Alabama's Record Bluegill and Shellcracker

Alabama's Record Bluegill and Shellcracker

Alabama state-record shellcracker
R.V. Lashley with his father's record shellcracker.

Alabama’s anglers know more about fish behavior than ever before, but the records stand.

By Eileen Davis

Serendipity! That’s how Nick Nichols, the previous Chief of Fisheries for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, describes the existence of a state- or world-record fish. Even when all the factors are present to produce a record fish, happenstance is involved.

“The fish has to have the genetic propensity to live old and grow big,” Nichols said, “and it has to be lucky, because mortality rates are high for just about all of our fish species.” 

Producing a record fish seems unattainable. Some privately owned small lake and pond managers apply the best science to grow the next world-record largemouth bass, yet they have not. And Alabama’s anglers know more about fish behavior than ever before, but the records stand.

Nichols is right. Only serendipity would explain why the bluegill record is 70 years old, even though this species is found in nearly every body of water in the state. The record shellcracker was caught 58 years ago.

What can we learn by reviewing how and where our record bream were caught, and how can we apply that knowledge today to find and catch big sunfish?

When T.S. Hudson went bream fishing on Easter Day, April 9, 1950, I’m fairly certain he knew that his destination produced the world-record bluegill in May 1947. Coke McKenzie caught the record 4 pound, 10 ounce bream from the same limestone quarry, which is located 2 miles north of the Birmingham International Airport next to Highway 79. Drawing national attention to the 18- to 20-acre pit, Field and Stream had reported the smaller of the two Ketona lakes as an Alabama panfish hotspot.

Hudson’s bluegill was 4 pounds, 12 ounces, 15 inches long, and 18¼ inches in girth.

Since the quarry’s water is crystal clear, Hudson and McKenzie had to hide from the watchful bream by moving away from the vertical bank. For the same reason, both anglers used light line and long cane poles to fish worms.

Biologists, eager to learn the quarry’s secrets, sampled its bream and found no genetic reason for the massive fish. They did, however, find an environment suitable for producing big bream. Nothing magical, the habitat had just the right combination of minerals, population control and fishing pressure. 

According to biologists, the presence of limestone promotes high growth rates and higher productivity because it enhances nutrients. 

Of course, high productivity without controls would quickly lead to overcrowding and result in small fish. But Ketona’s bream numbers failed to expand for two reasons. Due to the unnatural shape of its shoreline, the lake has limited spawning habitat. And the lake had an abundance of bass, which easily fed on bream in its clear water.

Bream not eaten had an opportunity to grow beyond the diameter of a frying pan, provided they didn’t inhale a worm or grasshopper hiding a barbed hook. The lack of fishing pressure could have been the reason bream reached old age, but that seems unlikely in Birmingham. It could be that most anglers had not learned how to fish in gin-clear water.

Ketona Lakes seems unchanged from the midpoint of the last century, but that’s difficult to determine as the property is now owned by a corporation. It’s not open for fishing, but you can view the old quarry by searching Google maps on the Internet and entering the words Ketona Lakes.

In May 1962, Scott Carpenter flew into space for a three-orbit science mission that lasted nearly five hours, and a former state judge won the Democratic Primary, which was tantamount to election in Alabama. George Wallace, son of a small farmer, set a record for winning the most votes in a gubernatorial race in the state.

Also setting a record that month, a world record, was T. J. Lashley Sr. of Ardilla, which is now part of Dothan. Jeff, as he was known, caught a shellcracker weighing 4 pounds, 4 ounces on May 5th. The bream’s official measurements are 15 inches long, 7½ inches from top to bottom and 2¾ inches thick.

Lashley’s Saturday began early with a drive to the Chattahoochee State Park with his son R.V. and grandson Ronnie. The park is located south of Gordon on our border with Florida.

“You couldn’t find a better place to fish,” R.V. Lashley remembered. “We fished there every week.”

Lashley continued by saying that they rented a jonboat for fifty cents, and his father began sculling the boat in search of bream. “The boat had stopped moving when he caught the fish,” he said. “My father fought the fish by keeping its head up. He put the fish on a stringer and continued to scull the boat.”

No doubt, the fish died not long after Jeff Lashley threaded his stringer through the gills of the huge shellcraker.

“On that day,” Lashley recalled, “we saw more fish of that size. On more than one trip, we caught bigger fish (than the world record).”

Lashley said his father was fishing with a cane pole rigged with 10-pound test and a No. 6 hook, which was baited with two redworms collected from his dad’s yard.

“The sinker was about a foot above the hook so the worm would float above the bottom,” Lashley explained.

Late that afternoon, Luther Collins, park supervisor, weighed the fish. Lashley said the fish weighed over five pounds on the parks scales, which were not certified. Collins told the Dothan Eagle on May 11, 1962 that the big shellcracker would possibly have weighed a quarter to a half pond more if it had been weighed as soon as it was caught. 

The Lashleys carried their fish home in a burlap bag. 

Retired conservation officer J. Dan Ward admitted that he didn’t remember who called him about the fish. “I was afraid he might eat it,” Ward remembered, “so I rushed over to make sure that didn’t happen. When I saw the shellcracker, I said, ‘Don’t you dare clean that fish, it’s a record.”

Later that week, I.B. Byrd, the state’s chief biologist, declared the shellcracker a world record.

For the next 23 years, Alabama waters would hold the world record for both bluegill and redear. On May 23, 1985, C.L. Windham of Ariton in Dale County, caught a 4-pound, 10-ounce shellcracker from Merritts Mill Pond, which is only 16 miles from the Chattahoochee State Park, but the pond is in northwest Florida. 

The current world record weighed 5 pounds 12 ounces and was caught February 16, 2014 in Lake Havasu, Arizona. 

Anglers have caught two world record and seven Florida state record shellcrackers from Merritts Mill Pond. And while the park lake has produced other big fish, its production has been spotty over the years due to flooding from the Chattahoochee River.

The 20-acre park lake and the 202-acre millpond are both spring fed from the Floridan Aquifer, which is in carbonate rock. The mineral-rich water – mostly limestone – produces an abundance of snails that contribute to the exceptional growth of shellcracker. 

Similar to Ketona Lake, the Chattahoochee State Park had clear water and a strong population of bass to control the bream population. Ward, who fished there frequently, said it was a great place for catching big bass. The park is currently closed.

Read more about how successful anglers find and catch Bama’s fish.