Your Guide to Virginia's Bream Fishing

Bream are undoubtedly the most common catchable fish in Virginia -- and they offer some great fun in late spring.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Mark Fike

Bream fishing is where most anglers began wetting a line as a youngster. Many fond memories revolve around a can of worms, a float and a string of pan-sized fish caught at a pond or lake. What many are finding is that the fun does not end simply because they have grown up and learned how to catch other species of fish. Bream are cooperative much of the time, even when bass or crappie are not. The gear used for bream is simple and inexpensive so that everyone can afford to fill a stringer. The best thing about bream fishing in Virginia is that a good fishery exists in each region and the fishing is fine, especially this time of year.

The sheer number of ponds, lakes and rivers in the Tidewater makes it tough to single out one or two good fisheries. In the Northern Neck Region of the Tidewater, however, Gardy's Millpond stands out as an outstanding bluegill fishery. Gardy's has a higher density of large bluegills than the other waters in the region.

Mukhtar Farooqi is the fisheries biologist who does the studies of VDGIF waters in the region. Farooqi reported to us that Gardy's had an abundant number of bluegills in the 6- to 8-inch range.

"After looking at the data from 2001 and comparing it against the data we collected in 2002, I found consistent population figures, which is a good sign. Relative weight for the bluegills in Gardy's is good and the number of fish there makes it a good destination for anglers in search of quality fish."

Farooqi also noted that the largest bluegill he had shocked was over 10 inches, which is huge for a bluegill.

The 76-acre pond is quiet and perfect for both the serious angler and the casual angler who just wants to relax and have some fun. The lake does have a boat ramp and pier. There are numerous blowdowns and logs in the water, which is fairly shallow. Anglers seem to do the best along the right side of the parking lot and on the opposite shoreline from the parking area. Try worms and crickets for the best results during an early-summer trip.

Chip Long, a fisheries biologist who works the southern portion of the Tidewater Region for VDGIF, points to Western Branch Reservoir as the place for serious panfish anglers to wet a line. Historically, the 1,579-acre waterway has been a good producer of redear sunfish.

"During the mid-1990s, as many as 800 citations were reported in one year. However, many anglers have continued success catching large redears even though overall abundance appears to have declined somewhat in recent years," Long reports.

One theory as to why the number of citations has dropped off is the fact that citations now cost anglers $4 each and many bream anglers are satisfied to take the fish home and eat them. Some anglers believe the fishery may be overfished. More studies are needed to determine if the fishery is indeed on the decline.

At the present time, the growth rate of redear sunfish in Western Branch Reservoir is comparable to other lakes in the district, with fish reaching 10 inches and over 1 pound by age 3.

Long points out that finding redear sunfish can sometimes be difficult, but it has been reported that by trolling the creek channels (one channel can be easily located by following the aerators installed by the city of Norfolk) with night crawlers on bottom bouncers, anglers can locate fish. Redears favor spawning in areas of 8 feet or less water; anglers should target protected shoreline with live bait or small 1/16-ounce jigs.

For more information on fishing the Tidewater Region, call (757) 253-7072.

The Southern Piedmont Region has been a great destination for bream anglers for years and this year is no different. There are many quality impoundments that shine for bluegills and shellcrackers. Mill Creek Reservoir is one such water.

Mill Creek Reservoir is a medium-sized water at 189 acres. It is a mountain lake located in Amherst County.

Dan Wilson is one of the fisheries biologists who manage the impoundments in the Southside. Wilson offered some insight into Mill Creek Reservoir fishery.

"The sunfish population is comprised of primarily bluegills, but redear sunfish are also present. The high reproductive capability of sunfish has offset angler harvest effects on population size, but the heavy fishing pressure has reduced the number of large sunfish. However, there is still good sunfish fishing available with fish up to 8 inches for those panfish enthusiasts."

Wilson notes that the average size of bluegills in Mill Creek is 7 inches. There are larger fish that tend to grow to just over 8 inches. Wilson suggests that anglers drop their lines near woody structure, such as beaver lodges or woodpiles. Wilson often uses mealworms when fishing for bream at Mill Creek. A light wire hook is a good way to use these worms. Mealworms will keep in a refrigerator for weeks if they are not used in one trip. Mill Creek is best accessed with a johnboat or canoe in order to reach the better fishing, as bank-fishing opportunities are limited.

Facilities at Mill Creek include picnic tables and grills, restrooms, playgrounds and boat ramps. Outboard motors are prohibited.

The impoundment can be accessed by taking Route 60 west of Amherst to Route 788, and then follow the signs to the desired water.

Shifting to the east in the Southern Piedmont Region, we find that Nottoway Lake, at 188 acres, is a great place for panfish. This lake is located near Blackstone.

According to Vic DiCenzo of VDGIF, Nottoway has plenty of good shoreline structure and vegetation that helps the fishery and provides many opportunities for both boat and shoreline anglers.

"Bluegill and redear sunfish offer anglers in the spring a fantastic bank-fishing opportunity. Spawning fish congregate in the spring on the shoreline along the dam where they are easily accessible. There are abundant numbers of both species weighing up to one-half pound and the number of larger fish between 8 and 10 inches has been increasing over the last several years. This trend is expected to continue. Overhanging trees and submerged structure offer the best cover in which to find either of the sunfish species. Live bait such as worms and crickets, jigs and small crankbaits are the best lures for catching fish in the spring and s

ummer months."

Fly-casting to bedded bream is also a productive means of filling a stringer or cooler with these tasty and colorful fish.

For more information on fishing in the Southern Piedmont, call (434) 525-7522.

The Mountain Region does not stand out as a top destination for outstanding bream waters. However, the beautiful summer scenery does include a few good destinations for anyone inclined to catch a nice stringer of bream.

Paul Bugas of VDGIF was kind enough to tip us off as to where the best panfishing was in his region of the state. He points first to Upper Recreation Pond in Bath County, which is also known as one of the Bath County Recreation Ponds. The 45-acre pond is near Back Creek and is near the Dominion Resources Pumped Storage Project. The water is perfectly clear and is pumped from Back Creek.

Despite lacking phytoplankton and nutrients, the upper pond is a fantastic place to fish for bluegill and redear sunfish, Bugas reports. He bases his statement on recent samplings this past summer.

"We had a fantastic collection of bluegill and redear sunfish from the Upper Recreation Pond this past summer. There were lots of bluegills in the 6- to 8-inch class. The redears were not as large as we have seen in the past, but were of quality size as well. Panfish grow slowly here due to the lack of fertility. You can expect a 6-inch fish to be 4 years old."

Bugas also observed that the artificial structure in the lake is scarce. The fish spend more time in less than 3 feet of water near the reeds or water weeds. There is plenty of shoreline fishing, plus a handicapped-accessible fishing pier. Boats with electric motors are allowed on the Upper Recreation Pond.

The second water that Bugas suggests for serious bream anglers is the Jackson River downstream of Covington. The water below Covington was once of poor quality, but this has improved over the years. Redbreast sunfish and rock bass are common in this stretch of the river and are eager to chase lures and bait. The better habitat includes rocky pools and woody debris. Do not overlook pockets of water that stand alone either. Rock bass and sunfish have plenty of crayfish and invertebrates to eat as well as baitfish.

Bugas is enthusiastic about the possibilities that abound for panfishermen on the Jackson.

"Our electrofishing consistently yields redbreasts in the 6- to 8-inch range. They are beautiful in color, hit like a ton of bricks, and give a fantastic battle on light tackle. These fish will even take smallmouth bass topwater baits, such as Tiny Torpedoes and Rapalas. Rock bass in the "lower" Jackson can reach 9 to 10 inches in length. Panfish in the lower Jackson grow at a slow-to-normal pace. Float-fishing or wade-fishing are the best ways to catch them."

Much of the land bordering the Jackson is private, but VDGIF is working on better public access to the lower Jackson. It should also be noted that there is no fish consumption advisory on the lower Jackson these days.

Even though Lake Frederick was featured in last year's roundup, it would be a sin not to mention that water this year, because it's the top water of the entire Mountain Region for bream. Its quality fishery is mostly due to its excellent predator/prey balance, which results in the production of large panfish. Steve Reeser was the expert we turned to in order to find out why Frederick is such a good panfish lake.

Reeser reports to us that sunfish greater than 8 inches are not uncommon at all.

"We routinely collect several citation-sized redear sunfish during our electrofishing samples. Also, bluegills more than 7 inches are common. Both species like the same habitat and are found together."

Because Frederick can be difficult to fish due to its crystal-clear water, Reeser recommends that anglers fishing from a boat follow the contour of the lake and fish the areas where the water depth rapidly changes into deeper water. According to Reeser, these areas can be found in the lower end of the west arm of the lake and in the upper east arm of the lake. Anglers should focus on the many pine trees that have fallen into the edge of the lake during the winter storms of 2001-2002.

There is a large, handicapped-accessible pier and plenty of bank-fishing opportunities for anglers without a boat. Live bait, such as crickets, red wigglers and night crawlers, all fill coolers fast.

For more information on fishing in the Mountain Region, call (540) 248-9360.

The Northern Piedmont has a few regular waters that produce good bream fishing each year. This year, we are highlighting Germantown Lake and Curtis Lake as the better destinations in the region for bream fishing.

Germantown Lake is 109 acres in size and is located within the C.M. Crockett Park in Fauquier County. There are boat rentals and shelters, as well as restrooms.

The redear (or shellcracker) fishing is best at Germantown. John Odenkirk, who is a fisheries biologist in the Fredericksburg office, shared with us the data from a recent survey. In just 45 minutes of survey time, he and his crew caught 41 redears. Of those, 21 were 9 inches or larger and 30 were over 7 inches long!

The bluegill fishery is not quite as good as it is at Curtis, but it is still worth wetting a line for. The same survey turned up 105 bluegills. Nine fish were of quality size over 8 inches.

Anglers will often find the shellcrackers over firmer bottoms where snails and clams are found. At Germantown, the bottom is more attractive to the fish at the deeper end of the lake, which is the lower end of the impoundment. The fish are very aggressive during the spawn, and obviously, this is when the largest fish are caught. The redears spawn during the first few weeks of May and are followed closely by the bluegills.

Try crickets over the beds and red wigglers for both species. Artificials that take many fish include brightly colored jigs and spinnerbaits with grubs in a 1/32-ounce size. Germantown is located off Route 602. Call Fauquier County Parks and Recreation at (540) 788-4867.

Lake Curtis is farther south of Germantown. Curtis is slightly larger, at 91 acres, with plenty of bluegills of quality size. When Odenkirk did his survey in 2003, he caught 900 bluegills an hour. Of those, 110 were between 6 and 8 inches and three were preferred fish.

Curtis can be a tough lake to fish for many species, but finding bream at Curtis is relatively easy. The best location for bream anglers is directly across from the boat ramp. The woody structure is a haven for dropping crickets, worms or red wigglers. An angler can load up a stringer quickly around the standing timber or the beaver lodges.

Use a small split shot and a wire hook for the fastest action. Floats will work, but the larger fish are deeper. Fish the edges of the shade to get the best results during the day when the sun is shining. During the evening, the most exciting action is on topwater baits such as poppers and other small baits.

Curtis does not have any concessions at this point, but there is a boat ramp. The lake is located west of Fredericksburg. Take Route 17 north from Fredericksburg to Route 616. Turn north and follow to Route 622 and turn west to the ramp.

More information on waters in the Northern Piedmont can be obtained by calling (540) 899-4169.

Wherever you live in the Commonwealth, there is a good panfishing water near you. A stringer full of large bluegills or shellcrackers equals a few hours of fun on the cheap. Get out this May and step back in time to when life was simpler and the bream were memory makers. The gear is uncomplicated and the fun is nearly guaranteed.

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