Our How to Catch series continues with a feature on bream fishing and tips on Alabama Power lakes.
It takes a lot of bream to make a meal, but fishing for them makes for an exciting day on the lake.
Dwayne Keel takes his foot off his trolling motor control and lets his Ranger bass boat glide forward on the still water. Just before it comes to a halt, he flips the bail on his ultralight spinning reel and casts toward a log protruding out of the water at the shoreline.
Keel watches the little orange and white bobber and eases it toward him with a couple of turns on the reel handle. Suddenly, the cork slips under the water and a smile cracks Keel’s bearded face as he pulls back on the rod and cranks the fish toward his boat. A moment later he pulls a brightly colored bluegill out of the water and drops it into the Ranger’s live well.
“I like bream fishing because anybody can do it,” Keel said as his boat drifted on the peaceful waters of Yates Lake on a late afternoon in May. “I like to expose kids to bream fishing. It’s not a hard fish to catch. It makes for an exciting day of nonstop action.
“It doesn’t require a lot of expensive tackle. You don’t have to have a big boat. You can just catch fish and enjoy it.”
Keel typically puts down his bass tackle and picks up his ultralight bream rigs when the weather heats up and the bass start to shut down. He looks for a water temperature of about 80 degrees.
Working as a contractor for Alabama Power’s Shoreline Management Team on Martin, Yates and Thurlow lakes, Keel knows the water well. Yates, a 2,000-acre impoundment sandwiched between Martin and Thurlow, is a hidden gem. It features two boat landings, one at the dam and one at Coon Creek, said Clint McKelvey, who works in Shoreline Management.
“I come down here to do surveillance and sometimes I don’t see a boat all day long,” Keel said.
Today’s quarry is bream, although Yates’ cold water also offers good fishing for stripers as well as largemouth and spotted bass. Unlike Martin, which is lowered 7 feet for its winter pool, Yates fluctuates fairly often but little more than a foot at a time, Keel said. The fish hardly notice that and the steady water level allows them to stay in the same locations.
Keel is primarily targeting two sunfish or bream species, bluegill and red-eared sunfish. The latter is better known to Alabama anglers as shellcracker. He alternates between red worms and crickets as bait.
He is using open-faced ultralight reels on 5-foot flexible ultralight rods with 4-pound test line. Both are rigged with slip corks that allow him to vary the depth at which he fishes.
The cricket rod has a round cork and a long-shaft No. 10 hook with no weight. The hook is about 18 inches behind the cork. With no weight, the cricket floats on top of the water behind the cork.
“When I get in the real shallow areas, I throw a cricket without a weight on it,” Keel said. “That keeps me from getting caught on the brush.”
The crickets are a deadly attraction for bedding or spawning bream. Depending on the weather and water temperature, bream begin spawning in late April or May around the full moon. The fish use their tails like a fan to brush clean an area on the lake bottom about the size of a dinner plate. The areas look like dark circles to an angler in a boat.
During spawning, the fish hang out around their beds and anglers can often see them. A good pair of polarized sunglasses can be helpful.
“That’s where the cricket comes in,” Keel said. “You throw it in there and the cricket floats over them and they can’t resist it.”
Bream typically bed in shallow sandy areas with overhanging trees, Keel said. But unlike many anglers, Keel doesn’t depend on finding bedding bream. That’s where he uses the weighted worm, set about 3 feet below the cork. He uses it with a No. 10 short shank hook with a small split shot for weight to probe deeper water.
“If you’re depending on bed fishing, you have to do a lot of looking around,” Keel said. “I know the fish are going to bite. I like to drop the trolling motor and go at it. A bream will not fail you.”
Unless he finds a bed, which can sometime produce 20 or 30 fish, Keel prefers to stay on the move. Finding bream when they aren’t spawning requires Keel to “hunt and peck” along the banks.
“I look for shade and laydowns — trees in the water, cover,” Keel said. “A bream finds a place it can hide and also feed.”
The shade means overhanging trees. The fish prey on bugs and various kinds of grubs and worms that fall from the trees into the water where bream snap them up. Among the best natural baits are larvae that can be robbed from wasp nests, Keel said.
“If you’ve got that natural grub action, squirming in the water, they can’t stand it,” he said.
In addition to trees, bream like the shade of boathouses and docks, any place where insects and other small creatures might fall into the water. They are opportunistic feeders and their strike instinct is triggered by sight.
“That’s what they think the cricket is, something that fell out of a tree,” he said. “They attack anything that hits the water. They may be small but they have big appetites.”
In addition to being predators, bream are also prey. Keel has to move quietly to avoid spooking them.
“They’re nervous fish,” he said. “They’re not on the bottom of the food chain but they are close to it.”
Keel casts toward brush in the water and takes the slack out of his line. Then he eases the bait slowly back toward the boat in small intervals, pausing for a few seconds along the way.
Keel usually fishes the east bank early in the morning, with the rising sun casting shadows onto the water. As the sun shifts to the west in the afternoon, he fishes the west bank.
On a good morning or afternoon of fishing, he believes it’s reasonable to expect a stringer of 20 keepers — more if he hits a good bed. That’s more than enough for a meal for most families.
While bream are small — some grow up to a pound on Yates — and bony, they are good table fare. Keel scales, heads and guts them, coats them in a little cornmeal and deep-fries them whole. Then he just picks the meat away from the bones and enjoys the sweet, white flesh.
“It’s a relaxing kind of fishing,” Keel said. “It’s not a have-to-catch-them tournament type thing. You just take the kids, go fishing and enjoy.”
– Robert DeWitt