June 14, 2023
There’s something to be said for simple pleasures. In fishing, catching bream in late springand early summer certainly qualifies. Bream are not monster trophies, of course, but fishing for them represents a sort of angling seredipity. After all, there’s the great weather, an abundance of aggressive fish in shallow water, stress-free fishing tactics and the all-but-guaranteed promise of a world-class fish fry.
Starting in May and revving up through June, bluegills are moving to and occupying shallow spawning beds—especially around the new moons. They are hungry, territorial and densely crowded on good spawning habitat. To find the best fishing, find the best beds, fish with the right baits and fit your fishing patterns to the conditions you find.
The most common and sought-after bream are bluegills. Finding them is easy if you keep in mind what they need from their spawning habitat, because in the spring (and repeatedly through the summer) bluegills spawn in shallow water. But they don’t spawn in every piece of shallow water. Like many fish, bluegills prefer sandy or gravelly bottoms. The best bedding areas are a Goldilocks choice: not too hard and not too soft. Hard rock and steeply sloped areas expose eggs to predation and currents, while muddy bottoms smother eggs. Bluegills look for sandy or gravelly bottoms in 1- to 8-foot depths because their eggs need well-oxygenated water to hatch. The clearer the water, the deeper they can spawn.
Spawning activity peaks around the full moons, with May and June full moons seeing the greatest spawning effort. (The next full moon is July 3.) If you fish a lake regularly, you have probably noticed good spawning areas. Bluegills do not re-invent the wheel when it comes to spawning. If they spawned in a place last year or earlier this spring, and that place wasn’t covered in a mudslide or left high and dry by receding water, they’ll spawn in the same area again throughout the spring and summer. As the water warms later in the season, bluegills will spawn in deeper water, moving from May’s fast-warming beds in 1 to 2 feet of water out to 6-foot depths. Though not as widely distributed as bluegills, shellcrackers are another prized bream. They tend to spawn on the deeper end of the bluegill’s range.
Put Eyes on Them
If you are fishing a new lake, you have three options for finding beds. Each of them starts with looking for coves, inlets and “corners” that are protected by points or bridge riprap from main-lake wave action or current. Look for sandy areas that gradually move to 6 feet deep or so. The ideal beds will have access to deeper water.
Once you find these general areas, the simplest low-tech method is to drive your boat around as you look for beds. A bed will be a circular area swept of debris a foot or so across (smaller than a bass bed). There will be a lot of them and they will be evenly distributed. The risk with this method is you could drive right over the beds before you see them, but that’s not a huge risk. Mark the spot and wait a while; bluegills are territorial and will be right back in place very soon. Simply go through a cove or likely stretch of bank and note each bedding area. When you’ve found three or four, start at the first one and fish them all.
A faster, more high-tech method of locating beds is to use side-scanning sonar to spot the beds as you drive along. Modern sonar is so good that, in many cases, you’ll not only see the beds, but also individual fish on them. A final option in situations where the habitat looks good for bedding areas is to go down the bank slowly, fishing in front of the boat until you get bit. This method sounds random, but it often works reliably. If you are in a good bream lake and the depth and bottom look right, you’ll almost certainly come upon a bluegill bed before you get too far down the bank. In lakes that are not clear, this method can be faster than trying to see beds.
The hardest thing about fishing for bream is that it’s so easy. Even if you make mistakes, you are probably going to catch some fish. The fact that you are catching fish can fool you into believing that what you are doing is working well. But bream fanatics catch more and larger bream than other anglers by not making mistakes.
Once they’ve found a bream bed, skilled bream anglers approach the area carefully. Often, the obvious part of the bed is shallow, but beds can spread out into deeper water, and frequently the largest bluegills spawn deeper. Many anglers make the mistake of pulling up to the shallow bed and fishing the part they can see—where they catch eager, smaller fish while their boat is parked on top of the biggest bream in the area. It’s better to work your way methodically through the beds, fishing deeper water first with a longer distance between float and hook, then sliding the bobber down toward the hook as you cast into shallower water.
Bluegills like to feed on suspended baits and are happy to rise to food. Adjust the length of line between your bait and bobber accordingly. Shellcrackers, however, feed on the bottom, so anglers often use a couple of split shot a few inches above the bait and either no float or a very light quill-type float that tips at the bite.
Bream rigs typically comprise 6- to 8-pound test and a hook in size 6 to 10, with enough shank to hold whatever bait you’ve chosen. The cane pole is a classic choice for bream anglers fishing heavy vegetation, where the long pole allows a soft presentation between lily pads or other cover. In more open water, a lightweight spinning rod works great.
Another mistake anglers make is crowding the bed they are fishing. Even if you are right over them, some bluegills will still bite. But if you can make accurate casts, you’ll catch more fish by staying back from the bed you are fishing.
Besides a willingness to fish deeper and to fish each bed systematically, one of the important differences between average anglers and those who catch more and bigger fish is a willingness to ignore one of the oldest rules of thumb in fishing. We’ve all heard “don’t leave fish to find fish.” Well, bluegill fishermen have two good reasons for breaking that rule under certain circumstances.
- First, if you catch several off a bed, the remaining fish will eventually stop biting. If your catch rate falls off, it’s time to move and let the area rest, even if you are still getting a few bites.
- Secondly, most of the fish in any part of the bedding area will be in the same size class. If you catch small bluegills in a spot, it’s likely that most fish you catch there will be about the same size. You might hope that you are about to catch bigger fish, but to really improve the odds of catching fish that are worth filleting, you either need to fish deeper or find another bed.
- Finally, the most important thing to keep in mind for a successful bream-fishing trip is to have fun. Make an effort to bring some kids with you and remember what it was like to be a kid again yourself.
Best Baits for Bream
- Choose the right enticements to put more fish in your cooler.
Without question, anglers catch the most bluegills with crickets or worms. My favorite bait is crickets, which are single-serving, not too messy and easy to thread on a hook. If you toss a cricket in a likely bedding area, you’ll know it holds bream very quickly.
That said, I also feel confident fishing worms. When I was in college, a room-mate acquired a very large home aquarium from some graduating seniors. He brought it home and put a bluegill in it. When he fed that bluegill worms, it would eat them until it couldn’t eat any more and the tail of the last worm would be hanging out of its mouth.
Also, he trained the bluegill to leap out of the water and grab worms from between his fingers. It wasn’t hard. Bluegills love worms. Shellcrackers, which typically feed along the bottom, are decidedly more interested in worms than crickets, so if you are targeting them, wigglers should get the nod.
Although shellcrackers don’t respond well to artificials, bluegills will. Very small soft plastics like Berkley Gulp! Alive! Fish Fry, Strike King Mr. Crappie Shadpole or Z-Man's LarvaZ on a small jig head work well and fish a bit faster than live bait.