Shell Cracker Fish | Everything you need to know • Panfish Nation (2022)

Often overshadowed by their cousin the black crappie and bluegill, shell cracker fish are a bit of a mystery to some anglers.

In this article, I hope to clear up some of the confusion and shed light on these amazing and powerful fish.

Whether you call them a shell-cracker, shellcracker, redear, or one of the other countless nicknames…by the end of this guide you’ll be more familiar with this fish and better prepared to catch them out on the lake!

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Table of Contents

What is a Shell Cracker Fish?

A “Shell Cracker Fish” is a species of sunfish native to North American. Shell-cracker is a nickname, sometimes also spelled Shellcracker.

The Common name of this fish is Redear Sunfish (Lepomis microlophus).

Depending on the region, it may also be referred to as Georgia bream,cherry gill,chinquapin,improved bream,rouge ear sunfishandsun perch.

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What does a Shell Cracker Fish look like?

Shellcracker have a typical ‘panfish’ body type that is semi-rounded with a deep profile and pointed pectoral fins. They have small mouths and a distinct red opercular ear flap on males and orange ear flap on females.

Coloration varies from a light brown to olive green, with white and silver near the belly. Patterning can be light vertical bars similar to a bluegill or be a solid tone that fades from darkest on top to lightest on the bottom.

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How Big Do Shellcrackers Get?

Shellcracker grow quickly and reach larger sizes than many other sunfish species. Adults typically are 7-10 inches in length, with large specimens reaching up to 12 inches in length and 2lbs in weight.

Many lakes and ponds throughout the United States stock Shellcracker as a sportfish, with fish reaching up to 4 lbs. Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arizona are all known for their very large and robust Shellcracker fishing.

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Shellcracker vs Bluegill- What’s the difference?

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Shell Cracker Fish | Everything you need to know • Panfish Nation (4)

Although Shellcracker and Bluegill look similar and they often inhabit the same lakes and ponds, they are two totally different species of Sunfish.

A Bluegill, (Lepomismacrochirus) is smaller than a shellcracker, and lacks the red or orange opercular ear flap. Bluegill typically have a darker coloration, with shades of dark green, brown and purple.

Redear Sunfish vs Shellcracker- What’s the difference?

A Redear Sunfish is a Shellcracker!

Nothing! There is no difference between a Redear Sunfish and a Shellcracker. They are the same exact fish. Redear Sunfish is the official species name, whereas Shellcracker is a nickname commonly used in the Southeast United States. A Redear Sunfish is a Shellcracker!

Why do they call them Shellcracker?

Shellcracker have a unique set of teeth in the back of their mouth, capable of crunching the shells of snails and other mollusks- hence the nickname Shellcracker!

Where can I find Shellcracker?

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Shellcracker are native to the Southeastern United States including Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas, The Carolinas, Texas, Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois.

Due to its popularity as a sportfish, it has been introduced to many western and northern states as well.

What Do Shellcracker Fish Eat?

As their name suggests, shellcracker love to eat snails and other small freshwater mollusks. They also feed on insects larvae, cladocerans (water fleas), worms, leeches and other common sunfish forage.

They primarily feed on the bottom and prefer clear water with cover from weeds, stumps, roots and logs.

How Do You Catch Shellcracker?

To catch Shellcracker, focus on finding the correct habitat and presenting your bait or lure on or near the bottom

A simple fish finder like the Garmin Striker is critical to finding the correct depth and temperature when targeting shellcracker and other panfish.

Shellcracker are bottom feeders, so unlike their cousin the bluegill that feeds throughout the water column, or even on the surface, shellcracker feed in the mud, sand, and in thick vegetation near roots and downed trees.

Shellcracker have very small mouths, so you want to be sure your tackle is downsized. Try using 4-6 lb test line, with a #8 long shank hook. To get your bait on the bottom, use a small split shot positioned 6 inches above the hook.

Specifically targeting Shellcracker can be a bit difficult because they are often dispersed among other sunfish species. You are likely to find them shallow during the spawning season, but then deep other times of the year.

My recommendation is to find suitable habitat, use very light tackle and small hooks, and bounce around to different areas until you catch a few. You will begin to see patterns on your local lake or river and determine where the Shellcracker are located.

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Look for unique features such as sandy bottom, rocks or boulders nearby. Maybe it’s a shallow muddy area with sparse vegetation or a specific boathouse that always holds fish. Keep learning, and stay focused on the patterns you find!

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When do Shellcracker Spawn?

Shellcracker spawning is triggered by the warming of water temperatures to 65 degrees. During this time, Shellcracker will move into shallow spawning habitat and build nests in 1-6 feet of water. They prefer to deposit their eggs on gravel bottom. Males will ‘fan’ away the mud or silt to build a nest, fertilize the area. Then females will come and deposit their eggs.

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Shellcracker often spawn before other sunfish species such as the Bluegill, and spawning activity peaks during the full moon.

What is the best bait for Shellcracker?

Shellcracker are notoriously finicky when it comes to bait and presentation. What works on one lake, may be totally obsolete on another lake. The trick to catching Shellcracker is finding out what works for the body of water you are fishing, and that comes with trial and error.

Experiment with different hook sizes, weight sizes, baits and lures to find the winning combination.

Live Bait

Shellcracker primarily feed on the bottom, so think of baits that are found on the bottom in the mud or sand. Worms, nightcrawlers, leeches, crawfish, and insects are among the best baits for targeting Shellcracker.

My personal favorite is a small piece of nightcrawler or Gulp! Maggots:

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Artificial Lures

Shellcracker will occasionally hit artificial lures although it is not very common. A small 1/16 ounce beetle spin is a great option to cover water and locate fish. Fish it very slow, just above the bottom.

Small 1/32nd ounce hair-jigs or tube jigs may also work. Micro spoons or ultralight crankbaits may also trigger a bite. In any case, fish it slow, fish it small, and fish it deep near the bottom.

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Shell Cracker Fish | Everything you need to know • Panfish Nation (10)
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Are Shellcracker fish good to eat?

Yes! Shellcracker has a good reputation as a quality table fare. The meat is white and flaky. Fillets are thicker than their Bluegill cousins, and bag limits are very generous in most states.

They are delicious fried, pan-seared or baked. Just add grits and baked beans!

What is the World Record Shellcracker Fish?

The world record Shellcracker is a staggering 6lbs 3-ounce fish caught in Lake Havasu Arizona on May 4th 2021. Talk about a giant!

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Conclusion

When it comes to exciting Panfish, the Redear sunfish, AKA “Shell Cracker” is one of the top contenders. Pound for pound these fish are powerful quarry, capable of exciting action on light tackle equipment. They are plentiful, found all over the United States and have generous bag limits.

They can be a bit challenging to find, but that’s part of the fun right?

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Next time you are out fishing, I encourage you to try and target these bruisers of the Sunfish family.

You’ll become a better angler! Thanks for reading.

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FAQs

Shell Cracker Fish | Everything you need to know • Panfish Nation? ›

Shellcracker have a typical 'panfish' body type that is semi-rounded with a deep profile and pointed pectoral fins. They have small mouths and a distinct red opercular ear flap on males and orange ear flap on females. Coloration varies from a light brown to olive green, with white and silver near the belly.

What is the best bait for shellcracker? ›

Because shellcrackers aren't particularly susceptible to lures, most anglers use live bait. Worms, grass shrimp and crickets are probably the top three in popularity, but waxworms, meal worms, leeches, catalpa worms and bits of crayfish tail or mussel meat also get their attention.

How do you fish shell crackers? ›

BIG SHELLCRACKER!!! Redear Sunfish Fishing With 1 lb Line and ...

How do you target a shellcracker? ›

A Simple Way To Target JUMBO Bluegill and Shellcracker!!! - YouTube

Can you eat shellcracker fish? ›

Redear sunfish are a fish of the southeast. They often feed heavily on snails, thus the nickname shellcracker. However, they also are known by Georgia bream, cherry gill, chinquapin, improved bream, rouge ear sunfish, and sun perch.

Where can I find shellcracker beds? ›

To find these areas, I ease my boat along parallel to shore and look for places where these types of bottom extend above the water line. When I see a likely spot, I test-fish it straight off the bank in 3-7 feet of water. Shellcrackers tend to bed deeper than bluegill.

What is the biggest shellcracker ever caught? ›

The freshwater fishing community around North America is buzzing off the recent news that a new world record Redear Sunfish (also known as Shellcracker) has been caught from famous Lake Havasu in Arizona. The behemoth reportedly weighed 6 pounds 3 ounces, and was 17 inches long with a 20 inch girth. WOW!

How big can a shellcracker get? ›

Shellcracker grow quickly and reach larger sizes than many other sunfish species. Adults typically are 7-10 inches in length, with large specimens reaching up to 12 inches in length and 2lbs in weight. Many lakes and ponds throughout the United States stock Shellcracker as a sportfish, with fish reaching up to 4 lbs.

How do you catch a shellcracker on a bed? ›

Tips To Catch Shellcrackers - YouTube

What is the best time to catch shellcrackers? ›

Like most fish, the best time to catch them is during their annual spawn, which occurs about a month earlier than the bluegill spawn. Begin targeting shellcrackers around March or April by sending red worms to the bottom. That's where you'll typically find redear, as they predominantly forage for food along the bottom.

How fast do shellcrackers grow? ›

Shellcrackers growth rate will average a 1/4 pound per season and only a few will survive more than six summers. There are two types of crappie that are most common, the Black Crappie and the White Crappie. The Whites are much more prolific than the Black. White Crappie in most cases, take over smaller ponds and lakes.

How long do shellcrackers stay on bed? ›

The fish usu- ally bed on the two moons in March, but if there has been a cold spell late in the winter, it will put the bedding off until the last moon in March and the first moon in April. This gives anglers a good month of bedding fish to fill boats to the brim.

What is the world record redear? ›

Thomas Farchione of Waterford, Wis., with the enormous 6.30 pound redear sunfish he caught on May 4 at Lake Havasu in Arizona. The fish ranks a new International Game Fish Association world record.

How do you fillet a shellcracker? ›

How to Fillet Shellcrackers (Redear Sunfish) - YouTube

Why are redear sunfish called shellcracker? ›

The spinous dorsal fin is in front of a soft dorsal fin. Finally, this deep-bodied fish has a unique set of teeth in their small mouth, called pharyngeal teeth. These teeth are used for crushing their favorite food, snails, and mussels, which is where they get their nickname, shellcracker.

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