The other day Chuck Campbell and I headed to Old Hickory Lake on a search for shellcrackers – chunky members of the sunfish family that resemble a bream on steroids.
We struck out. We didn’t catch a single shellcracker. Chuck, a Mt. Juliet pharmacist and acknowledged expert on shellcrackers, determined that the water temperature was too cool. It was 68 degrees. Chuck said it needs to be in the mid-70’s before the crackers move into the shallows to bed and spawn.
So the bad news is that we went 0-for-shellcracker.
The good news is that we had one of the best crappie trips I’ve ever had.
Frustrated by the absence of shellcrackers, we decided to swap lures, change tactics, and go after crappie. I was skeptical, because late May is generally not considered a prime time for crappie.
But since we had nothing to lose, we decided to check out some of Chuck’s favorite crappie spots that had produced back in April.
By mid-afternoon we had caught, by conservative estimate, over 100 crappie. We kept 32 of the biggest ones and released another dozen that would have passed the 10-inch minimum requirement. We estimated that for every crappie we kept, we released at least two.
I’ve fished for crappie for over a half-century and seldom had a better day. The only two that come close were a couple of trips I took with famed Kentucky Lake crappie guru Steve McCadams, but in sheer numbers Chuck and I beat those trips.
We also caught five bonus channel cats and dozens of hand-sized bluegills.
We made the catches on artificial lures – 16th ounce tube jigs and small Roadrunner spinners.
During one hot stretch we caught fish on every cast. I decided to experiment with an array of colors, switching from my favorite blue-and-silver jigs to black and chartreuse, red and chartreuse, yellow and white, pink and white, and on through the tackle box.
The crappie nailed everything I threw at them in every color.
I learned two things from the trip: first, if you go fishing and the species you’re after isn’t cooperating, try another. Water that was too cool for shellcrackers was perfect for crappie.
Second: Forget everything the “experts” have told us over the years about crappie. I’d always believes crappie season began when the dogwoods bloomed and wrapped up around the end of April. Yet in late May Chuck and I found them by the dozens in shallow water, including big spawning females bursting with eggs.
Crappie don’t go by the calendar.
As for shellcrackers, they’ll move in eventually. The big sunfish (state record 3 pounds, 6 ounces) are technically called “redears” for the slash of bright orange on their gills. They got their nickname from their hard mouths that are used for cracking the shells of snails and crustaceans on which they feed.
When they move into shallow coves to span, they can be caught by the dozens on small jigs and spinners, or on live bait such as crickets and worms.
Chuck is convinced the shellcrackers will show up eventually.
Meanwhile, a boat-load of crappie is a good substitute.