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Tennessee's Best Bream Fishing

Tennessee's Best Bream Fishing

It's hard to go wrong taking a day in May to go bream fishing in Tennessee. Here are some of the top waters to plan on hitting this month. (May 2007)

Greg Jones of Kingston hoists a stringer of fat shellcrackers from Chickamauga Lake, which many anglers overlook as a bream fishery.
Photo by Terry Madewell

Greg Jones of Kingston, Tennessee, is certainly an all-around outdoorsman. He's a highly successful fisherman for several species of fish, including crappie and outlandish-sized stripers. He harvests numerous deer in the state and even travels around the country hunting for big game. He has his own deer processing business.

But during the month of May, this outdoorsman turns into a fanatical bream fisherman. Yes, that's right: bream. Specifically, he hunts down huge bluegills and whopper-sized shellcrackers on one of the best and most overlooked bream fishing waters in the Volunteer State -- Chickamauga Lake.

I grew up fishing this lake for bream, crappie, catfish and largemouths. However, I never knew what the full potential of this lake held until I fished with Greg Jones last spring. He focuses his efforts on the upper end of the lake because that's closer to his home. When fished properly, though, the entire lake will produce huge catches of bluegills and shellcrackers of eye-popping size.

"Through the years, I've developed a system of fishing that enables me to cover a lot of territory very quickly. When fishing the spawning season, around the full moon in May specifically, you can make large catches of huge fish quickly. Actually, you can bream fish very successfully any time in May and well into June on Chickamauga. The key is to have a good game plan of how and where to fish. Then stay mobile, looking for the hotspots.

"While I'll admit that fishing around the full moon may produce more bedding fish, it's really not essential for success. The entire month is usually great for bream fishing, unless we're having a lot of high, muddy water. In my opinion, the difference between fishing the dark of the moon versus the full moon is catching plenty of fish on the dark or partial moon, or way, way too many on the full moon," he said with a big grin.

Jones' process is simple, but it's one I'd never seen before. Most anglers use crickets or worms for springtime shallow-water fish. Some will, of course, use fly rods and poppers or sinking spiders.


Jones, however, uses a smallish jig, about 1/16 to 1/32 weight with a No. 6 hook. Then he puts a small piece of night crawler on the hook. The night crawler is no more than about an inch piece of the worm, just enough to produce some scent and visual appeal to the fish. Above this, he places a round plastic float. The depth of the float will vary with each specific place he fishes, but it will be anywhere from a few inches to 3 or 4 feet deep.

"The key to success on any given day is to not get locked into any specific depth or pattern preference. Don't assume you know where the fish will be holding. Certainly, if I fish on successive days, I'll return to the productive technique of the previous day when starting out. But if I haven't fished in a few days, I'll quickly start changing different areas and different depths to locate the fish," Jones noted.

For the shallow-water fishing in May, Jones spends most of his time in the backs of creeks. He prefers creeks that have a water source emptying into them, although that is not essential. He does note that the odds of finding shallow-water fish on the bed in a concentrated area are best in those situations. It certainly proved to be the case the days we fished.

Our first stop was in the back of a creek where the old creek first widened out into the lake. The bottom was primarily gravel/sand and the depth was about 3 to 4 feet. We simply eased along with his trolling motor, fan-casting around the boat. We fished the middle open water in the cove as much as the shoreline.

His technique is to slowly reel the jig/night crawler combo so the lure is just off the bottom by a few inches. Bring it over a springtime bream or shellcracker and wham! -- they'll nail it. Typically, we'd catch several fish from each spot where we found fish.

We moved to new areas as soon as the action slowed. Jones does not linger long in any place that is not producing. We'd change the depth up and down to effectively fish the area we were fishing, but otherwise, the technique stayed the same.

The flats at the very back of the creeks, and shallow sloping shorelines with gravel and sand bottoms were the places he concentrated his efforts. Sometimes there was no woody or weed cover associated with the beds, sometimes there was.

"Check everything, but stay on the move until you hit a hotspot. Sometimes you have to be very accurate with your casting to continue to catch fish," he noted.

Such was the case on one shellcracker bed we fished that day. While fishermen talk more often about 1-pound-plus bream than they actually catch such fish, I weighed a number of the fish we caught that were well over a pound. We caught 26 shellcrackers from a single place no larger than a sculling paddle. Hit the target and you'd catch a big, hard-fighting shellcracker. Miss it by inches and you'd get no bite.

On that day, and as a general rule, most of the shellcrackers were in shallower water than the bluegills. Generally, they were segregated in terms of hotspots, but it wasn't unusual to find shellcrackers along one area and 20 to 40 yards away, hit a bed of big bluegills.

"Occasionally, I'll find a spot and catch both shellcrackers and bluegills," he said. "But typically, the big beds will be specific to one species or the other. Also, one or the other may be much more available on a given day. If the shellcrackers are really biting, I'll usually focus on those because they are so much larger. We'll catch a lot of bream in the 10-ounce and up class, but the shellcrackers average a lot larger. But scads of bream that approach a 3/4-pound average is plenty good fishing for sure," Jones added.

He noted that traditional bream fishing techniques will work fine on Chickamauga. Fishermen using crickets or worms as bait will do well.

"I've just found that the technique I've developed is very effective and allows me to fish more places. Often, I can catch multiple fish without having to put another piece of worm on the hook. That's really important when you get into some fast, furious action on huge shellcrackers. But by fishing the right places, it's hard to go wrong on Chickamauga i

n May in shallow water," Greg Jones concluded.

Moving across the state, we'll find another outstanding bream hotspot. Reelfoot Lake has long been noted as a bream factory and that fishery is certainly still very strong.

I've sampled the great bream fishing on Reelfoot on several occasions. Billy Blakely, a lifelong resident and professional guide for bass and bream, has shared many of the secrets of this fishery with me on how, when and where to fish for shallow-water bream.

Blakely is a native of Samburg, located on the shore of Reelfoot Lake. By his own account, since he was able to climb into a boat, he has been fishing this lake.

"One of the problems a lot of fishermen have when bream fishing on Reelfoot Lake is all of the lake looks so great for bream. With the cypress trees, grassy shorelines, pads and logs and stumps everywhere, it all looks perfect for bream," he said. "Certainly, you can catch scattered fish throughout the lake. The key, however, is to look for specific places that may hold fish. For example, in a group of cypress trees, you may have water that's a fairly consistent depth, but there will be the occasional higher or deeper spots. These are often the places the bream will target. I've learned through a lifetime of fishing where many of these places are, but I still keep an eye on the depthfinder, even when bass fishing. Sometimes I make a mental note of something that looks promising for bream fishing and I'll return to check it out.

"Also, when working the shoreline looking for bream beds, a lot of fishermen just fish the entire stretch of weeds or pads. Again, I suggest looking for something different. A small pocket in the weeds, a hole in a thick mat of pads, for example, will often be a gathering area for bream. Often, a log lying in the water in conjunction with a weed line in 3 or 4 feet of water will be enough to attract a lot of bream.

"Remember, the key to success will often be to look for something slightly different so you can focus your efforts in targeted areas. Don't just hope to get lucky with a random, haphazard method of fishing."

Blakely will use spin-cast and spinning rigs to cast to his targeted areas. In addition, he'll use 10- to 12-foot bream busters as well. Typically, he'll use crickets as bait. The important part of gear, he noted, is to use the equipment an angler can cast most accurately with. Often, you'll need to put the bait under cypress limbs or into small targets to be successful. That's why he will occasionally use the long poles; it allows him to drop the bait precisely where he wants it. It requires a bit more stealth in terms of being quiet to not spook the big bream, but it can allow very precise bait presentation when needed.

According to Blakely, the entire month of May is great for bream fishing, but superb fishing will be found in June as well.

Blakely is a full-time guide on Reelfoot and can probably show you more about bream in a day than you can learn on your own in an entire week. You can book Billy Blakely for a day of fishing, and arrange lodging if needed, through Blue Bank Resort in Samburg at (731) 253-7878. Blue Bank Resort also has a restaurant, bait and tackle, boat rental, and according to Blakely, everything you'll need for a successful fishing trip to Reelfoot Lake.

Another outstanding bream hotspot is Kentucky Lake. There are many similarities in this lake with Chickamauga; they're both on the Tennessee River for one. I've fished Kentucky Lake many times for bream and the same kind of productive places that Greg Jones seeks out on Chickamauga are found here, too. His jig and night crawler rig should work great here, too, but I know the live bait offerings of crickets or worms will produce long strings of big bream.

One of my favorite places is the area to the northern end of the lake where the Big Sandy River enters the Tennessee River. You have both those rivers, plus Eagle Creek, another large tributary, all offering a great diversity of shallow-water fishing opportunities for May bream fishing.

Another key factor is that even with a good bit of rain, you can often find good fishable water in one of these three places. Even if one or the other waterways is muddy or not in prime condition, odds are one of the others will be. In addition, there are numerous other smaller creeks with countless coves and pockets that will harbor plenty of bream. The shallow-water action is typically great throughout the month and well in June as a rule.

Old Hickory Lake is a good bet for mid-state fishermen looking for plenty of action as well as decent-sized fish. Overall, the size of the fish here are not as big as Chickamauga or Reelfoot bream, but the springtime fishing will produce some good average-sized fish. Most important, the lake will produce plenty of fish, making it an excellent place for a family outing or a great place to take youngsters who are more into catching loads of fish.

Another big plus for this lake, in addition to its location near Nashville, is the numerous Corps of Engineers access areas around the lake. During this time of the year, plenty of outstanding bream fishing can be enjoyed from the shoreline in these areas. Granted, a boat will enable you to have more opportunity to seek out the fish. But walking the shoreline on many of these areas will be enough for you to get into some excellent bream action throughout the month.

One hotbed of bream activity is the mid-area of the lake around the Cedar, Spencer and Station Camp creeks area. There are numerous access areas in these creeks and they are close enough so they can all be fished by boat. In addition, the public areas will enable anglers to fish effectively from the shoreline as well.

One final hotspot that offers a slightly different style of fishing is Melton Hill Lake, back in the eastern portion of the state near Knoxville. While this lake is not as big as some of the other mainstream TVA lakes we've covered, the lake packs plenty of bream power. The lake has a total of 5,690 surface acres of water and a shoreline of 173 miles. It has long been noted as a prime area for big bream, and many of them.

Located on the Clinch River and fed by waters from Norris Lake, the water here is usually clearer than on some of the other lakes. However, there are plenty of outstanding bream-holding structures around the lake. In addition, shoreline fishing opportunities are good on this lake, particularly during late April and throughout May.

You'll sometimes need to fish slightly deeper here and may have to cast a longer distance to not spook fish if the water is clear. However, typically, the spring rains will usually have the lake is very good condition for shallow-water fishing throughout the month of May.

Certainly, these lakes are among the best in the state for prime bream fishing during May and throughout the summer. But bream fishing is generally good at most of our lakes during this time of the year. If you want the opportunity to catch numerous bream in good sizes, give these places a try. There's some excell

ent bream fishing not far from where you live on one of these lakes.

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