Redear Sunfish (Shellcracker) Fishing in Florida

Redear Sunfish (Shellcracker) Fishing in Florida

In this article I will focus on redear sunfish shellcracker fishing in Florida. Redear sunfish, also commonly called shellcracker, are a very popular member of the pan fish species. They look a bit like bluegill but grow significantly larger. In Florida, they are found in the same waters when fishing for bluegill and other panfish. However, in most cases they are caught in slightly deeper water. Redear sunfish are fantastic eating!

Read my article on freshwater fishing in Florida!

As with all species, it is important to understand the habits of the redear sunfish or shellcracker in order to be successful at catching them. While redear sunfish can be caught using typical bluegill and panfish methods, anglers specifically targeting these species will change their tactics just a bit. They can be identified by the red coloration outlining the gill flap on males. This reddish coloration may be missing on females. When held beside bluegill and other panfish, it is fairly easy to tell the difference.

redear sunfish fishing in Florida

As with most panfish, the best time to catch a mess of redear sunfish or shell cracker in Florida is during the spawn. Depending on the part of the state the angler is in, this mostly occurs near the full moon in March, April, or May. During these times, fish will be concentrated and easier to catch once located. However, readier sunfish can be caught in Florida all year long.

Redear sunfish (shellcracker) fishing in Florida

Redear sunfish are a bit more selective in their diet than are bluegill, stump knocker, and other panfish. They feed mostly on crustaceans and mollusks, though they will certainly take insects, small bait fish, and other prey. Snails and clams are among their favorite forage, though these are not always practical to use as bait. Shellcracker are often found over hard shell bottom where their preferred forage is found, thus earning their name.

The lakes and rivers of Florida offer ideal habitat for redear sunfish to thrive in. Much of the water is shallow, from 2 to 6 feet deep. Most lakes and rivers also have some deeper water as well where shellcracker will school up in the summer. These shallow Florida waters are very fertile and have an abundance of the preferred forage of readier sunfish. Mollusks, crustaceans, grass shrimp, small crayfish, and other prey are abundant.

fishing for Florida shellcracker

While I am a huge proponent of fly fishing and casting artificial lures on ultralight tackle, I must be honest and admit that this is not the best way to catch redear sunfish. They will certainly take flies and lures, and a few are often hooked while fishing for bluegill and other species. However, when I am serious about catching a mess of shellcracker, I go with live bait.

Fishing for redear sunfish in Florida using live bait

The two most popular live baits used when redear sunfish fishing in Florida are red wigglers (worms) and grass shrimp. Red worms or wigglers are very easy to obtain as they are available at most bait shops and big box stores. I definitely prefer them over nightcrawlers when fishing for readier sunfish. Anglers will certainly catch plenty of bluegill and other panfish species as well.

fishing for bluegill with worms

Grass shrimp are even more effective but are a bit more trouble to acquire. For the most part, Florida anglers will need to catch their own grass shrimp. This is not overly difficult or time-consuming, however it is messy. I use a very fine mesh larger net and work it through aquatic vegetation in shallow water. When the net is full of weeds, it is dumped out on the deck of the boat or a dock and then the grass shrimp are sorted out.

The rod and reel combinations that I use when redear sunfish fishing in Florida are the same as I use for crappie and other panfish. It is a 6 1/2 foot ultralight spinning rod with a matching spinning reel spooled up with 4 pound monofilament line. I like to stretch of monofilament, especially when fishing with live bait, over the no stretch braided line properties.

Live bait rigs for shellcracker

I use two basic rigs when redear sunfish fishing in Florida. These are a float rig and a split shot rig. I probably use the float rig 90% of the time since most of the water that I am fishing in is between 4 feet deep and 6 feet deep. The general idea is to have the bait suspended just above either the bottom or the vegetation rising up from the bottom.

The float rig is very simple and self-explanatory. I attach a hook, (the hook size and type will be determined by whether I am using grass shrimp or worms), and then attached the float about 3 to 4 feet above the hook. Often times a tiny split shot will be added 10 inches or so above the hook. There are many different floats to choose from, but I just prefer the simple old-school red and white float.

I use different hooks depending on whether I am fishing with worms or grass shrimp. When using worms, I opt for a number eight bait holder style hook. This is a sturdy hook in the little barbs on the shank help hold the worm on the hook. Grass shrimp are very delicate. When fishing for them, I use a number 10 gold fine wire hook. Both hooks are large enough to land a nice readier sunfish while also being small enough to catch other panfish species, which I don’t mind.

Techniques for fishing with live bait for redear sunfish

I use the float rig and a couple different manners. In most cases, I am casting it out and covering the water. Top spots include weed lines that drop off into slightly deeper water, deep submerged hydrilla and other vegetation, areas of hard shell bottom, and even man-made structure such as docks and bridges. Drifting with the wind while allowing the bobber and hooked bait to trail behind can be very effective on a day with a little breeze and when fish are scattered over a larger area. When the float goes under, I come tight by reeling quickly and then raising the rod tip. I don’t usually set the hook hard.

The split shot rig is used when shell cracker have moved into deeper water and a float is not practical. This usually happens in the warmer months. It can be difficult to locate them, but once done the action can be fast and furious. I generally use a couple of small split shot and cast the bait out the spot I want to fish. I will also drift with the wind if it is practical.

Fishing for redear sunfish (shellcracker) using artificial lures

As I stated earlier, live bait is definitely the most effective when specifically targeting redear sunfish or shellcracker in Florida. However, I do catch a fair amount casting tiny lures as well, usually when chasing bluegill and other panfish. These are more incidental but very welcome interruptions!

My top two artificial lures that I use when fishing for panfish in Florida are the Johnson Beetle Spin and a 1/16 ounce curly tail grub. My favorite color for the beetle spin is black, though I have done well with other colors such as dark green and white as well. The lure is cast out and allowed to sink a few seconds before being retrieved back in. In most cases, a slow steady retrieve works best.

A tiny 1/16 ounce chartreuse curly tail grub is a very effective panfish fishing lure as well. It also catches a lot of crappie. I will use both a steady retrieve and a twitch and fall retrieve. I will also drift and vertically fish it in deeper water.

Top Florida redear sunfish lakes

Florida anglers are blessed with an abundance of excellent freshwater fishing opportunities for a variety of species. Many of the best panfish lakes are also the best bass lakes as well. I will list some of the best readier sunfish shell cracker fishing lakes in Florida.

Lake Panasoffkee

Lake Panasoffkee is one of the top panfish fishing lakes in the state of Florida. It has an excellent population of bluegill, stump knocker, and redear sunfish or shellcracker. It is a fairly easy lake to fish being a few miles long and a mile and a half or so wide. The depth does not vary much, from a couple feet deep along the shoreline to 6 feet deep or so out in the middle. The key is to keep moving until redear sunfish are located. It is very convenient to get to, being just west of I 75 and about an hour from Orlando.

Lake Rousseau

Lake Rousseau is a top notch Lake in Florida for catching readier sunfish. It has a deep channel running through the middle offering fish sanctuary. Often the side of the main river channel are miles and miles of shallow flats with abundant structure, most of which are stumps. Anglers need to take care when boating as the stumps can be hazardous. However, this is prime habitat for shell cracker and other species.

Withlacoochee River

The Withlacoochee River is a gorgeous Florida river that runs through some very remote feeling habitat while still being fairly accessible at a number of ramps and locations. It flows through West Central Florida and eventually becomes Lake Rousseau. Fishing on this river offers anglers a very serene experience with some fantastic scenery and good fishing. It is an option that I often use on breezy days.

Lake Kissimmee

Lake Kissimmee is part of a chain of lakes near the Orlando area. It offers top-notch bass fishing as well as fishing for crappie, bluegill, and readier sunfish. It is a larger lake in can be a bit intimidating. However, persistent anglers should find success.

Lake Okeechobee

Lake Okeechobee is a huge natural lake in the southern central part of the state. It is world renowned for its bass fishing, however offer some of the best panfish in Florida. The best fishing for shell cracker is in the southern part near Clewiston and on the west side near Lakeport.

Lake Istokpoga

Lake Istokpoga is another excellent bass and readier sunfish lake. It is located off State Road 27 near the town of Sebring. It is not an overly large lake, which help anglers who are unfamiliar with it locate fish. There are some deeper areas and as always vegetation is the key.

Lake Talquin

Lake Talquin is a fantastic panfish fishing like in Florida! Many anglers consider it to be the best in the state. Unlike many other Florida lakes, it has a lot of deeper water. Many anglers visited for the crappie fishing, but it has an excellent population of big bluegills and big shell cracker as well. Is conveniently located just west of Tallahassee.

Lako Tohopekaliga

Lake Tohopekaliga, or Lake Toho as locals call it, is another terrific lake near the Orlando area. It is best known for bass fishing but has excellent fishing for readier sunfish and other panfish as well. Its location is also convenient for tourists visiting the state.

Lake Seminole is a large body of water on the Florida Georgia border North Tallahassee. It has many many square miles of shallow flats, resulting in ideal panfish habitat.

Lake Seminole

In conclusion, this article on redear sunfish shellcracker fishing in Florida will help anglers catch more of these highly desirable pan fish species!








Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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