Monday, May 19, 2008

Shellcracker Short Course

We’re quickly approaching one of my favorite times of year—the time of year when bream are spawning. While I love catching other species, especially catfish, fishing for bream such as bluegills and redear sunfish is another much-loved pastime for this country boy. Consequently, this week is Bream Week on Catfish Gumbo, and we’ll start by discussing my favorite bream species, the redear sunfish, or shellcracker.

If bream were placed in divisions like boxers, the shellcracker would be a heavyweight contender. The largest member of its tribe, this popular sportfish delivers a knockout punch that’ll put your bobber down for the 10-count, maybe longer. It’s a George Foreman among sunfish.

Two pounds is exceptionally large for most sunfish, but some Southern lakes produce 2-pound shellcrackers with amazing regularity. Redears over 3 pounds have been reported in Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Texas, and anglers in Florida, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina have caught redears topping 4 pounds. The all-tackle world record from South Carolina tipped the scales at a whopping 5 pounds, 7 ounces!


Shellcrackers aren’t as colorful as bluegills, but they are handsome fish, nevertheless. The back shines with flashy olive-green hues, fading to silvery-green sides speckled with brown or green. A yellow wash colors the belly on most adult fish.

The “redear” name is a practical designation based on the scarlet hue tinging the gill flaps. Adult redears have black gill flaps with a reddish, crescent-shaped border. Males are more brightly colored than females and sport a bright, cherry-red border. Females and young usually have a pale orange border.

Another characteristic is the set of hard, toothlike grinders or “shellcrackers” (hence the nickname) in the throat. These allow redears to crunch the shells of the tiny mollusks that comprise most of their diet.

Although native to the southeastern U.S.—Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, Illinois and North Carolina—the shellcracker has been widely introduced elsewhere. Its range now also includes most of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, and portions of Virginia, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming.

Shellcrackers often congregate around stumps, roots, logs, standing timber and green aquatic vegetation such as water lilies, coontail and elodea. They prefer deeper water than most other sunfish and commonly are found at depths of 25 to 35 feet. Small snails, fingernail clams, worms, insect larvae and other bottom-dwelling creatures are favorite foods, but shellcrackers also eat insects and other creatures.

Shellcrackers are delectable table fare, too. Their fillets tend to be thicker than those of similar-sized bluegills, with all the flaky white tastiness that makes that species a favorite for home fish fries.

Fishing Tactics

For many anglers, challenge is the impetus for targeting shellcrackers. Bluegills and other sunnies are abundant and usually easy to catch. Shellcrackers, on the other hand, are less common in most waters and almost always demand more attention to find and coax. Therefore, to catch a shellcracker is to sprinkle spice on an angling banquet, turning the commonplace into the memorable. To use another analogy, the shellcracker is like the golden ring snatched while riding the carnival carousel—a prize that brings special jubilation when finally held in the hand.

Remember two important facts if you want to score consistently on these burly bream.

First, shellcrackers are bottom feeders. If you presenting your bait anywhere except very near or on the bottom, you’ll miss most fish. Most anglers expect to catch shellcrackers using bluegill tactics, but rarely does this work. Bottomfishing is the only way to regularly catch shellcrackers.

Second, be aware that shellcrackers are very finicky. They’re much less likely to be caught on artificial lures than other panfish, and even when fishing with live bait, you must determine the specific bait they want and the best way to present it.

Let me give an example. Recently, a friend and I were fishing for shellcrackers. We were using identical ultralight spinning outfits while bottomfishing with worms. We were fishing the same beds of spawning fish. Problem was my buddy was catching lots of shellcrackers and I wasn’t catching any.

“I can’t figure it out,” I told him. “You’re catching dozens of fish, and I can’t get a nibble. And we’re doing everything the same.”

“Not everything,” he said. “You have a split shot on the line. I don’t.”

I didn’t think the addition of a single tiny split shot could make any difference. But when I removed it from the line, I started catching fish.

Lesson? If you think you’re doing everything right, but you’re not catching fish, try changing your presentation. Even a small variation like a split shot may keep these persnickety devils from biting.

Example two was a similar situation. A buddy and I were fishing for shellcrackers on another lake. This time I was catching plenty while he came up empty-handed. Again, both of us were using the same rigs, same bait and same tackle. At first, neither of us could figure out what was wrong. Then I noticed my buddy was pinching his worms in half before hooking them.

“Use a whole worm next time,” I suggested.

“Why?” he asked.

“Just try it,” I said. “You’re pinching yours in half and I’m using a whole worm. Maybe that’s the difference.”

Sure enough, when he changed to whole worms, he started catching shellcrackers. For some reason I still don’t understand, the shellcrackers that day wouldn’t eat just half a worm. Another lesson learned: shellcrackers are fussy beyond compare, and you have to vary your presentation until you figure out exactly what they want.

Tackle and Baits

Most shellcracker aficionados use a cane pole or jigging pole, especially when fishing lily pads or other tight-knit cover. But when shellcrackers are in more open water, using ultralight spinning or spincast tackle compounds the thrills of catching them.

A small, light-action rod-and-reel combo spooled with 2- to 6-pound-test line works great. Tie on a size 10 to 6 Carlisle (cricket) hook, add a small split shot or two, bait up and then either toss the rig out on the bottom or position a small bobber so the bait rests barely above the bottom. Many shellcracker fans use a sensitive quill-type bobber that tips over the moment a shellcracker lifts a bait, making it easy to detect light bites.

The key phrase is “keep it on the bottom.” Shellcrackers root for food like miniature underwater hogs and seldom look upward for something to eat. A bait floating 12 inches off bottom won’t catch half as many fish as one dropped smack dab on the gravel.

Because shellcrackers aren’t particularly susceptible to lures, most anglers use live bait. Worms, grass shrimp and crickets are probably the top three in popularity, but waxworms, meal worms, leeches, catalpa worms and bits of crayfish tail or mussel meat also get their attention.

If you simply can’t resist trying lures, curly-tailed jigs seem among the best, perhaps because their undulating action looks somewhat like a worm or insect larva twisting through the water. Stick to the smallest sizes, and hop the lure across the bottom with a slow, steady “lift, fall, lift, fall” retrieve.

When possible, use slider-type jig heads where the lead is encased in soft plastic. Shellcrackers are quick to spit out hard items found in their food, perhaps because many creatures they eat are encased in shells. They seem to hold a jig with a rubber-encased head a little longer because of its fleshy feel, allowing an important added instant to set the hook.

Another tip: if plain jigs aren’t producing, try tipping your lure with a tiny strip of panfish pork rind for added visual attraction. Or use a marriage of live bait and artificials. A jig tipped with a redworm or waxworm will nearly always outperform an unadorned lure.

Yes, shellcrackers are persnickety and hard to catch at times. But no self-respecting redear angler would have it any other way. The challenge of catching them is what makes these panfish special, and the possibility of catching a sunfish topping 1-1/2 or 2 pounds makes it all worthwhile. Don’t let summer pass without giving them a try.


wchandler said...

i am from n.c. and really enjoy fishing for shellcrackers in my lifetime i have caught 6 or 7 seven really nice shellcrackers topping 2 and1/2 pounds and 2 close to 4 pounds on lake tillery the same day and i always thought it was luck until i read ur site now i will be hitting the lake this week and trying ur methods

webdesigner706 said...

I enjoyed reading your article as I am an shellcracker fisherman. I am going to include a link in my comment to a shellcracker that my father caught in 1998 that is, at 5 lbs 7 ozs, still the worrld record today. Anyone that wants to use this photo is more than welcome to do so. My father is now deceased and so I do ask that the common courtesies be given to him."