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Go Deep for Redear Sunfish

Not just any old “bream:” It's a redear sunfish, a.k.a. shellcracker.

A one-pound redear is a perfect match for a 3-weight fly rod. Often called shellcrackers, they fight like a snapper, holding boldly sideways, all fins flaring and pulling like their life depends on it.

I moved to DeLand, Florida, a few months ago. Fishing here is different than farther south. In central Florida, bluegills and shellcrackers feed closer to the bottom. I tried, but I couldn't catch them on flyrod popping bugs.

Determined to learn whatever it takes to catch shellcrackers, which are bigger than bluegills, prettier and better tasting, I sought expert help. A local pastor, Lorenzo Lane, took pity on me out on Lake Woodruff when I approached his boat upwind, a courteous distance away, and whined about my lack of success.

He doesn't own a fly rod. He has an assortment of long fiberglass poles with small spinning reels he positions out of the bow and stern of his bass boat, each lodged in its own pole holder. On the end of each line he puts a long-shank No. 4 hook. A foot above that he crimps a split-shot about the size of a green pea. He rarely uses corks. Each hook gets a red worm or a cricket, then he starts drifting across areas he knows the fish like. Lorenzo “feels” the bottom and recognizes the telltale, crunchy-feeling of his lead dragging through shells. (Most of Lake Woodruff is muddy, less than 5 feet deep.) As soon as he feels

shells and catches a fish, he anchors the boat with two pieces of galvanized pipe stuck in the mud on the upwind side. Once the boat settles down, he puts out a fan of baited rigs, each precisely situated for relatively tangle-free fishing. He manages nine poles with ease, watching each line for movement.

Drifting Lake Woodruff, outside Deland, was productive for Marcia Putnam.

When the fish start biting, Lorenzo's mighty busy, smiling all the time, yanking sh and chatting amiably. He says the shellcrackers prefer worms to crickets, but the bluegills sometimes go for live crickets first.

Shellcrackers' diet of shellfish, mostly snails and grass shrimp gives their flesh a cleaner taste than bluegills, which eat more minnows and bugs. In south Florida, bluegills often will take small poppers, bug imitations. Shellcrackers rarely eat “on top.”

I'd heard that a certain small lake nearby, back in the woods, had some big shellcrackers. Off I went by myself in the wee hours the morning after Lorenzo's lessons with two new Crappie-Buster poles, each nine feet long with a tiny spinning reel and 8-pound line. Two containers of worms cost me $3.50 each, 50 crickets $2.00. Hooks and split-shot and a couple of small corks—another three or four bucks.

I backed my skiff in at a lonely boat ramp...and kept on backing it until my truck tires were half under water. Hard sand bottom, so there was little chance of getting stuck, but the water was too shallow to float my boat off the trailer.

I knew what I had to do. With the boat on the trailer backed in as far as I thought safe, I climbed aboard and went to the stern. There I stood like a Wild West buckeroo, and swung a small Danforth anchor around my head on its line and flung it far out in the water. Then I set the anchor by hand and tied the line to a stern lifting ring, and got back in the truck and drove off up the ramp, leaving the boat floating. Winching the boat back on the trailer a few hours later was simple, though it involved getting my feet wet and using all the tow strap.

And, yes, I caught all the shellcrackers I wanted, drifting, then anchoring when I found fish. They seemed to favor the worms over the crickets, as Lorenzo had said they would. Scaled, with their heads off and innards removed, I cooked 'em fast over a hot grill, and my, they were fine eating. FS

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