May 16, 2017
At first glance, the oxbow doesn’t appear to be a good bluegill lake. There’s no visible cover. The bait-shop proprietor assures us, however, the bream fishing is excellent, especially now during the spring spawn.
“The secret,” he says, “is finding shell beds where bluegills nest. Take a cane pole with you, go toward the middle of a cove, and use the pole’s butt to poke the lake bottom. When you feel something crunchy and hard, that’s a shell bed. Fish there.”
My friend Lewis Peeler and I follow the man’s advice. Soon after we start our probing, the squishy feel of mud becomes the crunchy feel of shells—piles of small, white snail shells littering the bottom. I glance at the fish-finder, which up to now has shown nothing but a flat, fish-barren bottom. Dozens of fish-shaped blips fill the screen.
We anchor, and Lew casts a cricket weighted with a split shot. By the time I bait my hook and cast, he’s reeling in a dandy bluegill.
“They’re right where he said they would be,” he remarks. “And it looks like there are plenty of them.”
In two hours, we catch 78.
This unconventional method for finding bluegill beds has served me well on many lakes. These popular panfish prefer nesting on firm, not muddy, substrate, and a cane pole can help quickly locate shells, gravel or hardpan bottom where nests are likely concentrated.
Long ago, Lewis’ mother and older brothers taught him another unusual method for finding bluegill beds.
“Fishermen find spawning bream many ways,” he says. “Sometimes you can see their fins or the swirls they make. Some folks use their ears and listen for smacking sounds made by fish sucking bugs from the surface or beneath lily pads. My way is different. I use my nose.”
According to Peeler, wherever bluegill nests are concentrated, the air carries a distinctive, fishy odor. Anyone with a normal sense of smell can learn to zero in on that musty aroma and find big beds holding scores of good-eating panfish.
Looking for a tasty bluefish recipe? Check out “Fish Recipe: Bluegill Po' Boy with Curry-Lime Mayo Spread.”
“I start by looking for shallow flats or long sloping banks where the fish are likely to spawn,” he says. “When I detect the smell of the beds, then I look for an oily film on the water. It looks like someone spilled a little gasoline in the water. The two together—the oil slick and the smell—are a sure sign bream are bedding there.”
Wearing polarized sunglasses, Peeler now looks for “honeycombs” of nests, which appear as groups of circular depressions on the bottom. If the water is clear enough, individual fish may be seen swimming above each nest. If not, Peeler drops a bait in first one place then another until he pinpoints concentrations of fish.
“I typically fish with an 11-foot Buck’s Graphite Jig Pole from B’n’M Pole Company,” Peeler says. “I rig up light and never use a swivel. I tie on a long-shank cricket hook and the smallest split shot that will slowly sink a cricket. I prefer a small peanut cork and put the split shot four to six inches above the hook. As the split shot goes down, the cricket slowly follows.
“Most bream beds on the lakes I fish are on a firm sandy or gravel bottom,” he continues. “I start fishing in places like that and keep moving until I catch big dark-colored male fish guarding the beds.”
Where Peeler fishes, bluegills often spawn in extremely shallow water in places inaccessible by boat. When that’s the case, he may leave his boat and wade-fish.
“Sometimes the fish are just out of reach and the only way to reach them is to wade,” he notes. “My brother taught me this method when I was a kid. Using long poles or ultralight spinning outfits, we waded through water that varied from knee deep to waist deep as we hunted for bull bream on their beds. When one of us caught one, the other would come over, and we would work that bed together. We found some of the largest beds I’ve ever seen while fishing this way. If you move slowly and try not to disturb the fish too much, chances are good you could land 100 or more big bream in just a short time.
“Fishing like this can be habit forming,” Peeler concludes. It’s one of the best reasons to spend a day on the lake.”