Fishing for Shellcrackers

Shellcracker Fishing

Fishing for Shellcrackers, catching shellcrackers, catch redear

Fishing For Shellcrackers Tips And Tricks

The redear sunfish, also known as the shellcracker, is arguably one of the best fighting, best tasting, and hardest to find and catch throughout the season than any panfish you pursue. Fishing for shellcrackers has become an annual endeavor for me and a time during spring that I look forward to every year. Until the past few springs, I picked up a shellcracker incidentally fishing for bluegill. I only began targeting shellcrackers a few years ago. I’ve learned a lot about fishing for shellcrackers but have only managed to extend my shellcracker season by a few weeks. My mission was to find ways to locate and catch shellcrackers throughout the entire year and that has not happened. You’ll read below a few bits of shellcracker information that’s very interesting. I have yet to put any of it together to locate and catch shellcrackers outside the spawn.

Get the best jig for bluegill and shellcracker shop here

hairy cricket jigs big redear
Hairy Cricket Jig

The following article is some of the shellcracker fishing tips I’ve learned by directly targeting them and asking questions of other shellcracker anglers across America. By the way all other shellcracker anglers I have spoken to say they only catch shellcrackers during the spawn in the spring. Other than the occasional catches the shellcracker seems to elude even avid anglers that are on the water often after the spawn is over. Here is a list of some of the ways I locate, rig, and catch shellcrackers in the spring and the way I have extended my shellcracker fishing season by a few weeks.

A Few Pointers For Fishing For Shellcrackers

  • Rig a small split shot a foot above a sharp panfish hook 
  • Look for early shellcrackers in deep water leading into spawning areas
  • A Hairy Cricket jig is a great jig for fishing with small piece of nightcrawler
  • Look for shellcrackers along chunk rock banks leading to shallow flats
  • Use a medium-light rod and a reel with a smooth drag

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Where To Find Shellcracker Redear Sunfish

Shellcrackers are commonly found during spring in the shallow bays where they spawn along with or near bluegills. This is why shell crackers are caught incidentally while targeting bluegills. Shellcrackers are hard to locate by themselves. Usually, the redear sunfish is found within bluegills and channel catfish that are moving up to spawn in the shallows. One thing that I have noticed while targeting shellcrackers exclusively is their propensity to occupy chunky rock shorelines that are fairly deep say 8 to 12 feet deep early in the spring. The shellcracker can be found in this deeper water as they stage just outside known or likely spawning bays or pockets. Shellcrackers spawn in very shallow water but like to stage during preparation for the spawn in deeper water.


Shellcrackers Feed Down

Of course, there are plenty of shellcrackers caught while bobber fishing for bluegill in the shallows. However, shellcrackers feed down. While bluegills and other panfish generally feed up in the water column shellcrackers eat clams and snails primarily. It stands to reason that the shellcracker fish are looking down to eat. So if you are targeting shellcrackers you should focus on the bottom where the majority of shellcrackers will be looking. This is just one little point of many that can increase your shellcracker catch substantially. This is why I like to use a single split-shot and a panfish hook tipped with a small piece of nightcrawler. It works.

Shellcracker Fishing Tackle


Since people are normally targeting bluegill and other species when they catch the occasional redear sunfish or shellcracker, the most popular rod for bluegill is an ultralight rod. While you can definitely fish for shellcrackers with an ultralight rod I’ve found that a medium-light rod is much better. Especially when targeting trophy shellcrackers that can weigh 1 to 2 pounds. The medium-light rod or even a medium action rod has a little more power for quickly landing a big shellcracker. Even more important, when fishing for big shellcrackers, is the hook setting power. More than the stiffer action for fighting the shellcracker, once hooked. The ultralight rod just doesn’t have the power needed to get the hook into the tough mouth of the shellcracker.


Choosing a reel for fishing for big shellcrackers is vital for consistent success. The most important thing to look for in a great spinning reel for shellcracker fishing is the drag. Most popular reel manufacturers incorporate a good drag in their reels. I would just stay away from really cheap reels and stick with at least the middle of the road reels for the best opportunity to land more shellcrackers. Again the most important aspect of a good shellcracker fishing reel is the hookset.

Using a light line or braid is another important part of a serious shellcracker outfit. A smooth drag is vital to sink that hook into the tough mouth of the shellcracker without snapping light line. I’ll explain my favorite line setup for fishing for shellcrackers later. I love my Abu Garcia Orra S Spinning Fishing Reel. The Orra spinning reel is durable and the drag is silky smooth. A silky smooth drag is important when fishing for shellcrackers, especially when using light lines.


The best line for shellcracker fishing is a quality line with a small diameter. I use 10-pound test braid as my main line. I attach a monofilament leader to it of 6-pound test line. This might seem like a little overkill for a panfish, but I’m targeting big shellcrackers. This setup seems to get me more bites. The small diameter of the braid allows the hook to float freely and more naturally in the water as you work the bait through the cast. Also, the monofilament is a little more abrasion resistant than braid and that’s good due to the cover that the shellcrackers love to hang around as well as the very rough mouths they use to crush shells of snails that are their primary food.

The split shot is added about a foot above the hook. Many people catch shellcrackers with jigs, but an old-timer once told me that he never used a jig because the natural and instinctive impulse that the shellcracker has developed from eating snails is to instantly repel anything that they feel in their mouth that is hard, like the crushed shells. This made sense to me and so I stick with a small hook that is kept super sharp and a small piece of nightcrawler. Yes red wigglers work and crickets work or maggots, but as I have eliminated these things over the years my catches have improved, and probably, more importantly, my hook-up ratio has improved and I think it could be that the small piece of nightcrawler feels so much like a nice little snail they love so much.

Fishing For Shellcrackers Journal

Of all of the fish, I’ve been fortunate enough to pursue, two have remained steadfastly at the top of the list. That is until this spring when I added a third. The smallmouth bass has got to be my all-time favorite, but the coho salmon is right there with it.  A new species emerged as a top runner when I decided to fishing for redear sunfish on what is now my home waters. It’s no secret that Lake Barkley is a great redear lake, but in my first spring to ever target this bottom-dwelling beast, I never imagined the day I would have on Lake Barkley on May 18, 2019.

A fellow outdoor writer Rick Bramwell was coming down from Indiana to visit. Rick wanted to catch some redear and I had no spots to take him. I did have one clue from a bass fisherman that accidentally caught a big one in a tournament. He was from out of state or he may have been a little stingier with where he caught it. Lucky for me he gave up the location giving me a starting point. It was a challenging week of searching for the elusive redear. At night I studied videos and articles in search of answers, that without the tip from the bass fisherman, may still be unanswered.

Patience Is A Virtue When Fishing For Shellcracker Fish

I remained patient through the questions in my mind and the cold front that would last a week. Without the location tip and my belief that the man had no reason to mislead me, I’m not sure I would have stuck it out and located the spot on May 18, 2019. You see, the redear sunfish usually comes accidentally while targeting other fish, usually bluegills. This is no different for me. Over the years I’ve only caught a handful. They were all caught while targeting other species. 

During that week looking for a redear spot to take my friend, I came to respect the hard fighting and challenging sunfish. I fished 4 days straight, at least 8 hours each day, and I caught exactly 0 redears. But, I had the “location” and a photo by the bass angler’s shellcracker for encouragement. I failed to land a single redear, but I did lose two big fish that I thought might have been redear. Both were on a stretch of chunk rock leading into a small pocket. Steep drop near spawning pocket, something I learned from my nighttime studies. This is where I would focus my efforts in hopes that my hunch was correct.

Found A Couple Big Redear

Rick arrived with much anticipation. He had caught redear on Lake Barkley before, but it had been many years ago. The cold front was still solidly in place and forecasted to remain throughout Rick’s visit and it did. Rick and I fished hard for two days and managed an 11 1/2-inch redear the first day and a 10 1/2 incher on day two. One was in 11 feet of water on that drop and the other was across the lake in 2 feet of water in the bushes. No rhyme or reason, but a clue that we were in the right area.

Project Redear Is Born 

Rick left disappointed but made me promise I’d stay after them and I did the very next morning. As forecasted the cold front was gone and the temps climbed back into the ’80s. The first place I tried was that little spawning pocket. The first fish that morning came quick. It was a shellcracker, but it was small, maybe 8 inches. It felt good to catch one early and that would be the only small fish that day.


I went on to catch 15; 13 of them were over a pound with one topping 2-pounds. The pursuit and the conquer sealed the redear’s place among my favorites. It began a quest to learn all I can about this elusive adversary. Now with each spring, the smell of dogwood blooms and the sight of yellow flowers swaying in the shallows will forever trigger an excitement. Much like the cool days of fall just before the rut. May 18, 2019, is the day that project redear was born.      

About Project Redear

Project Redear is my personal quest to learn more about the redear sunfish. The mission is to learn the habits and different ways to catch these elusive, hard fighting, and excellent eating panfish. Personally, I like to put these fish in a league of their own. In a pound-for-pound fighting ability, flavor, and beauty. To consistently catch the redear sunfish is a challenge. For some, it’s the challenge that makes them so alluring to those that live the struggle every year to locate and catch these fish.

I hope that with Project Redear fellow anglers can come together to share their knowledge of techniques and where and how to find these masters of the vanishing act, here today gone tomorrow. If you would like to be a part of Project Redear email me hear  for more information and what you can do to help this project. If you want to be a part of Project Redear to learn more about them feel free to drop me an email. I will get you on the email list to receive new information as it’s shared or uncovered.

As I have mentioned, fishing for these Redear Sunfish has got in my blood. I’m constantly searching for any new information about the Redear Sunfish or Shellcracker. I’m getting more and more anglers that are joining the conversation and I am finding it very interesting the many ideas and thoughts on how, where, and when to catch these elusive critters. With my still limited knowledge of these Redear Sunfish, my days to even gather my own information is extremely limited.

However, I’m learning that while I might be fishing from daylight to dark without a single Shellcracker there are anglers on the same lake catching them like crazy. Not all give up their location, but with a little deductive reasoning and limited educated guesses, I have found that in at least one incident the guy wore the Redear out just a mile from where I was catching them the day before, but now could not get a bite. This only adds to the intrigue of the Redear Sunfish and is one of the reasons I love to hunt them.

Redear Sunfish Do Their Own Thing

One thing I’ve found is that it is very difficult to pattern the Redear Sunfish. Unlike bass, these jokers seem to do their own thing. As random as the weather. Having said that I have moved around and I’ve stuck around trying to figure it out. I’ve spent more than a couple of days running and gunning in search of shellcrackers and not done that well.

I will say that I have found all of my spots where I catch big Redear by using this tactic. I might have only caught a single fish that day, but it marked the spot that I knew I could return to when the time was right which I have yet to figure out when the time is right. But, I went back to the area later sometimes without a single bite then go there another day to find that it was covered up with Redear.

I have slowly come to the conclusion, at least when fishing for Redear in the spring, that they are either there or they are not and it might be best to leave and search another area and maybe come back to that one later to see if they moved up. When the temps are right say around 70 degrees on the surface then there should be a spot that has a few Redear up shallow and biting.

Are You An Avid Redear Angler

If you’re an avid redear angler and would like to help others learn more about them we welcome your input. This project is for us all to gain knowledge about the redear sunfish. We welcome any myths, rumors, grandad’s tactics, and modern tactics that work. Do you know any legendary redear anglers? We would love to interview them for their valuable information to pass on.

Fishing For Shellcrackers

Thanks to Slabjiggies for some great Redear information from out west.

rambling_angler_outdoors  Was wondering if you could explain your favorite setup for big Redear? I’m hooked on them and I really want to learn more from those that consistently catch more Redear. Thanks in advance.

slabjiggies I got mine the same way you did. Ultralight to medium light setup is just fine. Drop shot, Carolina rig or straight jig tipped with bait(crawler, redworms, crickets mealworms). I personally use jigs with all these presentations

slabjiggies I believe The jigs color and profile Give the redear something to be attracted to. I fish a lot of clear water with bright colored jigs. It gives them something to look at from a distance.

rambling_angler_outdoors  yea I was told by an old-time Redear Angler the Redear would spit anything hard out of its mouth instinctively because they eat snails and spit the shell so I switched to hook and crawler and I feel that I did get a better hookup ratio but personal preference and confidence deal I’m sure. Another old-timer Redear Angler told me they spit the shells out their gills. If this is the case then the jig still works. What say you if you know?


slabjiggies  redear have hard plates in the back of there throat’s that crush clams, snails, crawdads and other hard-shelled foods that they eat on. The bigger ones will almost always inhale the whole crawler no matter how big they are. A lot of the times you can toss a rod out and let it sit while jogging or slow crawling with another setup. Both work just as good. A guide on Havasu told me to leave the bait still cause their natural prey is still or barely moving.

rambling_angler_outdoors yea I’ve thought about letting the bait sit still if I can figure out how to locate them after the spawn where they are feeding but during the spawn I keep the bait moving by slowly lifting it off the bottom after letting it sit for several seconds. The 15 I caught like the ones in the photo I never saw or felt a bite on any of them they were just there when I lifted it.

slabjiggies what state do you live in? Lake you fish redears at?

rambling_angler_outdoors Kentucky and I Fish Lake Barkley mostly but there are some good Redear in Kentucky Lake as well. I live just a few miles from both dams

slabjiggies Good lakes. Check the stumps and trees, they should hang around there. Look or shells scattered on the bottom and they won’t be far from the shells.. Redear are bottom feeders so stay on the bottom

rambling_angler_outdoors  Thanks for the advice. I use a technique my dad showed me in Florida for locating bluegill beds. I keep a long cane in the boat and when I get into a likely cove I tap the bottom and you can hear and feel the gravel on the cane. But this only works in the spring when they are up shallow.

New Information On What Shellcrackers Eat

I have spoken to several Redear/Shellcracker anglers recently and found that they are catching Redear in the winter. I describe this below. The thing that interested me was that they were catching these Redear in very shallow water on warm sunny days. They also informed me that they were told by some very old-school Redear anglers that they were eating a worm that was emerging from the gravel and floating up to the surface. Much like the trout that I chased for many years in Alaska they were lying in wait for the hatch. One particular angler told me that an old-timer told him that they were worms called a Perrywinkle but he wasn’t sure if that was the actual name or just what the local anglers called them.

If you have any information on what these emerging larvae might be please contact me and I will add the information here

I have since found, probably because I was aware of the emerging larvae after talking to this angler and I began looking for them, a few cases from a large bug that obviously emerged from the bottom and crawled just above the surface to complete its metamorphosis. I’ve always been fascinated by entomology and in fact, is one of the many reasons I fly fished almost exclusively for many years. So I did a little research and found that these cases were from a dragonfly. Check out this article about them here.

fishing for shellcrackers
Dragonfly Nymph Casing Barkley Lake. Ken McBroom

Here is an image I took on Lake Barkley where I have caught some of my biggest Redear to date.

A Diver’s Perspective To Fishing For Shellcrackers

Jim Grooms Ken McBroom I see them around 15 to 25 ‘ on bull shoals while diving

Ken McBroom Jim Grooms
A diver! Just the man I’m looking for. What are they doing? Are they eating snails all the time or suspended? I was told by some Redear anglers that they suspend a lot. This would make it hard to catch them.

Jim Grooms 
on bottom structure they put them in bull shoals to combat the zebra muscles we spearfish them when we find them killed a bunch last year over 12″ and some of them as well as the bluegill will spawn again or at least later in the year I have seen them on beds in Aug here but they are deep 15 to 20′

Ken McBroom Jim Grooms Great information. I always love a mid-summer bluegill spawn for bass fishing. Something I learned in my tournament days. Everybody out deep and on a full moon, you can usually find a pocket or two where you can flip a black and blue mop jig and catch some nice bass. Wasn’t sure if the Redear did the same thing. I will be checking out the full moons and looking for some big shellcracker spawning deep. Thanks.

Jim Grooms I fish rod and reel until spearfishing season opens June 15 and again in the fall when water gets too cold to be comfortable during the summer I get in there with the shellcracker and redear. We hunt walleye mostly but never turn down big bluegill, redear, crappie or catfish when I see them

More Insights To Fishing For Shellcrackers

Here is an email I received about the spawning of the Redear Sunfish or the Shellcracker from Barry

Thanks Barry for the Email

I was thinking last night about the spawning depth of Crappie. According to a book I read, authored by Steve Wunderle, a fish biologist, Crappie spawn at a depth within a foot of where a Secchi disk goes out of sight in the water. The Secchi disk is a 8″ circle painted white or white and black in quadrants. Just wondering if being a sunfish also if that does not have some relevance to Redear. Another thing for thought. The way I’ve been rigging for redear is 6lb test line with a small split shot about 8-12 inches above the hook, with a cross-section of a tubular float, just big enough to float the baited hook a couple inches off the bottom, it seems to be working very well.


RESPONSE: Thanks again for the Email Barry. As for the Secchi disk visibility I have not tried that. This is the first I have heard of this. Here is a link to How To Use The Secchi Disk

I usually start in deep water which leads to likely spawning bays or coves. Hopefully, I can locate a few new spots each year to add to my regular spots. The depth I have found the Shellcracker spawning in is from 10 inches to 3 in the same lake. The Shellcrackers that are in 10 inches of water is in bays with a little more stain in the water. The 3 foot spawners are in a large bay with much clearer water. I have also noticed that the dirtier water warms sooner and the shallow bite begins a little earlier than the clearer water.
This allows for a longer season for fishing for shellcrackers. By learning these locations I can focus on the dirtier bay earlier from pre-spawn to spawn. Of course, at some point, the times will overlap. I just go from bay to bay when this happens as the bays are actually a short distance by water and I can actually fish them both throughout the day when they are both on fire.

Suspending Your Bait To Catch More Shellcracker Fish

Barry thanks for mentioning the tubular float you use to float your bait slightly off the bottom when fishing for shellcrackers. I’ve used this method for catfishing but never for redear. I’ve thought about using it this year and planned to use your method or a drop-shot for shellcrackers this year. The bait suspended in their face is a great idea. Shellcracker fish are aggressive and will strike moving baits like grubs and small spinners. However, I prefer to stick with a mono leader to my braid with a small split shot a foot above. I keep the bait moving with a lift and fall presentation. I seldom get a sudden strike I just feel the fish on the next lift. This tells me that the fish just sucked in my nightcrawler as it fell slowly in front of him.

Best Time To Catch Shellcrackers

As I learn more and more about the Redear sunfish or shellcracker I talk with people that love to catch them in the colder months. I, for one, have only fished for shellcrackers in the spring and into early summer. For Kentucky lake and Barkley lake that’s end of april until the first of June. I don’t have anything against chasing shellcrackers in the winter or other times I just have so many other things going on. Deer season, holidays, squirrel hunting and then throw in that really bad weather and it leaves little time to fish for shellcrackers. Here on Kentucky Lake, where I live, I love chasing big crappie in brushpiles in the winter as well. Even in the spring it’s hard to get started because of turkey season. So I have my excuses as to why i don’t fish for shellcrackers in the winter. 

However, through conversations on Facebook and other social media platforms I have come to find out just how many people love fishing for them during winter. They tell me that they can predict more accurately where the Redears will be. Now granted hardcore shellcracker anglers are not as numerous as all the other die-hards out there but with social media we have been successful in rounding up a few to share there information with us. Several of the one’s I have spoke to or communicated with say winter is the best time to catch shellcrackers.

I’m not about to argue with the wintertime shellcracker fishermen, but I know for me I get just a few days when I can catch shellcrackers. I put in my time and catch a few here and there while waiting for that magical moment that last a few days for me. Actually, I have not tried to catch them in the winter and I am working slowly into doing that, but for now I am sticking to the spring.

I posted a question in a couple Facebook groups devoted to shellcracker fishing information. Here are some responses from year long shellcracker anglers.

Finding Shellcrackers Early

We all do it. The days begin to warm, the woods are greening up and the Redbuds are blooming. We find ourselves on the lake with a nice warm breeze smells of spring and no bites. No matter what species we are chasing early spring is always tough. The warming days don’t necessarily coincide with the water temps. Still cold, the fish remain deep and hard to find. To top it off the cold water eliminates the need to eat very often so even when you find some fish getting them to bite isn’t always easy.

There is one saving grace. Nature has provided many variables to ensure the survival of all her species. What does this mean for shellcracker anglers? Like all species of fish there is always a few early movers. Early movers are those few fish that move toward the spawning bays earlier than their buddies. This ensures that even if there is a catastrophic event that wipes out one spawn then there is a chance that the other survives.

Shellcrackers are no different. These early moving shellcrackers are few and therefore even harder to locate than the ones that move in mass to the spawning bays to spawn. Like bass, these early shellcrackers can be the biggest you will find. It seems that like bass the more mature females move up early and therefore are often the bigger shellcrackers.

There is no sugar coating it for you, it is difficult to find and catch these early spring shellcrackers. Often, I fish for 8 hours without a single bite this time of year. Other times I manage one or two nice shellcrackers and for me that is a great day. If you like to catch giant shellcrackers you should begin your search before you think they will be there. The numbers are low and sometimes you go fishless, but the weather is nice and getting after them is better than sitting on the couch watching another Netflix series that you forgot you already seen.

Look for early spring shellcrackers in the same areas you fish for them later in the season. You will want to look around the shallow waters, but it has been my observation that the early spawners will spawn in a little deeper water. I learned this by mistake while trying new tactics to extend my shellcracker season. I would catch shellcrackers in 10 to 12 foot of water that were ready to spawn, but a month before I normally target them.

If you are serious about catching big shellcrackers then don’t overlook the early spring and go ahead and enjoy the warm days when the water is still cold but take the time seriously and search different depths and areas for those early movers and you just might extend your shellcracker season by a few weeks.

This happened on just one of the early spring days I mentioned in the opening paragraph. I wanted to be on the water, and I figured I might as well probe some different depths and see what happened. I’ve caught just enough shellcrackers early to keep me going back each season when the Redbuds bloom. I also have many connections with serious Shellcracker anglers, and I begin to get word this time of year, here and there, of a big Redear being caught around some rip rap from the bank or off a log in deep water at the head of a known shellcracker spawning bay.

Get out there this spring earlier than usual and enjoy the warming weather and nature at her finest. While you’re at it share your insight when you figure something out and we can all begin catching shellcrackers a little earlier in the season.

fishing for shellcrackers

Fishing For Shellcrackers In The Winter

I had a conversation the other day with Jason. Jason lives in East Tennessee and loves to take his son Conner fishing for Shellcrackers. I had to connect with Jason when he mentioned that he preferred fishing for shellcrackers in the winter. He told me that he has better luck catching shellcrackers in the wintertime than he does in the summer. Exciting news to me and I will be trying it here on Barkley and Kentucky Lake this winter. I was surprised by the information learned from Jason. I hope it helps you if you want to try your luck fishing for shellcrackers in the winter. Here are a few questions and answers I had with Jason.

I get a lot of information from social media as I build my knowledge of locating and catching redear or shellcrackers. Especially after the spawn. A lot of success relies on confidence in what you’re doing. Hearing and seeing other anglers catch shellcrackers in the winter is enough to get me on the water looking. Here is a response from an avid shellcracker angler that catches them in the winter in deep water. This post shed some light on a few places I have had in mind but have not spent enough time searching.

Bream Brain FB I’ve never targeted them in winter until this year. I fish a river system, a very small section is 20′ deep, a few spots are 16′ deep the main channel is pretty much 10′ deep and there is a lot of shallow water cover in the form of wood and grass. I had tried fishing for them once or twice in the winter with not much success.

Fishing For Shellcrackers In Cold Water

We finally unlocked the cold water shellcracker code to catch redear in the winter. It seems to be more about the depth and the lack of current than anything else. The lake above my section of the river generates electricity and has a huge effect on fish movement and positioning. If there’s a lot of current it’s near impossible to find them. If it’s low, clear, and slow they like the 10 to 16-foot areas below islands. In irregularly shaped banks in outside channel bends that create eddies along straight sections of bank. These banks have grass lines above them to block current creating a spot for the shellcrackers to school up.
The colder the water gets the more I have relied on live bait, something I rarely do. When the water is in the 50s and 60s I like to swim or pendulum a curly tail or paddle tail jig. Or I will drag and hop a soft plastic craw. Now the water is in the high to mid-40s I have gotten a lot more bites on a 1/32-1/16 jighead tipped with a 1.5 – 2 inch piece of night crawler.
I have got to give credit where credit is due. My buddy Ken has given me a glimpse into winter shellcrackers. All he had to do is tell me about the current and I figured it out. It was like a lightbulb came on.

Wintertime Shellcracker Fishing Rig

Jason likes to use a drop-shot rig for fishing for shellcrackers in the winter. I place the hook about a foot above the drop-shot sinker. When fishing rocks we cut the head off a 16 penny nail and smash the end of it flat. We drill a hole through the flattened end and tie it to the end of our line below the hook. The straight nail lets you work the rig through rocks without getting hung up. We did this when we were kids. It still works today but there are a few other options out there now I must say.

Jason’s Wintertime Shellcracker Tackle Setup

Jason uses a small Tru Turn Hook and a small piece of nightcrawler as bait. An ultralight rod and spinning reel spooled with 4-pound test line is a perfect setup for shellcrackers in the winter. Jason also told me of his uncle that swore by using a piece of red yarn when the shellcrackers are on the bed. They can’t stand anything red in their bed is the story and I can believe that.

Where To Fish For Winter Shellcrackers

This is one of the surprises for me when talking with Jason about where to find shellcrackers or Redear sunfish in the wintertime. He told me that when fishing for shellcrackers he fishes in 3 feet of water or less in creek mouths. Jason said that on sunny winter days the shallow water warms enough that a small worm hatches from the gravel. They float to the surface and the Redear will gorge in this shallow water in the winter. Jason has heard that these worms were called Perrywinkles.

This would explain why the shellcrackers are shallow in the winter. It could be one reason they are so hard to find. I know that I never fish shallow in the winter. Another shared observation was that there needed to be current. These worms will emerge at a creek mouth that silts up as it enters a larger body of water.

catch redear
Nice Shellcracker on crawdad jig. Troy Seal

I know a few spots on Barkley and Kentucky Lake that fits this bill as well as just big sandbars that I am going to try fishing for shellcrackers this winter. Funny thing a few years ago I found bass and striped bass that fed on the surface all day long. I spent 8 hours in a tournament fishing topwater bait. I noticed that day that there was was no baitfish swimming around. We started looking closely and finally saw some emerging insects of some sort floating up in waves that day. There would be lulls in the action for several minutes. Then all of a sudden the whole cove would explode with feeding bass. You can bet that I will try this area this winter on those warm days to see if there might be a hatch like that and might draw in some big shellcrackers.

Troy Seal’s Take On Where To Find Wintertime Shellcrackers

Since this is the redears information page I’m gonna drop some truth bombs and let the cat out of the bag on fall and winter shellies. I know many of us struggle with finding shellcrackers in the winter. While I can’t tell you this will work in every body of water where shellcrackers swim, it sure won’t hurt to try it. I know where I fish, my numbers of big fish shot up when I started implementing these techniques and locations.

wintertime shellcrackers
Nice cold water Shellcracker. Troy Seal

An old fisherman who had been fishing for a long time gave me a clue to the location during the cold water months. I made friends with him one day at the boat ramp when he was having a hard time and I offered to help him. That’s all it took and we became buddies and fished for two seasons till his Parkinson’s disease worsened. I will always be thankful for that friendship and also that he was willing to take me with him and share his knowledge. Life is funny, two guys aged 48 and 83 meet and become really good friends. Fishing can do that!

The bite begins to pick up in the fall as the water temperature falls into the 60s. However, it gets better as it cools further. Wintertime shellcrackers begin to congregate in their wintering holes. I fish a river system. If you aren’t fishing a reservoir or slow river it will take considerably longer for you to pin them down. Current and depth are what dictates location in the winter. The bodies of water I fish are on average 10′ deep with the deepest water being around 22′ and most of the deeper areas are 16-18′ in depth. Those are the areas I concentrate on. 

Depth alone isn’t going to do you much good. It takes deep water with the least amount of current, and I’m not talking about small eddies. I’m talking about large expanses of deep water without or with very little current, huge eddies. The bigger the better. According to the depth of the water, 10′ might be deep on a shallow body of water, but it might be shallow on another. It takes the combination of depth and current to hold numbers of fish. 

3 Techniques I Use To Catch Shellcrackers In The Winter 

1). I use a tandem jig rig. With a 1/24-1/16 (depending on the wind) head on top and a 1/64- 1/32 on the bottom. On the top/heavier head, I put a soft plastic and on the bottom/lighter head, I put half a nightcrawler or a redworm. A splash of bright color on the jighead can help. This is especially true if the water is stained. You won’t feel all your bites, so watch your line. I like the hi-viz line for this reason. With this rig I back off the spot and make a long cast past the depth and cover I want to fish. I let the double rig sink to the bottom and when I see my line get slack with my rod tip at around 2 o’clock I slowly turn my reel handle one revolution then let it settle to the bottom.

2). The second technique is the dropshot. And if you want to learn about shellcracker locations, this is my suggestion to you. Tie a dropshot rig with about a 6″ leader, put a worm on it and cast it out. Let it sink to the bottom and drag it back to you like a Carolina rig. This is the most fool-proof way I know to find fish and get them to bite that I have found. You can also hop it and shake it but a slow drag seems to be more effective the colder it gets.

3). Plastics also work but my size and numbers jumped up when I started using live bait in the cold water period. I almost forgot! Time of day does matter! You will learn a time pattern that finds fish more active. Saturday I never caught a fish till 12:00 and they slowed considerably by 2:00, so go early and stay late. I Hope this helps somebody with their late season shellcrackers endeavors.  Have fun and keep your worm wet.

Catch Shellcrackers In The Grass


shellcracker fishing

Sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zone. I made a trip recently to East Tennessee to fish with fellow Redear / Shellcracker fanatic Troy Seal. Check out Troy’s Facebook group at Bream Brain. I have learned over the years of fishing for all kinds of species that it only takes one little tip, or a sentence from someone that fishes like you, to send the alarm bells off in your head. Learning from others is the best way to not only straighten the often-large learning curve and also give you ideas.

The Texas rigged red worm is something I learned on this trip. When you hear Texas rig you automatically think bass fishing. Troy has devised a way to fish grass effectively by Texas rigging a red worm. The first time Troy showed me this rig I didn’t take note. I just thought it was a red worm on a jighead. It wasn’t until I saw him carefully bending a tiny bream hook that I began to ask questions.

Troy uses bream hooks and bends them to make a sort of wide gap hook for shellcracker and bluegills. When rigged this way you can slowly work your red worm through grass without hanging up. The slick red worm also sheds the little fine green moss that tends to attach itself to everything. I found myself cleaning grass and/or moss from my Hairy Cricket Jig often. If you find the Shellcrackers and the Bluegills in the grass give this a try and spend your time catching fish and not cleaning your hook.

Stay Quiet When Fishing For Shellcrackers

Jason pointed out that noise will kill a shellcracker bite as quick as a North wind. If you drop your pliers or chilly drink in the bottom of an aluminum boat you might as well hang it up for 30 to 45 minutes before they return and settle down enough to bite again. Keep quiet when fishing for shellcrackers and you have a better chance at catching these winter shellcrackers, especially when they are so shallow. If you have an aluminum boat lay some carpet on the bottom to deaden anything hitting the bottom. When the bottom is bare a split shot dropped on the bottom of the boat can spook fish from the area.

Learning To Catch Ultralight Shellcrackers

Give ultralight shellcrackers a try for springtime fun and great eating as well. In my pursuit of trying to target the elusive redear sunfish (shellcracker), I have found the process a bit daunting. I fished Lake Barkley with fellow writer Ken McBroom. We caught very few. His and my opinion was we were a bit early for the spawn; now, I’m not so sure.

The day after I left, Ken caught 15 redear in one spot. “They are just starting to come in,” he said. The next day I talked with a guy at Cabela’s who told me he caught more than he wanted to clean on Barkley the second week in April. This is confusing. Were there two waves of spawners or was one time the spawn and the other a shallow feed?

I learned a lot on Google Search. After the eggs are laid and fertilized it takes as little as 50-hours for the fry to hatch. Redear can spawn in water 65 to 89 degrees but prefer 70-75. The water temp on Barkley was about 68.

I can go to a local pond and bail myself out, but I want to succeed on a larger body of water. Steve Jett and I launched his boat on Geist intent on locating spawn or pre-spawn shellcrackers using ultralight tackle. After catching one ultralight shellcracker in one cut, we found a dozen in a shallow bay with a maximum depth of four feet. There were a few close to shore, but most were in the middle. I caught four from one spot.

We were using homemade jigs tipped with wax worms or Berkley Gulp Alive Waxies. We ran a bb size split shot above the 1/32-oz. jig, tight-lining.  On a trip to Kentucky Lake 12 years ago, the shellcrackers were hot on a Charlie Brewer Panfish grub.  A small hook tipped with a piece of nightcrawler might be the best bait of all.

Redear Are Bottom Dwellers

Redears are bottom feeders and number one on their menu is snails, small mussels and clams. Most consider this species to be a bonus fish most often caught when fishing for bluegills or crappies. I want to learn enough to be able to catch them anytime.

One thing helpful would be to know the depth and type of bottom the snails prefer.

One thing is for certain, the females were bulging with eggs. I believe there could be as little as a three-day window for the aggressive spawn bite.

One thing that impaired the redear bite was a multitude of small bluegill smashing our offering. We could tell the difference between the solid hit if a nice shallcracker and the rat-tat-tat of the gills. We quit setting the hook on the latter, but often they hooked themselves.

Out of the 50 or so bluegill, we landed only eight were large enough to keep. A few small crappies, four golden shiners, and two perch also fell for our offering.

I get several personal messages about catching redears on artificials every year. While a good portion of the year I use a worm, most of the warm water season I’m using artificials. When it’s cold I use a worm on the bottom the rest of the time I use bottom baits or a float rig with a hair or feather jig set where it’s barely above the bottom. Here are a few tactics I use to catch redear/shellcrackers on fakes.

Small crawfish imitations are some of my favorite baits to use for shellcrackers. They work in any depth from inches of water to fathoms of water. The bobber rig set up for fishing on the bottom gets harder and harder to fish as depth increases. As a result a heavier jig or dropshot comes into play as that scenario presents itself. When fishing shallow I rarely use more than a 1/32. A 1/64 is better on a very shallow bottom that is kind of snaggy. I sometimes use a 1/24 on a bulky soft plastic. In general a 1/64 1/48 or 1/32 will do the job. When fishing deep, I don’t have need of anything over 1/16 oz. Keep your line size small or you will need more weight to keep your lure deep. Fluorocarbon sinks so that helps and thin superline like Nanofil or Gliss stays down.

If I change over to a drop shot I usually don’t use the lightest weight I can. Since I know I’m fishing deeper and intentionally on the bottom I use a #3 split shot. The split shot gets down quick and you are in the strike zone sooner. Fluorocarbon in 4lb test is about perfect but 6lb test is probably a little better since a dropshot is kinda easy to stick in a piece of wood cover and can often be pulled loose with a steady pull.

Here is where you can also bump up to a light or even a medium light rod. Many rods designed for walleye fishing work perfect for shellcrackers as they are a little softer than medium light rods designed for bass fishing, the same goes for rods with crappie fishing in mind, they too work very well. Fenwick elite tech walleye rods are very well suited for this as is St. Croix walleye rods but they are a little heavier. Acc Crappie Stix or B&M rods designed for crappie would also be at home in a redear mans hands.

I rig a dropshot with a Gulp! Minnow, a Berkley Power Baiit Trout Worm or if it’s the cold water period a red worm or nightcrawler. I’d guarantee a small live crawdad or a craw tail would work also. However you choose to fish for Shellies just make sure it’s in close proximity to the bottom and your catch ratio will definitely go up.

Right Line For Ultralight Shellcrackers

The equipment I prefer for ultralight shellcrackers is an ultralight spinning rod 6’6” and a small 100 series spinning reel. I can’t find three-pound test (one pound mono diameter) Berkley Fireline in stores, but it is worth the effort to order it online. The small diameter makes a huge difference in the distance you can cast without adding a lot of extra weight. This line is expensive but it lasts a long time. I use mono backing to save money and fill more spools. Berkley Fireline is great for ultralight shellcrackers

Find The Snails Find The Shellcrackers

There are several varieties of clams and snails that redear will eat including zebra mussels and Eurasian clams, but for most freshwater lakes small black or dark brown snails are the main food source.

Freshwater snails can be found in shallow water out to about 14 feet depending on the clarity of the water. Snails feed on vegetation as well as bottom decay. They need oxygen from the water to survive, thus, will not be found below the thermocline. A friend of mine, who fishes natural lakes, finds ultralight shellcrackers along weed line edges in 10 feet of water. He prefers a 1/32-oz. Roadrunner tipped with a black/chartreuse stinger grub.

If I never fully figure out these fat fighters there is sure to be a lot of fun had along the way.


Fishing For Shellcrackers 2020

May 22, 2020

Finally, the 2020 spring has settled down and the shellcrackers are moving up. The water temp. is 73-75 degrees. This range seemed to be key as I moved around to some of my past good spots. When the water temp was 70-71 and couldn’t even find small bluegill. Also the ones that I did find were in a stakebed with 5 other stakebeds around it. The others only varied by a foot or so of water either deeper or shallower. I never got a bite on them. Not even a bluegill. The bed I was fishing was in about 3 foot of water and I caught bluegills in between the shellcrackers. I have also started tying a jig and it definitely got more bites than just a hook. I tried crickets but caught all the shellcrackers on the jig tipped with a small piece of worm.

Here is an email I got from John from North Carolina. It reminds me why I started writing and sharing the outdoors. Thanks John.

Email from John: Thanks to you. Exactly as you described. On the bottom next to a chunk rock wall six to eight feet of water. 

My Response: Awesome! Where you fishing

John: North Carolina. Never fished for them before. Read your article and decided to give it a try. Will definitely be targeting these again. 

Me: That’s great to hear. Fishing for shellcrackers is very challenging but great fighters and even better table fare. Enjoy the ride!

redear region

Take A Trip To Redear Country

The redears sunfish

 range. You guys that live close to the redears range you owe it to yourself to go fish for them. The redears has a fighting style just like big bluegills do, the big bluegills fight in circles at the boat, big redears make hard drag screaming runs at the boat. Artificials will catch them in the warm water months but live bait çatches them more consistently. Time of day plays a roll too so go back and check spots more than once. Definitely the meanest sunfish that swims, so if you live outside their range make a trip!

NOTE: There has already been some folks claiming there are more range than this map shows. If your area has Redear Sunfish and it is not on this map let us know. Thanks and happy fishing.


Fishing for shellcrackers
Photo By Troy Dorman

Pre-Spawn Shellcrackers

Look for the first drop in depth leading into spawning bay. Shellcrackers will stage at this drop waiting for the right time to spawn. A slip bobber is great for fishing these drops for shellcrackers that are moving in to spawn. I use the Hairy Cricket jig either under a bobber or with a lift drop presentation with the jig. These shellcrackers can hold in these areas for a week or more before spawn time. This is usually a week before the full moon if you want to make the most of your time.

pre-spawn shellcrackers

Shellcracker Lakes To Consider

Lake Barkley

Kentucky Lake

Santee Cooper Lakes

Check Out Stocking Redear To Control Eurasian Clams

About Ken McBroom 307 Articles
Ken McBroom is an accomplished outdoor writer and photographer. Growing up in Lynchburg Tennessee allowed him many opportunities afield as a boy and young man. Later in life, after Desert Storm, Ken’s wanderlust took him to Alaska to live and work and experience the last frontier. Married now with two beautiful children, Ken now calls Kentucky home where he continues to communicate our American outdoor traditions and the lifestyle it offers.


  1. Shellcrackers can be found at mouth of small coves in April that lead to spawning coves in May. Small black grubs (3/4 to 1 inch) is best bait before switching to worms. I have never tried for them in winter.

  2. Thanks for the Redear, Shellcracker information. I agree with the small coves for shellcrackers. I have extended my Redear, Shellcracker season by at least a couple weeks by locating several pre-spawn areas leading into those pockets to spawn. They are few and far between just because of the numbers of Shellcrackers in relation to the vast areas that they stage in. Deeper water and scattered cover seems to be where I find Redear in early spring. I do use my Hairy Cricket but I always use the Hairy Cricket when fishing for Shellcrackers. I do use the Hairy Cricket without a piece of nightcrawler sometimes and catch a lot of big bluegills without tipping the jig but catch more Redear when I tip it. I think Shellcrackers just like a little meat on their jig.

  3. Hey guys i fish in Northwest louisiana and i always get the redear bite around my birthday which is mar 23rd . The most important thing is the full moon or a couple days leading up to the full moon. Plenty of my friends miss the hottest redear action cause they are so busy looking for crappie. I remember always neediing a jacket in the mornings when i find the redear on the bed. Now you can and will catch them as the water warms more yes you will however, using this pattern i usually will catch 80 to a hundred in one day that are in the pound to pound and a half range. Most of my friends dont believe this works but when they start looking for redear, barring crazy weather, i already have a freezer FULL of filets.

  4. I hear ya Lenner. I have located a few pre- spawn Redear spots where I can catch them a couple weeks before they spawn. I fish for shellcrackers on lake Barkley and I have yet to find a way to catch numbers but all I catch are big ones. This kind of worries me. Not sure if the Redear spots i fish just are where the big ones come each spring to spawn or if there are none surviving the spawn. It worries me when I don’t see small shellcrackers. I know that full moon gets the Redear moving shallow same as bluegill. I had a spear fisherman tell me that he sees them spawning throughout the summer anytime there is a full moon.

  5. I was gonna see if you could add me to the mailing list for redear? I’m starting to get addicted to understanding the redear on the lakes. I’m normally chasing whitetails most the year or looking for the next Booner but redear are almost as challenging, at least while not spawning. There’s little info on fishing for redear other than rigs and feed off bottom but did learn a lot reading others tips.
    I have only caught two so far this year but haven’t found any shellcracker beds and did a lot of scanning. The Redears I caught were in about 8ft of water and caught with a red worm. I’ve been down to Fenton but only caught bluegill but normally stay towards the north end on both lakes. Anyway I enjoyed the article and read it last year but didn’t get a chance to fish like this year. Definitely like hunting a mature buck!


  6. Thanks for reaching out. I will add you to the list I will be hitting the lakes hard in the next couple of days. Keep a watch on my Facebook page and American Panfishers is mine too. I’m going to try and send some emails out to those that are on the list and maybe we can help each other out. I would love to find some areas on Kentucky lake I mainly fish Barkley for Redear. Take care and keep in touch. I am actually working on writing a book on Redear and I want to include information from people in Project Redear.


  7. Thanks Bob. Where do you fish for shellcrackers? I am always looking for information about various places and tactics used to catch Redear and welcome yours. Thanks for the comment. Ken

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