Shellcrackers, as redears are commonly called because of their propensity to feed on snails, clams and mussels, are colonial nesters. So, where you find one ’cracker this time of year, you’ll virtually always find more—sometimes hundreds of tightly packed nests will fill a cove.
Named for the prominent red margin on the earflap, redears are among the biggest and fastest-growing sunfish. One- and 2-pound fish are common on prime ’cracker lakes. The world record, which came from South Carolina’s Santee-Cooper system, weighed 5 pounds, 71/2 ounces.
They like big, warm, clean impoundments with plenty of vegetation in shallow water—places such as Lake Gun-tersville, lakes Marion and Moultrie, Buggs Island and Lake Okeechobee. They are native to the Southeast and the Mississippi and Rio Grande drainages, but have been introduced in other states.
Dedicated panfishermen who know how to find shellcrackers’ deep-water haunts catch fish throughout the year. However, the best time to load up on big ones is during spring, when the fish move shallow to spawn.
“Redears typically spawn just before bluegills,” says Hal Beard, a fisheries biologist for the South Carolina De-partment of Natural Resources and an avid shellcracker chaser who has spent countless days catching ’crackers on his home state’s Lake Murray. “The timing varies substantially from year to year, depending on conditions. I’ve seen it happen as early as late March or as late as mid-June on Murray.”
Beard cites April as the usual spawning peak in South Carolina and notes that the magic temperature range is between 68 and 72 degrees. He does not subscribe to the common practice of fishing the full moon, having never observed a correlation.
Beard has seen redears on nests in as little as eight or nine inches of water to four or five feet, with the most common depth being about two feet. On Murray, a clear impoundment, it’s often possible to spot beds with careful searching through polarized glasses. On more fertile, murkier waters, including lakes Marion and Moultrie, anglers are forced to fish blind, working areas that appear to have spawning-habitat characteristics or targeting traditional spawning areas.
“Redears typically return to many of the same areas to spawn, so if you’re fortunate enough to find some nests, the fish probably will nest in that vicinity year after year,” Beard says.
Look for shallow coves with plenty of vegetation. On Murray, the best coves have sandy bottoms, surrounding buttonbushes and plenty of Asiatic clams (shellcracker candy). Specific spawning habitat will vary from lake to lake.
The Right Approach
Beard targets spawners with a 10- or 12-foot telescoping pole, choosing the length based on how far back in the cover most beds are located. He fishes exclusively with worms, favoring blue worms, and always presents his baits right on the bottom. Unlike bluegills, which readily come to the top to nab insects, redears feed almost exclusively on the bottom, eating mollusks anytime they can.
Because they tend to engulf food and often get gut-hooked if an angler doesn’t react quickly, Beard uses a float as a strike indicator. However, he always sets the float so his worm still rests on bottom.
An alternative to the long-pole technique is to cast a worm with an ultra-light rod. Where the fish are too spooky to put the boat within pole-reaching distance, casting lets you work from farther away. You also can search for out-of-sight beds with an ultra-light outfit by casting across a flat and working a worm slowly along the bottom. If the depth is fairly consistent, add a float, pegged just deep enough to keep the offering dragging on the bottom. When fishing a more contuored area, a better approach is to fish with a simple split shot rig and drag the entire offering slowly across the bottom on a tight line.
Whatever the approach, when you bring up a big shellcracker, it’s critical to note the spot—both its specific location and its characteristics. If the fish was on a nest, others are almost certainly nearby, and other spots with the same characteristics may be full of big ’crackers on beds as well.