Intently scanning his electronics, the angler maneuvered his boat offshore to scrutinize every patch of bottom, looking for just the right cover in the depths below. “Bingo!” he exclaimed, tossing a yellow marker over the side so he could maintain contact with the honey hole in open water. “This is where we’ll find the really big ones.” Putting the hook through a live bait, he dropped it over the side and let it sink until the weight smacked the bottom. Then, he jigged it up and down a little before setting the hook.
"Got him," he said as his rod bent double. "Big one, too! This one might even break a pound."
While most bream anglers pound shorelines, docks and weed beds, they might literally turn their backs on some of the best action. In deeper waters, monster bream — by panfish standards — might live out their days without ever seeing hooks.
"Most people think that after the spring spawn ends, bream leave; they don’t bother to fish for them again until the following spring," said Darrel Van Vactor, a professional angler, guide and fishing-tournament promoter. "In deeper water, big bream see little pressure because so few people fish deep for bluegills.
"It’s an under-utilized resource, but anglers usually catch bigger panfish in deep water than in the shallows. Bigger bluegill and shellcrackers stay in deeper water even during spawning season."
Although some bream remain deep all year long, really big panfish drop into holes and creek channels to escape baking summer heat from June through early October. The deeper holes also hold more comfortable temperatures during the winter, so where anglers find bream in July, they might find them again in January.
"I’ve caught big bluegills and shellcrackers all year long in deep water," Van Vactor said. "In fact, we usually catch our best fish after the spawn ends.
"After the spawn, anglers who move out to the river channel edges and fish around chunk rock, sunken stumps, brush piles or other cover usually catch fish."
Not as subject to the fickle whims of weather or waves, deep water remains more thermally stable throughout the year. Moreover, in a heavily traveled lake, waves from boat wakes pounding the shorelines can turn the shallows into chocolate milk and disrupt fishing activities.
"In lakes with heavy boat traffic, the wakes can mess up fishing along the shorelines," said Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler who also guides for panfish. "Shorelines get pounded so hard that many bigger, older, wiser panfish move out into the depths. Around the shorelines, we usually just catch smaller fish.
"I go out in the middle of the lake away from the boat traffic and normally catch bigger bluegills."
Before they can catch panfish, though, anglers must first find them.
Depending upon the lake, big bream might venture into water as deep as 50 feet, but most prefer water in the 12- to 25-foot range.
And just like in the shallows, bream congregate where they can find the right combination of oxygen, cover, food and comfortable water temperatures.
In the spring, most bream anglers look for beds in shallow flats and spot them visually. However, bigger bream frequently bed on the tops of long, sloping points that provide quick access to both shallow and deep water. They also bed on flats adjacent to creek channels, frequently hovering just over the drop-off edges when not guarding the beds.
"As water temperature rises, bream bed in deeper water," explained Mark Reynolds, an avid Caledonia bream fisherman. "It’s harder to find bream beds in deeper water because people can’t smell the beds, but bream bed all the way through the summer.
"In the summer, bream scatter, but in the winter, they stay more concentrated in deep water."
To find good bream concentrations in deep water, scan the lake bottom with guality electronics. With modern high-definition side-scan sonar units, anglers can see very detailed depictions of the lake bottom. Some units can even spot individual fish hovering over beds.
"People can catch all the 3-inch bream they want in shallow water, but bigger bream are in deeper water," Reynolds advised. "I use my electronics to look for deep ledges or something different on the bottom. I look for cutoffs and old creek channels.
"If it’s just a flat bottom with nothing on it, I’ll keep going."
Spots where creek channels hit main river channels often hold good bream. Fish often use such channels for navigation to and from shallow feeding or bedding flats.
Anglers also can look for weedy humps, brush piles, holes, rock piles, stumps, fallen logs or other cover. Gregarious fish, bream will cluster in large numbers around good cover and typically return to the same places and even the same beds every year.
Find them in July, and anglers can probably find them again in the same spot in January and the following July.
Even without a depth finder, anglers can often approximate where a creek channel might run by looking at the surrounding landscape. A creek running down between two hills doesn’t stop just because it hits the lake. Before the reservoir filled, that creek emptied into the main river channel, now likely in very deep water.
Anglers can eliminate most unproductive water by imagining where a creek channel might flow. After guessing the channel course, anglers with depth finders can conduct more-thorough searches to pinpoint drops.
Once anglers zero in on a panfish concentration, they can usually catch scores of tasty fish without moving very far. Pull one large bream from a deep hole, and anglers might quickly land a boatload from the same general area.
Fishing in deep water usually involves vertical jigging. Probably one of the simplest forms of fishing, drop a worm, cricket, catalpa worm — if available — small minnow or other morsel to the bottom and wait for a bite.
However, different anglers use various rigs to make their vertical presentations.
"In deep water, I use a tight line with a weight heavy enough to get to the bottom quickly," said Tunica’s Ed "Dawg" Weldon, who usually fishes Tunica Lake off the Mississippi River that can fluctuate widely with rising or falling river levels. "I put the weight 6 to 8 inches above the hook. Sometimes, I put the weight a foot or 2 above the hook.
"After the weight hits the bottom, the bait sinks more slowly. That gives bream a chance to see and smell the bait as it sinks. When they see the bait sinking, they’ll knock the fire out of it."
Reynolds goes extremely light. He uses 1-pound test line and attaches a 1/32-ounce jighead without a skirt to it. He can fish that rig as deep as 30 feet.
For deep fishing, he typically baits the jighead with a cricket, but sometimes uses a mealworm. Then, he adds a little extra enticement to the water to put fish into a feeding mood.
"I make something that I call a ‘bread popsicle,’" Reynolds explained. "I crumble up bread, pour water on it and freeze it. I’ll take several frozen popsicles and drop them over the side of the boat.
"As the ice thaws, it disperses bread over the water. The bread attracts little baitfish. Baitfish attracts bigger fish."
With bread popsicles melting in the water, fish might rise off the bottom to feed. So Reynolds starts with his bait on the bottom; if nothing happens there, he pulls the bait up a couple feet and stops. He keeps repeating this process, working his way up the water column until he determines where fish want to gather on that particular day.
"Most often, bream in deeper water feed right on the bottom, especially shellcrackers," Reynolds said. "Shellcrackers pick up snails and crustaceans off the bottom to eat. I can adjust my depth more accurately coming up than going down.
To target fish suspended off the bottom, some anglers use slip-bobber rigs. A weight pulls line through the slip bobber until it reaches bottom or a pre-determined depth while the strike indicator floats on the surface.
With a slip bobber, an angler can return to a specific depth quickly and easily.
Slip-bobber rigs work very effectively on sloping points or shorelines with varying depths. As the rig comes over deeper water, the weight pulls out more line to keep the bait in place. Adding a "bobber stopper" to the line helps control the depth by restricting how much line can slip through the bobber.
As a professional crappie angler, Baker often fishes with a spider rig after he determines the depth where fish suspend. He places eight 14- to 16-foot rods in holders around his boat bow so the entire system resembles a spider web. He attaches multiple baits to each line to fish different bait combinations at various levels.
With such a rig, Baker cuts a 30- to 40-foot swath through productive waters by slowly pushing forward with his trolling motor to follow creek channels or circle sunken brush piles. The rig works great for panfish, employing downsized bait selections.
"People can easily downsize their crappie-fishing techniques to catch bluegill or other panfish," Baker explained. "When bream fishing, instead of jigs and minnows, I just use Aberdeen hooks with crickets on 4- to 6-pound-test line. If I’m fishing in heavy cover, I may use stronger line.
"I generally fish about 14 to 16 feet deep with the baits just above the bottom."