Seminole Shellcrackers: The Can Of Worms You’ll Always Want To Open

The full moons in March and April is the time to catch shellcrackers on Seminole.

Drew Hall | April 1, 2008

Steven and Pam Wells pose with a cooler full of shellcrackers caught fishing shallow-water beds. Shellcrackers are some of the finest eating fish there are, and the March and April full moons are the best times to catch them bedding on shallow sand flats.

The end of March and beginning of April is a time of year awaited by even the occasional angler. The weather is warming, and anglers are tired of being stuck in the house like a coop full of chickens. One can only rearrange tackleboxes and clean and ready the boat for spring so many times before the symptoms set in. You’ll begin to shake when you hear the word fish, and you’ll find yourself waking up in the middle of the night setting imaginary hooks into your pillow.

You are suffering from PSBD, not to be confused with the tragic Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). You have pre-shellcracker bedding disorder. But, there is hope for even the worst cases. The symptoms usually won’t last long. Some doctors recommend practice casting in the bathtub, minus the hook for health reasons, but this solution rarely aids in relieving the disorder. Symptoms usually begin one to two months before bedding season and persist until the first limit of shellcrackers are comfortably resting in your full belly. You can sleep well knowing you’re a survivor, you’ve made it through the worst and the best is yet to come. You’ve still got almost a month to jerk the jaws out of these hand-sized panfish.

Although the previous paragraphs are an exaggeration of the excitement bedding shellcrackers can cause, few people know the famed fish as well as husband and wife,  Steven and Pam Wells, who were born and raised just miles from Lake Seminole and now live and guide on the lake. The two not only share a last name, but a passion for fishing that has granted Pam the opportunity to fish professionally on the Women’s Bassmaster Tour where she won first place in the inaugural Women’s Bassmaster Championship. Steven accompanies Pam on tour trips and fishes some of the men’s events as well. Although both are avid bass anglers, it isn’t Lake Seminole’s famous bass fishery that is in the spotlight today, but the overlooked red- eared sunfish, better known in Georgia as the shellcracker.

You won’t go far in March before you hear someone at the barber or coffee shop talking about how they can’t wait to wet a line and catch some ‘crackers.’ Despite having several different names for the fish, the end result is the same. A bed of shellcrackers is a great day of fishing and an even better night of eating. With the limit in Georgia being 50 per person, you’ll probably get tired of cleaning way before you get tired of catching. So remember to only keep the ones you want, and leave some for everyone else.

Steven said the shellcrackers aren’t very hard to find if you know when and where to look, and smell. The fish usually bed on the two moons in March, but if there has been a cold spell late in the winter, it will put the bedding off until the last moon in March and the first moon in April. This gives anglers a good month of bedding fish to fill boats to the brim.

“They aren’t like bream that bed all summer long; they are just a spring deal like bass. Mother Nature will throw you a curveball now and then, but it’s generally the way it works. Occasionally in the summertime you’ll find a bed, but not too often,” said Steven.

Though they don’t bed all summer long, they are extremely fun and easy to catch when it’s right. Steven said the fish will usually stage in the same areas they are going to spawn in, but they are pretty hard to catch while they are staging. They usually have one thing on their minds until the spawn, and they are a pretty skittish fish even after the spawn is over. If you do find some shellcrackers staging in an area, he recommends just giving it a few days for the fish to develop a bed. He said you may come one day and see fish everywhere and they won’t bite, then come back the next day and not be able to keep a cork in the water because they are biting so well. If you just can’t wait until they’ve bedded to get a hook in one, Steven recommends casting from a distance with ultra-light tackle. This will allow you to cast to the fish, but stay far enough away not to spook them like you would most likely do fishing close with a cane pole. A looming boat shadow will undoubtedly scare off most of the staging fish.

You can leave your depthfinder at home when you’re looking for a shellcracker bed. You won’t need it at all. Steven said you should rely on your senses when searching for beds.

“Look for sand in shallow water, the only time you can’t really see them is sometimes they get back in the sawgrass and bed,” he said.

When you can’t see the fish, your nose will usually pick up on them if it’s a good bed.

“You can smell them. When panfish bed they put off a very loud odor. They aren’t like bass, you can’t smell bass beds. Bream, shellcracker and sometimes crappie smell very strong when they bed. There are so many there, you can just smell them,” he said.

The simplest and most enjoyable way to fish for shellcrackers is when they are on shallow-water beds.

“Ninety percent of the time they’ll bed in water so shallow you can see them. They’ll be on a sandy bottom. If they could, they’d get in someone’s corn field and bed, they’ll get as far back as they can, generally,” he said.

And because they like to bed in such shallow, sandy-bottomed water, it makes them relatively easy to find. On a good, sunny day you can see right down into the water which makes seeing a hundred or even a thousand fish grouped together a fairly easy task. The alternative way to catch shell- crackers is in a sawgrass bed. When the fish decide to bed right down in the sawgrass, getting a cork down in between the sharp blades can be a formidable task. When this is the case, Steven opts away from the cork and just tight-line fishes.

“You are going to have to have a really stiff pole and 15-lb. test line. You really just kind of tight-line. You let your line down in between the saw- grass and when they bite it you snatch it out, there’s no cork. You can’t let them run around in the thick stuff or you won’t ever get them out,” he said.

He said this technique isn’t as much fun as playing the big shellcrackers in the shallow water because you just jerk them out, there’s no fighting involved.

When fishing for shellcrackers in a shallow-water bed, Steven likes to use a pole with a little more bend in it than for pulling them out of the sawgrass.

“If they are in a patch of sand, I’ll use 8-lb. test line on a 14-foot Little Jewel graphite pole. They aren’t as stiff as Bream Busters, and you can play them out a little more,” he said.

Steven uses a No. 8 bream hook tied on with a clinch knot on 8-lb. test line and a BB split-shot about 6 or 8 inches above the hook. He said the shellcrackers usually want their bait on the bottom, and they’ll come by and just suck the whole thing in at once. The way they suck the whole bait and hook in at once usually leads to a lot of swallowed hooks. So you should always take plenty of extra tackle—because you’re going to need it.

Steven said the best and only bait he uses are worms, black wigglers to be specific. He never fools around with artificials for shellcrackers because worms work so well he doesn’t have to switch it up. When hooking the worm, Steven said to just hook the worm once and don’t worry about cutting the worm or hooking the worm several times.

“Use the head end on the worm, where the lighter-color band is around it. Hook the hook through the band one time. The shellcracker is going to swallow it either way, so you don’t have to do all that (hooking more than once),” he said.

Steven also likes to use yellow corks instead of red floats like most people do. He said the red floats are easier for people to see, and he thinks they are also easier for the fish to see. He also uses a very small float that is about 1 1/2 inches long.

“You want a small one; you don’t want a bobber that when it hits the water it splashes like someone threw a brick in the water,” he said.

Steven also said floats made of actual cork material work well because of their brown color. But, they are sometimes hard to find, and even harder to see when you get them in the water. From experience, he sticks to the yellow, foam floats.

When you’ve got the right weight-and-float combo then you’ve almost got everything working right. But, then you’ve still got to keep the length of line under the float correct, as well. Generally you should have the weight directly on the bottom, which keeps the bait on the bottom as well. But, this causes a problem with the float lying on its side, which makes bites almost impossible to detect. With shellcrackers already being pretty good bait stealers, this is a problem you don’t need.

“A shellcracker is the world’s worst about not even moving the cork. You’re gonna lose a lot of hooks because they swallow a lot of hooks,” he said.

Steven suggested keeping the weight as close to the bottom as possible without actually touching it, this will give you the perfect setup for fish like these.

“You don’t want 3 feet of line below your cork because he can swallow it and never move your cork. If you can do it, you want your wiggler touching the bottom and your weight not, so by the time he touches the bait he moves the float,” he said.

Steven said most beds are so shallow and clear you barely need the float at all because you can usually see the fish taking your bait.

Now you know how to catch them once you’ve found the bed. You probably need to know when to look for them as well. Steven explained the moon phases earlier but also said the water temperature is a big influence. He said water temperature will generally be about 62 to 65 degrees when shellcracker start bedding. It could vary  a little each year, but it’s a pretty good bet the temperatures will be in that general range. He also said they should bed about the same time on other lakes and rivers in the area, but the warmer the water temperatures, the sooner they will bed.

He used the area inside the duck refuge on Lake Seminole as an example. He said because it is near flowing water, but no water actually flows through it to regulate the water temperature, the fish would probably bed sooner there than other places with cool water running through them.

“On the main lake they’ll spawn a little later because there is water flowing through there, and it’s cooler,” he said.

Steven admitted he’s never actually looked around the duck refuge for shellcrackers, so don’t take the example as an excellent place to find them either. The best areas are still going to be very shallow, sandy bottoms that won’t be hard to find after a few minutes on the bow with the trolling motor and a good pair of polarized sunglasses.

Steven said the beds could be as small as 10 feet in diameter to as large as 20 by 20 feet. He said he’s seen any- where from dozens of fish to thousands of fish on or near one bed. The really good beds have lots of fish on the bed, but just as many on the outside of the bed staging, waiting their turn to come onto the bed. He said beds that continually fill limits of fish are most likely to have just as many fish outside of the bed as actually on it. But, these staging fish will still be hard to catch. You should still focus on the bedding fish, and the staging fish will fill the empty slots soon enough.

You’ll catch males and females off the bed, and Steven said the males are a lot darker while the females are a yellow color. The average size of a shell- cracker bedding is 1/2-pound to 3/4- pound, but sometimes you catch fish weighing more than a pound. Those catches are few and far between.

“I’ve only been on two shellcracker beds on this lake where we caught fish consistently over a pound,” he said.

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