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Hot Spots for Tennessee Bream Fishing

Hot Spots for Tennessee Bream Fishing
Doug Markham caught this big redear sunfish near Willow Grove on Dale Hollow Lake. Photo by Vernon Summerlin.

May's full moon happens on the sixth this year. Traditionally, at least in the minds of many anglers, that marks the beginning of the bream-spawning season. It's s season that lasts into the summer and offers the hard-core bream fishermen and fun seeking families the uncomplicated opportunity to catch fish — and lots of them.

There are 10 bream species in the Volunteer State. Most members of the sunfish family are diminutive. The largest are the redear — also called shellcrackers) and the bluegill. They are the ones anglers usually focus on.

Our state record for bluegill was caught at Fall Creek Falls Lake and weighed 3 pounds. A 3-pound, 6-ounce redear state record came from a private pond. Thelma Grissom and Annelise Houston respectively set those records in the 1970s.


Bluegills are the most abundant of the sunfishes. While they can be found in most waterways from streams to reservoirs, they prefer warm clear waters with moderate aquatic vegetation, rocks or submerged wood.

They get their name from their dark blue earflap. Many members of the bream group can hybridize with other members. That's why you may see a bluegill that doesn't look quite right. Shellcrackers and bluegill mix in the same bed on occasions, especially when their habitats overlap. They eat insects in larval and adult stages, plankton, snails and other fish. Bluegills frequently feed on the surface and you can often hear them "slurping" the under side of lily pads and other vegetation, or sucking in insects from the surface.

Generally, 'gills begin spawning when the water temperature reaches the mid to upper 60s and they prefer gravel for their nests. As with all the sunfish family, male bluegills and shellcrackers build nests and guard the eggs and fry.

Non-nest building males sometimes impersonate females. They swim around in another male's bed pretending to lay eggs and when a female enters the nest, the pretender fertilizes the eggs, leaving the nest builder to protect the young.

Bluegills spawn well into summer.


The redear sunfish gets its name from the red border around a black spot on its earflap. It gets its other name of shellcracker, because it has crushers in its throat. These crushers are bony, tooth-like patches capable of grinding snails and small mussels.


This species is a bottom feeder, targeting insect larvae and mollusks. It readily eats worms and crickets, making them better baits than minnows. They also hit grubs, wasp larvae, catalpa worms or even breadcrumbs.

Perhaps the best thing about shellcrackers on the bed is that you can catch them from the bank, because they move against the shoreline to spawn. They prefer a gravel bottom with thick weeds. These fish spawn in May and June in Volunteer State waters

Redears grow faster than other bream and are regularly stocked in ponds. It can reach 7 inches long in one year and grows to an adult size of about 12 inches.

The range of the shellcracker is more limited than bluegills. Most populations are found in the southeastern states. In Tennessee they are more common in the southeastern streams and reservoirs and the Tennessee River system. There are scattered populations among some Mississippi River tributaries.


It's so much fun catching spawning bluegills on topwater. Casting a tiny Rebel Minnow on ultralight gear with 2- or 4-pound-test line is exciting.

You cast the lure over the bed, let the ripples fade away and give the lure a tiny twitch. The landing of the lure attracts the fish, studies the lure and the twitch triggers a strike. The best part is the lure only catches the larger bream. The ones you would cull can't get the treble hook in their mouths.

The popping bug on a 4-weight fly rod outfit adds sport to fighting 'gills and redears. Black ants, poppers and many other surface lures tease the bream into hitting. Use the same cast-pause-and-twitch technique.

Sometimes bigger bream prefer a larger bait and that's when small spinners work well such as the Beetle Spin, Rooster Tail, Panther Martin and Mepps. These also work well in deepwater after they spawn. Keep in mind that bream don't chase baits like bass do; you must make a slow retrieve.

Of course, there also is the old standby of using a cane pole with a hook, line and sinker for live bait.


Bream, like the swallows of Capistrano, come home to the same place each year. All you have to do is find them once and remember where they are to have bream action year after year. Move your boat slowly over shallow areas using polarized glasses to locate dish shaped nests from one to two feet in diameter.

As with most anglers who catch plenty of fish, tips are freely given. Here's how to find redear on reservoirs.

Get off the main channel up one of the feeder creeks and locate a shallow gravel bank.

Look for green weeds growing from the bank about 10 feet into the water.

Cast a redworm or nightcrawler to the inside edge of the weeds with the bait about 6 inches off the bottom.

Wait for the float to disappear.

Set the hook and reel in the fish.

Repeat steps 1 through 5 until you have all you want.

Bluegill beds are just as easy to find. Look for their beds in flat areas where aquatic plants are sparse near the shore. If the waters you're fishing have no plants, the fish still may be close to the shore. You usually find bluegill beds just a little deeper than the redears.

Almost any manmade structure holds bream. Docks, boat ramps, wood, rocky banks, riprap and vertical structures like bridge pilings come to mind. Look around for these and similar structures, especially if your lake doesn't have downed trees and stumps.


The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency manages 18 lakes designed especially for wholesome family fishing. Ten of the lakes lie in West Tennessee and range from 87 to 560 acres and the other eight are in Middle Tennessee ranging from 12 to 325 acres.

Open year-round, some lakes have concessionaires who offer bait, tackle, food, and beverages. Most lakes have wheelchair accessible fishing piers, easy access to bank fishing, boat rentals, launching ramps and picnic areas. You can find a complete list of lakes, locations and directions on the TWRA Web site at, or in the Tennessee Fishing Guide.


Creel Clerk Patrick Johnson of the TWRA grew up fishing and guiding on Reelfoot Lake in Tennessee's northwest corner. When targeting bluegills on "Earthquake Lake" he anchors his boat among numerous stumps and trees, but not just any stumps or trees.

"Rosebushes growing from cypress trees and stumps are the best places to catch the bigger bluegills," Johnson said. "May and June are the best months here, but I prefer June after the crowds leave the lake. Bluegills are still easy to catch around the trees and stumps because they spawn into August. And the last couple of years have been very good for bluegills."

He added that there are not many shellcrackers in Reelfoot.

The day in May that Doug Markham and I pulled up to the ramp to meet Johnson to catch bream, the wind was blowing fiercely. It was flipping lily pads over and waves of foam raced across the surface. We had no doubt that the trip would be cancelled.

Johnson convinced us that the wind would not be a problem. He piloted his boat into an area congested with trees and where the wind was only a whisper.

According to Johnson, one sure way to locate 'gills is to look for a pattern of bubbles on the surface about the size of a bathtub. Biologists haven't studied this, but he suspects the bubbles aren't coming from their mouth because their air bladder does not connect with it. His best guest is that the bluegills are releasing air trapped in the bottom during the process of making a bed.

We had roses and we had bubbles next to the wood. What else did we need? We needed a way to catch them.

Following Johnson's lead, we put on 1/16-ounce jigs baited with wax worms, along with a couple of small split shots and a float about 3 feet above the jig. With 10-foot graphite poles with fly rod reels holding 6- or 8-pound-test line we caught 'gills and a lot of them.


Shellcracker and bluegill abound in Kentucky Lake. This is the place to find gobs of redears. I've fished with guide Bob Latendresse for many years and he has yet to fail to put me on big shellcrackers.

We use spinning tackle, light wire, No. 4 to 6 hooks on light line. Sometimes we put a float on and other times we let our nightcrawlers rest on the bottom.

From New Johnsonville north, Kentucky Lake is wide with feeder streams, backwaters, and better shellcracker habitat.

Tim Broadbent, fisheries biologist in TWRA Region I, reported that the redears were the third most abundant bream collected by number and weight. A creel census showed anglers pursuing the sunfish spent 17,106 hours on the reservoir. Sixty-five percent of the sunfish kept were bluegills and 34 percent were shellcrackers. Of the shellcrackers caught, 98 percent were kept, and the areas with the highest numbers were from New Johnsonville north to Big Sandy River.

There are many places along Kentucky Lake's backwater where you and your family can fish.

To book a day of bream fishing with Bob Latendresse, call (731) 220-0582.


Larry Bell spends a few days each spring devoted to catching redears.

"Finding spring shellcrackers is easy. We usually start fishing for them the first week or two of May. We don't have to search for them because we know they're always going to be in the same location every year," he said.

The reservoir's many coves and sloughs provide ideal habitat for bedding shellcracker.

"If I find trees overhanging the water and creating a little bit of shade, I know I have a good chance of locating a shellcracker bed," Bell noted.

He uses ultralight equipment with either a cricket or a worm on his hook and fishes 4 to 5 feet deep under a slip bobber.

"A good 12-inch shellcracker is not difficult to catch on this lake," Bell offered. "I can catch more fish than I can eat or care to clean.

"If action ceases, don't give up on a bed. Sometimes I sit in one spot, catch a half dozen fish and all of a sudden, they quit hitting. When this happens I move to another spot. After everything has gotten calm again, I move back to catch more fish from the first hole."


"Douglas is the best bluegill lake in East Tennessee by a wide, wide margin," Floyd Coffey emphasized. "On average, I catch them bigger than my hand."

Coffey has fished Douglas Lake for decades and he knows where to find bluegill beds.

"I have found lots of them on clean shale points," he said. "When I'm searching for a new bed, I look at the bank to get an idea of what the bottom is like. If the bank doesn't have many trees or bushes, I know there is a good chance bluegill are bedding nearby."

Clean banks in short hollows or pockets attract bedding bluegill. Many fish nest 6 to 12 feet deep, although they are sometimes shallower, especially in May.

"I have sat in one spot and caught 100 big bluegill," the angler pointed out.

Coffey catches bedding bluegill from the first full moon in May through September. He favors retrieving crickets on a slow tight line.

"I walk my bait right over their bed. I let it go to the bottom and then reel it a foot or so above a bed, just like I do when I'm crappie fishing. I reel it about 4 feet, let my cricket fall to the bottom, reel it some more and let it fall again."

Worms work fine, but Coffey favors crickets. He uses a spinning outfit spooled with gold line, ties on a No. 6 hook and places a No. 6 split shot about a foot above the bait. He crimps the hook's barb so it's easy to remove a bluegill quickly.


Moon-watching bream anglers don't all agree on which phase is the harbinger of bedding bream — some claim it's the new moon. It hardly matters. You can count of May being the first month for busting bream in Tennessee.

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