In my own mind, certain signs of spring have each become associated with a fishing event. The dogwoods, for instance, are symbolic of one-time May trout-fishing trips to the mountains of western North Carolina. Near my home in south Louisiana, the first green on the willows signifies the beginning of the bass spawn; by the time they are fully leafed, it’s about over. And the berries, besides creating some delicious cobbler, signal the gathering of the redears.
Redear sunfish, that is—or shellcrackers, or chinquapin bream, or stumpknockers, or several other aliases that might apply across their range of influence. Whatever you choose to call them, now is their time, and besides being suitably susceptible to a variety of natural baits, they make an excellent fly-fishing target.
Redears (Lepomis microlophus) are native to streams and naturally occurring lakes throughout the lowland southeast as well as Indiana, Missouri, and Texas. They have also been widely introduced into western waters. They can be readily identified by their greenish or olive-colored back and yellow, brassy sides, which are liberally covered with dark brown specks. There is a large black dot on each operculum, the trailing edges of which are rimmed with deep scarlet swaths on the males, yellowish-orange on the females—hence their names.
In many areas, redear sunfish are bigger than your average bluegill and make for chunkier fillets.
Compared to bluegills, their mouths are larger, though not as much as a warmouth or green sunfish’s. They are more streamlined than bluegills, yet typically much thicker across the back, and in my experiences with them wherever I have caught them, they average much larger in size.
That is possibly because throughout much of their range, they completely disappear for about 10 months out of the year. No kidding! Well, what probably happens is they descend into the depths or deep into shallower submergent vegetation where most bream-fishermen don’t fish for them. But during spring—say, from mid-April through early June, depending on your latitude—they move into much shallower water, seeking the company of their kind in preparation for spawning. For this brief time, the gatherings of these fish can approach the point of disbelief.
However, especially if you have begun to entertain visions of non-stop action with “watch-bream” (those whose lengths span the distance from your fingertips to the band of your wrist-watch), along with the promise of their succulent fillets, freshly fast-fried in a cast-iron skillet, you may have missed a fairly important point: you have to catch them first. For fly fishermen, especially, that can be a very large snag.
Prior to very recent experiences, my fly-fishing successes with redears can best be attributed to blind, dumb luck. Historically I have fished in freshwater almost exclusively with surface flies, bugs, and poppers. When—if—I could visibly locate a concentration of these fish in very shallow water, I could catch them thusly. But when I could not—as was usually the case, since they frequently “gather” in water too deep for me to see them, very few would rise to my offerings. Then I’d feed ‘em bait, usually quite effectively.
Spawning stumpknockers will fall for almost any appropriately sized fly, but subsurface patterns seem to be especially effective.
That worked because redears are basically bottom-oriented, their diet consisting of small shellfish, crawfish, larval insects, freshwater shrimp, and the like. They’ll eat earthworms, too, as well as cut strips of mussels where that is allowed, but baby crawfish and freshwater shrimp are well-established enticers.
Now I’d known about all that for a long time, but as I mentioned, relatively few years have passed since my freshwater flies began to intentionally sink. And in having them do so, I have enjoyed some fine redear-entertainment during recent springs. So, having been fairly accomplished at catching them on “natural attractors” (Bait!) for several decades, and having lately become a minor authority on taking them in more puristic ways, let me share my knowledge with you.
To begin with, this is still bream fishing, so I must stress the point that if you get too scientific about it all, you will assuredly lose some of the fun-factor involved with it. Now, with that said, let’s go find them.
That is best accomplished by following a list—in order—of specifics most suitable for these fish—and for fly-fishing for them.
First of all, the water must have good clarity. That’s an important general factor and one especially so for successfully working sub-surface flies. It can be difficult to find now due to run-off from feeder creeks. Look around; bottom should be plainly visible in depths up to 3 feet or so. Broad areas of roughly that depth are best.
A lot of that area will often be only marginally productive at best. Eliminate it by concentrating on finding a hard bottom—sand, pea-gravel, or shells. Here, the fish will gather near flooded live cypresses, tupelo gums, and willows, along with rotting stumps and sunken logs. Finally, if there is any scattered coontail, peppergrass, or hydrilla nearby, there almost has to be fish present.
In many of the waters they inhabit, redears can be caught with consistency only in spring. Get 'em while you can!
While casting to the edges of the grass may result in a stray every now and then, it’s best to target the timber; redears are called “stumpknockers” in some places for very good reason! Here, I must bring up a point that you might feel is uncommon in bream fishing. In clear, relatively shallow water redears and other sunfish are skittish. If they see you, they may not spook, but they may become reluctant to strike, particularly if you are fishing with flies. So work your target at a distance—30 feet or so, and if possible, maintain a low profile.
As far as flies go, on recent trips a small grass shrimp imitation I had made up for use in the brackish areas near my home was productive. I don’t believe I matched a hatch, but apparently the fly was symbolic enough of a form of the local protein. A friend who I fish well up the country with and who ties much prettier flies than I do did well with trout nymphs and a “One-feather Fly.” In truth, I believe almost any well-established trout pattern in size 6 or 8 should work, as long as it’s worked in the right area and in the right manner. Getting too scientific here can really lessen the fun-factor!
But the right gear can enhance it to the max. I usually use a 5-weight outfit since the flies I use are relatively bulky, and I prefer working them on a long line to prevent alerting the fish. That’s not a bad idea even if you choose to fish with bait, and it’s a lot more fun than fishing with a heavy cane pole!
The result of all that fun fries up to something equally as good, and in any given location where these fish are found, keeping a mess of them is almost always better in the overall scheme of things than putting them back. In a few weeks they will all disappear again anyway, and if you are like most of us, after that you won’t be able to catch one on a dare! Enjoy them while you can.