REDEAR SUNFISH
(Shellcracker)



Physical Description

Redear sunfish have thin, circular bodies almost as deep as they are long. Coloration is dark olive-green on the back and upper sides, green to yellow on the lower sides, and whitish on the belly. Males have a black “ear flap” (gill cover) with a blood- red edge from which the species gets its name. The edge of the female’s gill cover is orange. In some regions, olive-brown spotting is present on the sides and head.

Redear sunfish have two dorsal fins that are so smoothly connected they appear as one long fin. The first dorsal fin has 9 to 11 spines and the second has a near equal number of soft rays. The anal fin has three spines followed by a similar number of soft rays as the second dorsal fin. The tail is slightly forked. Pectoral fins are long and pointed, its mouth is small, and the eyes are red with black pupils.

Redear sunfish are distinguished from bluegill, pumpkinseed and other sunfish by the black ear flap atop the gill cover, which features a bright red (male) or orange (female) coloring around the entire edge. 

Range

Redear sunfish are native to the eastern half of the United States, from South Carolina to Texas in the south, and from southern Illinois east to the Atlantic Coast in the north. They have been introduced to waters in many other western states including New Mexico and California, as well as to Africa and Latin America. 

Habitat

Redear sunfish inhabit clear lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and rivers. Like other sunfish, they prefer warm, protected bodies of water with little or no current. Redear sunfish relate to the bottom structure of the lake or river they inhabit and thrive in water with an abundance of cover from aquatic vegetation or submerged trees.

Spawning Habits 

Redear sunfish begin spawning in the spring when water temperatures warm to between 68 and 75 F. In some locations, they may spawn repeatedly through early fall. Males turn a bright brown to gold color during the spawn.

Males build saucer-shaped nests in soft mud, silt, or sand. The nests are built in colonies near the shore in shallow, protected locations. They attract females to the nest with a “popping” sound produced in the throat.

Females deposit between 15,000 and 30,000 eggs, often in several different nests. Eggs hatch in 2 to 4 days and are guarded by males for several days. Young redear sunfish school together, often with the young of bluegill and other sunfish present, until they reach adulthood. 

Food Usage/Selection

Redear sunfish are bottom feeders, feeding mostly during the day on their preferred prey, aquatic snails. Redear sunfish have specially adapted teeth in the back of their mouth used to crush the snail’s shell before devouring the meat inside. It is this feeding practice that gives them the common name “shellcracker.”

Despite their preference for snails, they are opportunistic feeders and supplement their diet with aquatic insect larvae, clams, crayfish, and fish eggs. Young redear sunfish feed exclusively on zooplankton. 

Sporting Qualities

Redear sunfish are a popular game fish because they are hard fighters on light tackle and, like other sunfish, readily take a variety of baits and can be caught in large numbers. They are considered good table fare and can be prepared in a variety of ways.

Because they relate to deep bottom structure, the best technique is to still fish with a baited hook lying motionless on the bottom, moving it occasionally. Popular baits include small worms, grubs, and snails if available. Common artificials include small spinners and jigs. Fly-fishing is not a common technique for fishing redear sunfish because they rarely come to the surface, although some sinking or sub-surface fly patterns can be effective.

Most anglers pursue redear and other sunfish with light or ultralight-action spinning or spin-casting tackle and line weights lighter than 6-pound test.

The best time to catch redear sunfish is while they are spawning. After the spawn, they can be found in deeper waters, often near to areas they used for spawning.

Notes 

Because snails have the potential to spread disease, many aquaculturists stock redear sunfish to eliminate the snail population.

The all-tackle world record is 5 pounds, 3 ounces caught in 1994 in California.