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Art Lander’s Outdoors: The redear sunfish, mostly found in clear waters with rooted aquatic vegetation

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series about Kentucky’s native sunfish species.

The redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus) is found throughout Kentucky, but most common in clear waters — farm ponds, small lakes, and major reservoirs where submerged, rooted aquatic vegetation is present.

Statewide, there’s a 20-fish daily creel limit, with no minimum size limit.

The redear sunfish is often difficult to catch, in part because this sunfish prefers to stay close to the bottom in deeper water (up to 10 feet in depth), and if it feels any resistance on the line, is apt to drop the bait.

The redear sunfish is a member of family Centrarchidae, the sunfish family, which includes 18 species of fish in Kentucky.

Size and Coloration

Found throughout Kentucky, the redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus) is most common in clear waters — farm ponds, small lakes, and major reservoirs where submerged, rooted aquatic vegetation is present. (Photo courtesy of the KDFWR)

A moderately large, fast-growing sunfish, adults are eight to 10 inches in length, and can average three-quarters of a pound or more in productive waters.

Trophy-sized fish up to 12 inches are possible.

Kentucky’s state record redear sunfish weighed 3 pounds, 1 ounce, and was caught from a Shelby County farm pond in 1982.

Deep bodied, slab-sided sunfish, redears have relatively long, pointed snouts and small mouths. Their upper jaw does not extend past the front of the eye.

They have long pointed pectoral fins, which aid in lateral movement, and distinctive opercle flaps — the adult male’s has a bright cherry red margin, the female’s is light orange.

Coloration is a mottled blueish-green, with a yellow-orange belly.

Geographic Range / Distribution in Kentucky

The redear sunfish’s native range is northeastern Mexico to northern Florida, north to North Carolina, and west to western Kentucky, but the fish has been introduced elsewhere, particularly north of its native range.

The redear sunfish is present in all river drainages in Kentucky but is most successful in warm wetlands, and sluggish flowing streams, farm ponds, and small lakes.

Without question, the top waters in the state for redear sunfish are the sprawling “twin” impoundments Kentucky Lake and Lake Barkley, south of Paducah, Kentucky.

A moderately large, fast-growing sunfish, adults are eight to 10 inches in length, and can average three-quarters of a pound or more in productive waters. (Photo courtesy of the KDFWR)

Lake Barkley, 45,600 acres in Kentucky, may be the top trophy destination in the state, with fish up to 12 inches possible.

In 2018 the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources stocked redear sunfish in four small, state-owned lakes in Central Kentucky: 158-acre Beaver Lake, in Anderson County, 47,000; 149-acre Elmer Davis Lake, in Owen County, 39,600; 88-acre Benjy Kinman Lake, in Henry County, 26,400, and 92-acre Boltz Lake, in Grant County, 27,600.

Three other small, state-owned lakes in the region offer good to excellent fishing for redear sunfish: 51-acre McNeely Lake, in Jefferson County, and 96-acre Corinth Lake, in Grant County, and 784-acre Cedar Creek Lake, in Lincoln County.

Food Habits

Redear sunfish feed mainly on snails and insect larvae.

They use their flattened “throat teeth” to crush the shells of snails, clams and mussels, both native and non-native species, hence its most common nickname — the shellcracker.

Another common name is stumpknocker, because of the fish’s attraction to stumps, logs and other submerged wood covers.

The non-native zebra mussel is present in Fishtrap Lake, a 1,131-acre reservoir in Pike County. In the 2019 Kentucky Fishing Forecast, it was reported that the lake was first stocked with redear sunfish in 2010-13, and that trophy-sized fish 10 to 12 inches long are now present.

The Spawn is the Best Time to Fish

When water temperatures reach into the upper 60s and low 70s, redear sunfish build circular nests, clustered in colonies.

Their nests are typically in deeper water than bluegills, so the two sunfish species don’t spawn that close together.

One productive strategy for red ear sunfish is the jig and float. (Photo courtesy of the KDFWR)

Males make the nests, and guard it, becoming very territorial, biting aggressively, after the eggs hatch.

The first challenge is finding the redear nest sites. They are typically away from the shoreline, not where the bluegill are, in five feet, or deeper, water.

Once you starting catching redears, don’t leave. Fish the area thoroughly.

Remember that the bait must be on the bottom, or within an inch or two of it.

A live bait strategy that’s hard to beat is a red worm or chunk of nightcrawler fished on a size 6 or 8 Aberdeen-style hook, with a BB-sized split shot about a foot above the hook. Cast the line out and let the bait settle to the bottom.

Another strategy is the jig and float.

Fish a 1/32-ounce jig, dressed with a feather, maribou, or tuft of bucktail, and tipped with a small piece of nightcrawler, a wax worms or meal worm.

Position the jig under the float so that it is suspended, on or just above, the bottom.

Ultralight spinning tackle, with reels spooled in 6-pound test monofilament line, is ideal for redear sunfish.

They are gamers on light tackle, and when hooked, even the most jaded angler is likely to get excited.

Next week: Rock Bass (Ambloplites rupestris)

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Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

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