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Panfish Aplenty

Panfish Aplenty

South Mississippi is full of small ponds abounding in bream -- and May's a great month for the fly-rodder looking to harvest a few of those. (May 2007)

Photo by Polly Dean

May is the prime month for using fly-casting gear to hook into a few bull bluegills.

The old longbeard that my hunting companion and I had been chasing for close to a month now must have known that May 1 was the final day of the spring turkey season in Mississippi. He gave one last defiant, almost mocking, gobble as he strutted into the woodsline at the far end of the field.

"Well, I guess we'll have to wait until next year to do battle with that old tom again," sighed Bruce Brady as he quietly placed his box call in the pocket of his hunting vest. "But we still have time to try out that trophy bream pond you've been telling me about."

"Sounds like a great idea," I replied, "but I forgot to bring my fly rod this morning."

"No need to worry," Brady said. "I brought along a spare. What do you say we go give them a try?"

That was the end of our turkey-hunting trip. Minutes later we were tying "Bream Killers" on dropper rigs beneath panfish poppers to the end of our leaders. Without a boat available, we were forced to try our luck from the shoreline. Fortunately, the small farm pond was less than 3 acres in area, which was perfect for a little bank-fishing.

My first cast was into a small, shallow cove whose bottom was dotted with dozens of bream beds. The musky, sweet scent of bedding bream hung heavy in the cool morning air. As my weightless leader unfolded softly on the glassy surface of the pond, the black Bream Killer fly, its white rubber legs wiggling, sank towards the pond's muddy bottom.

From out of nowhere, a blue-green streak engulfed the sinking fly, dragging the popper along for the ride to the depths of the pond. Clinching the line against the fly rod, the 8-foot rod instantly bent into an arc as the big bull bream tugged on the line. When I finally fought the fish into submission, I was pleasantly surprised.

"Can you believe the size of this bluegill?" I shouted to my friend. "It has to go a buck-fifty -- maybe even 2 pounds."

I might as well have been talking to myself. Across the pond, Brady's attention was focused on battling a big bull bluegill of his own. (From the look of things, the fish might have been winning.)

Over the next two hours, my fishing partner and I caught 46 of those giant bluegills, making a total of 64 pounds of fish -- close to a 1 1/2-pound-per-specimen average. Not too shabby for a small farm pond.

From that day on, I've never left home in the spring without taking along my fly rod. Just in case an old longbeard gives me the slip, I can always go to Plan B -- fly-fishing for big bull bream.

Bluegill fishing is exciting, and can be challenging; the action is nearly always fast and furious. Like most Mississippi anglers, I've spent a great deal of time fishing. But without a doubt, my most cherished memories are of days spent catching bluegills on a fly rod.

Far too many anglers look down their noses at bluegills, thinking of them as kids' fish, since bream are the first species most of them caught as young children. As they grow older and become more interested in catching larger, more glamorous fish, they seemingly forget what it's like to be sitting on top of a hot bream bed. Fortunately, however, some of those folks later rediscover the sport.

The bluegill is known by many different names. In Mississippi, it's called everything from "bluegill" and "sunfish" to "bream" and "pond perch." Bluegills are without a doubt the most popular sportfish in the Magnolia State, and definitely one of the most abundant.

The fish came by its common name thanks to the iridescent blue color on the lower portion of its jaw and gill cover. The other two distinctive markings of the fish are the prominent black spot on the rear edge of the gill cover and the black spot at the base of the posterior portion of the dorsal fin. The rest of a bluegill's body coloration is highly variable, depending on size, sex, time of year, water clarity, bottom type, and the amount of cover in the water. Clear water yields bluegills with blue-green backs that give way to white bellies; darker water produces darker fish with olive to black backs that lighten towards a yellowish belly.

The males of the species exhibit much brighter colors than do the females, especially during breeding. That's when they may have orange to rusty-red breasts. Bluegills also have five to nine dark vertical bands running down their sides. These bands get lighter in color as they go down the side, disappearing near the belly area.

Bluegills are found in quiet, warm waters with an abundance of vegetation. While they prefer water temperatures in the 85-to-88 degree range, these bream can tolerate temperatures upwards of 95 degrees. Their preference for warm water allows them to thrive in shallow lakes and small farm ponds, but they tend to avoid direct sunlight, preferring the cover of aquatic vegetation and submerged brush.

Bluegills feed on aquatic and terrestrial insects, mollusks, small fish and small pieces of aquatic vegetation. Although they eat throughout the day, bluegills feed primarily at dawn and dusk. Since these panfish eat whatever's available, their feeding patterns vary greatly with the season of the year. For instance, during the summer, when food is plentiful, bluegills often consume up to 35 percent of their own body weight on a weekly basis.

Bluegills spawn several times a year, when water temperatures get in the 65-degree range. In South Mississippi, the first round of spawning takes place in March or April. While females leave the nest soon after spawning, the males guard the eggs, fanning them with the caudal fins to keep them aerated and free of debris. Often the males stay with the young fry, guarding them for several days after they hatch.

Knowing the day-to-day activities of bluegills from pre-spawn to post spawn can be the difference between bringing back an ice chest full of the tasty fish and going home empty-handed. Each spawning cycle coincides with the full moon. During the spawn, male bluegills can be easily taken using weighted flies, but not because they're hungry: because they're determined to defend their nests against intruders -- and a male bluegill sees a fly as just another of those intruders. He strikes at it in order to scare it away; if that doesn't work,

he picks up the fly in his mouth and moves it away from the bed. Once the fly's in his mouth, all you have to do is set the hook.

A few days after the fry have hatched and become large and strong enough to fend for themselves, it's a completely different story. At this point, the male bluegills leave the spawning area and head for deeper, cooler water to rest and to feed as they recover from those long days spent protecting the beds.

Flyfishermen can take advantage of this renewed appetite by using wet flies and nymphs in the deeper water near weedbeds or thick cover. However, use caution when fly-fishing near thick cover: Bluegills know instinctively how to fight when hooked.

As soon as they're hooked, bluegills usually make a run directly away from you, but normally for only a short distance. Once the line tightens and they're jerked off course, bream invariably turn at a right angle and use the broad, flat side of their body as leverage against the line. The fish dart in different directions, dive straight down or burst up toward the surface; some even turn and run directly at you, which can get them enough slack in the line to dislodge a poorly-set hook.

Although it may be one of the smallest of freshwater game fish, the bluegill may the strongest, most determined fighter of them all, ounce for ounce. Many veteran flyfishermen have said that you'd never be able to land a 5-pounder, and having personally caught a number of bream in the 2-pound range on fly tackle, I would definitely have to agree.

Contrary to what many believe, fly-fishing isn't reserved for the elite of society: It can be an inexpensive hobby that anyone can enjoy. However, fly-fishing is far different from angling with conventional tackle. With ordinary tackle, the angler casts a weighted lure or bait, which in turn pulls the fishing line along as the terminal tackle moves through the air. The opposite is the case when it comes to fly-fishing: You cast a weighted line, which pulls a usually weightless leader and fly behind it. Because of this very basic difference, fly-fishing requires different rods, reels, lines and lures.

Surprisingly, getting geared up with basic fly-fishing tackle is no more expensive than preparing for conventional tackle. Although a number of other accessories and options are available, all you need is a rod, a reel, fly line, leader and flies. Of course, it's possible to spend a small fortune on those, but moderately priced setups are on the market, too.

Fly rods range in length from 6 to 10 feet. An 8-footer is a good all-around choice for bream. Just keep in mind that your fly rod is the single most important piece of equipment in your arsenal. When purchasing your first fly rod, I'd suggest investing in the best rod that your budget allows.

Your fly reel, on the other hand, is not nearly as important as your rod. Conventional anglers have a hard time understanding this concept, as they rely heavily on their reels to retrieve the lure after each cast; flyfishermen, on the other hand, strip their fly back in by hand without using the reel, the primary purpose of the fly reel being to serve as a spool to store surplus line until it's needed.

When it comes to fly lines, most are 90 feet long, and come in a variety of weights to match the rods. Bream anglers ordinarily pick rods and lines in 4- to 6-weight sizes, and the most practical all-purpose line for this fishing is a weight-forward floating version.

A 6- to 7-foot piece of any type of monofilament line can be used to create a leader between the fly line and the fly. Usually something in the 4- to 6-pound test size is about right.

Flies are a whole other can of worms (so to speak). Proclaiming to know the best all-around bream fly is like claiming that a specific caliber of rifle is the ultimate for deer hunting: There are far too many variables to take into consideration to assert either. Wet flies that sink, feathered dry flies that float, and cork popping bugs all occupy their specific niches in fly-fishing for bream.

Since bream have little mouths, it's best to think small when selecting flies. Bream are aggressive eaters and readily strike a wide variety of flies. Some good choices include Wooly Worms, Improved McGintys, Copper Johns, Crazy Charlies, and a variety of foam spiders and small poppers. My favorite of all is a tandem rig consisting of a chartreuse popper on the surface and a black and white Bream Killer that's on a dropper and sinks.

One of the best things about fly-casting for bream in the Magnolia State is that you can find excellent bream waters just about anywhere you go in the state. If it's wet and a foot or more deep, chances are good that some bream swim in that water.

When it comes to identifying the best-fishing bream lakes in South Mississippi, whom should you consult? For one, the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, which has compiled a list of top public pond picks based on biologists' professional opinions and historical data. Their selections, in order: Lake Mike Connor in Covington County, Lake Ross Barnett in Smith County, Lake Jeff Davis in Jefferson Davis County, Lake Mary Crawford in Lawrence County, Lake Perry in Perry County, Black Creek Lake in Stone County, and the numerous Pascagoula River Oxbow Lakes found in Jackson County.

All of these are superb bream lakes, but for fly-fishing, one stands out above the rest: Lake Mary Crawford. Five miles west of Monticello just off U.S. Highway 84, it's the cream of the crop. When the moon turns full in May, you can absolutely wear the bream out on their spawning beds in this 135-acre impoundment.

A number of excellent bream lakes in the south half of the Magnolia State that didn't make the MDWFP's short list are simply too productive to be overlooked. My bonus list would have to include Lake Lincoln State Park in Lincoln County, Natchez State Park Lake in Adams County, Roosevelt State Park Lake in Scott County, Calling Panther Lake in Copiah County, Lake Chotard in Warren and Issaquena counties, and Lake Mary in Wilkinson County.

Chotard probably is the most famous lake on this list in terms of big bull bream, but a couple of other areas are fast gaining reputations of their own. Calling Panther Lake, recently opened near Crystal Springs, is beginning to produce some nice stringers of bream, thanks in part to the numerous artificial bedding areas placed in key locations around the lake during its construction.

Then there's Lake Mary near Woodville. This old oxbow has to be the single most overlooked bream hotspot in the state. The few local bream fisherman who frequent Lake Mary in the spring are a tight-lipped crew, but the secret about this outstanding bream lake is slowly getting out.

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