What is a Shellcracker Fish? The Complete Guide

By Get Fishing •  Published: 10/25/22 •  9 min read

Shellcracker Fish are one species of the very popular panfish group, but may be elusive for most anglers due to their preferences when it comes to habitat. Taking a closer look at their feeding habits and preferred bait can help anglers seeking out this species in catching them. 

What is a Shellcracker Fish

What is a Shellcracker Fish?

The Shellcracker (Lepomis microlophus), goes by several different names, including: Cherry Gill, Improved Bream, Rogue Ear Sunfish, Georgia Bream, Redear Sunfish, and Sun Perch. This fish is a native North American sunfish variety found in freshwater in the south east. We’ll be taking a look at their history, features, similarities to other species and the best ways to catch them.

Is a Shellcracker different from a Redear Sunfish?

readear sunfish

Shellcrackers and Redear Sunfish are the same fish. The name “Redear” refers to the red coloring around their “ear” area, the operculum. Panfish is an umbrella term that also includes sunfish, which are freshwater fish with ray fins.

Why are They Called Shellcrackers?

The reason this species is called ‘shellcracker’ is because of what they eat. Their diet consists mainly of snails, mussels, and other shelled creatures, although they’ll also dine on water fleas, zooplankton and amphipods as well. Shellcrackers have hard pharyngeal teeth, which are actually plates located in their throats. These “teeth” allow the fish to crush tough exoskeletons and even open clams. 

What Does a Shell Cracker Look Like?

Shellcrackers end up anywhere from 6-10” at maturity but have been reported to reach 17”. They can weigh up to 5lbs. The base color of the fish is a dark olive, with a light greenish-yellow midsection and white belly. Distinct orange and red spots around the gill area make this fish stand out against other similar species. 

Shellcracker vs Bluegill – Are They The Same Fish?

Technically, the Shellcracker and Bluegill are two different species differentiated most easily by the coloring around their gills (or operculum area). Bluegills are smaller in size than the shellcracker and have darker coloring, with shades of brown and purple. However they’re both panfish – a group of fish considered the perfect size for pan frying! Aside from the shellcracker and bluegill, here are other varieties in this group:

Shellcracker vs Coppernose Bluegill – What’s the Difference?

Aside from being two different species, the coppernose bluegill is a subset of the bluegill species. The name “coppernose” comes from the copper band running along the fish’s head. Coppernose bluegills grow faster than their common bluegill cousins and can reach 2lbs in weight. They are generally still smaller than the shellcracker. 

Where Can I Find Shellcracker Fish?? 

Source: USGS

Shellcrackers reside in the American southeast, ranging from North Carolina to Florida. Their habitat goes as far west as Illinois and Missouri, down to Texas. Anglers have noted that the shellcracker can also be found outside of their native range. They prefer lakes and ponds that are warm and quiet, and congregate near logs and vegetation. Additionally, shellcrackers also reside in marsh wetlands and reservoirs.

What Do Shellcracker Fish Eat? 

The majority of a shellcracker’s diet is based on snails and freshwater mollusks, like mussels and small clams. These fish graze “down” as opposed to mid- or upper water, and will also eat insect larvae, insects, zooplankton, worms and small freshwater crustaceans. 

How to Catch a Shellcracker Fish? 

fall shellcracker fishing

Catching shellcrackers is all about finding the right habitat and lure. Like many panfish, shellcrackers prefer lakes and ponds with quiet, shaded areas. Because they’re bottom feeders, they’ll be near submerged logs, foliage and vegetation. Unlike other panfish, shellcrackers can be picky when it comes to bait. Sunnies will go for a line as soon as it hits the water, but shellcrackers need to be coaxed out with the right conditions. Look for quieter lakes and ponds and slow-running streams with calm areas where they can congregate.

Best Shellcracker fishing rigs?

Mule Jigs

Mule Fishing Mule Jigs

Mule Fishing Mule Jigs

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Our favorite ultralight jigs, a Mule Jig is a halfmoon shaped jigs made for multispecies ultralight fishing. These jig sit perfectly near the bottom of a pond or stream to entire those lower-column fish. Paired up with Mule Fishing plastics and they are a deadly slow sinking combination.

Micro Drop Shot Rig

Berkley Fusion 19 Drop Shot Hook (size 6)

Berkley Fusion 19 Drop Shot Hook (size 6)

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Like the popular bass fishing technique, the micro drop shot rig has a weight at the bottom of the line with a hook and bait above it. We like to use a 1/16oz dropshot weight with a #6 size dropshot hook. We pair this up with our favorite drop shot lure the 2.2 inch Mule Minnow.

MUUNN 1/16oz Drop Shot Weights (10 Pack)

MUUNN 1/16oz Drop Shot Weights (10 Pack)

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Double Jig Rig

1/64 oz. Mule Jig

1/64 oz. Mule Jig

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The Double Jig Rig offers a two-for-one approach, double jig rigs are great for fishing areas where you are looking to see what part of the water column fish are staged in. We like to use this to experiement with jig colors, plastic colors, even plastic types. We like to tie on two 1/64oz Mule Jigs using palomar knots so that the jigs are stacked one another.

Jig Spinner

Bett’s Spin Jig Spinner – 5 Pack

Bett’s Spin Jig Spinner – 5 Pack

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Jig spinners are flashy, and catch a fish’s attention to entice a powerful bite. This is our favorite technique to cover water. This is a great way to catch fish when they are feeding aggressively. We like to pair a jig spinner with a 1/32oz Mule Jig and a Donkey Tail Jr.

Hook and Bobber Rig

A hook and bobber rig is an oldie but goodie. Great for beginner fishermen looking to catch common panfish. All you need is some hooks, bobbers, spit-shot weights, and some lures or baits. To be effective we recommend using some night crawlers, but you can also use some panfish plastics of your choice!

Best Shellcracker fishing Lures?

Mule Fishing Donkey Tail Jr.

Mule Fishing Donkey Tail Jr.

Mule Fishing Donkey Tail Jr.

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Our favorite panfish plastic, the Donkey Tail Jr. is our go-to for catching any sunfish and a great size for shellcrackers

Mule Fishing Horse Fly

Mule Fishing Horse Fly

Mule Fishing Horse Fly

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Another favorite from Mule Fishing with a great bug profile. The Horse fly has a done of appendages that attract sunfish from all over the place.

Mule Fishing Mule Minnow

Mule Fishing Mule Minnow

Mule Fishing Mule Minnow

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The newest plastic from Mule Fishing, the 1.2 and the 2.2 inch Mule Minnow is great baitfish profile for aggressively feeding fish.

Trout Magnets

Trout Magnet Original 152 Piece Kit

Trout Magnet Original 152 Piece Kit

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A classic amongst ultralight anglers. The Trout Magnet is known for catching more than just trout. We like to keep these on hand for the color variations and the subtle action.

Rebel Crick Hopper

Rebel Crickhopper

Rebel Crickhopper

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The Crick Hopper is perfect when Redear are sitting shallow and feeding aggressively. The crazy action attracts any species interested in insects. They come in wild colors and realistic colors.

Live Bait

The most effective way to catch them. Waxies, night crawlers, maggots. They will all catch some shellcrackers.

What kind of Gear Do You Need for Shellcracker Fishing?

Stick with light line (4-6lb) and smaller hooks, like the #8 long shank. Appropriate weights and rigs are needed to get your bait to the bottom of the body of water you’ll be fishing, which should be calm and quiet. If you’ve brought artificial bait along, consider bringing live as well, as shellcrackers notoriously snub their noses at artificial bait when the bite is tough. 

What is a Good Shellcracker Fishing Kit?

Leland’s Lures Panfish Magnet Kit

Panfish Magnet Kit

Panfish Magnet Kit

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Leland’s Lures Panfish Magnet Kit is a great companion for panfishing, especially for shellcrackers. This 85-piece kit gives you options. The shad dart hook is specifically designed for panfish and falls horizontally in the water; ideal for bottom fishing. The compact size of the kit makes hiking in to a body of water easy, and plastic lures last longer than other options on the market.

What is a Good Shellcracker Fishing Rod?

13 Fishing Defy Silver

13 Fishing Defy Silver 6’6″ Ultralight Rod

13 Fishing Defy Silver 6’6″ Ultralight Rod

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13 Fishing’s Defy Silver is an all-around great tool to add to your gear. The Defy Silver is strong enough to handle hard-mouthed fish, but won’t rip the hook out of a more delicate fish with too much power. 13 Fishing offers a one year limited warranty on their product as well as several different lengths and line ratings.

What is a Good Shellcracker Fishing Reel?

Shimano Sienna 1000

Shimano Sienna 1000 Spinning Reel

Shimano Sienna 1000 Spinning Reel

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The Shimano Sienna 1000 is a balanced panfishing reel made for affordability and long casts. The ultralight 1000 size reels is quality built and affordable. This is a daily driver meant to handle anything you throw at it.

What is the Best Fishing Line for Shellcracker?

Berkley Trilene Sensation

Berkley Trilene Sensation Fishing Line

Berkley Trilene Sensation Fishing Line

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Berkley’s Trilene product line is a monofilament line made to be delicate, but strong. With a smooth cast and noticeable sensitivity, the 2-4lb test line is a great choice for panfishing. 

Shellcracker Spawn

Shellcrackers spawn annually in the spring just before bluegill spawn. Water temperature just above 65 degrees will bring them in, and they’ll bed down near deep-water access areas in quiet bays. Some anglers have noted that shellcrackers only spawn once a year, but may do so during various spring full moons. Unlike other fish, they don’t spawn all at the same time.  

How Big Do Shellcrackers Get?

It takes shellcrackers about three years to reach half a pound or larger in size, but their mature weight averages at around 2lbs. In some states anglers have reported shellcrackers over 3lbs; that’s a rarity, but not impossible. In terms of length, these fish can be anywhere from 6-10 inches. 

What is the World Record Shellcracker Fish?

The current record for a shellcracker is held by Thomas Farchione, who took in a fish of 17 inches and 6.3lbs with a 20-inch girth. The location he was fishing, Lake Havasu, has turned out other record-winning shellcrackers. 

Are Shellcracker Fish Good to Eat?

Shellcrackers are considered good eating, with white, flaky meat. Fillets tend to be thicker than other panfish species and the taste is similar to that of bluegill. These fish are great deep fried whole or as nuggets.

Final Notes

The bottom line is, these bottom feeders are fun to catch and tasty – worth pursuing their preferences and switching up your panfishing tactics! By stocking up on versatile gear and paying attention to your surroundings, you’ll have a shellcracker in your pan in no time.

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