Playing The Cotton State Shell Game

This is the month to take to the waters of north Alabama in search of some redear sunfish. Here are some strategies for finding and catching those panfish right now! (May 2009)

Redear sunfish have earned a reputation as the king of Bama's bream species.
Photo courtesy of Polly Dean.

Perhaps no fish swimming in Alabama waters pays more attention to nature's clock than the shellcracker. Like a precision timepiece, the big panfish heeds nature's call in mid-spring, performs its duties to propagate the species, and then disappears for much of the remainder of the year.

With that clock ticking for only a short period each year, north Alabama bream fishermen ply the waters of the Tennessee Valley Authority reservoirs and the Coosa River lakes in search of 'crackers. Their reward is the biggest and the "baddest" of the bream, a great sporting fish on light tackle and excellent eating as well.

Shellcrackers are the king of the panfish, earning a dominant perch among the clan collectively labeled "bream," which also includes bluegills and the various other sunfish species. Formally known as redear sunfish, 'crackers grow bigger, fight more aggressively, and fillet into slab-size chunks suitable for the frying pan.

The best fishing occurs in a two- to three-week window in late April or early May. That is the time when the bigger shellcrackers move to the spawning areas, reproduce in tightly woven colonies, and then retreat to parts unknown. Not to say that shellcrackers never appear at other times of the year -- lucky anglers happen on numbers of the big panfish around willow fly hatches later in the summer. But for consistent action, the period leading up to the peak spawn is the time to take shellcrackers in numbers.

Shellcracker anglers keep an eye on the thermometer as spring replaces the wintry blasts in March and early April. When the water hits 60 degrees, the excitement starts to build.

"That's what triggers it," said TVA fisheries biologist Donny Lowery. "The whole spawning activity is predicated on water temperature. There will be some spawning activity as early as April in north Alabama, and sometimes, the water temp cools down and the fish re-absorb their eggs. They will begin to spawn again when the water warms back up.

"Usually around 60 to 62 is when they will start, up to about 65. And they will spawn in even warmer waters. Sometimes earlier in the year, and later in some years, depending on the weather conditions. Usually around early May is an optimum time for the redears to spawn."

At this time, anglers can find shellcrackers guarding their domains in shallow water. Unfortunately, they seem to disappear by the summer months.

"I don't know where they go," said Boaz guide Charles Slaton, who targets the various bream species exclusively on Lake Guntersville from mid-April until the end of May. "I don't know anyone who can tell you where they go. The bluegills spawn on every full moon through September, but the shellcrackers just seem to disappear. They probably move out into deeper water, much like bass do, but I don't know anyone who catches a lot of them after the end of May."

Typically, on the TVA lakes, the shellcrackers and bluegills spawn together, clouding the water at times with their fanning. They create circular beds that stand out distinctly in clear, shallow water. The beds are about the size of the top of a 5-gallon bucket with most -- but not all -- of the spawning activity occurring in 3 feet of water or less.

"Maybe the redears move into the spawning areas just a hair earlier," suggested Lowery, who lives in Florence. "It may be an intimidation factor. They move in and stake out the prime spots, just like bigger bass. They create a spawning area and run little fish off."

In most instances, the fish look for hard bottoms around some type of structure, whether wood or plant. The fish often return year after year to spawn in the same locations.

"It's my experience that redears prefer a harder bottom for spawning activity than many people realize," Lowery noted. "I know that on Guntersville we see a lot of them spawning on old roadbeds and along the edges of old boat ramps. They seem to prefer compacted, smaller-size gravel or hard-packed sand."

Although fickle biters at times, shellcrackers provide great sport on light tackle. They use their broad bodies to plane away from fishermen, creating the illusion of battling a moving board. This effect contrasts with a hooked bluegill, which fights in tight circles, but usually succumbs to the pressure of the rod in a matter of seconds.

Shellcrackers emerge from the water as glistening rainbows with color combinations including yellow, gold, green, and even darker shades of gray and black.

TACKLE & BAIT
One of the major draws of bream fishing is that almost every fisherman already owns suitable tackle. Rarely do shellcrackers or bluegills require special gear. Light spinning or spincast rigs or even cane poles can put fish in the boat.

Charles Slaton sticks with one standard outfit and lure presentation at all times. He employs a 5 1/2-foot light-action rod with a small spinning reel spooled with 4-pound-test line. His lure is a 1/32-ounce squirrel tail jig with a green or chartreuse head. He adds a tiny split shot to his line about 12 inches above the jig. Depending on water depth, he clips a weighted cork 2 to 4 feet up the line.

Then, there is one final twist to his presentation.

"I tip that jig with a cricket," Slaton revealed. "It's something that I've gotten used to doing. I like to think of it as having two shots at them."

Some anglers prefer to use only bait. Knowledgeable anglers have largely disproved the old notion that shellcrackers only bite worms. Worms and crickets fished on a No. 2 or 4 hook below a split shot and float deliver plenty of shellcrackers.

BIG GUNTERSVILLE SHELLCRACKERS
The previous references to Lake Guntersville are not just coincidence. Many observers view the sprawling lake in northeast Alabama as the premier shellcracker destination in the state. At least Charles Slaton thinks so. He visits other Alabama waters to guide for crappie, but is quick to suggest why he makes Guntersville his home base in the spring.

"For numbers and size of shellcrackers, it's the best," Slaton said. "I start locating beds around the 20th of April. That's when the water temperature starts to get right. It needs to be up there toward 70 for them to g

et wound up. I always get my better fish in the two weeks prior to the full moon in May."

While the lake well deserves its reputation as one of the country's premier bass factories and is also a quality crappie lake as well, Guntersville attracts visitors from around the country purely for its bream fishing. Slaton's customers arrive from such extreme locales as Texas, Michigan and Indiana.

Like most lakes, Guntersville continues to evolve as a fishery. According to Slaton, one change that has manifested itself in recent years is the mixture of shellcrackers and bluegills in the same spawning area.

"There was a time when I could go to certain spots and find only shellcrackers," Slaton recalled. "That's not the case anymore. Almost always, I find them together, so catching only shellcrackers these days is a difficult proposition. That's only started to happen in the last four or five years. But you can still catch a lot of them. It might be a five-shellcracker-to-one-bream ratio on one spot, and then the opposite on the next."

Biologist Donny Lowery noted that he encounters the same situation on Guntersville and elsewhere.

"I don't know if there is any way to pinpoint just shellcrackers," Lowery said. "Where you find shellcrackers, you will likely also find bluegills."

While the entire extent of Guntersville holds good populations of shellcrackers, Slaton confines most of his guiding to the mid-lake area, from just upstream of Guntersville State Park to the Goose Pond area upriver.

Like most other species on Guntersville, the shellcrackers have adjusted to the abundant milfoil and hydrilla during the spawning season.

"There's not as much structure as there used to be," Slaton said. "The stumps have rotted out.

"What I normally look for is good green grass in about 5 feet of water or less. The grass is starting to emerge about 6 inches off the bottom. You can see it down there if the water is clear and is shallow enough.

"The fish are usually found on some type of break, maybe on a point. An added bonus is if you can get a stump or two around that green grass on the point. Sometimes they are on the sides of the point or maybe they locate in a ditch that runs into the flats."

Slaton acknowledged an "old-school" approach to shellcracker fishing. He strongly believes that the spawning bream emit an odor that can be smelled by fishermen. He also abides by the adage that you should be on the water in the days leading up to the May full moon.

"You can smell them," Slaton emphasized. "A lot of people don't realize that or don't believe it, but you can smell that musk scent that they give off. Start casting around when you smell it, and you will quickly locate some fish.

"I get my better fish two weeks prior to that full moon in May."

Slaton said visitors to Guntersville could expect to catch numbers of fish at this time of year up to about 1 1/2 pounds.

OTHER TVA RESERVOIRS
While Guntersville clearly attracts the most visitors seeking shellcrackers, the other three TVA reservoirs in north Alabama yield good catches as well. While locals point to favorite spots on Wheeler and Pickwick, perhaps Wilson Lake between Rogers­ville and Florence is the best. The lake is smaller and the fish easier to pinpoint.

Lowery, in addition to his duties with TVA, likes to fly-fish for bluegills and shellcrackers. He pointed out several locations that hold fish. One of his favorite areas is in Shoal Creek, which feeds the Tennessee River just east of Florence. The wood-filled coves just below the U.S. Highway 72 bridge attract spawning shellcrackers each year, as does the grass near Emerald Beach Marina just above the bridge.

Other traditional shellcracker hotspots on Wilson include Town Creek and Donnegan Slough, both on the south side of the lake. Donnegan and adjoining McKernan Creek, just upstream from Wilson Dam, is especially noted for its large shellcrackers.

Much like on Guntersville, the shellcrackers in Town Creek and Donnegan Slough can be found around aquatic vegetation, mainly alligator grass or water willows on Wilson

Wheeler Lake also boasts its share of quality shellcracker habitat, as does Pickwick to the west. On Wheeler, the lower to middle sections of the lake appear to be best, including First Creek, Second Creek, Elk River, and areas around the Decatur Flats. On Pickwick, most of the bigger tributaries boast good shellcracker fishing, perhaps the best being Second Creek near Waterloo.

OVERLOOKED NORTH BAMA WATERS
Guntersville and the other TVA lakes receive most of the bream-fishing attention and justifiably so. However, anglers pursue shellcrackers in various other waters across the upper tier of the state.

One such location that receives little fishing pressure but still produces massive shellcrackers is Little Bear Creek Lake in Franklin County. Part of the four-lake Bear Creek Development Authority chain, Little Bear offers just over 1,500 surface acres at full pool and yields shellcrackers that exceed 2 pounds each year.

Weekday fishing on Little Bear can be lonely with very few boats on the water, perhaps because the shellcrackers in this lake are notoriously finicky. They bite aggressively one day and disappear the next, or slam a jig one hour and ignore it the next.

Trace Branch, the biggest arm of Little Bear and located directly across the lake from Elliott Branch boat ramp and campground, is a likely spot for shellcrackers. This area features numerous sloughs and smaller pockets that serve as good spawning grounds for redears.

One phenomenon that occurs on Little Bear is a deeper spawn. While some shellcracker beds will be visible, the majority of the bigger fish come from greater depths than normal. Most of the time, these deeper beds are invisible, although the lake is ultra-clear at times. Still, dinner-plate-sized 'crackers can be found spawning in water out to 10 feet.

Crossing the state, bream fishermen on the Coosa chain bring in good catches of shellcrackers from Weiss, Neely Henry and Logan Martin, according to Rob Andress, a state fisheries biologist. Most state-run public lakes are also stocked with shellcrackers. Andress suggests the lower pond of the three that make up Clay County State Public Fishing Lake near Lineville as an excellent spot for shellcrackers.

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