Department of Natural Resources
You can find panfish in nearly every inland lake in Michigan…but a specific panfish you won’t find very often are redear sunfish. They’re somewhat larger than bluegill, with adult fish ranging from eight to 12 inches.
You might find redears, also known as “shellcrackers” as they love to eat snails, in several lakes in the southern portion of the Lower Peninsula, but many folks don’t know they’re not native.
“There was a big project several years ago to stock these all over,” explained Jeff Braunscheidel, a DNR fisheries biologist based out of Waterford. “We had this idea that they would provide an opportunity to catch trophy panfish, as they get bigger than the average bluegill or pumpkinseed.”
Some 30 years ago the department started moving redears from a couple of lakes located in northern Indiana and Ohio. Adults were collected and transferred to the preferred southern Michigan lakes, but the practice ended about 10 years ago once enough lakes were deemed established.
The plan was for redears to naturally reproduce in the lakes where they were introduced, and a fair number of lakes where they’re currently found have naturally reproducing populations.
An off-shoot of the efforts to establish redear sunfish in some of Michigan’s lakes was the fact cross-breeding has occurred with native species, creating numerous hybrid sunfish.
“In a lot of the lakes we originally put redears into, we’ve come back 10 or 20 years later and found quite a few mutts,” explained Brian Gunderman, a DNR fisheries manager from Plainwell. “We’ll find several bluegill and redear hybrids, which means they don’t get as big as they used to.”
Many anglers love to fish for redear sunfish, targeting them as they start to reach larger size. They are very susceptible to being caught when they’re nesting or bedding during their spawning period – as that’s usually the time when anglers find them most easily. During much of the rest of the year they’re suspended and can be hard to catch.
“May is a great time to catch redears,” Braunscheidel shared. “The best method is to use a large worm or nightcrawler and fish directly on the bottom in the areas where they’re concentrated for spawning.”
Redears are more benthic-oriented and they feed right off the bottom – so if you’re fishing in the middle of the water column you’re probably not going to find them.
Want to fish for these panfish in the southern portion of the state?
Braunscheidel indicates Wamplers Lake (in Walter Hayes State Park) is a popular spot with good access. East and West Crooked Lakes near Brighton has a good population of the fish and Silver Lake (in Pinckney State Recreation Area) provides a more isolated fishing experience with only carry-in opportunities for boats. South Lake, in Washtenaw County, is also an option if you’re looking for a smaller waterbody.
Gunderman shared Coldwater Lake in Branch County is probably one of the best places to target redear sunfish in the southwest corner of the state, while Palmer Lake (St. Joseph County) and Baw Beese (Hillsdale County) also offer decent opportunities.