Bama's 4-Corner Panfishing

Throughout the Yellowhammer State, bream are the most abundant species of freshwater fish. They are also quite tasty and very willing to take your baits and lures!

Shellcrackers like the one the author is hoisting can put a bend in an ultralight fishing rod. Photo by Stephen E. Davis

By Eileen Davis

Anglers across Alabama catch staggering numbers of bream. Highly regarded for fighting ability and fine eating qualities, these panfish are targeted by more individuals than any other species.

As youngsters, many of us learned the basics of fishing by catching bream from the small ponds and creeks within walking distance of our homes. Who could forget the addictive thrill of the disappearing bobber? Fortunately, children and bream fishing are not mutually exclusive. A big bluegill or shellcracker offers excitement for anglers of any age.

In fact, due to its statewide availability, no other species of fish comes even close in terms of providing a challenge for all ages and varying skill levels. Whether you fish in one of Bama's four corners or points between, May is an excellent time to rekindle the joy of bream fishing.

PICKWICK LAKE
When bluegills begin to spawn and the mayflies hatch on Pickwick Lake, the fishing action for bream reaches a peak not seen at any other time. These parallel events make it easy to find large numbers of aggressive fish willing to inhale your favorite panfish lure or bait.

Donny Lowery, a fisheries scientist for the Tennessee Valley Authority and a fly-fishing angler, reports that fishermen can frequently land 50 to 100 bream per day.

"Early May is when the bluegill really turn on," he said. "It's an outstanding time to catch 20 to 30 sunfish for the table in a couple hours of fishing in the early morning or late evening. Typically, we catch filleting-sized bream - bluegills weighing between 1/2 to 3/4 pound - with redear weighing up to 14 ounces. These big fish produce a huge filet."

That latter species is the redear sunfish, more commonly known as the shellcracker.

Beginning in the city of Florence where Wilson Lake ends, Pickwick flows through the northwest corner of Alabama into the states of Mississippi and Tennessee. Fortunately, about 75 percent of the impoundment's 49-mile length lies within Alabama, as its flooded bank areas provide excellent bream habitat.

"North Alabama lakes offer bream preferred habitat - structure and gravel - for spawning," explained Lowery. "The bluegills fan out beds on small gravel in water less than 5 feet deep. The aquatic plants provide good nursery areas to protect the fry.

"The bluegill spawn in May, and if we have a long warm spring, they spawn twice. You may find them spawning into July.

"When fly-fishing for bluegill, I'm not searching for bedding fish. I drift until I get a bite. The thing about bluegill is that where you catch one or two, often you catch 75 or 80. That's a good place to take kids to get them interested in fishing."

Though Lowery doesn't target bedding fish, he said bream are creatures of habit that spawn in the same areas, provided their habitat does not change. For bedding locations, he recommends the gravel bars around the rock rows around the town of Sheffield and at Sevenmile Island. Fishing is also good in Cypress and Spring creeks and near Jackson Island, which is immediately below Wilson Dam.

While most anglers use crickets or red wigglers fished on long poles or ultralight spinning gear to find bream in these areas, Lowery prefers to fly-fish with a small popping bug on a No. 8 or 10 hook.

"Four years ago, I started fly-fishing," Lowery recalled, "and it opened up a whole new avenue of fun fishing. You can have some great times catching sunfish with a 4- or 5-weight fly rod."

Another exciting event occurring in May that brings anglers in contact with large numbers of bream is the mayfly hatch. With their short vertical flights above the water, the swarming insects tease bream into a feeding frenzy. Wherever they hatch along the shores of the Tennessee River, the masses of insects attract schools of hungry bluegills.

"Depending on weather and water temperature," Lowery pointed out, "we have mayfly hatches from May through August. When mayflies hatch and leave the water, they fly to overhanging woody shrubs, where they are easily seen."

Lowery has found that bluegills often become finicky during the hatch and avoid his popping bugs.

"When mayflies start hatching," he said, "you can have a blast with a fly rod. To target these fish, switch to wet flies and work them just below the surface. I keep a mayfly nymph or Elk Hair Caddis tied on during the hatch."

For current fishing information on Pickwick Lake, drop in at Gray's Tackle Shop in Sheffield or call them at (256) 383-2716.

GUNTERSVILLE LAKE
On the first day of May last year, guide Charles Slaton took two Michigan anglers to a shallow flat on Guntersville where they caught 82 shellcrackers with an average weight of 12 ounces, but some of the fish weighed 1 1/2 pounds.

"It was an unusual day," Slaton noted. "They had fished across the U.S.A. and into Ontario, Canada, for bream. As a result of our success, the pair said no other lake could compare to Guntersville. It was the best fishing they had experienced."

Dan Catchings, District II fisheries supervisor for the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (FWCC), said the 69,100-acre lake, which is located in the northeast corner of our state, has always had a reputation for good bream fishing. He believes the aquatic vegetation provides a protective environment for small fish and also holds forage in the form of invertebrates.

"More snails probably occupy the habitat," he said, "and that helps with redear growth and productivity.

"The predominant species of bream on Guntersville are bluegill and redear, with a good mix of both. Of course, shellcracker bed a little earlier and have made their beds by the last of April. Bluegill always spawn during the full moon in May - usually the third or fourth week. From what I've seen, spawning activity has a key relationship with the full moon, provided water temperature is in the high 70s to low 80s."

According to Slaton, bream spawn in the lake's aquatic vegetation. He added that the aquatic veget

ation is a crucial element of his fishing success.

"On Guntersville," Slaton advised, "when you move away from the grass, you move away from the fish. Look for fresh green patches of milfoil growing about six inches off the bottom in water 2 to 5 feet deep. Fish deep early in the season anyplace where there is a variation in depth on the flats. As the water warms and the milfoil grows, spawning becomes shallower."

Slaton's favorite flats are located in the coves of Browns and Town creeks and the area around Claysville. Additionally, Catchings recommended Honeycomb, Mud, North Sauty and Short creeks.

To fish a promising area, Slaton anchors his boat in deeper water about 10 yards from his target. The distance varies depending on the skittishness of the fish. Normally, shellcrackers leave the nest first.

Throughout the year, Slaton's only lure is a 1/32-ounce squirrel-hair jig. He ties it to 4-pound-test line and then fishes it below a weighted float.

"Early in the season, tip the jig with a cricket," Slaton recommended, "because the fish are not as aggressive. Also, if you miss a fish that takes the cricket, 90 percent of the time the fish will return to take the jig. Just shake the bobber in place until he strikes."

Use Slaton's fish-catching rig by adjusting the float so the jig moves just over the tips of the growing milfoil.

"After casting past the area you want to fish," he explained, "slowly retrieve the jig, then stop to let it rest for a moment. Then repeat. Expect the fish to strike when the lure stops moving.

"Each spot you fish will usually produce a mixed bag of bluegill and shellcracker. As the season progresses, catch numbers remain the same, but you catch fewer shellcracker."

For current fishing information, visit Randy Roberts at the Guntersville Boatmart, or call him at (256) 582-2038.

To book a day of guided fishing for bass, crappie or bream on Lake Guntersville, call Charles Slaton at (256) 593-7249 or (256) 572-6217.

LAKE EUFAULA
Based on the reservoir's history, no one ever expected Lake Eufaula to produce big slop-nosed bream, especially not Stan Windham, Coffee County extension agent. From his many conversations with local anglers, Windham believed Eufaula's bream fishing was poor.

But on a fishless day when you couldn't buy a bite from old bucketmouth, Windham decided to switch to bream, so he could pass down some of his own father's techniques to his sons Mark and Matt.

"So we got out the bream busters and began fishing the backs of sloughs," said Windham. "We found some excellent fishing holes. Matt caught a bream that weighed a few ounces over a pound, while Mark was catching them as fast as he could re-bait."

What had been intended as a lesson in panfishing turned into a memorable adventure for all. That was three years ago. Now the entire family enjoys frequent bream fishing trips to Lake Eufaula, which straddles the Alabama/Georgia border.

Windham's discovery confirmed the upward trend in Eufaula's bream fishery observed by the fisheries biologists in Alabama and Georgia. Historically, it was uncommon for them to see bream greater than 8 inches long, but in the last few years they report seeing a much greater number of fish exceeding that length. Many even approach 10 inches, which is a really good hand-sized fish.

Most of these bigger fish are shellcrackers. In a lake like Eufaula with a shad-driven food chain, young bluegills suffer, as they must compete with shad for food. Fortunately for the shellcrackers, they do not have to share the mollusks they eat.

"In the last few years," reported Ken Weathers, fisheries biologist for District VI, "we have had good rainfall in the summer, so lake levels remained fairly constant. This has allowed submergent vegetation - mainly coontail and najas - to flourish. In fact, there is more submergent vegetation on Eufaula than I've ever seen.

"As a result, snail populations have expanded and fishing for quality-sized shellcrackers is a lot better."

Since Eufaula lies well south of Guntersville, the shellcracker spawn occurs sooner.

"Redear usually spawn when the water temperature reaches 70 to 72 degrees," Weathers offered. "The old rule of thumb that says shellcracker bed when the red clover blooms works pretty well."

Even though the shellcracker may have completed the spawn by the time you read this, Windham recommended that anglers start fishing shallow.

"The most productive areas we have fished are in the backs of coves," he said. "But if you don't find them there, work your way out, fishing every pier, rockpile and blowdown. And don't overlook deeper water.

"One of the very best spots we found was a pier in the back of a cove. We caught more than 50 fish. There was fast action just under the pier in 3 feet of water, but the biggest bream were holding 12 feet deep."

The Windhams use long poles while searching, and then once they catch a couple of fish they switch to ultralight spinning rods to avoid spooking the fish. Both roads are rigged with small No. 10 hooks, filled with wigglers, and fished just inches above the bottom.

Windham and the biologist agree that the lower part of the lake on the Alabama side offers the best fishing. To target big shellcrackers, find coves with large areas of aquatic vegetation. Windham finds these from White Oak Creek downstream to the dam.

For current fishing information, call Rhett Taylor at Taylor Citgo in Abbeville at (334) 585-5197.

THE MOBILE DELTA
Many bluegill anglers think only in terms of the spring spawn. That is too narrow a focus, according to Joe Zolczynski, FWCC fisheries supervisor for District V, who is well known for his ability to catch bream from the challenging waters of the Mobile Delta. Prompted by the full moon, bluegills spawn throughout the summer, but the window for catching the Delta's bream starts much sooner.

"My favorite time to fish the Mobile Delta is winter," Zolczynski said. "The bream congregate in deep holes and creeks to offer phenomenal fishing.

"Spring, however, comes early to the Delta," he continued. "As soon as we get a few warm days in late February, the bream began to move toward the shallow bays where they spawn. Farther into spring, any shallow open water with structure will hold fish."

According to Zolczynski, good numbers of bluegills and shellcrackers thrive in these waters, with the former being the dominant species.

"Don'

t come to the Delta to catch monster bream," he said. "Come to catch large stringers. Limit catches of good 1/3-pound bluegill are possible, with redear weighing up to a 1/2 pound. These are a good size for eating."

Regardless of when or where you fish in the Delta, the first requirement is bait.

"The bait of choice is grass shrimp - a small brackish-water shrimp that is 1 to 1 1/2 inches long," Zolczynski advised. "Locally they are called seed shrimp, and sometimes they are available at bait shops. Most anglers, though, use a fine-mesh dip net to collect them."

Grass shrimp are easy to catch, but you must hunt for them. One day you can find them and then the next day you cannot.

"Any grass may hold these shrimp," Zolczynski said, "but they are not everywhere. I've found them at the mouth of Gustins Creek and Chuckfee."

To catch these small crustaceans, Zolczynski smoothly rakes his dip net in a scooping motion from deep to shallow under grassbeds or grassy undercut banks. A smooth movement captures shrimp, provided the water is not clear.

After catching grass shrimp, keep them in a 5-gallon bucket with an aerator and fish two or three on a bream hook.

In winter, Zolczynski recommends fishing Mallard Fork, the mouth of Little John, Mudhole Creek and Sardine Pass, which is also known as Game Warden's Ditch.

During their migration from deep water, he fishes Hurricane and Lizard creeks and bayous Zeast and Chicory.

Zolczynski's favorite fishing holes for spawning and post-spawn bream are Mudhole and Gustins bays and the east shoreline of Chuckfee.

"When you enter a cove," he explains, "look for structure - a duck blind or a submerged tree. Stake your boat close enough so you can reach the blind with your pole, then drop your cork straight down next to the old blind."

Zolczynski has one last tip for anglers ready to fish the Delta.

"All fish respond to the tide," he said. "In my opinion, the fish are in an environment where they are triggered to feed by moving water. To take advantage of this feeding response, plan to fish the first two hours of an incoming of outgoing tide."

For current fishing information, visit Quint's Hardware & Sporting Goods in Saraland, or call them at (251) 679-1300.

Maps of the Mobile Delta are available from Keith Map Service in Mobile by calling (251) 633-5588 or 1-800-342-6722.



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