Photo by Phil Junker
Early fishing for shellcrackers during the spawn in Florida seems to be a key to success. And while the fish can be caught during all daylight hours, early morning seems to produce the best action.# # # #
It was a southern style shallcracker adventure. It was a different kind of fishing, great fun, and produced fillets for the dinner table.
My Florida neighbor, Dennis Daniels told me it was time. “The shellcrackers are on the beds. It’s time. Let's go in the morning,” he said.
“Sounds good,” I responded. “I’ll get my gear together. Guess, I just need a long pole?”
I’d caught shellcrackers before when fishing for bluegill or crappie, but had never really specifically fished for them when it was spawning time. I’d heard you could catch big numbers and that they really put up a fight when you are trying to pull them out of the weeds.
In the Midwest, most people call shellcrackers redear sunfish. Anglers in some areas of the south also call them chinquapin, stump knockers, yellow bream or strawberry bream, rouge ear sunfish, but all are redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus. By whatever name, they grow big, fight hard and taste great when fried.
Most full-grown shellcrackers run eight to 11 inches and weigh 3./4 to one pound. The world record is five pounds, seven ounces, and while our recent outing on Lake Kissimmee, Florida, didn’t produce any fish close to the world record, many fish over a pound were taken.
Shellcrackers are light green to brown on the back with darker spots, fading to gray or silver sides. The belly from head to tail is light yellow to white. The ear flap has a red or orange spot which gives the fish its northern name, redear sunfish.
Dennis and I headed for Lake Kissimmee before daylight and launched his boat from Lake Kissimmee State Park. He wanted to get to a popular fishing spot early.
The fish, which usually spawn only once each spring, gathered in about four foot of water in lilly pads, but not all lilly pads. They feed on freshwater mussels, snails, worms, shrimp, insects and grubs. They apparently gather in lilly pads where the mussels and snails had gathered.
When the water was still, we could actually see the lilly pads move from being hit below the surface by the feeding shellcrachers. Such activity is a good indicator where to dip a worm.
Many anglers (probably three dozen boats) gathered in a spot the size of a football field, and all caught fish. During this feeding spree it isn’t uncommon for a fisherman to catch a limit of 50 shellcrackers.
Everyone used long poles. We used collapsable 10-foot poles. I rigged the line with a crappie size Daiichi Bleeding Bait hook. About four inches above the hook was a small split shot, and I used a bobber.
The key seemed to be getting the red worm or wiggler on the bottom. If not, the fish seemed to ignore the bait.
The bobber was placed so it was partially standing upright and a slight nibble or bump on the bait would cause the bobber to move. Often the bit was light, while other times the fish hit hard and took off with the bobber. The hook had to be set quickly, or the fish would wrap the line around a lilly pad.
The pads are very strong and a wrapped line resulted in a broken line as you didn’t want to pull the boat to the hook location.
The spawn takes place from late February in Florida through April in Kentucky and Indiana, depending on water temperature and other conditions. The peak usually is a few days before and after a full moon. Some anglers say a second, but not as large of feeding frenzy takes place on the following new moon.
My neighbor, Dennis was a good guide. We found fish, caught plenty, and had a tasty dinner.
I’m looking forward to trying to locate redear and try the technique at some Indiana lakes this spring.