Alabama Bream Bonanza

Regardless of your favorite type of water, our state provides plenty of places for catching bream. Check out the variety from which you can choose! (May 2006)

Long before I was stricken with the desire to own my first BB gun, I pined for a Zebco 33 -- having, in my own mind, outgrown the lesser and finicky 202s that the rest of the kids owned. When my wish was finally granted, I also wanted to go after bigger fish.

But a stern warning from my mother, issued when I landed an 8-inch-long mudcat, sort of squashed that impulse.

"Don't touch it," she admonished. "It'll sting you!"

It was not unlike the repeated warnings I got when I tore the wrappings off that first Daisy air rifle: Be careful -- you'll shoot your eye out!

This was, of course, almost two decades before the 1983 film, A Christmas Story, gave voice to the oft-heard phrase. In the now-classic flick, poor bespectacled Ralphie heard the joy-killing words whenever he asked parents, teachers or even Santa for a Red Ryder BB gun.

I lived in fear of catfish for at least another year. Since nobody explained that it was their fins that could inflict pain, I imagined their whiskers dripping with venom. Certain death would follow their touch.

Finally wise to the perils of handling catfish and armed with a gleaming new Zebco 33, I at last set out. But rather than target catfish, I aimed to terrorize all the bream within casting distance. The following spring, I found I could actually reach the far side of the slough, and discovered the joy of a bream bed. And it was a bream, not a BB gun, that shot my eye out. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

I had caught my share of bream up to that point -- little pretty ones not much bigger than my child-sized hand -- but it wasn't until I fished a "bream bed" such as those I'd heard grownups talk about that I hooked into one big enough to fry.

"Throw it next to those weeds," my father told me one day. "There's a bream bed there. I can smell it."

I had the devil of a time understanding how anyone could smell a bed. In my mind, someone must've tossed an old mattress or box springs into the water there. Try as I might, I couldn't smell anything.

"Who put it there?" I asked.

"Who put what where?" Daddy responded.

"The bed. Who dumped it in the water?"

"Nobody," he replied. "Just throw your line over there."

I wondered why it was a secret, but I chunked my line over there anyway. Two seconds later, the little red-and-white bobber plunged under the surface, and I was fighting my biggest bluegill ever. When I finally got a hand around it, I was marveling at its size, turning it this way and that to admire the colors.

I'll never forget the taste of that bream. Although my mother, full of subsequent warnings about how bony they are and how I could choke to death, kept an eyebrow raised as I gingerly pulled the meat off the bones, I knew I was hooked on bream. My hands-down favorite is fried whole bream, whether little-bitty or threatening to overrun the skillet. That they're considered game fish is the only reason you won't find bluegills or shellcrackers on restaurant menus here in the South.

It seems as if a stringer or cooler full of bream can be taken in short order from a bazillion places in this state -- but believe it or not, some lakes and rivers do stand above the rest in that regard. For example: Whenever you pay a call on the following waters, you can feel safe in buying the cornmeal and oil before you wet a line.

BANKHEAD LAKE

Although it's been around since 1915 and lies a scant 15 miles from Birmingham's city limits, the northernmost impoundment of the Black Warrior River remains one of this state's best-kept secrets for panfish. Although officially known as "Bankhead Lake," locals simply call it "Warrior River." After all, it is more river than lake.

It might be the second-largest reservoir in this Alabama Power-built chain, but Bankhead seems always the bridesmaid, never the bride, when it comes to luring fishermen. That's because it must compete with the bigger and more accessible Coosa River lakes -- mainly Logan Martin and Lay -- which flow east and north of the city.

Warrior River has long been the blue-collar playground for fishermen living in western Jefferson and Walker counties -- guys and gals content to wet their lines without ever having to travel on an interstate highway. But it's not like they're settling for less: This 9,200-acre stretch of river can easily rival its Coosa cousins.

Of course, this relatively shallow lake is loaded with bream from dam to dam. The heaviest angling traffic goes on from Howton's Camp south to the lock and dam above Holt Lake. The river splits at Howton's. The Mulberry Fork (known as "the big river") takes you to the tailwaters of Smith Lake. The much narrower Locust Fork is my hands-down favorite for panfish.

Myriad shallow sloughs and mudflats flank the river here, and they're full of weeds and woody cover -- perfect habitat for bluegills and shellcrackers. They're also apt to have numerous great blue herons milling about in hopes of snatching up their next meal.

MONROE AND BIBB COUNTY LAKES

I've had the pleasure of dunking crickets at several state-owned fishing lakes, and I've never come home empty-handed from any of them. But if I had to choose the best venue for bream among Alabama's public fishing waters, I'd have to put 94-acre Monroe County Lake at the top -- mainly because that's where I once landed a shellcracker that weighed a legitimate 1 1/2 pounds. I caught it while I was catfishing with Canadian night crawlers, casting out to deep water and allowing the bait to sit on the bottom.

Sometime between then and now, the lake was completely drained and restocked, so I can't exactly guarantee that a 2-pound shellcracker is swimming in that warm water. Still, enough time has passed that a 1-pounder should be no problem -- if you can make yourself fish away from the bank, where most folks concentrate.

Bream fishing is popular at Monroe County Lake, which is about five miles west of the little town of Beatrice, off County Road 50. You should be able to follow the signs from state Route 21. Nearly 80 percent of the annual catch harvested there consists of bream, with bluegills outnumbering shellcrackers two to one.

Fishermen age 12 and older must purchase a daily fishing permit in addition to the regular state fishing license for those 16 years or older. Some of the best bream fishing is accessible from either the bank or one of the fishing piers there. But if you want

a more remote setting, either rent a boat or launch your own for a modest fee. Fishing licenses, bait and gear are sold on site as well.

This lake is generally open from sunrise to sunset, Tuesday through Sunday. On the odd Thursday night, anglers are allowed fish from the bank or pier until 9 p.m. After mid-July, the place closes on Tuesdays as well, and is shut down entirely from Nov. 24 until the end of January.

To verify times, creel limits and rental costs, call (251) 789-2104.

Another great destination, Bibb County Lake is best known for its catfish and bass -- but its bream fishing is superb as well.

Bibb County Lake also has a top-notch country store. You can buy your licenses, rent a boat and trolling motor, eat lunch and even buy catalpa worms and tackle there.

To learn about other public fishing lakes, visit the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources' Web site, www.dcnr.state.al.us; then, click on "Fishing." When the next page appears, hit the link for "Alabama State Fishing Lakes." You can also get information by calling the DCNR fisheries office at (334) 242-3471.

If you plan to trailer your own boat to one of these lakes, remember that outboard motors may not be cranked.

CAHABA RIVER

Once threatened by pollution to the point that it rallied environmentalists nationwide, the meandering and now fertile Cahaba River is the longest free-flowing ribbon of water in Alabama. The Cahaba River watershed drains an area of approximately 1,825 square miles in central Alabama and is the primary water source for Birmingham Water Works, which serves a quarter of Alabama's citizens. Nowadays, the diversity of the Cahaba's fish population is greater than that in any other stream of its size.

If you're looking for a wonderful and productive day trip on which to roll out your fly rod or ultralight tackle, consider canoeing this stream.

Most fishermen would be surprised to learn that the Cahaba receives the heaviest recreational use of any free-flowing river in the state. It was once proposed for designation as a National Wild and Scenic River; the effort failed, but supporters were able to see passed federal legislation enabling the purchase of 3,500 acres in Bibb County for a national wildlife refuge encompassing three and a half miles of the Cahaba.

For more info on canoeing these waters, including a list of access points, log onto the Cahaba River Society Web site; its address is www. cahabariversociety.org. In Helena, Alabama Small Boats, (205) 424-3634, offers equipment rental or shuttle for a 10-mile trip.

LAKE JACKSON

This 500-acre lake on the Alabama-Florida border in Covington County is another fabulous place for loading up on panfish. Lots more people have seen this pristine lake en route to Gulf Coast beaches than have actually fished it. The good news is that the fishing is as great as you'd expect from its looks!

The spring-fed lake, Alabama's largest, is the centerpiece of the much smaller Florala State Park. The facilities, accordingly, are accommodating and include a 200-foot fishing pier, swimming and picnicking areas, paddleboat rentals and a modern lakeside campground.

For more information about the park, call (334) 858-6425.

OAK MOUNTAIN

When most folks think of Oak Mountain State Park, nearly 10,000 acres near Pelham, golf, camping and maybe hiking come to mind. Others might know it only for spectacular vantage points from which to view the conflagration of fall color. But the area also contains several lakes teeming with hungry bream.

Oak Mountain's easy to find. It's not far from Interstate 65, about 15 miles south of Birmingham. If you're coming in from out of town, there's a great campground and even some modern cabins available for rent.

For more information about the facilities, fishing and boat rental fees, call (205) 620-2520.

CONECUH RIVER

No list of Alabama's best bream fishing destinations would be complete without an entry for the Conecuh River near Andalusia. While the small watershed is targeted heavily by bass anglers and catfishermen, it's also home to some of the state's biggest shellcrackers. In fact, I wouldn't have known about this panfish gold mine if I hadn't written a story about the bass fishing there -- because almost every angler interviewed was eager to mention his springtime love affair with the area's "perch."

Way downstream from where the little Conecuh begins in Bullock County are two reservoirs -- 700-acre Point A Lake and Gantt Lake. The former is easily accessible, thanks to three recreational areas at Point A Campground, the Covington-Kiwanis Island and Patsaliga Point. You find picnic sites with grills and tables, campsites for tents and trailers, heated showers, RV hookups, paved access roads, playgrounds, boat docking, fishing piers, swimming beaches and a lighted pavilion. There's also a boat ramp. Point A Lake is relatively shallow, though it can be as deep as 41 feet at the dam.

Gantt is a little farther from Andalusia, and fishermen need to be aware that it's used heavily by recreational boaters and personal watercrafters. Despite the recreational traffic, however, these two lakes cough up beefy bream on a regular basis. In fact, I've met people who plan their vacations around the bedding season, since filet-sized shellcrackers can be had.

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