The scientific name for this species of sunfish is Lepomis microlophus. However, it has many common names, depending on which region of the country you are in. It is known as shellcracker in most of the southeast. In Louisiana it is referred to as chinkapin. The accepted common name by the American Fisheries Society is redear. Whatever you choose to call them, you can recognize them by the prominent red mark on the back edge of the gill cover.
These fish, which are kissing cousins to the bluegills, are commonly stocked with the bluegill in new ponds. They are typically added at a rate of 5 to 15 percent of the total bream stocked. Redear not only look different from bluegill but they also have their own unique behavioral characteristics which we will discuss.
The name shellcracker was derived from the ability of this fish to capture and eat snails, clams, small mussels and other mollusks. Redear are equipped with a set of “crushers” in the back of their throat. These crushers consist of an upper and lower pad attached to a set of very strong muscles. These pads are covered with many small, hard tubercles that allow the fish to crush and grind the shell of their prey.
Redear eat aquatic insects and also eat some of the same food items as bluegill. The consensus among fisheries biologists is that redear stocked in low numbers do not compete significantly with bluegill because they generally feed on different food items.
Redear seldom respond to floating fish food, as do bluegill. They will also refuse a popping bug, but will eat a sinking fly such as a bead-head nymph or a black knat. Most redear are caught during the spawning season by fishing with red worms on the bottom.
Redear will typically spawn a month earlier than bluegill. In most of the southeast this will occur during March and April. Unlike bluegills, that spawn every month from May through September, redear typically have only one major spawn which occurs during the early spring.
Redear typically spawn on underwater points and shorelines with submerged treetops. Several fish usually spawn in the same area creating beds which are very close to each other. Depending on the population density, there may be from three to twenty beds in the same area. If the adult redear are a pound or larger, their beds may be as large as two feet in diameter. The beds of the large redear are easy to recognize and are typically much larger than those made by bluegill.
Although bluegill and redear seldom spawn together, it is not uncommon to see natural hybrids of these two bream. Redear will sometimes utilize water depths of five to six feet to spawn. Bluegill will typically spawn in shallow water that is 1 to 3 feet deep. Ponds are seldom stocked with bass and redear only because the limited spawning of redear will not produce enough offspring to support the growth of many bass.
It is not uncommon to see a population of redear disappear from a lake or pond over a period of years. Limited reproduction and heavy predation by early spawned bass often take their toll. It is possible to re-establish populations of redear by restocking redear fingerlings into existing bass/bluegill ponds. It typically takes three years for stocked fingerlings to enter the catch as fish that are one-half pound or larger.
Fingerling redear as small as two inches can be used to successfully reestablish fishable populations, even in lakes with large numbers of small bass. Stocking rates of approximately 200 fingerlings per acre are preferred to establish reproducing populations of redear. We have documented this success in several lakes in the southeast.
“The best populations of redear I have seen have been in clear ponds with vegetation,” said Dr. Rich Noble, Fisheries Scientist and Professor Emeritus at North Carolina State University. “Perhaps the vegetation promotes food items such as snails and larger insects. Redear seem to thrive better than bluegill under these circumstances,” says Noble. Some ponds, for whatever the reasons, seem to grow redear better than others. Soil types, water hardness, and the tendency to grow snails have an effect on the success of redear. In some lakes and ponds where bluegill may be slow growing, redear will often be large and healthy.
Many pond owners have no idea whether they have a good population of redear because they do not fish specifically for them. Redear are seldom caught except in the early spring when they congregate to spawn. The average pond owner usually misses this spawn and may miss some of the best bream fishing the pond has to offer. Redear often occupy deeper water before and after the spawn. Keep an eye on the full moon of March and April, dig some worms in the backyard and catch a mess of “shellcracker,” it is great fun.
Barry W. Smith is a “certified fisheries scientist” and is co-owner of American Sportfish.