Feisty sunfish found in many Arkansas waters

By Keith Sutton Originally Published June 9, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 7, 2013 at 10:11 a.m.
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Keith Sutton

The redear sunfish, because it grows big and is challenging to catch, is a special prize for the bream-fishing enthusiast

We’re now in one of my favorite times of year: the time when bream are spawning. While I love catching other species, especially catfish, fishing for bream is a much-loved pastime for this country boy.

My favorite member of the bream clan, and the favorite of many other Arkansans as well, is the redear sunfish, or shellcracker. If bream were placed in divisions like boxers, this panfish would be a heavyweight contender. The largest member of its tribe, the shellcracker delivers a knockout punch that’ll put your bobber down for the 10-count. It’s a George Foreman among sunfish.

Most shellcrackers weigh less than 1 pound. Some grow much bigger, though. The Arkansas state record from Bois d’Arc Lake weighed 2 pounds, 14 ounces. The world record from Arizona tipped the scales at a whopping 5-1/2 pounds!

The name “redear” has obvious origins when you see one. 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.

Redears also have hard, toothlike grinders or “shellcrackers” (hence the nickname) in the throat. These allow them to crunch the shells of the tiny mollusks they eat. Small snails, fingernail clams, worms, insect larvae and other bottom-dwelling creatures are favorite foods, but shellcrackers also eat insects and other invertebrates.

Shellcrackers congregate around stumps, roots, logs, standing timber and green aquatic vegetation. They prefer deeper water than most other sunfish and often are caught 25 to 35 feet deep. When you have a mess, you’ll find they are delicious. 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

Many anglers target shellcrackers because of the challenge involved. 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, catching shellcrackers is like snatching the golden ring while riding a carnival carousel. They are special prizes that bring 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 near or on the bottom, you’ll miss most fish. Bottom fishing is the only way to regularly catch them.

Second, be aware 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 bottom fishing 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.

Tackle and Baits

Most shellcracker aficionados use a long 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 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 up 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 and crickets are probably tops in popularity, but waxworms, meal worms, 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.

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.

In Arkansas, finding places to catch redears isn’t hard. They live in most lakes and many streams. Among the best fishing holes are lakes Bear Creek, Conway, Chicot, Bois d’Arc, Millwood, Merrisach, Cox Creek, White Oak, Hinkle, Catherine, Horseshoe, Ouachita and Felsenthal.

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.

None Keith Sutton can be reached at .

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