Bully of the shallows”
As the winter comes to a close
and the days start getting longer, most anglers start getting
the itch for the coming fishing season. Tackle boxes are organized and boats are tuned up. Old
brittle line is replaced with new. In the shallows there is a small but robust fish starting to move
and become active. Seeking out shallow flats that warm the earliest and taking refuge and
becoming nothing more than a BIG bully!
In the south, shellcracker
fishing is common among pan fisherman. Pound for pound,
there is not another fish that out pulls these little “Bullies”. By the end of March, depending on
water temperatures and water levels, redears (Shellcracker) start migrating to the shallows in
preparation for the spawn.
Over the years I have made
a habit of keeping accurate records. I record weather patterns,
water levels, lures used, wind directions, barometric pressure readings, places fished, water
temperatures, air temperatures and the list goes on. Out of all these that I have mentioned, I
would have to place water temperature and water levels to be the most important. The ideal
water temperature for shellcracker during the spawn in my opinion is 62-67 degrees. For some
reason, shellcracker prefer a little cooler temperature than bluegill and other bream species. It is
important to keep in mind that when the nights start warming into the high 50’s and the days
warm into the mid 70’s, spawning will occur. It is important that one must keep in mind that
severe weather fronts can delay the spawning activity. Most often, when a severe weather front
pushes through, shellcracker will move back out to the nearest deeper water. This area will not
be far from the existing spawning area.
Before we get into discussing
different techniques on catching shellcracker, one must
learn how to locate prime spawning areas. Most people think that if you can find a shallow cove
or inlet, the fish cannot be far. In some cases this is true; but concentrating on off shore structure
will produce bigger fish. When looking for offshore spawning fish, concentrate on humps or
ridges that are in the mouth of creeks or secondary creek channels. These humps can also be
productive if vegetation or stumps are nearby.
Old duck blinds that are located
off shore are excellent places to try for spawning
shellcrackers. What makes blinds so attractive is the wood structure. Often, when blinds are
redone, the old lumber or timbers are thrown beside the existing duck blind, making more or less
a clattered bottom covered with wood. Shellcracker in particular like areas where wood is or
pieces of wood are present. Lily pad stems are another good choice if there is deep water nearby.
A sign to look for during the
spawn is an area of stained water. Most often, you will be
going over an area of clear water and all of a sudden there will be a large area that is stained or
even muddy. Pay close attention to these signs. What happened here is you have located an
active spawning colony. More than likely shellcracker are very active and are chasing off
predators such as small bass and bluegill.
Now, after I have discussed
location and signs to look for, it is time to start thinking
about lures and presentations. Over the year, I have good luck with squirrel tail jigs, which I tie
myself. Red worms and crickets are also good choices. But, once a spawning colony has been
located, the jig usually does the trick. There are several different ways to fish a jig. One of the
more popular methods is under a small cork. This method can be very productive. However,
caution should be used when presenting it. Once the spawning colony has been located, one
should fish the outer edges and proceed in towards the center as the bite slows. By doing this,
spooking will be minimized. Jig sizes are important when fishing for shellcracker. I always use a
1/32 or a 1/64 ounce lead head. Lead head colors which I have found to be successful are flo red
and chartreuse. When presenting the jig and cork combination, throw out and let the jig settle.
Once the jig is still, start a stop and go retrieve. Most often, the strike will occur when the jig
settles. Another method is a slow retrieve without stopping. This is a more popular method when
the spawn is at its peek.
Over the years, I have experimented
with many different rod lengths and styles. When
fishing for shellcracker, I always come back to an 8 foot J&M crappie jig’n pole combined with
a spinning reel that has a over sized spool. With this combo, a light jig can be cast a long
distance with little effort. I always use 4 pound test line and this also adds distance to my cast.
Another popular method for fishing for shellcrackers is a plain jig. Here, I always come back to
my squirrel tail jig. Sometimes, depending on fishing pressure and weather patterns, a cork can
spook fish that are spawning. If an area has had alot of fishing pressure, a cork hitting the water
surface can turn active fish off. Believe it or not, shellcracker will associate a cork with danger.
A light subtle presentation and a slow fall can actually trigger strikes from fish that are spooky
from heavy fishing pressure.
Now that I have covered location,
lures, presentations and rod and reel selections, “tricks
of the trade” are next. Over the years, I have caught my fair share of shellcracker but there have
been times when the bite has gone sour for me. Here is what I have learned. It was about 4 years
ago, I was fishing Guntersville for shellcracker. I had been catching fish like crazy and all of a
sudden the bite went sour. This particular day the weather was fair and there had been no severe
weather fronts approaching or passing. After several minutes with no bites, I decided to move to
another location. Once again I started catching fish like crazy and BINGO, the bite went sour
again. I was fishing a shallow stump field and could actually see the fish I was catching. I almost
could select the fish that I wanted. After catching several nice shellcracker, the bite went sour. I
got disgusted at myself. The next day I was after them again. This time mother nature placed a
secret right in front of me. I saw a bird that was flying over the stump flat I was fishing and it
dropped a piece of plastic. More than likely this piece of plastic was going to be used for nest
building material. As the plastic hit the water in front of me, 4 or 5 pound size shellcracker came
up to the plastic and tore into it like it was their enemy. At this point, I said to myself.....No it
cant be that easy. I got down in the bottom of the boat and took off my cork and retied a 1/64
ounce jig on. I cast it out where the piece of plastic hit the water and needless to say it was over
for those shellcracker. I tried this technique in the areas where the bite had gone sour the day
before and it worked! I tried this method behind other anglers who left a spawning bed and it
worked! So the moral of this story is if you are catching fish and the bite goes sour, a slow fall is
the trick. This method aslo works well on red worms and crickets. Here I use a BB size piece of
split shot about 10 inches above a #6 long shank cricket hook. When using this method,
watching your line for the strike is a must!
Severe cold fronts can turn
spawning shellcracker to a neutral mood. In most cases, after
a severe cold front passes through the shellcracker will pull off into deeper water that is nearest
to their spawnig colony. Lets say that you have found an active bed and have had success. a cold
front passes through. You notice that the fish have mysteriously vanished. What happen here is
the front has brought colder temperatures and high winds. This in turn, has dropped the water
temperature a couple of degrees. Thus making the fish spooky and uncertain. The fish are not
far! Look around and locate the nearest deeper water near their spawnig bed. You will start
having success once again.
After discussing location,
lures, tricks of the trade, conservation is my next topic. Over
the years, I have noticed many changes in the overall size of shellcrackers. There are many
factors that contribute to the quality of fish. Pollution, spring floods, water temperatures, water
levels and errosion are contributing factors. On some of these, we as fisherman have little
control. However there is one thing that we can all do which will help insure fish for tomorrow.
Over harvesting is one of the main fators that decrease the quality of shellcracker size and
numbers in spawning colonies. I realize that the common pan fisherman only goes out 3 or 4
times a year to “fill the freezer”. There is nothing wrong with this style, but keep only what you
can use. I cannot point any fingers because I, myself, am guily of over harvesting. There was a
time when I first started catching these special fish, I became a meat hound! I didnot realize until
several years later that I was causing damage to the overall population of shellcracker. I dont
believe that as anglers we could ever fish out a lake. But, I do believe that we as fisherman can
decrease the qauntity and quality of the population. I still have a hard time turning back BIG fish,
especially when they are well over a pound. What I try to do is realease all females. During the
peek of the spawn, I also try to release the bigger males. After the spawn has taken place, keep
only what you can use!
In conclusion, shellcracker
fishing can be some of the most exiting fishing there is. With
a little patience and time spent on the water, catching these little “bullies” will become a anual
event. But be very careful........it can be addictive!
An image for your mind: As
the sun starts to rise over the horizon and as the fog lifts off
the surface, the motor is silent. The anchors are eased into the water and poles are arranged. The
whisper of a cast is heard. As the the cork settles in the water and suddenly dissapears into a
darkness of unknown, the hook is set. A large boil appears in the water where the cork last
rested. Line is striped from the reel face. Suddenly, you are battling a fish that is twice the size of
your hand and has the attitude of a raging bull! You suddenly look around to see if anyone is
watching. The dark fish with the “redear” finally comes into reach and the hook is
removed......You, as the angler, will realize at that point that the shellcracker will always remain
as the “Bully of the shallows”.
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