Kentucky Afield Outdoors: May is a great time to catch redear sunfish

FRANKFORT, Ky. – A day spent catching fish from the bank of a pond or lake will hook a novice angler and entertain the most experienced one.

May traditionally offers good opportunities for anglers as fish move shallow to spawn - and into easy casting range.

“If you’re interested in catching fish, this time of year is really cool,” said Neal Jackson, western fisheries district biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources. “You have channel catfish, you have bluegill and you have redear, all in the same location.

“You could be fishing with light tackle and catch a 12-inch redear, which fights like a mule, and the next cast you might catch a 5-pound channel cat on your 6-pound line.”

If redear sunfish are what you’re after, Kentucky and Barkley lakes hold excellent populations with some fish pushing 12 inches.

“When you factor in the roundness of the fish, it’s the size of a small plate,” Jackson said. “That size sunfish is something a lot of people haven’t ever seen. When you catch one it just blows you away. Even the smaller ones, the 10 inchers, are really impressive.”

The redear, also known as a shellcracker because of its ability to crack open snail and small mussel shells, typically begins spawning when the water temperature climbs into the 70s.

Redears colonize like bluegill, but nest in deeper water. To locate shellcrackers, look for bedding bluegill up against a bank. Then focus your attention on deeper water a little farther out from the shore.

Shellcrackers often gather in the backs of the bays in areas with gravel bottoms and vegetation like milfoil or mustard flowers.

“The redear seem to key on the aquatic vegetation,” Jackson said. “I assume that’s got to do with the fact they feed on snails and mussels.”

A period of stable weather and consistent lake levels help improve an angler’s odds.

“We went a week ago and caught a bunch of fish in a couple feet of water,” Jackson said. “But then we got a 10-degree drop in water temperature. We went back the next day just to see if they were still in that same spot and we didn’t catch them. The water was a little muddy and the temperature had dropped.”

Good baits include red worms, wax worms, mealworms and crickets, or small artificial baits like a jig in black or brown that mimics a snail or small insect. Fish these underneath a bobber and close to the bottom.

Another option is crawling a red worm. Tie a hook a few inches above a 3/16-ounce weight – anglers call this a drop-shot rig – then slowly move it along the bottom until you locate fish.

McNeely Lake in Jefferson County, Cedar Creek Lake in Lincoln County, Beaver Lake in Anderson County and Pan Bowl Lake in Breathitt County also offer good opportunities to catch large redear sunfish. The statewide daily creel limit is 20 fish and there is no size limit, but some water bodies have special regulations. Pick up a copy of the 2014 Kentucky Fishing and Boating Guide or download one online at for details.


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