Shellcrackers are the sumo wrestlers of the sunfish clan. Officially known as redear sunfish, they grow to enormous sizes—for a panfish, anyway. One- to 2-pounders are common in many Southern waters, and in recent years, several exceeding 5 pounds have been caught. The current International Game Fish Association all-tackle world record, a behemoth weighing 5 pounds 12 ounces, was caught in Arizona’s Lake Havasu in February 2014.
In most waters where they occur, shellcrackers are much less common than their close cousin, the bluegill. They’re almost always more difficult to find, but the challenge is worth the reward. Shellcrackers are great to eat and big fun on light tackle. Many think of this beautiful sunfish like they do the brass ring on a carnival carousel—a prize that bringsjubilation when finally held in hand.
However, a lot of anglers don’t understand that catching shellcrackers consistently, especially big shellcrackers, requires specialized tactics quite different from those used when targeting bluegills and other bream. That won’t be a problem for you, though. In the paragraphs that follow, you’ll learn strategies that will help you find and catch these “biggest of the big” sunfish.
The would-be ’cracker wrangler should keep a couple important points in mind when fishing. First, shellcrackers are bottom feeders. They have evolved to dine in this way so they can co-exist with bluegills and other sunfish with little competition. Bluegills feed mostly from the surface to mid-depths. Shellcrackers occupy a separate niche, grubbing on the bottom like catfish as they gobble up fingernail clams, snails, insect larvae, worms, tiny crayfish and other bottom-dwelling favorites. They get the “shellcracker” nickname from the flattened teeth in their throats, which are used to crush the shells possessed by some of these morsels.
Second, shellcrackers are extremely fussy. They like to sneak up on a bait, inspect it for a long while and then peck at it before eating, an unnerving habit that makes it difficult to know when to set the hook. They can be enticed with a variety of natural baits—worms, crickets, freshwater shrimp, small crayfish and mussel meat, to name a few. But typically on a given body of water, only one or two such tidbits will catch them with any reasonable amount of regularity. On some lakes, live redworms—and only live redworms—will entice them to bite. On others, shellcrackers might assail crickets and freshwater shrimp while snubbing redworms entirely. Artificial lures are only rarely worth trying but provide the ultimate challenge.
To improve success, anglers also need to understand a few things about the seasonal habits of shellcrackers.
The best season to catch them, bar none, is spring. It’s at this time, when the water temperature hits 66 degrees or thereabouts, that shellcrackers move into shallow shoreline reaches to spawn. They usually begin nesting just a bit earlier than bluegills and have separate nesting colonies, or beds. Each bed will encompass multiple nests and might be the size of a refrigerator or even a school bus, depending on the bottom substrate. If you can find one, it’s not unusual to pull a dozen or more shellcrackers from it, one after another. Most will be on firm bottom in shallow water, usually near lily pads, stumps, snags, cypress trees or other cover. In some areas, fish might stay on their spawning beds well into July.
After spawning, shellcrackers leave the shallows and return to deeper haunts where they’ll stay throughout the rest of the year. A few will linger under docks, in the shade of cypress trees and around beds of green aquatic vegetation where you might entice them while bottom fishing. But most will reside in depths of 8 to 25 feet or more, often adjacent to underwater creek or river channels or near the deepest edge of weed beds around islands and other mid-lake features. In oxbow lakes that have bowl-shaped bottoms, post-spawn shellcrackers often congregate near deep-water cover in the outside bend or around mid-lake cypress trees.
It’s certainly not impossible to find shellcrackers outside the spring spawning season, but it definitely can be a challenge. Pinpointing the typically small schools beneath all that open water is tough on the best of days. And if it’s windy at all, staying on a school once you’ve found it can be frustratingly difficult.
If you stick with it, though, you’ll be glad you did. Once you’ve pegged a school to a particular location and secured your boat so it won’t drift off the spot, you sometimes can catch enough shellcrackers from that one area for a fish fry.
SPOTS AND BAITS
Shellcrackers spawn on a mud bottom if nothing else is available, but prefer beds of sand, hard clay, gravel or shells. By probing the bottom with the butt of a cane pole or push pole, you sometimes can identify the substrate and thus narrow the scope of your search for bedding fish.
In clear-water lakes, wait for a sunny spring day, put on your polarized sunglasses and roam the shorelines until you see the light-colored, circular, plate-sized depressions that indicate nests. You’ll usually see a dozen or more, tightly grouped with the rims almost touching. You might actually see fish fanning the beds. Some might be bluegills, but unless the water is exceptionally clear, you’ll only know by catching them.
When you find bedding fish, anchor your boat, hook a small worm on a No. 6 or No. 8 long-shanked Carlisle hook and pitch the bait—with no weight or float—beside a fish. You want the bait to drift right in front of the shellcracker’s nose. Let it sink to the bottom and don’t move it at all. An easy fish will soon turn nose-down and gingerly sip up the bait.
Rarely will you feel a strike or see your line move. Sometimes you see the red gill flap flare. Sometimes you just don’t see your worm anymore. When that happens, set your hook quickly or else the shellcracker will spit the bait and be uncatchable for a while.
If no bite is forthcoming after a few minutes, retrieve the worm and spray it with YUM F2 Crawfish Scent or a similar cover scent before presenting it again. Many times this gets the fish going. If it doesn’t, pull off the old worm, put on a fresh one and target a different fish.
Wary trophy-size shellcrackers can be really tough to entice. I like to add a sensitive quill float to my line and drift the bait right under their noses. Let the bait sink close to the bottom, then pull it back up in front of the fish. Do this several times. If the fish still isn’t interested but hasn’t spooked off, try to gently hit the fish in the face with the bait. This will either spook it or make it bite.
Shellcrackers are, indeed, challenging to catch—especially the big ones. But no self-respecting shellcracker fisherman 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 2 pounds makes it all worthwhile. Don’t let another summer pass without giving them a try.