Where Are They Bedding?

Targeting bream when they are spawning offers fast action and plenty of fun. But it cannot begin until you find the bedding areas!

Photo by Terry Jacobs

Panfish are not the most glamorous of the game fish. But it's a pretty good bet that the various "bream" species are what most of us began our angling careers in pursuit of. Irrespective of the number of glamour species we have captured, bream always seem to drag us back into their world.

Even the most jaded angler still finds a spark of excitement when a fat bluegill, shellcracker, redbreast, green sunfish or any other pint-sized member of the clan latches onto a bait or lure presented on a willowy cane pole or ultra-light spinning rig. Get into a bunch of these fish, where you are getting virtually a fish per cast, and even the most accomplished angler can get caught up in the fever. A bonus of the action is that all of these panfish species are delectable on the table, making more than a few anglers relish the thought of heading out to their favorite panfish-catching spot.

Getting in on the fun, however, requires a bit of knowledge about bream. Most panfish species are primarily insect eaters and spend a lot of time in shallow water. Although the biggest members of the species do spend a large amount of time in deeper waters, even they make forays to the weeds to feed. Even at those times, the larger fish are normally scattered, and it's a matter of picking up one here and there.

Shellcrackers, however, are not nearly as dependent on forage found in vegetation as other panfish are, because insects are not a significant part of their diet. Their preferred food sources are found in deeper water. Scuba diving studies on some small, clear lakes have found that the vast majority of the adult shellcrackers spend most of their time well offshore and away from weeds or grass. That information also corroborates data gathered through electro-fishing sampling. Numerous studies have shown that the only time appreciable numbers of mature shellcrackers are in the shallows is during the spawning period.

Not surprisingly, creel data also indicates that the spawn is when anglers experience their best harvest for all panfish species. Find a spawning bed infested with bream and the fun begins! But it can take some work to achieve that goal.

Timing the spawn is a key to filling the cooler with shellcrackers, and that is dependent upon water temperature and moon phase.

The first spawn of the year normally occurs when the water temperature hits 75 to 77 degrees. Depending upon locale, that can be anywhere from mid-March to June. After that, subsequent spawns occur regularly throughout the summer, and bream have been observed bedding as late as October.

Water temperature obviously plays a role in the beginning of the spawning cycle, and it likely plays a role during the final spawn of the year. The moon phase is equally important in that it determines when maximum spawning activity occurs within that temperature range.

The first spawn of the year almost always occurs on the full moon nearest the time the optimum water temperature first occurs. Some bream, particularly bluegills and shellcrackers, spawn around the new moon during the summer, when water temperature are well above the minimum spawning range. But the preponderance of the data shows that the period extending from one week prior to the full moon to one week after the full moon sees the strongest activity. This is definitely when most creel surveys show the highest per-hour catch rates.

Expert bream anglers narrow that time frame down even farther -- to a few days before the full moon to three or four days after the full moon.

Males, which are normally larger than the females, show up first to cruise an area, stake out territory, and begin fanning beds. This usually starts a week before the full moon, and it may take that full week before the females move in to join them. During this "cruising period," the males are often reluctant to bite. Once the females show up, however, the action can get hot.

Anglers who visually locate bream on a shallow bed but cannot get many to hit are well advised to return to that spot several days later. It is likely that they found a group of males moving in and the bite will turn on once the females join them.

While the moon phase for maximum activity stays consistent throughout the summer spawning season, where the bream bed does not. The first spawns of the year are the shallowest, because skinny water hits the key temperature first. The prime early-season spawning sites are usually in 2 to 3 feet of water and normally on hard sand or shell bottom with no vegetation. The majority of the time, it is easy to locate shallow beds using a pair of polarized sunglasses.

As the water warms through the summer, bream normally move their spawning sites to deeper waters away from vegetation. These deeper beds can often include both bluegills and shellcrackers, which are known to crossbreed. These areas are predominantly open-water patches of hard- bottom sand in the 4- to 6-foot depth range. On some clear lakes, late-season bream have been known to spawn as deep as 9 feet. Though this is too deep to see the beds in most waters, there are some tricks that you can use to help you find them.

A quality topographical map of the lake can help put you in the neighborhood. Then pinning down the exact spot is the key, and sometimes that can be as easy as taking a deep breath. There are anglers who swear they can smell the fishy odor of bedding bream. If the wind is calm, this can get you close.

The first spawn of the year normally occurs when the water temperature hits 75 to 77 degrees.

Most panfish on the bed will hit mini-jigs and small spinners, but shellcrackers rarely do. They want meat, and the most consistent producer is an earthworm, followed by grass shrimp. Those baits also appeal to all other panfish, as do crickets. It can pay to have a selection of baits on hand and offer a variety until the fish show a preference. This is especially important when fishing deeper summer beds, where you won't know the species of the bream until you start catching some.

Tackle needs are not complex for bream. For shallow beds in vegetation that is heavy enough to allow the fish to be approached closely without spooking, a cane pole rigged with a No. 8 or 6 long-shank hook, a small split shot six inches above that, and a 2 1/2-inch slender oblong float will make up a very effective rig.

In clearer water, especially if the fish are bedding in open sand holes within a grassbed, getting a boat close enough for the cane pole may spook them. In this situation, savvy anglers shift the same terminal tackle to a 6- or 7-foot light-action spinning rig with 6- to 8-pound line.

These can be tossed a comfortable distance, and the cork lets you know that your bait is right on the bottom where it needs to be. If the first cast has it floating straight up and down, the sinker is not on the bottom and you do not truly know where the bait actually is. If it is lying on its side there is too much line on the bottom and strikes may be missed.

Adjust the float depth so the float is leaning at a 45-degree angle. That shows the split shot is just kissing the bottom -- and kicking up a little silt -- as the bait eases along behind it. That sinker brushing the bottom can be a major strike trigger for bedding bream, and the proper float depth can make a difference in your catch.

For deeper beds, dispense with the float, add just enough split shot to maintain contact with the bottom, and slowly twitch the bait along.

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