Bill Bennett, wearing his signature hat and the white beard, that longtime readers of the St. Joseph News Press would recognize at a glance, sat in the rear of a rather shaky round-bottom canoe and laughed at my efforts not to tip the boat. Leaning past a certain point to the right or left would likely have meant getting dunked in the cold water of Pony Express Lake.
I think he would have enjoyed seeing me get wet—even if it meant he would have taken a chilly bath, too.
I was a fledging writer when Bennett, now deceased, invited me to pursue his favorite fish on a chilly May morning. We both enjoyed popping up big bluegill with artificial bugs on light-action fly rods. My outdoor writing mentor decided I was ready to take on redear sunfish, his favorite panfish heavyweight.
Redear sunfish are common in Missouri. Bennett assured me that a redear fights like a bluegill with added weight. Considering how hard bluegill fight, I was itching to battle a redear.
Bennett had positioned us parallel to a submerged tree. We had quietly dropped small anchors on each end of the unsteady craft and were casting tiny black artificial ants attached to two-pound leaders.
We carefully laid each cast across the rotting wood so our bugs would sink between branches. Bennett was the first to raise his rod and drive a hook into a hungry redear. The wide fish turned sideways and made his eight-foot rod bend. I was amazed at its strength and energy. It fought with the muscle and stamina of a much larger fish.
After several deep and dogged runs, the pound and a half fish slid into Bennett’s hand for a quick release. A few seconds later, I noticed my line move slightly sideways. I set the hook and was immediately welcomed with a remarkable pull.
My fish, the same size as Bennett’s, dove deep then turned sideways, using its flat body to increase resistance, an old bluegill trick. I doubted that my light leader would hold.
I hung on, giving and getting back line until the redear succumbed. Before releasing the saucer-shaped fish, I marveled at its bold yellow, green and black coloring. My first redear left quite an impression.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, redear fishing in northwestern Missouri’s Pony Express Lake was spectacular. Fishing success has slowed somewhat due to low water levels that reduced the lake’s vegetation, but numerous other lakes in Missouri offer excellent redear fishing.
“People who catch a redear often think they have a bluegill,” said Harold Kerns, fishery regional supervisor for Northwest Missouri.
Kerns said redear sunfish are similar in appearance and shape to bluegill, but redear can be distinguished from other sunfish by their yellow to yellow-orange belly, long, sharply pointed pectoral fin and light colored, sometimes reddish-orange border of the ear flap over the gill cover. Redear also generally run larger than other sunfishes. It is not uncommon to catch redear sunfish weighing more than a pound.
Southern states that have longer periods of warm weather resulting in longer growing seasons can brag of redear over four pounds, but Missouri’s redear also grow pretty big. Glenda Gollaher caught the current Missouri state record of two pounds, seven ounces, from the Whetstone Creek Conservation Area in 1988.
William Hargrove caught the previous record of two pounds, four ounces in 1974 from Lake St. Louis. Who would have imagined that his record would hold up 14 years and that it would be topped by only three ounces?
Redear are native only to the southern and southeastern parts of the state, but the fish are stocked throughout Missouri where conditions are favorable to them. Redear do best in clear water with vegetation that holds snails and insects.
In fact, so fond are redear sunfish for snails that they have been used in hatcheries and ponds to reduce snail infestations.
James Fry, former Conservation Department fisheries division chief, conducted one of the earliest research projects on this species in 1964. His research led to redear stocking statewide where conditions allow redear survival.
Redear sunfish are often stocked in lakes and ponds managed by the Conservation Department. For information about these areas go to www.mdc.mo.gov/areas/.
The best redear lakes are usually extremely shallow and full of vegetation. Few deep reservoirs have redear populations.
Stocked redear sunfish can reproduce, but they are not as prolific as bluegill. Predators devour many of their fry, but usually some survive to grow to full size. Overpopulation is usually not a problem for redear in Missouri, but it has occurred in southern states. In fact, most anglers wish redear sunfish were more plentiful here.
“Landowners often want redear sunfish in their ponds because they grow larger than bluegill,” Kerns said.
The Missouri Conservation Department does not provide redear for stocking in private ponds, but private fish dealers have them.
Redear are more difficult to catch than bluegill. Anglers should look for them in submerged trees, as Bennett and I did. Seldom will you find them deeper than six
feet. A good time to catch them is during their breeding season, which runs from early May through early June. Redear often spawn on the deeper edges of bluegill spawning beds.
Redear in Public Lakes
|Ashland Lake (University of Missouri)||Boone County||12 acres|
|Austin Community Lake||Texas County||22 acres|
|Bilby Ranch Lake||Nodaway County||110 acres|
|Binder Community Lake||Cole County||150 acres|
|Blind Pony Lake||Saline County||195 acres|
|Busch CA Lakes (Nrs. 6 20 21 30 34 35 37 and 38)||St. Charles County|
|Bushwhacker Lake||Vernon County||157 acres|
|Council Bluff Lake (US Forest Service)||Iron County||440 acres|
|Crowder State Park Lake (Mo. DNR)||Grundy County||21 acres|
|Cypress Lake (on Otter Slough Conservation Area)||Stoddard County||95 acres|
|DiSalvo Lake (on Bismarck Conservation Area)||St. Francois County||210 acres|
|Duck Creek Nr. 1||Stoddard County||1,713 acres|
|Happy Holler Lake||Andrew County||62 acres|
|Harmony Mission Lake||Bates County||96 acres|
|Hunnewell Lake||Shelby County||228 acres|
|Indian Creek Lake (on Poosey Conservation Area)||Livingston County||192 acres|
|Jamesport Community Lake||Daviess County||30 acres|
|Kellogg Lake (City of Carthage)||Jasper County||25 acres|
|Lake Girardeau||Cape Girardeau||162 acres|
|Little Dixie Lake||Callaway County||206 acres|
|Lone Jack Lake||Jackson County||35 acres|
|Miller Community Lake||Carter County||27 acres|
|Perry County Community Lake||Perry County||101 acres|
|Rinquelin Trail Community Lake||Maries County||29 acres|
|Sims Valley Community Lake||Howell County||41 acres|
|Sterling Price Community Lake||Chariton County||35 acres|
|Watkins Mill State Park Lake (Mo. DNR)||Clay County||100 acres|
Favorite baits include bits of live worm, euro larvae or crickets. Some anglers even use snails to catch redear. Use tiny gold or black hooks.
Feathered 1⁄100-ounce jigs or small flies also work. Wet flies are preferred, but a redear will occasionally pop a top-water insect. Black or dark brown lures are best. Some anglers maintain that the fish mistake the flies for snails.
Generally, you’ll have better luck fishing lures and baits slowly and just a few inches off bottom. Use small bobbers to keep your bait in front of fish. Redear will drop a lure if they detect resistance. Bites are generally light but, once hooked, a redear is anything but subtle.
Ice fishermen often find redears suspended in deeper water, where they are easily lured by the possibility of an easy meal.