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.
SMALL PUBLIC LAKES
Alabama’s State Public Fishing Lake system provides some of the best bream angling anywhere. That’s because those 26 ponds spread across the state are stocked and managed so intensively.
But, you also don’t want to overlook smaller ponds in state parks.
As with most locations, a lot of anglers on these public ponds only fish the bream beds they can see. In the process, they miss out on a lot of action
On a fishing trip some years ago, a buddy of mine took me to Oak Mountain State Park Lakes, and we fished the lower lake.
“There’s an underwater ridge out in the middle of the lake, and on top of that ridge is where the bluegills bed,” my friend explained. “The only way to know where those beds are located is to use a depth finder to find that ridge.”
We did find the ridge and the beds. To catch these bream, we used a slip bobber and worms, with no lead on the line. Those rigs were on 4-pound-test line with ultralight tackle.
We cast our baits out to the top of the ridge and the weight of the worms pulls the line through the slip bobber. In this case the bobber wasn’t used to suspend the bait, but was simply a strike indicator to let us know when the bluegills picked up the bait.
In an afternoon of fishing, we caught a good limit of bluegills using the tactics.
Another technique I’ve used successfully in Alabama’s small public lakes at this time of year to locate bluegill beds is to fish a Renosky jig This lure resembles a small minnow, and can be fished on 2- to 4-pound-test line with spinning tackle. I cast the jig close to shore and then start a slow retrieve, bringing it toward the boat. I keep the jig close to and occasionally touching the bottom.
Most of the time, the aggressive bluegills or shellcrackers in a bedding area take the plastic jig. As soon as I catch a fairly large bream, then I begin to fish that area with crickets or worms to catch more of the fish from that suspected bedding site. This same method works anytime you’re fishing a small pond or lake for the first time.
If you’re fishing from a boat, cast into the shallows, and then slowly reel the jig close to the bottom out to about 20 to 30 feet from the shore. Many times you locate the beds with the bigger fish in the depths near the end of the retrieve.
When fishing from a bank, cast out, let the jig go all the way to the bottom, and then start the slow retrieve back toward the shore.
Doug Darr chose Clay County Lake as the best state public fishing lake for the biggest bluegills and the largest population of bream.
“Clay County Lake is really three lakes,” he said.
The complex’s largest body of water covers 38 acres and the smallest is only 13 acres.
“You find good numbers as well as good-sized bream in all three lakes,” he added.
The second area he pointed to is Bibb County Lake, which covers 100 acres.
Bibb County has been closed to fishing and was restocked. It is reopening this spring and should give up large numbers of bream.
For the official opening date, go to www.outdooralabama.com, click on State Lakes, and then the link for Bibb County Lake.
Darr also mentioned three other state lakes as possibilities for fast action this year.
“Ninety-four-acre Monroe County Lake is full of large-sized shellcrackers,” he noted.
“If you’re looking for large numbers of bream and maybe a few big ones, then Dallas County Lake is my choice for you.”
Dallas County’s pond is 100 acres in size.
“You also can’t overlook Escambia County Lake, because historically this 184-acre lake has a reputation for producing some really big bluegills and shellcrackers,” Darr concluded.
From March through August each year, my wife and I survived on freshly caught bream, while we attended the University of West Alabama in Livingston. My college buddies and I fished the 200-mile-long Tombigbee River from Epes to Demopolis.
Obviously, I wasn’t surprised by Doug Darr’s next pick.
“Demopolis Lake at the confluence of the Warrior River and the Tombigbee River offers some of the best reservoir fishing in the state,” he said. “Ten-thousand-acre Lake Demopolis extends 53 miles up the Tombigbee River and 48 miles up the Black Warrior River.
“The grassy beds on Lake Demopolis are loaded with bluegills and shellcrackers,” he continued. “In the spring, most anglers who fish there are trying to catch bass and crappie, so there’s plenty of bream for anglers who want to catch them.”
Besides the plentiful grass beds, you find a number of creeks and sloughs where the water warms up in the early spring. Those attract an abundance of bluegills and shellcrackers.
The grass beds are obvious places to drown crickets and worms trying to catch bream, but you also find the fish bedding around stumps and on mud flats off the main river.
Alabama is fortunate to have many smaller streams and rivers running through it. One of my favorites to fish is the 194-mile Cahaba River. It passes just down the street from my home outside Birmingham. You may catch up to 100 bream a day amid its grass beds and eddy pools by casting small inline spinners like Rooster Tails, Mepps Spinners and Beetle Spins.
You won’t catch many big bream in these smaller streams, but you can have a great day of fishing.
Doug Darr also enjoys bream fishing on the Little River in Dekalb and Cherokee counties.
An exception to rule about not catching big bream in streams and rivers is the 141-mile Choctawhatchee River.
“I believe that one of the state’s best places for bream that also offers a wide variety of bream is the Choctawhatchee River,” Darr reported. “The state record redbreast bream was caught where the Choctawhatchee and the Pea River come together. The fish weighed 1 pound, 4 ounces.
“I like to fish the upper regions of the Choctawhatchee River, because I can catch a wide variety of some really big bream,” Darr added. “There are plenty of longear sunfish, shellcrackers, bluegills and redbreast bream, and I like to catch these fish by using light spinning tackle with jigs and small spinners.
PRIVATE & FARM PONDS
Spots that consistently pay-off in monster-sized bream are private suburban or farm ponds. That’s especially true of ponds that have fish feeders installed.
The Lakes of Leavellwood in western Greene County is a good example. Covering 100-acre in West Greene County, it’s been stocked since 1989.
“We’ve got plenty of 3/4-pound all the way up to 1 1/2-pound bream,” said Trey Montgomery, the owner of the Lakes of Leavellwood. “Occasionally we catch bream that weigh 2 pounds or more.”
My second tip is to look for abandoned slag pits or rock quarries. Often these little waters are extremely clear and home monster-sized bluegills and shellcrackers. One of these old rock quarries near Birmingham was known as Ketona Lake. In 1947 Coke McKenzie of Birmingham caught a state and world record bluegill. The fish weighed 4 pounds, 10 ounces.
Three years later T.S. Hudson set the present world record by catching a 4-pound 12-ounce bluegill from that same lake.