June 17, 2009
May through early June is the time to mark your calendar for shellcracker (redear) fishing. These colorful sunfish move to the shallows during this time to spawn making them easy targets for you baits. Fishing for them can lead to some fast action and loads of fun for anglers of all ages.
Fishing opportunities for shellcrackers are abundant throughout middle-Tennessee. Although they are not as wide ranging as bluegill (bream), farm ponds, small lakes, and reservoirs across the state usually provide good fishing. All TWRA family fishing lakes contain both redear and bream. Note that the statewide creel limit for redear is 20 per day with no minimum length limit. There is no statewide creel limit or minimum length limit for bream.
Shellcrackers and bluegill look much alike, but there are some distinct differences. Redear sunfish are most easily identified by a red edge on the gill cover. Unlike bluegill, redear are bottom feeders. Their diet consists of snails, mussels, and claims. Bream eat aquatic insects and their larva. While both fish are aggressive and put up a great fight on ultralight tackle, you’ll know when you have hooked a shellcracker because they pull like a freight train.
Shellcrackers spawn when water temperatures reach from 68 to 75 degrees. Peak spawning activity usually occurs around the full moon in May. They make beds in 1 to 2 feet of water or deeper depending on water clarity and available cover in areas with a sandy or mud bottom. When you find a
bed of shellcrackers mark it down, these fish usually return to the same spots to spawn year after year.
I look for areas in the back of pockets and coves or other shallow areas along the bank near deeper water to find beds. Shaded areas with over-hanging trees and around shallow water docks are good places to search. The beds will be easier to see with polarized glasses. Look for cover such as logs, submerged brush, and around shallow water grass beds. I talked with a veteran angler at a local bait and tackle shop who advised me to look for movement in the grass beds. He said when you see the grass moving above water within a grass bed, then you’re likely to find a bed of shellcrackers near the edge of the grass.
Once you locate spawning beds, they are usually loaded with fish and there is nothing difficult about catching them. You can easily catch them on live bait such as crickets and worms or artificial baits. Both types of baits work best for redear when fished near the bottom.
Many anglers prefer to use live baits to catch shellcrackers. Crickets are the most common live bait used to catch both shellcrackers and bream. I’ll rig using either a cork bobber or a slip float, a bb size split shot weight, and a number 6 long shank hook. The long shank hook makes it easier to unhook fish if they swallow the bait. Adjust the float where the bait will hang just off of the bottom.
Using artificial baits is my favorite way to fish for shellcrackers. I like to cast a tube jig tied on with a loop knot. The loop knot allows the jig to hang horizontal providing a more natural presentation. The jig makes a great search bait when you can’t see the beds due to stained or muddy water.
I use a 1/32 oz. jig with the head painted red or chartreuse and a solid-body tube called a Crappie Ringer. This tube is soft yet tough enough to last and stay positioned on the jig after catching numerous fish. I’ll shorten the 1-1/2 inch tube by clipping off ¼ inch from the head and tail for redear fishing to ensure a good hook set. The Crappie Ringer is available from Bass Pro Shops in a variety of colors. Black with a chartreuse tail is my favorite color for redear fishing. Other colors may work well also but this color combination has worked very well for me on Old Hickory Lake this year.
Another bait that is extremely effective for redear is a Blakemore Road Runner. I use a 1/32 to 1/16 ounce size with a curly tail grub or rigged with a Crappie Ringer. The Crappie Ringer adds a little extra weight that improves casting distance. This bait can be fished with a very slow presentation and adds flash and vibration which can be deadly on redear.
Fishing light weight baits requires the right equipment for best performance. A 5-1/2 foot ultra-light spinning rod paired with a light weight reel spooled with 4 pound test line works very well. I recommend a lubricant like Real Magic to spray on the line to improve casting distance. Real magic is a protectant that not only lubricates the line but also reduces line memory and provides UV protection.
Now is the best time of the year to catch a stringer full of shellcrackers. When on bed they are not hard to find and are easy to catch. When you catch one redear around a bed you’ll catch many more from the same spot. It’s a great time to take a kid fishing and watch the excitement of a youngster catching these feisty pole bending panfish on light tackle. It’s not too late now to get in on the action and enjoy a fun day fishing for shellcrackers. And please, if you’re going to be on the water, always remember to wear your life jacket.
By Charlie Campbell