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PANFISH WITH ATTITUDE

Article from the Columbus, GA, Ledger-Enquirer
by Bryan Brasher

Around lunchtime Tuesday, Dwight Lake sat inside the marine store at Lee County State Lake rigging a half-dozen road-and-reels for an afternoon fishing trip.

As manager at Lee County, Lake spends most of his time tending to the needs of his customers and has few opportunities to fish.  But once a year -- right about the time the shellcracker go on bed in April -- he always makes a little time for himself.

“Ya’ll can have the bass,” said Lake, now in his seventh year as manager at Lee County Lake.  “Shellcracker are my favorite fish in the world.”

Many who have tangled with shellcracker such as the giants now roaming the Lee County Lake shoreline would likely agree.

Though closely related to bluegill and other panfish species, shellcracker are the biggest, meanest panfish of the bunch.  Their thick, muscular bodies and bad attitudes make them an annual target for light-tackle fisherman and sometimes cause anglers to miss work during the peak of their run.

Shellcracker have a soft-bite, and often swallow baited hooks without announcing their presence to fishermen.  But once they’re hooked, there’s no doubting the fish are there.

Unlike bluegill, which are scrappy, but light on the end of a line, a shellcracker’s brute force makes it feel heavy.  Unlike crappie, which tend to fight hard for a few seconds before giving up, shellcracker fight all the way to the boat.  They finish by swimming full speed in circles under the boat -- a maneuver that helps the fish rid themselves of hooks.

Perhaps the only thing fishermen value more about shellcracker than their feisty nature is their tasty flesh.  A full day of battling the strong-willed fish, followed by a night of eating thick fillets battered in corn meal make shellcracker seem almost too good to be true.

“There’s nothing I love more,” said Wayne Nettles, an avid shellcracker fisherman from Phenix City.  “I love crappie and bass.  But when it comes to eating fish, I don’t think you can beat shellcracker.”

Shellcracker, which are also referred to as redear sunfish because of the bright red spot near their gill flaps, are an accidental catch for some anglers year round.  But the biggest congregations of the fish are normally found during the first full moon in April at the peak of their spawning run.

The fish bed in 1 to 6 feet, usually on gravel bottom and sometimes near structures like stumps or weeds.  They’re skittish -- especially in clear water.  But light tackle and a finesse presentation make them easy prey.

‘I use 6-pound line, No. 8 hooks and stay back as far away from their beds as I can, “said Jesse Bowman, a Lake Eufaula crappie guide who breaks from crappie fishing each April to fish for bedding shellcracker. “I used to fish with 4-pound-test line, but they’re so big and strong, they’ll break it if you don’t have your drag set just right.”

Some shellcraker fisherman use floats to detect their light bites.  Bait presented on the bottom with only a small weight works just as well, but be sure to keep a good pair of needle-nose pliers handy and be prepared to lose numerous hooks in their gullets.”

Shellcracker are named for the molar-like teeth they use to crush snails and mollusks – two preferred, natural forages.  They also bite worms and crickets as well as some artificial baits like Renoski and Judge jigs and small Rooster Tails.

The fish bed past the full moon in May -- then they disappear.

“That’s the thing about ‘em,” Bowman said. “You have to get ‘em while they’re there because when they’re finished bedding, it’s like somebody turned out the light.”


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