Species spotlight: Shellcracker

The redear sunfish, aka shellcracker, is identified most easily by the colorful edge around it earflap. It can range from yellow to orange to red.
The redear sunfish, aka shellcracker, is identified most easily by the colorful edge around its earflap. It can range from yellow to orange to red. (Photo by Brian Cope)

This panfish can be caught almost anywhere in the South, by almost anybody

Redear sunfish, Lepomis microlophus, commonly referred to as shellcrackers, are a species of panfish. They have the typical panfish body: the body is longer than it is tall, and it is relatively thin. Holding your hand with the thumb facing up and pinkie finger facing down offers a glimpse at the overall shape of a shellcracker.

These fish vary widely in color based on the waters in which they live, but shellcrackers usually have a good bit of yellow on their sides, with darker backs.

The name redear sunfish comes from the red ring that outlines the fish’s black ear flap, aka operculum; sometimes it’s bright yellow or orange. It’s more recognizable name, shellcracker, comes from the fish’s habit of eating snails and mussels, cracking their shells with its set of teeth located in the throat.

Aside from snail and mussels, shellcrackers also eat worms, insects, small crawdads and tiny insect larvae. They mainly feed along the bottom and are often found by anglers in the same areas as bluegill and other panfish, but deeper in the water column.

Another common nickname for this fish also comes from its feeding habits. Known by some anglers as “stumpknocker,” this fish is known for ramming into submerged stumps and vegetation to knock potential food free. They are also known as chinquapin and yellow bream.

Community beds

Shellcrackers begin spawning in the late spring or early summer, once the water temperature reaches 70 degrees. They spawn in circular nests, known as beds, that can be as shallow as 6 inches and as deep as 10 feet. These fish usually build beds in huge groups that can number anywhere from a few dozen to more than a hundred. Their beds are sometimes located directly beside or even intermingled with bluegill beds and the beds of other panfish.

Shellcrackers can be found in many different water types throughout the United States. They are common in ponds, lakes, swamps, streams and small rivers. They prefer calmer areas and are easily found in swift rivers by finding areas with current breaks.

While many anglers catch shellcrackers only in shallow water, these fish spend much of their lives in very deep water, moving shallow only when it’s time to spawn.

Tough to ID

Anglers sometimes misidentify shellcrackers with a number of other panfish, including bluegills, redbreasts, green sunfish, and pumpkinseeds. Pumpkinseeds are the most similar to shellcrackers, and it’s not uncommon for the two species to spawn together, creating hybrid offspring. Just look for that colorful border on the ear flap.

Mississippi’s state record, a 3.33-pound fish, came from Tippah County Lake in November 1991. It was caught by James Martin. The world record, a 5-pound, 12-ounce shellcracker, was caught by Hector Brito in February 2014 from Lake Havasu, Ariz.

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