
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Thread starter #2
That takes care of about 3/4 of this thread. To finish, I'll get into techniques, baits and how to target these fish specifically over other panfish. Here's the heads up though - fish deep and on the bottom with worms. Most panfish tend to be shallower and feeding on the surface or mid depth. You'll catch more shellcracker baiting up and casting into the middle of the lake than you will using a bobber and a cricket on the bank outside of the spawn. That's a better technique for bluegill, pumpkinseeds and green sunfish.


Continuing on....

PROPER PANFISH GEAR......

The tackle used for chasing panfish is more limited than tackle used to fish for most other species due to their size. I recommend scaling the size down to match the fish to get the most out of your trips. You'll be surprised how hard those little fish can fight on the end of a 2lb line! I will discuss both appropriate conventional and fly fishing gear here and a few baits, flies, and lures to use...

CONVENTIONAL RODS......

You can target Panfish with just a plain line and a hook or just a cane pole if you wanted to, but being that many of you are die hard panfishers, you'll want a decent dedicated setup for these fish.

Spinning rods - most fishing for Panfish is done on ultralight to medium light power rods with a fast or xtra fast action. Very sensitive tips are necessary to feel light bites and cast tiny baits. The good part about Panfish gear is that it's cheap. Offerings anywhere from a $10 shakespeare micro light Walmart special rod to a high end Japanese import rod in the hundreds of dollars range is available to you. I highly recommend ACC crappie stix, a strike king Mr Crappie combo, or if you're a finesse bass fisherman you can just use that same rod for bream, shellcracker in particular because you'll be fishing deeper, heavier, and they get to a larger size. Rod length should be from 6ft long up to 7'6. The exception is if you're going to spider rig for them. You can use your crappie spider rigging or drifting rods for shellcracker in deep water and those rods may be from 9-12ft long.

Casting Rods - Yes, there are baitcasters for panfish! Those that are normally used for crappie fishermen make excellent reels for shellcracker. A BFS (bait-finesse) baitcaster like you'd use for bass with a small spool, typically a 30 size spool (most conventional baitcaster reels for bass are 100-150 size) should work fine. These reels excel when vertical fishing over a spinning reel because you have more direct contact with the baits and allow you to set depth more easily. Rods can be anything from light to medium.

Fly Fishing Rods - When shellcracker are shallow enough, they can be taken on flies. A 2wt-5wt setup is perfect, with 4wt being ideal. The same one you'd use for smaller stream trout will do. Floating lines are normally what you would use also, although in river fishing situations, a sink tip or intermediate line with a 3-5 ips (inches per second) sink rate may be necessary. Remember these fish don't like heavy current, so heavy sinking lines to stay down in the water aren't needed. They'll be in the back of pockets and sloughs in the shaded areas.

FISHING LINES FOR SHELLCRACKER......

For Panfish, you're free to use anything really, as long as it's within reason. They don't care if you're using monofilament, fluorocarbon, braided superlines or copolymer.

Mono/Fluoro/Copoly - These lines all work great for these fish, but being that you're after shellcracker, you'll want heavier line than you'd normally use for sunfish. Going all the way down to 2lb test will get your line broke many times. I recommend 4-10lb test, with 8lb being my comfort zone. Fluorocarbon is a great line to use as leader and in clear water with finicky fish. It's a good idea to use braid and have different sizes of flouro leader from 4-10lb test so instead of needing another spool of mainline, you just tie a new leader. Use the heavier lines for fishing in heavy cover or over rocky bottom. If you're in water that has no obstructions, back your drag down on that little ultralight and fish 2-4lb line and have a ball! I recommend Trout magnet or crappie magnet lines, izorline xxx (my favorite), stren original, sufix pro mix, and Mr Crappie Hi-Vis lines.

Braid - By far the best braid for any panfisher is Sufix Nanobraid. Tiny diameter braid in sizes small enough for Panfish and trout anglers on even the smallest reels, yet heavy enough to catch decent size predator species if needed. You will get superior castability and sensitivity with this line, but you need to use a leader.

Fly Line - As stated before, full floating and intermediate lines as well as short sink tips all work well here, but they must be small. 2-5wt with 4wt being ideal. Tippet sizes down to 7x-8x are good, but 5x gives you just enough power to not break your line on a big bull bream. Flies you'll be using will be fairly small, or downright puny, so turning over large flies isn't an issue. You'll rarely use anything bigger than a size 6 fly for these fish, and you'll have times where you may go all the way down to a size 16 on a tiny 8x tippet when they just refuse to bite anything else.
 
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Thread starter #6
You should be a guide and have a fishing show. Your always spot on
Youtube channel coming next year! I always knew I'd make my living on fish or fishing ever since my early childhood. First I wanted to be a marine biologist, then an ichthyologist, then a pro bass fisherman but those are all playing a losing game. So now I have plans to make my mark in other ways and then probably move to Florida and retire as a guide down there one day as an old man. Time to start putting in the work!
 
I live for big red ears, but they are tough to find right now (Dec-Jan). I am tying up jigs now to use this spring, when water temps start to nudge over 60F. Little hair jigs of squirrel and arctic fox, instead of feathers or marabou, work best. I have learned that tipping a small hair jig with a red wiggler or piece of night crawler is very effective, and almost eliminates gut-hooking. Also I am starting to use 2 small plastics that work like magic, but I learned from someone about them, and will let them tell you, not me. Hint: they have YouTube channels.
redear170820_1.jpg

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Thread starter #8
Thank you for this! Bluegill is my favorite fish to catch, yet I know so little about the shellcracker. Seeing as the hill has a good supply of this fish, I’ve been wanting to learn the differences between the two.
I've caught and seen some dang giant ones in Lanier and Allatoona too. Easily 2 pounders. I watched someone catch a 3 pounder on the ocmulgee river by the dam when I used to live out that way
 
Thread starter #9
I live for big red ears, but they are tough to find right now (Dec-Jan). I am tying up jigs now to use this spring, when water temps start to nudge over 60F. Little hair jigs of squirrel and arctic fox, instead of feathers or marabou, work best. I have learned that tipping a small hair jig with a red wiggler or piece of night crawler is very effective, and almost eliminates gut-hooking. Also I am starting to use 2 small plastics that work like magic, but I learned from someone about them, and will let them tell you, not me. Hint: they have YouTube channels.
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They definitely have an affinity for worms. Trout magnet jigs, spinners and mister twister micro plastics smoke em too.
 
So far you haven't told me anything I don't already know. I was hoping for some wizard-level tips. ::ke: :bounce:
 
Me? Pay? Good luck with that. Maybe when you get famous, I'll buy a t-shirt.
 
Youtube channel coming next year! I always knew I'd make my living on fish or fishing ever since my early childhood. First I wanted to be a marine biologist, then an ichthyologist, then a pro bass fisherman but those are all playing a losing game. So now I have plans to make my mark in other ways and then probably move to Florida and retire as a guide down there one day as an old man. Time to start putting in the work!
I agree shell cracker are loads of fun to catch and delicious when fried up.

Good luck breaking into fishing as a full time profession, what is your current line of work ?
 

trad bow

wooden stick slinging driveler
Target mussel beds on larger lakes for a very consistent pattern for catching shell crackers. I find them by looking at the banks for spent shells then backing off bank to find the bed. Rocks are a good place to find mussels or any other hard bottom.
 

northgeorgiasportsman

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Staff member
They also happen to be the largest of the sunfish family, averaging over half a pound, with the world record being over 5lbs (yes, I did just say somebody caught a 5 pound BREAM) with fish over a pound actually not being very hard to come by and even a 2 pounder isn't a rare catch.
Many years ago (just look at that babyfaced kid) me and dad got on a mess of shellcrackers up here in the mountains. I was trolling around a blowdown and I happened to look down into the top of it and saw masses of dark black fish. I tied up the bow of the boat into the limbs of the blowdown and we started dropping worms down to them. After getting broken off a few times on ultralights, we pulled out our bass rods and re-rigged. Before we were done, we had caught something like 76lbs of shellcrackers out of that one tree. Multiple 2 pounders and one that was 3lbs on the nose.

You can't tell here, but that thing was over 3 inches thick through much of its body.
 
So far you haven't told me anything I don't already know. I was hoping for some wizard-level tips. ::ke: :bounce:
If you'd like to see a lot of very good videos of a first rate shellcracker, bluegill, and crappie fisherman (from a down to earth guy with zero shirt patches and zero inflated ego) try this guy==> Go on YouTube and enter the words "Richard Gene the Fishing Machine". He's over in Alabama, doesn't think he's a pro, but catches a TON of fish on the same kind of waters you and I have to fish. He teaches without preaching.
He has no "production company", no loud music playing in the background, no $40,000 bass boat...no large sponsors...just a simple fisherman out of a wide aluminum boat with a 50hp on the back, and the kind of guy who doesn't mind getting his hands dirty.
His country drawl is a little much, but that doesn't matter to me.
If you haven't tried his site, give it a look. I really enjoy it and he isn't always trying to sell stuff.
(y)(y)
 

Ruger#3

🛬 RAMBLIN MOD 🛫
Staff member
Many years ago (just look at that babyfaced kid) me and dad got on a mess of shellcrackers up here in the mountains. I was trolling around a blowdown and I happened to look down into the top of it and saw masses of dark black fish. I tied up the bow of the boat into the limbs of the blowdown and we started dropping worms down to them. After getting broken off a few times on ultralights, we pulled out our bass rods and re-rigged. Before we were done, we had caught something like 76lbs of shellcrackers out of that one tree. Multiple 2 pounders and one that was 3lbs on the nose.

You can't tell here, but that thing was over 3 inches thick through much of its body.
When they get that size it’s like being hooked to a submarine. They plow around where they want to go.
 
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