By Bill Cooper
Redear sunfish, or shellcrackers as southern folks like to call them, are like bluegills on steroids. They are thick, beautifully colored sunfish and they grow big in Towell Lake, or Little Prairie Lake in Phelps County near Rolla.
Towell Lake may well be in route to becoming the state record holder for redear sunfish, according to lake fisheries biologist Nick Girondo. “We’ve seen some very large redears in Towell Lake while conducting surveys,” he said. “I believe a state record redder could be caught here.”
The state record redder is a two-pounds, seven-ounce. behemoth caught at Whetstone Creek in 1988. On April 28, 2021, Alex Phillips of Ash Grove shot a two-pound, one-ounce redder while bowfishing at Table Rock Lake. It stands as the current state record redder by alternative methods.
The redder is a deep-bodied fish with a rather small mouth. Color ranges from dark olive green above to almost white on the belly. The sides are usually yellow to green. The most distinguishable characteristic for identifications the red edge stripe on the ear flap of the male. It’s orange on females.
Redears are fond of snails as a major food item, hence the name “shell cracker.” However, insect larvae, worms, and crayfish many be consumed as well. Redears are usually found near the bottom in warm water with little current and abundant aquatic vegetation.
Redears normally reach sexual maturity by the end of their second year. They spawn during the warm months of late spring and early summer, and in deeper water than most other sunfish, congregating in spawning "beds." Nests are saucer-shaped depressions in gravel or silt and are sometimes so close they almost touch. There are usually one or two peaks of activity during spawning season. Few individuals survive more than six summers.
The best time to catch redears is during the annual spring spawn, which occurs about a month before the bluegill spawn. Start your search for redears by drowning a few red worms on the bottom. That’s where you will find redears. They tend to feed along the bottom. Still waters, such as lakes and reservoirs, with good water clarity and some vegetation are usually the best locations. Towell Lake qualifies as a superb redear fishery.
The redear spawn normally occurs in May and June in Missouri and sometimes happens again in August. Look for the saucer shaped depressions that the fish have fanned out with their tails to make nests. Most bedding areas at Towell Lake occur in one to six feet of water. Redears prefer pea gravel bottoms at Towell. They can be difficult to find after heavy spring rains. Scouting in clear, low-water periods during winter is the best method of finding the beds. Make notes and fish those areas dressing the spring spawn. Your scouting efforts will pay off handsomely.
Redears, or chinquapins, as redear aficionados call them, possess the ability to crush the shells of certain food items that may not be available to other sunfish. They have pharyngeal teeth, or “crushers,” in their throat that allow them grind up the hard shells of snails and other small mollusks.
Because redears do not eat all the same forage as bluegill, they can cohabitate quite well with bluegill and largemouth bass.
Mark it down. Redears are harder to catch than bluegills. As a result they do not receive the fishing pressure like bluegill. They are not as prolific as bluegill, and generally inhabit deeper water.
Many anglers do not realize that redears inhabit Towell Lake. Their spawn, when they are most vulnerable to anglers, is much shorter than that of bluegills. Therefor they disperse to deeper water sooner than their bluegill cousins, making them more difficult to find.
The result is a narrow window of opportunity to catch redears. That window is occurring now at Towell Lake and may be over by the time you read this article. Don’t dismay, however. Bluegill may be caught in the shallows for three months or more.
Natural bait options are the best for redears. Worms, mealworms, and crickets are great options. Commercially produced red worms will work, but don’t overlook the worms you can dig out of your garden or flower beds. Simply pinch them into halves or thirds and thread them onto a small hook without bunching them up. Remember that redears have a rather small mouth.
Using the old long shanked bluegill hooks is a good way to go. Still you may have difficulty removing the hooks. Most hook disgorgers are too large. I prefer a popsicle stick with a “V” notch cut in one end. Hold the fish in one hand with line drawn tight. Run the popsicle to the inside bend of the hook. Apply upward pressure and the hook will pop right out.
I recently discovered a large group of bedding redears at Towell Lake. I had gone hunting for them and enjoyed my success. Mistakenly, however, I only took a half dozen earthworms, which I quickly dug from under some old blocks of firewood.
The worms only lasted a couple of minutes. Redears attacked them as soon as they settled into their nests. After the worms were depleted, I opted for the next best thing I had with me, a few yellow plastic trout worms I found in my boat storage compartment. They worked like a charm.
I quickly pulled 10 redears, ranging from one-half to one pound, from the bed and called it quits. I had more than enough for a family meal. Too, the redears were spawning. I wanted to leave seed for next year.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Bill Cooper is an award winning outdoor writer and inductee of the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame as a Legendary Outdoor Communicator. He is the host of the Living the Dream Outdoors Podcast, which can be found on most social media platforms. He lives in rural St. James and can be followed at www.facebook.com/ outsidealways.