Shellcracker Fishing Tips
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 YOUR HAIRY CRICKETS HERE
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.
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 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
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 these great panfish 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.
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 invisibraid 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 invisibraid 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
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 redear 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 [email protected] 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.
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 REDEAR SUNFISH
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 Gives ready or something to be attracted to. I fish a lot of clear waters 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?
WHAT DO REDEAR SUNFISH EAT
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 REDEAR SUNFISH 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 [email protected]
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 nearly 20 years. So I did a little research and found that these cases were from a dragon fly. Check out this article about them here.
Here is an image I took on Lake Barkley where I have caught some of my biggest Redear to date.
A DIVER’S PERSPECTIVE
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 INSIGHT 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
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
SUSPENDING YOUR BAIT TO CATCH MORE SHELL CRACKER 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. These fish can be aggressive and will strike moving baits like grubs and small spinners but 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.
SHELLCRACKER FISHING 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 not spent enough time searching.
WINTERTIME SHELLCRACKER 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 FIND 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 or sand. 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.
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 of 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.
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 and you have a better chance at catching these winter Redear 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.
THANKS FOR THE SHELLCRACKER INFORMATION JASON AND THE PHOTOS
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 a small bluegill. Also the ones that I did find was 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!