Redear sunfish are fun to catch and good to eat

By Bill Cooper
    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. Often mistaken for bluegill, redears are distinguished by a red ear patch on the gill plate. The popular sunfish of the south are great fun to catch and delicious on the dinner plate.

    Redears are also found in parts of southern Missouri. Lakes, ponds, and warmer streams often hold readears. Most anglers fish for them with live bait. However, the larger fish can be caught using jig-spinners, such as a Beetle Spin, and small crank baits.
    Bluegills tend to get more press than readears, but the shellcracker is the king of the sunfish family in the deep south. The world record, a 5-pound-7-ounce beast, was caught in Santee-Cooper Reservoir, in South Carolina. Six states now have redear records of fish over four pounds.
    The readear’s original range included the East Coast from Virginia south to Florida and west to southern Illinois, Missouri, and Texas. As their popularity grew, they were stocked further north and as far west as California, where a 5.3 pounder is on the books.
    In their native range, readears thrive in grassy lakes with calcium-rich water, which encourages populations of mollusks, a favored prey of shellcrackers. They sport molar-like teeth on their gill arches, which they use to crush snails, mussels, and clams. They have adapted to digest the fleshy parts of mollusks, while spitting out the shells. They will also feed on invertebrates from aquatic nymphs to shrimp and small crayfish.
    Shellcrackers do well in ponds and lakes as well and are often stocked with bluegills in newly built ponds. The redear spawn season starts about the same time that bluegills move to the beds. When water temperatures begin to reach the low 70 degree range, both can be found in bedding areas. Males grow larger than the females and sport brighter colors, often with bright yellow on the chest and gold flecks along the flanks, and the telltale bright red tab on the gill cover.
     Redears, like bluegills, are colonial breeders, often bedding up by the hundreds in a single colony. Where big ones are found, boats often stack up in bays and canals. Anglers use long poles baited with worms, shrimp, and crickets. The best anglers claim to be able to smell shell cracker beds. The most of us simply follow the crowd of anglers.
    An earthworm threaded on a thin wire hook, so that it can wiggle around, is a sure fire redear bait. Worms may be fished on the bottom or left dangling under a bobber with baits near the bottom.
    Redears in our region often bed on pea gravel bottoms. I carry a long gigging pole to probe the bottom in deeper waters to locate pea gravel. When the spawn is on, you can bet that readears will have their dishpan size beds made in those areas.
    Missouri Department of Conservation fisheries management biologist Nick Girondo manages lakes and streams in Phelps, Dent and Pulaski counties. He says the readears have become more common in the region over the last few decades. “Redears have particularly increased in number at Little Prairie Lake, just outside of Rolla,” he said.
    It is an interesting story regarding the population increase of readears at Little Prairie. “University students often dump the contents of their aquariums in Little Prairie at the end of the school year,” Girondo said. “Everyone commonly uses exotic snails in their aquariums to clean the sides of the glass. Their populations have exploded in Little Prairie over the last decade.”
    MDC biologists are not pleased with the introduction of exotic species in the Missouri environment. However, the snails from China which were tossed into Little Prairie turned out to be a boon for redear sunfish. “Redears are snail eaters and they have thrived since the introduction of the snails,” Girondo stated.
    The snails from China grow to the size of a quarter or so, but the redears gorge themselves on the snails while they are at a much smaller size. The snails had caused problems with the growth of largemouth bass in the lake, because they were using up nutrients. Now that the readers are feeding heavily on the snails, bigger bass are once again showing up in the lake.
    Quality readers can be hard to find, but Little Prairie Lake now has a healthy population of the scrappy fish. Nine-inchers are common, but the occasional 10- or 11-inch fish are also caught. That makes for a nice fillet.
    Redears utilize very specific habitat in the lake, preferring pea gravel bottoms where they both feed on snails and fan out nests for spawning. Redears are suckers for earthworms fished on the bottom. However, they may be caught on a variety of live baits, as well as small artificial baits like spinners and soft plastics.

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