Plop! The first cast of a worm-filled hook, sinker and small cork hit the shallow water of the Old Natchez Trace Lake at Trace State Park with a light sound.
The Styrofoam float wiggled a few times as the tackle and worm wad beneath it fluttered down toward the bottom, finally settling for a millisecond before ….
The little bobber was jerked under the water with a much more audible sound. I jerked back on the ultra-light spinning rod to set the hook, and the drag gears inside the small reel immediately let out a high-pitched squeal as it yielded line.
“Oh, man, this was sure worth the wait,” I told my fishing buddies. “Look at that fish go.”
The fish on the other end of the line circled left and then back right, while I tried to keep it out of the bed we’d found about an hour earlier.
We’d been searching for spawning bass and saw the dimpled bottom of a bream bed. It sent us racing back to the truck for a trip to a bait shop and to re-outfit the boat with bream gear.
“Who’s winning — you or the fish?” joked Larry Pugh, now the fisheries director for the Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks but who at the time was the biologist for the agency’s Northeast Region. “You going to get that fish in the boat?”
The 4-pound line was put to the test, but slowly it and the B&M 8-foot pole tuckered out the fish. I brought it to the side the boat, where Brian Broom landed it in the net.
“Hey, that’s a redear,” Broom shouted, surprised it wasn’t a bluegill. “And, it’s a big redear. Holy cow, what a bream!”
Broom lifted the fish over the side of the boat and dropped it, net and all, on the deck just in time to pick up his rod and keep it from flying out of the boat.
He saved the pole and set the hook all in one motion.
“Got one,” he said. “Another good one.”
No more than an hour later, we had worn out our welcome in the small cove, the bottom of which looked like the cover of a golf ball with so many dimples.
We kept 32 redear, all of them bigger than I could hold on my palm. Keeping only filleting-sized fish, we tossed several back.
We put the 32 on a stringer for pictures, and then went to the scales — which tagged out at 34 pounds.
“Over a pound per fish average,” said Pugh, who earlier tried to talk us out of the switch from bass to bream until we let him use one of the ultra-lights to enjoy the action. “Man, that’s pretty good,
“I have to admit, that was fun,” he said.
“Well, wait until you eat them,” Broom said. “That’s even more fun.”
That was more than a decade ago, back when I was outdoor editor for “The Clarion-Ledger,” the job Broom now has with the Jackson newspaper. We still talk about it like it was yesterday.
It was in the middle of one of our annual 10-day trips around Mississippi, during which we fished each day for a popular special section in the paper we called “Week on the Water” (it began as a week, but we eventually stretched it to about 15 days because we could and get away with it).
That success at Trace State Park at Pontotoc caused us to shift gears completely. Instead of fishing for bass at Pickwick Lake the next day, we headed 50 miles west to Ripley to fish for even bigger redear.
Pugh was to blame.
“You know, if you like redear, you really ought to go to Ripley,” the biologist told us. “That’s where the state record for redear came from, and it’s full of big bream.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if you catch bigger ones there.”
So, we headed about 50 miles east of Trace State Park at Pontotoc to fish at Tippah County Lake at Ripley.
Weather cut the trip short, but not before I pulled out the biggest bream I’d ever caught — a 1 1/2-pound redear — off one of the lake’s shallow man-made fish attractors.
Ever since, I’ve been hooked on redear, and I have found other fishermen over the years who share that passion and are expert at finding them.
Joe Watts of Canton is one of the redear’s biggest fans. He calls them chinqs, and he reaches out to me every April when they hit the bed on his 60-acre subdivision lake in Madison County.
“I’d much rather catch a chinq than a bluegill, and you know how much I love bluegill,” Watts said. “The chinqs just fight harder, and they do get just a little bigger than bluegills. But, the window for catching them bedding is much smaller than it is for bluegills, which we can do from May through August.
“(Readear) also bed much earlier, usually a month before the bluegills move up in mass. That usually means April, but it has been as early as the last week in March when there’s a full moon around then or if we have an early spring. Once they move up on the beds, they stay for about a month.”
The male redear will stay and guard the eggs and then the fry before returning to deeper water.
“Most years, we can still catch a few chinqs around the bluegill beds when the bluegills are first spawning,” Watts said. “That will last a few weeks, and then it’s just bluegill after that into the summer months.
“The big chinqs go back to deep water.”
Catching them after they leave the shallows requires a change in tactics.
“I can still catch them, but I switch to big globs of nightcrawlers on a hook, and I move to the end of the pier and cast as far as I can toward the middle of the lake,” Watts said. “They will be right on the bottom.
“That is another difference between the chinqs and bluegill. Chinqs are bottom dwellers, while bluegill will suspend more in the middle of the water column when they aren’t bedding.”
Because redear are bottom feeders, fishermen usually shy away from using crickets and switch to worms.
“I rarely use crickets or bobbers when I’m fishing for shellcracker,” said Ocean Springs’ James Fuller, who enjoys chasing the fish on the upper Pascagoula River basin. “I fish right on the bottom, tight-lining, and I usually use either red worms, nightcrawlers or — when I can find them — catalpa worms.
“They are very good at finding food by smell, kind of like a catfish, so I like to put a few lines in the water in the same area and saturate an area.”
The only time he moves away from worms is when redears are spawning.
“Now, if I find an active bed on them either in late March or April, I might switch to a cricket and fish it right on the bottom,” Watts said. “It’s quicker to re-bait a hook with a cricket, and if they’re bedding they will hit anything that settles down into their bed.”
A key difference between his approach to catching bedding redear and bedding bluegill is that Fuller will not use a bobber for the former.
“I think a bait sitting still on the bottom is the key to catching shellcracker,” he said. “A bobber can put some action on the bait, either because of wind or waves pushing it on the surface; I catch more (redear) by letting it sit tight on the bottom.”
He also wants to offer more bait to the fish.
“I use an offset hook, either a No. 8 or a No. 10, and I try to find ones with longer shanks so I can use a lot of worm,” Fuller said.
His choice of line depends on where he’s fishing.
“When I’m down in the estuary, where the water is full of things that are unkind to fishing line, I will use 10-pound braid tied to a small, size 10 Spro swivel with about a foot of 4-pound monofilament or fluorocarbon line,” Fuller said. “If I’m up in clear, fresh water, I stick primarily to just the mono or fluorocarbon line.
“I use just as much weight as is necessary to get the worm and hook to the bottom and keep it there, which means in tidal waters in the estuary, I use twice as much as I do in still waters.”