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Shellcracker Time on Wilson Lake
For the next few weeks, Wilson’s mystery shellcrackers will return to the shallows and can be caught in abundance.
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the May 2010 issue of AON
Fishing over a bed full of aggressive Wilson shellcrackers will be a great way to spend a day with your son.
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In an age of fishing specialization, very few anglers actually acknowledge being bream fishermen. Bass fishermen, yes. Crappie fishermen, definitely. Catfishermen, maybe.

Yet, there exists that occasional individual who delights in the special attributes of the bream family, the tight circles of a hooked bull bluegill or the sharp planing runs of a trophy shellcracker.

Bevan Berry, of Tuscumbia, is one such individual. Sure, he pursues with a passion other species, crappie in particular, across north Alabama’s abundance of lakes. But when the month of May rolls around, Bevan leaves his multitude of crappie rods at home and seriously pursues bream, with shellcracker being his preferred target. He fishes for shellcracker — also commonly known as redear sunfish — on both Pickwick and Wilson, with Wilson being his favorite during the classic spawning period of late April and May.

For those anglers unfamiliar with the shellcracker, they are the prize of the bream catch in north Alabama, where they are far outnumbered by bluegills and other distinct “bream” species. They grow big — up to about 2 pounds — fight hard and fillet well, although their firm flesh takes on a bolder taste than the milder bluegills.

When this aggressive species of panfish gets on the bank, it’s a great time to take a kid fishing. If you’re fishing over a shellcracker bed, kids are guaranteed not to get bored.

Despite being called drab in appearance by some, shellcrackers actually appear in several color phases. Some resemble a rainbow of gold, yellow and hints of other colors, while others are darker shades of gray, which even borders on black at times. All phases have the distinctive red or orange spot behind the ear flap, thus giving it the name redear.

I talked with Bevan about bream fishing several times during the winter and early spring, but we never managed to hook up for a trip. Part of the trouble involved scheduling conflicts, but the main issue was weather. The fish normally begin to trickle into shallow water and head toward spawning grounds by early April, becoming at least an incidental part of the catch of crappie fishermen. This year they had been non-existent due to the extreme cold winter across north Alabama. Only when a week-long period of day-time temperatures in the 80s rolled into the region in early April did a few reports of shellcracker catches begin to filter in.

“It’s been tough,” Bevan said. “Normally you start to catch a few while crappie fishing, but I haven’t seen any this year. The water seems to be too cold for them. They’re just not there.

“Everything seems to be returning to normal though, and you should start to see some fish begin to move shallow. I think you will see a major spawn around the full moon in April because it is so close to the end of the month.”

May is the traditional time associated with shellcracker fishing across all north Alabama waters. From Pickwick to Guntersville, the common adage is “fish the full moon in May.” While Bevan acknowledges the outstanding potential surrounding lunar cycles and takes advantage of those times, he also is aware of the optimum water temps for spawning shellcrackers.

“The warmer water temperatures should be about right by the end of April,” Bevan said, adding that the fishing should remain excellent through the month of May.

He suggested fishing not only the full-moon periods three days before and three days after but also the period around the new moon. The April full moon falls on the 28th, the new moon follows on May 14, and the full moon returns on May 27.

Tools and Tactics

Bevan’s tackle, lure and bait requirements for catching spawning shellcrackers in the spring are simple.

He utilizes a 5 1/2-foot ultralight rod and reel spooled with Cabela’s 4-lb. test monofilament line for his casting needs. The rod is a wispy model with a lot of bend, ideal for realizing the full fighting potential of a big shellcracker.

Bevan switches to a 12-foot B’n’M Crappie Buster pole for precision presentations in and around the grass beds.

His lure of choice is a common one for Tennessee River bream fishermen, the Keystone Minnow. Some people label the lure a tiny swimbait. It consists of a 1/32-oz. black jig head with a 1-inch long plastic body almost always in a green color. Bevan suggests a drop of super glue to secure the body to the jig because the plastic is notorious for dropping down the hook shank.

The lure barely looks the part of a fish-catching tool. Its action is at best subtle and non-existent without the help of the fisherman. Yet, as Bevan and other bream fishermen have discovered, it catches fish by the thousands each year. The only difficult thing about using a Keystone Minnow is finding one.

“I buy them whenever I see them in a store because they are not easy to find,” Bevan said.

As an alternative to the Keystone Minnow, Bevan casts a 1/16- or 1/8-oz. Beetle Spin in black or brown around the edges of the grass beds. He also uses bait at times, preferring worms over crickets.

“I usually cast and retrieve the Beetle Spin when I am covering ground looking for fish,” Bevan said. “When I catch one, I will slow down and throw the Keystone Minnow or drop a worm into the grass bed with a pole.”

Once in a likely area, Bevan practices a stealthy approach because he said shellcrackers are more skittish than other bream species. He either anchors his boat both fore and aft about 30 feet off a grass bed to maintain a stable, quiet platform for casting, or he moves from spot to spot with the trolling motor on low to avoid scaring fish.

He casts the edges of a grass bed with either the Keystone Minnow or the Beetle Spin. He ties the Keystone Minnow directly to the main line with a Palomar knot and adds a small, round clip-on float abound 2 feet up the line. The float allows for a stationary, vertical presentation, which Bevan prefers over a steady retrieve. He either lets the lure dangle motionless or moves it with a series of twitches or pops of the rod tip.

“I want it to rise up maybe 6 inches in the water and then let it drop,” Bevan said. “Most of the time, the fish will hit on the drop. A lot of times when you get around fish, it won’t even stop because a fish will hit as soon as it hits the water.”

Bevan said there are those other times when the only indication of a bite is a subtle movement of the bobber.

“You have to really watch then, because they will swallow the hook,” he said.

Bevan makes use of his longer pole when the fish are found inside the grass beds. He looks for pockets “about the size of a 55-gallon drum” where the fish fan out spawning spots. Bevan drops a hook baited with a short piece — about 1 inch — of a nightcrawler into these pockets. He fishes the baited No. 4 hook under a slip float with a line stop situated about 18 to 24 inches up the line, attaching a tiny split-shot or two about 8 inches above the hook.

“You just move as quietly as you can from spot to spot looking for fish,” Bevan said. “I might stop and cast around the perimeter of a grass bed and then look for the open pockets within the grass.”

Wilson’s Shellcracker Hotspots

Bevan focuses much of his May shellcracker fishing in the Donnegan Slough/McKernan Creek section of Wilson Lake. The area is an easy run just upstream from Fleet Harbor boat ramp, which is located on the south side of Wilson Dam. Donnegan is roughly 2 miles upstream and is best characterized by an abundance of bank grass that serves as both a safe haven and spawning grounds for shellcrackers.

“I fish in Donnegan a lot because if offers a lot of the elements that shellcracker require to spawn,” he said. “You find them around the grass on a hard bottom. The combination of the grass and a hard bottom, gravel, and especially pea gravel, is hard to beat.”

Bevan also mentioned Gargis Hollow, which is just upstream from Donnegan, as a likely spot for spawning shellcracker. He also said good shellcrackers fishing can be found within sight of the boat ramp in Fleet Harbor.

“I will fish most of those sloughs near the dam,” Bevan said. “Most of them have that combination of grass and a hard bottom that draw spawning fish.”

Although the entire 15-mile length of Wilson Lake boasts some shellcracker potential, at least two other spots typically draw the attention of panfishermen. Town Creek, located just 3 miles below Wheeler Dam on the upper end of Wilson, resembles the Donnegan area because of the extensive grass beds found there. Fish can be caught from these grass beds in much the same way as Bevan fishes those in Donnegan.

“Town Creek has traditionally been a good spot for shellcracker, but I’ve found it’s been hit or miss there for me,” Bevan said.

The other area is in Shoals (or Shoal) Creek, a big tributary that flows into Wilson from the north. Fishermen there target shellcrackers in the wood-filled sloughs just below the U.S. 72 bridge and in the grass beds that abound upstream from the bridge.

“I like to fish Shoals Creek also, especially in Bobby Mitchell Slough, because it has a lot of grass,” Bevan said.

The area he mentioned is the first bigger slough above the bridge, located about a half mile north. He also suggested trying the abundant grass beds in the main section of Shoals Creek.

Bevan said he likes Wilson for a variety of reasons but primarily because it yields a better quality of fish than do the surrounding lakes.

“I probably catch as many fish number wise on Pickwick, but in terms of quality, Wilson is definitely better,” he said.

For Bevan, quality means shellcrackers in the 1/2- to 1 1/2-lb. range.

“I hear people talking about catching bigger shellcracker, those that weigh 2 pounds or more, but I’ve never caught one or seen one,” he said. “That’s like I’ve never seen a 3-lb. crappie either.”

Wheeler & Guntersville

While Bevan confines his fishing to the westernmost TVA lakes in Alabama, both Wheeler and Guntersville to the east boast healthy populations of shellcrackers. Guntersville in particular boasts a reputation as a major producer of shellcrackers. Despite its reputation as a bass factory, there are days in the spring when the bream fishermen outnumber the bass fishermen on Guntersville.

The fishing is similar on all the lakes with the fish on Guntersville congregating around hard-bottom spawning areas amid the milfoil and hydrilla growing in 2 to 6 feet of water. The Keystone Minnow first gained its reputation as a major producer of bream on Guntersville and still sells by the thousands in local tackle shops each year.

The fishing is slightly different on Wheeler, which lacks the grass of the others lakes. Fishermen there target fish around wood structure and ditches on the spawning flats.

Shellcracker Mystery

Perhaps one of the greatest attractions for shellcrackers is the fact that the fish basically disappear after the spawn. Sometimes the window of opportunity is very short, only a two- to three-week period around the spawn, and then the fish depart to unknown territory.

While other bream species are abundant throughout the year, especially in the warmer months, the disappearance of shellcrackers remains a mystery to many. A few shellcracker are caught around willowfly hatches later in the summer on all of the TVA lakes, and good catches of fish come from the harbor at McFarland Park on Pickwick during the winter months. Otherwise, the majority of catches is confined to the brief period in the spring.

“I don’t have an answer,” Bevan said. “I’ve talked with biologists, and they don’t really offer any good ideas. (Shellcrackers) are a lot like sauger; they just seem to disappear.”

Regardless of the mystery surrounding them, the period in late April through May provides the optimum opportunity for the serious bream fisherman.

“There’s nothing like pulling up on that one spot that is thick with shellcracker,” Bevan said, “when you can catch them cast after cast. You may have to search and search for them, but finally there they are. That’s why I like to fish for them.”

When you go shellcracker fishing this month, let me encourage you to take a kid along. Let them hook a few shellcrackers, and you may just hook them for life.
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