The Bluegill and Shellcracker are two often confused freshwater fish populating North America. Fishermen love these guys for very similar reasons, but these are very distinct species. Let’s take a look at what makes them stand out.
Is a Shellcracker the Same as a Bluegill?
No, a Shellcracker (Lepomis microlophus) is not the same as the Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus). These are two different species, though they exist under the same “umbrella” of the Sunfish family, making them related.
Like other Sunfish, Bluegills and Shellcrackers have hard-rayed dorsal fins. They also both live throughout North America in a variety of water sources.
What’s the Difference Between Shellcracker vs Bluegill?
The main differences between these fish are their distribution across the continent, their diets, and their appearance. At first glance, to the untrained eye, these fish look very similar. But as you’ll learn later on, they have distinct physical characteristics that can help you tell them apart.
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What is a Shellcracker?
The Shellcracker also goes by the common names Redear, Rogue Ear, Georgia Bream, Sun Perch, and Cherry Gill. Most of these nicknames have to do with the red spot on their opercular flap. Shellcrackers are freshwater fish with a southern distribution in the US and can be elusive. They’re also considered panfish, meaning they’re the perfect size to fry up in a pan.
What is a Bluegill?
The Bluegill’s name also has to do with their appearance, more specifically, their coloration. Bluegills have a much wider distribution and there’s a good chance you’ll come across a few within a year of fishing ponds and lakes. Bluegills are also considered panfish.
How to Tell the Difference Between Shellcracker and Bluegill
While these two fish may look similar at first glance, they’re actually very different. We’re going to dig into size differences, physical characteristics to tell them apart, coloration, and distribution.
Shellcracker vs Bluegill Size Differences
Shellcrackers reach, on average, 6-10 inches in length and 2 lbs, but they can easily reach up to 5 lbs. These fish take a while to mature – about three years – so the smaller the fish, the younger it is.
Bluegill have a wider average of 4-12 inches in length, and can get up to 4 lbs. Like many fish, the environment directly affects the size of a Bluegill.
Shellcracker vs Bluegill Ear Flap
The opercular flap, or ear flap, on these species is the easiest way to tell them apart. The Shellcracker is also known as a Redear because of the red/orange opercular flap, very noticeable on first glance. The Bluegill’s opercular flap is dark in color, almost a black smudge.
Shellcracker vs Bluegill Coloration Differences
Bluegills get their name from their coloration. This species is colored a beautiful blue-purple along their body, though the color can be deep and darker along their dorsal side. Bluegills also have orange bellies.
Shellcrackers, on the other hand, have an olive color to their body with vertical bars running down. Their midsections are a light greenish-yellow and bellies are white.
Side by side, these fish will look very different from one another.
Where Can You Find Bluegill?
Bluegills have an extremely wide range in North America and can be found almost anywhere on the continent. They range along the east coast to Florida, west to Texas, into Northern Mexico, north to Minnesota, and back to New York. They’ve also been introduced in countries such as Asia and South Africa.
In terms of habitat, like many Sunfish, Bluegills love ponds and lakes with shallow water. However, they can also be found in streams and rivers. Bluegills will look for vegetation or underwater structures to hide in. They stay out of direct sunlight.
Bluegill Fishing Tips
The best Bluegill lures will have great action and mimic their natural diet. Bluegills are opportunistic eaters, meaning as soon as they notice something edible, they’ll go for it. Your main concern when fishing for Bluegill should be getting their attention. Additionally, make sure you’re using lures and gear that can punch through thick vegetation without being caught or tangled.
Where Can You Find Shellcracker?
Shellcrackers populate southeast areas of North America, ranging from North Carolina down into FLorida. They reach as far west as Illinois and Missouri, down to Texas. These fish prefer quiet, warm lakes and ponds. Like the Bluegill, they’ll congregate near logs and vegetation. Shellcrackers can also be found in marsh wetlands and reservoirs.
Shellcracker Fishing Tips
Shellcrackers have a very distinct diet made up of snails, freshwater mollusks, clams and insects. They’ll also check out worms. These fish eat along the bottom of the water column so keep that in mind when setting up a rig – you’ll want to be fishing down rather than up. Use distinct, flashy lures to coax Shellcrackers out from their hiding places and make sure your gear can get through thick vegetation.
Shellcracker vs Bluegill Taste
Of these two species, Bluegill are considered tastier – in fact, they’re considered some of the tastiest panfish out there. But Shellcrackers are also good eating and have white, flaky meat with thicker filets than other panfish. Both fish are great pan fried or deep fried.
Is There a Bluegill Shellcracker Hybrid?
Yes, a hybrid of these two fish does exist. It’s called the “Gillcracker” by fishermen and tends to be impressive in terms of size and coloration. These fish are usually dark in color, but still retain that bright blue coloration along the gills.
Can Shellcracker And Bluegill Live Together?
Yes, there’s a lot of opportunity for habitat to crossover despite the Shellcracker living mostly in the southeast. So these fish can, and do, definitely live together in some water sources. Chances are the Bluegill population will be larger, but they’re probably hanging out in the same spots.
Now you know how to tell the difference between these two impressive fish! Get out there and see what you can pull up on your line. If you’re in the south, where territories overlap, make sure you take a refresher course on how to tell the difference between the Bluegill and Shellcracker – you could end up with either one.
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