May is widely considered to be the best month for chasing bream, but die-hard panfisher anglers know that redear sunfish — aka chinquapin, shellcracker or just redear — move into their prespawn and spawning patterns much sooner than bluegill and other sunfish species that fall under the general colloquialism of “bream.”
Mississippi has some stellar shellcracker fishing in spots across the state, but none are better managed than in several of the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks’ state lakes. Here’s a rundown of some of the top state lakes to visit this month if you’re looking for shellcrackers.
Tippah County Lake
Located in extreme northern Mississippi, not far from the Tennessee border, Tippah County Lake was built in 1972 as a soil-conservation lakes and opened for fishing in 1974.
Like all state lakes, Tippah County Lake is stocked with bass, crappie, bream and a few catfish. Jim Cutberth, the lake manager, said that, during the early spring, most anglers split their time fishing for bream, particularly redear sunfish, and crappie. A few bass fishermen will also visit the 145-acre lake.
“We do creel surveys throughout the year and we shock the lake every year in the fall, and our biologists use that information to see what the lake needs,” Cutberth said. “If it needs fish, we put them in. We fertilize the lake throughout the summer. In fact, this lake is better balanced to provide more fish caught per hour fishing than many of the state’s big reservoirs.”
David Berry, MDWFP project manager for state lakes, suggests that Tippah County anglers have reason to focus their efforts on shellcracker; the state-record shellcracker, a 3.33-pound fish, was caught there by James K. Martin on Nov. 5, 1991.
“It’s something we are very proud of, to have a state record come from one of our state lakes,” Berry said.
Berry said MDWFP has stocked both bluegill and redear sunfish in the lake, and both species seem to thrive there, thanks to “a gravelly, sandy, soil bottom.... That’s an advantage there for both the bluegill and redear.”
Lake Claude Bennet
About halfway between Laurel and Meridian in Jasper County is one of Mississippi’s best state lakes, 71-acre Lake Claude Bennett. According to Jason Thigpen, the lake manager, the bream species, particularly redear, have made the lake a popular destination.
“The lake is known for large bream: large bluegill and large redear,” Thigpen said. “They start biting usually when the water temperature gets in the mid-60s. Basically, our anglers will use worms for shellcracker and crickets for bluegill, and they’ll fish near the gravel beds that we have installed in the lake over the years. They usually produce good numbers of fish.”
One primary benefit of Lake Claude Bennett is its ease of access for bank fishing. The lake was built to include earthen points, designed to put the angler within reach of deeper water and good fish. It also has an large, wooden pier.
Larry Bull, MDWFP’s assistant director of fisheries, said Claude Bennett is one of the best bank-fishing venues in the state’s program.
“All of Mississippi’s state lakes are designed to provide ample bank-fishing access,” Bull said. “Lake Claude Bennett in Jasper County has a wooden fishing pier on its southern shore between the boat ramp and the on-site campground. In addition, there are seven earthen piers that allow anglers access to deeper water. There are gravel beds within reach.”
Simpson County Lake
Located within sight of US 49 between Mendenhall and Magee, Simpson County Lake is definitely a standout when it comes to fishing for shellcracker, or chinquapin, as the locals prefer to call them. Bull said the lake has some big specimens living there.
“In the spring, we’ve got some shellcracker — chinquapin, redear, whatever term you want to use — that will go 2 pounds,” Bull said. “Our anglers catch them all the time a pound-and-a-half, 2 pounds, but we have seen some that would go 3 pounds.”
The 75-acre lake is not only a good venue for redear, it’s got a decent population of bluegill and a variety of different bluegill sub-species.
Tactics for catching bream are pretty similar, and the ample bank-fishing access afforded at Simpson County means anglers without a boat have a better-than-average shot a catching some quality fish.
“We’ve got the coppernose bluegill, regular bluegill and the chinquapin,” Bull said. “The chinquapin will bed before the bluegill. You can catch them by fishing with red worms on the bottom, and you can find them on shallow points sticking out into deeper water all over the lake. You can be on the bank tight-lining, or you can get in the boat and fish around the stumps.”
Neshoba County Lake
This 138-acre lake near Philadelphia has been making headlines for its giant bass — and rightfully so. Even so, for the bream fisherman, early spring is a great time to fish Neshoba County Lake.
Chuck Hazelwood, the lake manager, said there are plenty of “better-than-hand-sized shellcracker” to be caught at Neshoba. One aspect of fishing the lake early in the year is that the aquatic vegetation starts growing back — that can take some getting used to — but there is also some great man-made structure for seeking out shellcracker.
“Several years ago was the first time we sunk trees in the lake,” Hazelwood said. “On the right-hand side, going out toward the island, we put out some cedar trees on those flats and marked them with buoys.”
Contrary to popular belief, the grass in Neshoba is not out of hand, but is part of the lake’s habitat.
Berry said not everyone feels that way the first time they visit the lake, but all it takes is finding a school of shellcrackers, which are right at home in the aquatic vegetation, “and they change their minds pretty quickly.”
Trip info: Shellcracker hot spots
Tippah County Lake: Located in Tippah County, 2½ miles north of Ripley off MS 15 and 2½ west of Lake at 1180 County Road 410, Ripley, 38663.
Lake Claude Bennett: Located in Jasper County, 20 miles east of Bay Springs off MS 18 at 100 Wells St., Bay Springs, 39422.
Simpson County Lake: Located in Simpson County, 5 miles south of Mendenhall and 5 miles north of Magee on US 49 at . 137 Legion Lake Rd., Mendenhall, 39114.
Neshoba County Lake: Located in Neshoba County, 7 miles southeast of Philadelphia off MS 486 at 10360 County Road 1711, Philadelphia, 39350.