Our Record Bream Revisited

When it comes to panfish, the Cotton State has produced some big state-record fish. Here's a look back at them, and at some places to catch a mega-bream of your own! (May 2008)

Shortly before passing away in December 2007, the late R.V. Lashley displayed the mount of the record shellcracker that his father Jeff Lashley caught in May 1962.
Photo by Stephen E. Davis.

Serendipity!

As far as assistant chief of fisheries for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Nick Nichols is concerned, nothing else accounts for the unlikely existence of a state- or world-record fish. Even when all factors required to produce a record fish are present, happenstance is involved.

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

Purposely producing a record fish seems unattainable. Some managers of privately owned small lakes and ponds have applied the best science to try to grow the next world-record largemouth bass, yet have been unable to accomplish the feat.

Nichols is right: Only luck can explain a Cotton State bluegill record unbroken for 57 years -- even though the species is found in nearly every body of water in the state. The record shellcracker was caught 46 years ago, with the most recent panfish record being that for redbreast at 12 years.

Can we learn anything by reviewing how and where our record bream were caught, and can that knowledge be applied today to find and catch big sunfish? Let's have a look.

BLUEGILLS
When T.S. Hudson went bream fishing on April 9, 1950 -- Easter Sunday -- he probably knew that his destination had produced the world-record bluegill back in May 1947. Coke McKenzie had caught that 4-pound, 10-ounce bream from Ketona Lake. That flooded limestone quarry is two miles north of the Birmingham International Airport, next to State Route 79. (Actually two Ketona Lakes occupy the site; the record fish came from the small 18-plus-acre pit.)

Regardless of what he actually did know, on that April day more than a half-century ago Hudson landed a bluegill that weighed 4 pounds, 12 ounces, was 15 inches long, and had a girth of 18 1/4 inches.

Since the quarry's water was 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 dangle their earthworms in the water.

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. There was 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, uncontrolled reproduction would quickly lead to overcrowding and, consequently, small fish. But Ketona's bream numbers failed to grow for two reasons: the unnatural shape of its shoreline, resulting in limited spawning habitat, and abundant bream-devouring bass.

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. Lack of fishing pressure could have been a reason for bream reaching old age, but that seems unlikely in Birmingham at that period of time. Rather, most anglers may not have learned how to fish in the gin-clear water.

The Ketona Lakes seem unchanged since the midpoint of the last century, but that's difficult to determine, as a corporation now owns the property, and it's not open for fishing. You can, however, view the old quarry by searching Google maps on the Internet and entering the words "Ketona Lakes."

SHELLCRACKERS
In May 1962, a small spacecraft flew a three-orbit science mission around the Earth that lasted nearly five hours, and a former state judge and son of a small farmer won a Democratic primary race with the most votes ever tallied in a gubernatorial election. Those events put Scott Carpenter in space and George Wallace in Alabama's governor's mansion. That shows you just how much things have changed since the Cotton State record for redear sunfish was established!

That same month, T.J. Lashley Sr. of Ardilla -- now part of Dothan -- caught a shellcracker weighing 4 pounds, 4 ounces on May 5. At the time, it also established a new world record for the species. The bream's official measurements were 15 inches long, 7 1/2 inches from top to bottom and 2 3/4 inches thick.

T.J. -- he was known to friends as "Jeff" -- began his Saturday early with a drive to Chattahoochee State Park, south of Gordon on our border with Florida, with his son R.V. and grandson Ronnie. "You couldn't find a better place to fish," R.V. recalled. "We fished there every week."

Lashley remembered their renting a johnboat for 50 cents, and his father sculling the boat in search of bream. "The boat had stopped moving when he caught the fish," said R.V. "My father fought the fish by keeping its head up. He put the fish on a stringer and continued to scull the boat."

According to Lashley, his father was fishing with a cane pole rigged with 10-pound test and a No. 6 hook baited with two red worms collected from his dad's yard. "The sinker was about a foot above the hook so the worm would float above the bottom," Lashley stated.

The anglers carried their fish home in a burlap bag. No doubt the huge shellcracker died not long after Jeff Lashley threaded his stringer through its gills.

Late that afternoon, Park Supervisor Luther Collins weighed the fish, which, R.V. Lashley said, was more than 5 pounds on the park's uncertified scales. Collins told the Dothan Eagle on May 11, 1962, that the big shellcracker would possibly have weighed between 4 and 8 ounces more had it been weighed as soon as it was caught.

District Conservation Officer J. Dan Ward, now retired after 38 years of service, admitted that he didn't remember who called him about the fish. "I was afraid he might eat it," he 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 s

tate's chief biologist, declared the shellcracker a world record, and for the next 23 years, Alabama waters could boast having yielded the world records for both bluegills and redears.

Then, 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 Chattahoochee State Park -- but that pond is in northwest Florida. (The current world record, weighing 5 pounds, 7 1/2 ounces, was caught in South Carolina in August 1998.)

Spring-fed from the Floridan Aquifer, which flows through carbonate rock, the 20-acre lake's waters are mineral-rich, the limestone habitat producing an abundance of snails that contribute to the exceptional growth of shellcrackers. While the lake in Chattahoochee State Park has produced other big fish, its production has been spotty over the years, owing to flooding from the Chattahoochee River.

Chattahoochee State Park Lake had clear water and a strong population of bass to control the bream population. The facility is now managed by Houston County Parks as Chattahoochee Park. The county removed floodwater-borne silt from the lake less than a year ago. Thus the lake is not likely to produce a big bream for a few years.

For more information on Chattahoochee Park, call park manager Larry Weaver at (334) 699-3607 or go online to www.houstoncounty.org ; then, follow the link for Houston County Parks.

REDBREAST SUNFISH
On June 15, 1996, Ronnie Carnley of Opp caught the state-record redbreast sunfish, a 13-ouncer, from the Pea River.

"I am surprised the record has held for 12 years," Carnley reflected. "I'm sure there are anglers who have caught bigger fish, but just did not weigh them."

An average redbreast weighs between 4 and 8 ounces. The world record weighed 2 pounds, 1 ounce and was caught from Florida's Suwannee River in 1988.

Limited to the eastern half of the state, the redbreast -- or redbelly --lacks the statewide distribution of bluegills and shellcrackers. Redbreasts prefer flowing waters with a sand or rock bottom, but they don't hold in fast current. They relate strongly to cover and gather next to snags, stumps, logs, aquatic vegetation and rocks.

"I am surprised the record has held for 12 years. I'm sure there are anglers who have caught bigger fish but just did not weigh them." --Ronnie Carnley, holder of the state record for redbreast sunfish

When Carnley fishes the Pea River, which is prime redbelly habitat, he never knows which species of bream will bite. "It depends on the water conditions," he explained. "When the water is high, more food is washed into the river, and we catch higher numbers of redbreast. The best fishing is when the water is stained, but we don't fish specifically for redbreast -- we go to catch a mess of fish."

On the day Carnley caught the record redbreast, he launched his boat at the ramp on County Road 474, east of Kinston and then traveled upstream. He was fishing just below a creek mouth. "The fish was on the bed in real shallow water," he remembered, adding that water visibility was about 6 inches."

Carnley caught the record with a cricket fished under a split shot, but without a bobber. The bait was tight-lined on the bottom with a 12-foot fiberglass pole.

On the way home from having his record redbreast certified, Carnley released the fish back into the Pea River. "I don't usually release bream," he admitted, "but I had caught plenty. I released the fish in hope that there would be more big redbreast in the future."

Last year, according to Carnley, fishing on the Pea River suffered because of the drought.

HOT BIG-BREAM DESTINATIONS
Last year, the DWFF established its Angler Recognition Program, which highlights the achievements of freshwater anglers and is responsible for the maintenance of records for reservoirs, state fishing lakes and private ponds. Part of the program recognizes anglers for catching a fish meeting a minimum length or weight requirement.

Bluegills and redears weighing 1 pound and meeting a minimum-length requirement is 10 and 11 inches, respectively, earn fishermen a Master Angler Certification. If the fish weighs 2 pounds or measures 13 inches, it merits Trophy Angler Certification. (The redbreast is not recognized in this program.) For details, go online to www.outdoorsalabama.com ; click on the links for Fishing, Freshwater and State Record/Angler Recognition.

Over time, data from this program should alert anglers to productive places to fish. Another way to find likely sites for catching big bream for right now is to ask the DWFF district biologists -- most of whom, when we asked, unhesitatingly declared that their first choice would be intensively managed private ponds.

Look for mineral and nutrient-rich water with moderate weed growth. The weeds oxygenate the water and provide habitat for aquatic insects and invertebrates. Heavy weed growth limits the predator's access to small bream. Similarly, water visibility of at least 18 inches makes it easy for bass to feed on bream.

Finally, consider the ratio of bass to bream. In the case of big bream, you'd want access to a pond "out of balance" -- overcrowded with bass.

If you don't have access to a private pond, the biologists said, some of the best public waters for big bluegills and shellcrackers are Leon Brooks Hines Lake in Escambia County, Lake Guntersville on the Tennessee River, Lake LU at The University of West Alabama in Livingston, and Lake Yates on the Tallapoosa River. Escambia County Lake and Lake LU are intensively managed waters.

For redbreasts, biologists recommend the Choctawhatchee, Pea, Yellow and Little rivers, as well as Lake Yates. The first three rivers drain into the Florida Panhandle, while Little River flows into Weiss Lake.

Except for Lake LU, which is the best-kept secret in the state, all of the bluegill and redear destinations produced bream weighing more than 2 pounds in the last year. Most likely, the top lake for big fish is Escambia County Lake. The state added about a ton of lime per acre to the lake last year.

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