A rouge-hued flash beneath the surface leaves little question what caused the bobber to dart out of sight and is now made the angler’s line race side to side. It’s a redbreast sunfish, and that causes the angler to smile. Experience has taught him that when he catches one redbreast, he’s usually on the path to filling his panfish basket.
In many ways redbreast sunfish are like bluegills, shellcrackers and other kinds of bream. They have a similar appearance, can be equally feisty and the best fishing opportunities begin late in the spring. The biggest difference is that redbreasts favor moving water and their holding areas are current-oriented. Thus, the best fishing normally occurs in streams, instead of lakes. They especially like slow to moderate streams with sandy or rocky bottoms and plenty of woody debris, rocky cover or shallow vegetation.
Redbreasts are also commonly called robins, redbellies or longear sunfish, with the “longear” name actually describing their most reliable distinguishing feature. While the bright rosy or orange breast behind the “redbreast” name is limited to males, both sexes have elongated, narrow and dark extensions on their gill covers, which give them a “long-eared” appearance.
Redbreasts don’t grow as large as bluegills or shellcrackers. The world record redbreast weighed 1 pound, 12 ounces. They aren’t tiny sunfish either, though, and most fish caught are hand-sized or larger. They also fight with strength that seems too great for their size.
One fine thing about redbreasts is that they can flourish in a stream of virtually any size, meaning you don’t necessarily need a big boat to get in on the action. Some of the best redbreast waters are suited for floating in a johnboat or a canoe because of shallow sandbars or gravel bars that would limit navigation for larger boats. Even wading anglers can find good redbreast opportunities in smaller streams.
Good fishing opportunities exist year-round, but the most dependable action begins late in the spring, when the fish can be found around shallow, visible cover. Spawning redbreasts build nests in sand or gravel in 1 to 3 feet of water, usually near stumps and in eddies that are protected from the strongest currents. They also make use of existing bream beds.
Unlike their blue-gilled cousins, redbreasts don’t necessarily spawn in big colonies, so you usually won’t catch a whole bunch of them together. That said, if you catch a couple of brightly colored males beside a stump in 2 feet of water over a sandy bottom on the lee side of the river, you’re apt to catch a fish or two from virtually every stump you can find in a similar setting.
You also don’t have to find spawning fish to get in on good spring action. By May the fish often are lurking around shallow cover, where they find meals of freshwater shrimp, small crawfish, insect larvae and tiny minnows. Gravel bars, weed beds and downed trees all hold an abundance of the foodstuff that the redbreast like the best. Any cover that creates a well-defined eddy, but has a current sweeping past it, can be productive because it creates a nice ambush opportunity for redbreasts.
The most popular way to target redbreasts is with live bait, and both worms and crickets can be extremely effective. Smaller varieties of earthworms, such as red worms, generally work better than night crawlers for redbreasts. It’s a good idea to get a couple of different varieties as sometimes the fish can be inexplicably picky about seemingly similar worms.
Two excellent live bait presentations are drifting bait beneath a float or presenting the same bait directly beneath the tip of a long pole. For either, use a long-shanked, light-wire hook in the No. 10 range and add a small split shot or two 6 to 8 inches up the line from the hook.
For the drifting option, use a slender, sensitive float, like a Thill Mini Shy Bite, which will show you everything going on beneath the surface. The amount of weight you need to add and the best specific float will vary by current strength, water color and the amount of wind that’s complicating drifts. As a general rule, you want the least weight you can keep beneath your float and the most sensitive float you can cast and effectively watch. A light spinning outfit with a rod that’s at least 6 feet long works well for delivering a float rig.
The basic approach itself is simple. Cast or pitch your rig to where you expect the redbreasts to be and then watch the bobber. It’s not a sit-and-wait game, though. Redbreasts either are home and willing to bite, or they aren’t, so keep searching till you find them. Cast upstream of promising cover and let the float rig drift through the best zone. Then reel it back and cast again. When you cast into eddies, where the bait won’t drift, allow it to sit a few minutes before picking another spot.
Keep moving until you find fish, and adjust your float as needed to probe a range of depths. Try different kinds of cover and pay attention to details any time a fish hits. Be sure to watch your bobber closely, and be ready set the hook any time it lays sideways, pauses or otherwise alters its natural drift. The float won’t always dart under.
Using a long pole and a tight line isn’t as visual as bobber fishing, and it doesn’t allow you to drift your bait naturally past cover. However, it does allow you to fish very tight to cover because you can place the tip of a long pole right against a stump, weed edge or deadfall and le
t your bait straight down. Pull the line from the reel in measured strips so you know exactly how deep you are fishing, and keep a finger on your line for maximum sensitivity once your bait is down.
Again, you don’t need to keep your bait in any given spot for long. Hold the boat a rod’s length from the cover as you work your way down a bank and drop your bait in every interesting looking hole. When fish do hit, remember that you are working with a very short line. A quick snap of the wrist is all you need to set the hook, and you might have to give the fish a little line in order to play it. Having a long-handled dip net handy, or have a buddy to help out.
Although the live bait approach is the most popular way to target redbreasts, it not the only effective means. In fact, casting small artificial lures with an ultralight outfit provides its own advantages. This approach allows you cover water quickly, casting to everything that looks interesting, and to draw reaction strikes. It’s also tremendously fun to work a lure, feel every hit and fight the fish on very light tackle.
The best lures overall are diminutive jigs and spinners, including the same Beetle Spins, Road Runners and curly-tailed grubs that work nicely for bluegills. Along with imitating the various invertebrates and small minnows that redbreasts like for dinner, these lures allow you to fish with equal effectiveness in 6 inches or 6 feet of water simply by varying presentation speeds and your rod position.
A final alternative is to fish with bait, but to work it like a lure. A red worm strung onto a 1/32-ounce Road Runner head fished slowly around cover with the current doing much of the presenting can be highly effective. Be aware, though, that a great big bass or channel catfish might just spot or smell your offering and not know that you’re after redbreasts!