My son, John, had on a sweatshirt with a hood drawn down so tightly that you couldn’t see his eyes, only the beginning of his nose. The temperatures were in the high 80s in early May, but John was standing in a cloud of industrial-strength mosquitoes, with only his hoodie to protect the upper half of his body.
But, that’s the price he was paying to catch a steady stream of bluegills and shellcrackers. He was fishing with Bay Minette angler Gayland Gillikin in the lowlands of the Mobile Delta.
Of course, that’s just one of the places in the Cotton State where you can get into some great panfish action this month in Alabama. Let’s take a look at some of the better destinations around the state.
“The big shellcrackers are really smart and can get crickets and red worms off your hook before you know it,” Gayland Gillikin offered. “But I like to use either the front end or the back end of a large nightcrawler for bait when I’m fishing for shellcrackers.
“I thread the nightcrawler on the hook all the way up to where the line ties to the hook and leave about 1/4-inch of the tail or the head of the worm sticking above the point of the hook. This process makes my hook invisible,” he continued. “The back-and-forth motion the nightcrawler makes the bait look lifelike to the shellcracker.
“If possible, I don’t use any weight, but instead let the nightcrawler fall naturally to the bottom on 2- to 4-pound-test line.”
With regard to where to fish, Gillikin also had some advice.
“Shellcrackers like to stay in weedy cover, whereas, bluegills prefer clean banks,” he said. “When I come to a clean bank, I change from the nightcrawler to red worms or crickets, since bluegills bite more aggressively and are less suspicious than shellcrackers are.”
One of the advantages of fishing the Mobile Delta is that you find plenty of sloughs, little creeks and backwaters holding both shellcrackers and bluegills. The bream in the this delta in the southernmost part of the state generally start biting much earlier than those in north Alabama.
Bluegill beds are easily found by bird-dogging them by using your nose.
“Once you begin to smell ripe watermelons, you can tell you’re close to the bream beds,” Gillikin explained. “Once male bluegills fertilize the eggs, the scent smells like ripe watermelons, and you can smell that scent in the air just above the bluegill beds.
“Another way to find bluegill beds in the Mobile Delta is to remember where you’ve found them last. Bluegills usually bed in or close-to the same place year after year. So, if you remember where you’ve caught them last year, more than likely, you can catch them again this year. The same is true about shellcrackers. Shellcrackers often start bedding a month or more before bluegills.”
For all of us who have short memories, the best way to keep up with bluegill beds from one year to the next is to mark the locations as waypoints on your boat’s GPS unit, or a hand-held GPS receiver. If you’ve never fished the Mobile Delta before, you also probably need the GPS to find your way back to your launch site. This section of the state is a complex maze of hundreds of small waterways, creeks, bayous and dead-end sloughs.
New technology also is making finding bream beds much quicker and easier on big bodies of water like North Alabama’s Tennessee River
“One of the reasons I like the side-imaging sonar that Humminbird makes is because it allows me to locate bream beds quicker, mark them better and fish them easier,” said Brad Whitehead of Muscle Shoals, a fishing guide on Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee River. “When I’m scanning the bottom and notice small craters, I realize bream beds are there in the deep water. I often may not be able to pinpoint them any other way. But I can move my cursor on the screen of my depth finder to where it’ll mark those bream beds as waypoints. Then I can return to all the spots I’ve marked to find and catch the big bluegills.
Whitehead went on to say that few, if any fishermen ever find those deep-water beds. Thus, they rarely get fished. Most fishermen don’t realize there are productive bream beds in such deep water, so they never even look for them.
Alabama Education Aquatic Coordinator Doug Darr picked the 652-mile-long Tennessee River as the best in Alabama for catching big bluegills. The Tennessee River runs into the eastern corner of the state from Tennessee, crosses Bama to the west, and goes back into Tennessee.
“Everyone knows about the Tennessee River’s outstanding fishing for largemouths, smallmouths and crappie, but few anglers know that this fertile river system also produces some of the best bluegill and shellcracker fishing in the state,” Darr reported. “On the Tennessee River, Guntersville Lake in Marshall County is historically known for producing large bluegills and big shellcrackers.