STORIES THE VIEW UPSTREAM By: Keith 'Catfish' Sutton, WorldFishingNetwork.com About Shellcracker Sunfish: Willing Biters, Hard Fighters If sunfish were placed in divisions like boxers, the shellcracker would be a heavyweight contender Shellcrackers are the heavyweights of the sunfish clan, often exceeding 2 pounds. If you fish the right waters, a 4- to 5-pounder might bend your pole. (Keith Sutton photo) The largest of true sunfish, Shellcrackers can deliver a knockout punch that will put your bobber down for the 10 count. It’s one of the finest fighters for its size in freshwater, and during spring spawning season, anglers swarm to prime ‘cracker waters to get in on the year’s best action. Spawning begins as early as March in southern Florida where many first-rate shellcracker lakes are located. April and May are prime months in most states, while northern lakes may see spawning peaks in May and June. Shellcrackers resemble their bluegill cousins, and many folks don’t make any distinction. They’re both “bream,” and they’re both good to eat. There are important differences, however, in both appearance and behavior. Biologists refer to shellcrackers as “redear sunfish,” a practical designation based on the color of the ear flaps. Bluegills have dark-colored ear flaps. Shellcracker ear flaps have a reddish-orange border. This border may be absent in young redears, but it’s a prominent identification mark in adults. Redears also have grinding teeth in the throat. These crunch the shells of the snails and clams forming most of their diet and prompted the “shellcracker” moniker. Other common nicknames include government-improved bream, yellow bream, chinquapin and stumpknocker. Feeding habits of shellcrackers and bluegills also differ, a fact that may account for the absence of shellcrackers on many bream anglers’ stringers. Bluegills feed anywhere from the water’s surface to the lake bottom, but shellcrackers feed almost exclusively on the bottom. Most are caught bottomfishing with natural bait such as worms, crickets, small crayfish, mussels or grass shrimp. Mini-jigs, flies and other artificials work at times, but shellcrackers usually aren’t easy marks for lures. That’s part of the challenge of taking these burly bream. Shellcracker spawning is linked to full moon periods, and most experienced redear rustlers consider the span three days before to three days after a full moon the best fishing time. Look for bedding fish in shallow water around lily pads, dead timber, cypress trees, or other shoreline cover. Open sand, gravel or shell bottoms in shallow water offshore may also harbor huge spawning concentrations. The favorite method of shellcracker fishing is with an old-fashioned cane pole, but using ultralight tackle compounds the thrills. A small spinning or spincast combo spooled with 2- to 6-pound-test line works great. Tie on a size 10 to 6 Carlisle (cricket) hook, add a small split shot or two, then bait up and either toss the rig out on the bottom, or position a small bobber so the bait rests just above the bottom. Using a quill-type bobber that lies on its side the moment your bait touches bottom makes it easy to tell if your depth adjustment is right. Two pounds is exceptionally large for most sunfish, but some lakes produce shellcrackers that size with astounding regularity. A handful of waters, including those that follow, have given up specimens more than twice that size. Lake Havasu, Arizona If you want to catch a really huge shellcracker, one exceeding 3 pounds, 19,300-acre Lake Havasu on the border between Arizona and California could be the best place to try. In February 2014, the current IGFA all-tackle world record, a behemoth weighing 5 pounds, 12 ounces, was caught there. That surpassed the 5-1/2-pound Arizona state record caught in May 2012 and at least three other shellcrackers exceeding 5 pounds caught there recent years. Havasu shellcrackers grow huge on a diet of invasive quagga mussels, which were first found in the lake in 2007. The mussel infestation shows no signs of abating, so it’s possible an even larger redear—perhaps one topping 6 pounds—could be caught here, especially in May or June when spawning fish are full of roe. Two-pounders are common, something that can’t be said of many waters. Anglers can cast a line from several free public-access fishing docks or launch a boat at one of the many ramps and marinas. Top baits are mealworms, night crawlers, small crawfish-imitation lures and small crappie jigs fished around docks and aquatic vegetation. For more info, visit www.golakehavasu.com. Santee-Cooper Lakes, South Carolina Lakes Marion and Moultrie have been well-known shellcracker hotspots for decades, with 2- to 4-pound specimens landed in this 170,000-acre dual-lake system every year. The best fishing is in or near the 6.5-mile-long Diversion Canal connecting the lakes, which produced 5-pound, 4-ounce and 5-pound, 7-ounce world records in June and November 1998. A former state record—a 5-pound, 1-ounce redear—was caught in the canal, which runs through western Berkeley County near Cross and Pineville, in March 1997. Two peak fishing periods occur—one in April and May, when shellcrackers are spawning, and a fall run from early November through mid-December. Fishing the bottom of the canal with worms catches most big fall fish. In spring, look for ‘crackers in shallow water close to, but not in, the canal on either end. Most spawn in the backs of coves in 1 to 5 feet of water, usually under floating vegetation, tight to cut banks or around cypress knees. Worms and crickets entice them, as do small jigs and spinners. For area information, visit www.santeecoopercountry.org. Guided fishing and overnight accommodations are available at Black’s Fish Camp (www.blackscamp.com). Diamond Valley Lake, California This relatively new water-supply reservoir near the southern California community of Hemet is currently one of the hottest places in the country for big shellcrackers. A 4.72-pounder caught in March 2015 broke the previous lake record of 4.48 pounds caught in February 2012. The 4,500-acre lake’s clear water and extreme depths (it averages more than 180 feet deep) make it tough to fish, but a visit in spring or summer could produce several 2- to 4-pound shellcrackers for savvy panfish anglers. Favored local baits are night crawlers, mealworms and small jigs fished on bottom. Diamond Valley Lake is owned and managed by the Metropolitan Water District, and because it’s provides drinking water for surrounding communities, regulations are strict. For example, you can bring your own boat for fishing, but it must pass an on-site inspection before being launched. Rental boats are available at Diamond Valley Marina (www.dvmarina.com), or you can fish from designated bank-fishing areas along 2.5 miles of shoreline. For more information, visit www.dvlake.com. Any angler who gets acquainted with shellcrackers will be abundantly repaid in good old-fashioned fishing fun. Shellcrackers are persnickety and hard to catch at times, especially with artificials. But the possibility of catching a sunfish topping 2, 3, maybe even 4 pounds, makes it all worthwhile. Don’t let spring pass by without giving them a try.