September 30, 2010
Be it on a reservoir, a river or a pond, no more dependable angling is to be had in Mississippi than that for bluegills and shellcrackers. Check out these great bream venues for '05.
The author displays the stringer of shellcrackers that he took from Trace Lake in Trace State Park.
Photo courtesy of Robert H. Cleveland Jr.
Larry Pugh was pointing to a stump and log in the back of the small cove with his bass rod, and was saying something about a big bass or two that the timber had produced for him in the past.
The fisheries biologist for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks and diehard bass angler could have been talking about a potential world-record largemouth for all I knew. On that cold, windy April morning, I was too focused on something else to pay much attention to Larry Pugh.
The floor of the small, clear cove on the lake at Trace State Park was dimpled with round impressions to the point that it looked like someone had laid tile with that pattern across the lake bottom.
"Good God, Larry -- tell me those are bream beds!" I said, interrupting his bass story.
"Yeah," Pugh said rather unexcitedly. "Looks like the entire cove is just one whole connected bream bed -- but, like I was saying: I was in here one day and flipped a worm over that log and -- "
"Would you shut up about the bass?" I blurted out. "Look at all these bream beds! Ease us out of here -- and try not to spook them too bad."
That ended our bass fishing, but 30 minutes later, I was back on the water with a hundred crickets and two ultra-light spinning rods and was jockeying my smaller, lighter boat into position on the sunny side of the cove. It was the only area of the 20-by-20-yard cove without the dimpled bottom. My first cast with 2-pound line and a cricket landed in a spot where I had seen a big bream. Two seconds later, the Styrofoam bobber disappeared. The fish pulled a few feet of drag on the reel, and had the 6-foot rod bent into an arc. When I finally netted the fish, about a minute later, I was delighted.
"Would you look at that chinkypin?" I crowed, using a colloquially distorted version of "chinquapin" -- one of several names (others being "redear" and "shellcracker") for these fish. "Got to go a pound -- maybe a pound and a quarter."
Over the next hour, fishing partner Bryan Broom and I caught 33 giants, all identical to that first bigger-than-your-hand monster. We tossed back another 25 or 30 smaller redears and bluegills.
And guess who made the last few casts?
"Here -- let me see one of those buggywhips," Pugh said, easing his big bass boat alongside my boat. "All that hollering you guys were doing, it must be fun."
For hundreds of thousands of Mississippi fishermen, there is no bigger kick than to find themselves sitting on top of a hot bream hole. The action will be fast and furious, and the rewards come in the dual form of the immediate thrill and the later feast of fried fish. Fortunately, nobody in the Magnolia State, nobody has to drive far to find such a hotspot.
"There's no doubt about it," said Ron Garavelli, chief of fisheries for the MDWFP. "If you like to fish for bream, you can find plenty of places. It doesn't matter if you prefer ponds, small lakes, oxbow lakes or streams -- you won't have to make a long drive to find some action."
Not that a long drive wouldn't necessarily be worth it. Garavelli himself has proved that.
The morning we found the bream bed at Trace State Park, my first call was to Garavelli, who was already nearby in northeast Mississippi, checking on another project. He was there in 30 minutes, with his ultra-light pole in hand.
As Magnolia State bream fishing goes, the most difficult chore consists in choosing what waters should be included on the list of top 10 bream lakes. Our criteria were skewed by just one factor: We wanted to include all geographic areas of the state. That said, it didn't lessen the quality of our top 10.
Trace State Park
Our day at Trace Lake, which is halfway between Pontotoc and Tupelo on state Route 6, wasn't out of the ordinary, according to park manager Donald Campbell. "I can't tell you how many of the fishermen who come here stop by the office to tell us how good their bream experience was," he said. "Our bass fishing gets a lot of attention in stories and stuff, but to be honest, I think the bream fishing is better."
Like most waters in the state lake and state park system, Trace Lake is loaded with both bluegills and redears. Campbell says that the redears bed first, usually in April, with the bluegills following in May and continuing through the summer months. "But we still have a lot of people come in the fall and winter who do even better when the fish move back out deep," he added.
There are two parts to 600-acre Trace Lake: a big open-water area that permits skiing, and a smaller yet sizable fishing-only portion. They share the same dam and are connected by a channel. Larry Pugh reports that both sides have great bream fishing, but he recommends the fishing lake for bedding fish.
"In the spring, I'd look at every cove and every indention in the bank for a sign of beds like those we found in that cove," he stated. "The coves can be nothing more than a small dent in the bank, and it will attract bream."
Tippah County Lake
"I get good bream reports most consistently on this lake," Pugh said.
"It doesn't matter what time of year, they catch them at Tippah."
They catch them big, too. The state-record redear, which weighed 3.3 pounds, was caught at Tippah County Lake in November 1991.
The 165-acre state lake, 2 1/2 miles north of Ripley off SR 15, is a favorite destination for fishermen who love to combine their angling with a family camping trip. The lake sits near the base of Woodall Mountain, the highest point in Mississippi at a whopping 806 feet above sea level.
The bedding season begins in April for the redears and in May for the bluegills. Most fishermen use crickets during the spawning period and mealworms or other live worms in deep water during the fall or early in the spring.
This 90-acre lake near Aberdeen showed
up as a surprise in the 2003 Mississippi Fishing Index's bream list (you'll find it on the MDWFP Web site): It had the highest score of the lakes listed.
"That was a surprise to most, but not unexpected to those of us who are around it a lot," Pugh remarked. "Monroe has had a couple of great years in a row for bream, and I think the bream scored so high because of how accessible the lake is for panfish. It's small enough, and the banks (are) clean enough, that you can fish just about the whole shoreline from the bank, and during the bedding period that puts you within easy reach of most of the bluegill and redear.
"Most fishermen cast with worms and light sinkers without a cork during the bedding period. And later they tight-line with worms on the bottom from the main pier and the main points and do good deep."
This is a bonus for fishermen: Instead of listing each worthwhile oxbow connected to the river as a separate hotspot, we've lumped them all together. They are: Tunica Cutoff, two miles west of Tunica; Ferguson, at Greenville; Lee, to the south of Greenville; Chotard and Albermarle, to the north of Vicksburg; and Lake Mary, at Woodville.
Take your choice -- they're all excellent when conditions are favorable, which chiefly means a stable or slightly falling water level between May and October. Let's use Chotard as the example, since it's probably the most famous for its bream production.
"The time to catch the big bluegill on Chotard is in the late spring or early summer, after the spring rise has run its course and is falling out of the lake," said Johnny Laney of Laney's Landing. Laney, a former conservation officer, has lived on Chotard for over 55 years.
"You can take a cricket or a small black jig and work next to the flooded trees," he offered, "and catch one or two on almost every one. The best trees are those with the brushy bottoms.
"Later, when the river has left the lake, you can move to the last standing timber still in the water, and it's even better, because the fish are concentrated. That's when people really fill their boxes with the big bull bream that made Chotard famous."
In addition to the oxbows still attached at times to the Mississippi River, the Delta is blessed with several outstanding oxbows separated from the river either by the levee or by other lakes. The top ones for bream fishing are Flower and Horn lakes south of Tunica, Lake Washington at Glen Allan and Eagle Lake north of Vicksburg.
At Flower and Horn, the river can still reach the lake bodies at extreme flood stages, so they're probably the cream of the crop on this list. Crickets and worms fished in the old blue holes and around any flooded standing timber will be the ticket.
Washington and Eagle are both outside the levee, so the river can't influence them, leaving their lake levels constant throughout the year. Washington is the place to go for sheer numbers, but Eagle produces the better-quality fish. The most rewarding fishing at Washington is found during the bedding period for bluegills in May through July. Bream move up on shallow cypress trees, but they can be tough to catch, as the water can be almost shockingly clear. At Eagle, more fish are caught after the bedding period in the summer, when the fish move up around artificial structure around the piers and onto the deeper isolated cypress trees off the point of the island.
Kemper County Lake
This region offers several good choices -- Okatibbee Reservoir, Turkey Creek Water Park, Pelahatchie Lake and Roosevelt State Park -- but only one great one: 652-acre Kemper County Lake, four miles west of De Kalb off SR 397.
Kemper's bream fishing has always been outstanding, and an improving bass population has added to the bream attraction. Bass are doing a better job of keeping the bream population in control, and the average size of bluegills and redears is increasing noticeably.
"Our bass fishing has gained a lot of attention in the past three or four years, but our bream fishermen still know it as a great fishing lake," said lake manager Stephen Hutcherson. "They may not catch as many as they used to back when the bass population was so stunted, but the quality is superb."
One of the attractions of the Kemper bream fishery is style. During the late-spring and early-summer months, casting between bedding cycles with ultralight spinning gear and Beetle Spins or Road Runners in 6 to 8 feet of water is a blast. The fish can be caught by other methods, but the casting technique is more fun.
Lake Mary Crawford
Fly-fishing enthusiasts should take note: Jim Foerste has a place for you to visit.
"I don't know of a better fly-fishing lake for bream than this one," asserted Foerste, longtime lake manager at Lake Mary Crawford, five miles west of Monticello off U.S. Highway 84. "Fly-fishing might not be the most popular method used to catch the bream -- but it ought to be!"
Foerste, obviously a fly-fishing fan, has spent many hours before and after work practicing his magic on the 135-acre lake. "If you can find a bream bed in the spring or early summer, you can wear the fish and yourself out with a fly-rod," he noted. "A surface bug or a sinking fly -- both will keep you stripping line to pull in fish."
Mary Crawford's bream fishing is not what it was 10 years ago -- but so what? It was so remarkable back then that anything even half as productive still rates as an A-plus!
You've probably read or heard a lot about this lake in recent years, but 99 percent of what's been publicized has been bass fishing. That's understandable: The 90-acre lake has been yielding up a lot of 10-pound-plus fish, and even one over 16 pounds.
"What is overlooked is that anytime you have a lake with that kind of bass fishery, you have one that also has a good population of big bluegill and redear," said District 5 fisheries biologist John Skains. "It has a healthy bream population. And when we redesigned the lake, we made it angler-friendly -- especially for bream fishermen. We laid a lot of gravel beds right near the banks and off the piers."
The redears bed in late March and early April, the bluegills from April through early July. "The beds get so loaded you can smell them," said Skains. "That's when you can really load a cooler with bluegill."
A must-visit venue in South Mississippi during the spring bedding period is this scenic 125-acre lake three miles south of Beaumont off U.S. Highway 98.
No bigger fan of bream fishing than Gathel Hinton, the longtime lake manager, will be encountered in Mississippi. "This is one lake where I think anyb
ody can come in and catch a big mess of bream on their first or second visit in the spring," he said. "We probably have as good a bluegill and redear population as any lake in the state. In the spring, when they move up to bed, all you have to do is work the banks from a boat either with a paddle or a trolling motor until you either smell a bed or just start catching fish."
Catching them is inevitable -- and it's been that way for decades.
Hinton's preferred method involves roll-casting crickets with a fly rod. He uses a floating fly line and a 5-foot piece of 6-pound monofilament for a leader, which allows the cricket to sink with the weight of a hook. He uses no lead or bobber. "That's how I do it, but most folks just come out with poles and crickets and wear them out from the bank," he said.
Pascagoula River System
There's no way to measure the amount of water available in this vast fishery, which includes thousands of acres of flooded backwater timber and sloughs, several rivers and creeks and the Pascagoula River itself.
"What makes it so good is that you can fish all day and maybe not see another boat," said Tom Ross of Gautier, who has fished the system for 40 years. "My favorite fishing is for shellcracker in the spring. You catch a week in March or April when there hasn't been a lot of rain and the river's not too high, and you can wear out the shellcracker. They move up on shell banks to feed on small crustaceans, and you can hammer them with worms."
In the upper reaches of the system, the bluegill and redbreast sunfish populations are extremely high -- a situation that provides Gathel Hinton with a reason to abandon Lake Perry on his off days.
"There's nothing better than wading some of the creeks around here with a pole and some crickets and catching a mess of red-belly," he said. "Besides being the best eating fish in the world, they are so much fun to catch when you find a wad of them while wading a creek. It's peaceful and scenic -- and then, all of a sudden, it's an explosion of fun."