• Wading for Redbreasts…a Summer Day on Indian Creek

    Redbreast sunfish established populations only in the upper Cumberland River drainage. Southeastern Kentucky waters where redbreast sunfish were released are Indian and Marsh creeks in McCreary County, Clearfork and Lot's Creek in Whitely County and Clear Creek and Brownie's Creek in Harlan County. Redbreasts
    populations are expanding and filling the gaps between these release sites.

    Sweeping the small stream like maniacal coin collectors with metal detectors the men deftly maneuvered upstream, repeatedly casting into every possible nook and cranny.

    The object of this concentrated stream assault was the redbreast sunfish (Lepomis auritus an exotic panfish that's supposedly as much fun to catch as smallmouth bass.

    I say "supposedly" because I didn't get a chance to find out.

    It was late June when Kentucky Afield TV host Dave Shuffett and I headed to McCreary County to meet up with southeastern District Fishery Biologist Doug Stephens, his assistant John D. Williams, technicians Danny Parks and Dirk Bradley and summer aide Cory Keith. To get our stories, we were planning to wade Indian Creek in hopes of hooking at least one redbreast sunfish. Our chances were good since males would be guarding nests this time of year.

    Wearing old clothes and shoes, Dave and I were prepared to get wet. Unlike myself, Dave is an experienced stream angler. He prefers wading as lightweight as possible, without waders. That was probably my best bet, but I was offered the loan of Cory's hip boots, the smallest in the lot, so I decided to give them a try. My old loafer-style Mason walking shoes easily slid inside, but pulling the rubbery expanse of black material up each leg soon revealed I had more boot than leg. After a few adjustments allowing a type of movement akin to walking, I headed down to the lazily flowing water.

    It was relatively clear, revealing a stream bed haphazardly strewn with fairly large flat-sided, sharp-edged rocks, some of which jutted skyward at odd angles. With a modern sunbonnet pulled low over dark sunglasses, a camera dangling from my neck and every available pocket stuffed with tape recorder, batteries, fishing license and other necessities, I entered the water. Oh, and one more thing. Since I didn't have enough to carry already or have my own fishing equipment, Dave thought I should have a fishing rod, minus line, to carry, too. I was definitely ready for something, but I don't think it was fishing. Staying upright would be a major accomplishment. Dragging those waders along, I must have looked something like a slow-moving Frankenstein's monster with wishbone legs.

    The dark, swirling water flowed passed me, murky with silt and algae stirred up by several pairs of feet, insuring that the irregular, slippery rocks on the bottom would stay hidden for a time. Each foot feeling its way before accepting any weight made progress slow in water getting deeper. Looking upstream, I saw the men round a bend and disappear. Obviously, I wasn't going to get a picture of a redbreast sunfish unless one decided to make my acquaintance.

    Electing to enjoy the "I am" of being right where I was, I glanced around for a possible resting spot. The pool near the middle of the stream where I was standing was fairly deep and water occasionally lapped over the tops of my peeled down hip boots. I spied a fallen tree limb arching out of the water just enough to provide a dry seat. Luckily, it was under tree canopy which would provide some respite from the heat. Before long I was seated on the limb, allowing my encased legs to float straight out in front of me while I listened to the distinctive sounds made by various creatures along the stream bank. Alas, there was no escaping the humidity, but, all in all, this was a pleasant experience on Indian Creek.

    The wait also gave time to reflect on what I'd reamed about the redbreast sunfish. The species is native to inland waters along the Atlantic coastline of the Carolinas and Georgia. The Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources (KDPWR) introduced the exotic sunfish to Kentucky waters for a couple of reasons. Supposedly the redbreast sunfish could tolerate acidic water conditions, and would, therefore, be a good choice for adding to streams with coal mine acid runoff. The KDPWR wanted to give anglers upper fishing opportunities in acidic streams where bluegill weren't doing very well. Redbreast sunfish seemed to be the answer. Beginning in 1969, the KDFWR released redbreast sunfish in both the western and eastern coal field regions. Stocking continued through the early '80s.

    Apparently the fish adapted best in the southeast. No one knows for sure why this happened. Of course, the higher the water quality is, the better the fish will fare.

    There aren't any plans to stock more redbreast sunfish in investigators Stephens says investigations over the past three years show that every major tributary of the Cumberland River above the falls apparently has good populations of redbreast sunfish. "We're finding out they're doing really well in high quality streams, he said, "and I expect those populations to expand (from McCreary County through Harlan County) somewhat."

    Not surprisingly, the sunfish is named for the bright red or orange color on its breast. The color is especially vivid on males. There are additional ways to distinguish the redbreast from other sunfish. Look for red tint on top of the dorsal fin and tail kin. Sometimes the red tint appears on other fins, too. Wavy blue lines on the cheeks are characteristic markings of several sunfish species, but the redbreast also has rows of rusty red spots along the sides of the body. The ear flap, at the rear of the gill plate, is long and usually black all the way to the edge. Ear flaps on most sunfish aren't as long as the red-breast's.. Its mouth is larger than a bluegill's.

    Biologist Stephens says most people fish for redbreast sunfish with spinnerbaits such as Roostertails, Mepps and a few jigs. Some choose live bait like crickets and nightcrawlers. "I prefer tying on an artificial lure," said Stephens, "and walking a long way without having to mess with all that other stuff."

    Most redbreast sunfish caught in Kentucky range between seven and nine inches in length. A few years ago says he caught an 11-inch redbreast. Since he practices catch and release, we'll have to take his word for it.

    Stephens likes to fish for redbreasts in the summertime. "When the water temperature in the reservoirs starts warming up and fishing slows down," he said, I get out on these small creeks and fish for redbreast sunfish and other species associated with them like the rock bass (which is actually a sunfish) and smallmouth bass. It's a lot of fun. You can get away from everything and get back to nature."

    "And they're so much fun to catch, especially on ultralight," Dave Shuffett added.

    I wouldn't know, guys. But that's okay. I've got a little fishing gear now. I don't think I want any waders though, unless they're just my size. Now, if I could just find time to practice...