The redear sunfish has many names. Topping the list is bream and redear bream, but other frequently spoken names are shellcracker and chinquapin.
“Shellcracker” originates from this sunfish’s preference for shellfish: small mussels like fingernail clams and, especially, snails.
Beats me where the name “chinquapin” came from. A chinquapin is a tree or spreading shrub. The redear sunfish doesn’t resemble either, and I doubt that it eats the spiny chinquapin fruit.
Nevertheless, call it what you like; I’ll call it what other biologists call it: a redear sunfish, an appropriate name for a sunfish with an “ear” (gill cover flap) margined in pale yellow to red.
Redear sunfish are common in streams, ponds and reservoirs throughout Mississippi. They are prevalent along the coast and tolerate a little saltwater — up to about 4 parts per thousand salinity or 11 percent seawater — better than most other sunfish.
Adults and juveniles feed on a variety of bottom-dwelling invertebrates such as insect larvae, small clams, snails and, when near brackish water, small crabs.
Like bluegill, redear sunfish are suctorial feeders, creating negative pressure with the various bones and tissues of the mouth to make escape by their targeted prey virtually impossible.
Redear sunfish are well adapted to feeding on shelled food, which is the predominant food of adult when available. They have modified teeth in the throats called pharyngeal teeth. The pharyngeal teeth of redear sunfish are hard, rough-surface plates operated by powerful muscles that can crush even moderately stout shells.
Videography of feeding redear sunfish reveals that, after a shell is crushed, most of the shell fragments are blown out of the mouth and at the gill covers, and the meat is swallowed.
Ah, escargot are not just served in French restaurants.
Redear sunfish grow rapidly in Mississippi’s warm, fertile waters. They can grow to 6 inches in their first year, and then about an inch a year up to 12 inches in six years (the usual life span of fast-growing individuals).
The Mississippi state record is a 3.3-pound giant.
Spawning begins in the spring when water temperatures touch 70 degrees and continues into the summer.
Redear sunfish are less likely than bluegill to spawn multiple times in the same year, but fall spawning has been reported in Alabama waters.
Like bluegill, redear sunfish are colony nesters, but their sex life is less well-studied than their close relative. Redear sunfish often spawn a little deeper than bluegill, and also might nest in areas of slightly softer bottom and in areas of aquatic vegetation.
Redear sunfish typically mature at 5 inches and age 2, but fast-growers can spawn in their second year of growth. A small female will spawn 6,000 eggs, and large females can spawn up to 20,000 eggs.
The males excavate saucer-shaped nest, court their ladies, fertilize the eggs, and guard the eggs and fry. Unique among sunfish, the males make a popping noise by snapping their jaws together during courtship.
The eggs hatch in about 60 hours at 72 degrees and about 26 hours at 78 degrees. The fry stay in the nest for several days.
And best of all, the challenging-to-catch redear sunfish make delicious meals, so they are worthy targets for anglers.