Bluegill or redear? Cricket or worm? Wet fly or dry?
Cane pole or jig pole? Fly rod or spinning rod?
Creek or lake? Reservoir or farm pond?
For such a simple sport, fishing for bream is full of choices, so many, in fact, that it could be considered a reason why so many Mississippi sportsmen, women, kids, moms, dads, grandpas and grandmas are hooked.
It appeals to all, regardless of ability.
Truth be told, there is one ultimate decision a bream fisherman will have to make, and behind it lies the biggest motivation for chasing the little panfish.
Fillets or whole?
“A fish fry, that’s what it is all about for me and my family, eating bream,” said Charles Dawkins of Jackson. “I don’t care whether it’s a bluegill or a chinquapin — aka redear or shellcracker. I don’t care what pole you use or whether it was caught on a cricket, a worm or something plastic.
“Just make sure you fry it up right, and let’s eat. To me, that’s what bream fishing is all about. Nothing like a nice mess of ’em, either beheaded, gutted and scaled or filleted off the bone, deep-fried to a crispy perfection — the way my grandma did it — dipped in buttermilk and dragged through stone-ground cornmeal with salt and a lot of black pepper.”
And, Dawkins said, “It is so much better when you caught them yourself, cleaned them and then cooked them the same day.”
There is a sense of satisfaction that can only be understood by the legions of us who go in search of bream, especially when bluegills are on the bed around the new and full moon phases. It peaks in May.
We spend hours watching corks or tight lines, swatting away mosquitoes and gnats, chasing away snakes and turtles that would steal a quick meal, handling worms or crickets and having fish pee on us — yeah, you know you’ve been squirted.
Then, we spend another hour or two at a cleaning table, either running a fillet knife to carefully remove the white flesh cleanly, or scaling fish with a big spoon or other tool, and then wielding a sharp knife to remove the heads and entrails.
Finally, we get to fire up the grease, ring the dinner bell and feast. Sides of slaw or a pot of greens, some hush puppies or cornbread, and, of course, ketchup and/or hot sauce round off the meal.
No dessert needed; there won’t be room.
A day worth living, that’s all that is. And May is perhaps the No. 1 month on the calendar for bream fishing. Let’s take a trip.
First choice: Where?
Any dinner plan involving bream must start with choosing a fishing hole. In Mississippi, there are so many options available, but obviously, some people will have more, and they work hard to that end.
“It’s funny, but in the spring, the most-popular people in our congregation are the members who have stock ponds or have a direct connection to a stock pond — like kin,” said Dawkins, a part-time preacher. “Before I had my own pond, I used the church and family and extended family connections to wrangle an invitation, and that’s how I tell people to start. You have to network your way into a lake.
“I know there’s a lot of good public fishing holes out there, some great ones for bream, too, but there is nothing better than a small farm pond that has been stocked with bream. No pressure. No butting heads. Just take a chair, some bait, some poles, some gear, some drinks and snacks — and a box to put the fish in. If they’re not biting in one place, move to another. Sooner or later, you will hit the jackpot, especially in May when they are bedding. If you can catch one, you generally can catch 20 or 30 in a spot.”
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks offers an outstanding list of bream holes through its state lakes and state parks systems. These are scattered throughout the state, with the exception of the Delta, where the Mississippi River floods too often to establish and manage a lake. Otherwise, a state lake is within an hour’s drive on anyone in Mississippi, and the best bream holes are located in all corners.
Up north, there’s Tippah County Lake near Ripley, Lake Lamar Bruce near Tupelo and Lake Monroe near Aberdeen.
In the east, there’s Kemper County Lake near Dekalb, Lake Tom Bailey at Toomsuba, Neshoba County Lake near Philadelphia, and Lake Claude Bennett near Bay Springs.
In central Mississippi, there’s Calling Panther Lake near Crystal Springs, Roosevelt State Park near Morton, Lake Lincoln State Park near Wesson, and Simpson Legion Lake between Magee and Mendenhall.
In south Mississippi, choose between Lake Perry near Beaumont, Prentiss Walker Lake near Mize, Lake Mike Connor at Collins, and Johnson State Park near Brooklyn.
At most of those sites, bank-fishing opportunities are endless. When building fish attractors, the MDWFP always considers non-boaters.
Other entities have great bream fishing holes, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Pat Harrison Waterway District.
“As good as those are, it would be ridiculous to not mention the fishing holes that Mother Nature provided,” Ronnie Parker of Vicksburg said. “The Delta is full of oxbow lakes famous for bass, catfish and crappie, but honestly, they are first and foremost the best bream fishing holes anywhere. I’d put Eagle Lake, Chotard, Albermarle, Tennessee Chute and Lake Washington against any lake, anywhere, for bream.
“Especially in May — if the river is stable — I can’t tell you how many thousands of hand-sized and thick bluegills my family has taken out of Chotard and Albermarle over the past century. My great-granddaddy taught my grandfather, who taught my dad, who taught my brothers and me. I bet we have drowned a million crickets in those waters.”
Bait: Crickets or worms?
Due to the “yuck” factor, crickets are usually the bait of choice of most bream aficionados. In the words of the prettiest bream fishermen ever — my late mother, worms are just “too yucky to touch.”
But then again, there are two kinds of cricket fishermen: those who have had a cricket jump in their mouths and those that will have a cricket jump in their mouths … or down a shirt, or get lost in a woman’s big hairdo, or down a bra (my Mom literally turned our boat over one time).
In May, there’s a biological reasoning other than “yucky” to choose crickets over worms. It is in this month that the bluegill bedding (spawning) cycle hits its first peak, and bluegills are readily caught on crickets.
“I have absolutely no scientific evidence to support it, but I think bluegills feed up, meaning they are looking up,” said Joe Watts of Canton. “I catch more bedding bluegills by using a cork to hold my cricket between 6 inches and a foot off the bottom. When they are bedding, that works so quickly that I can set the hook and remove the fish from the bedding area faster so as not to disturb the other bream on the bed.
“If I find there are chinquapins in the area — and you do a lot in April and May when their bedding periods overlap — then I might switch to a worm. Chinquapins are more bottom-feeders. One of their nicknames in south Mississippi is shellcracker, because they have the capability of picking up snails and other shelled critters off the bottom and crushing them.”
Watts said that when a bed is really hot in May, especially two or three days either side of the full moon, he often catches bluegills and redears together and that both will take a cricket.
At the other end of the spectrum, rarely will one find Wiley Thomas of Brandon with anything other than earthworms in his boat.
“Bream are a lot like catfish in one respect,” Thomas said. “They both are adept at smelling out their food. I think bream feed as much by smell as they do anything, and if you’ve ever smelled your fingers after a day of putting worms on hooks, then you know they stink.
“It doesn’t matter whether I’m tight-lining on the bottom without a cork or whether I’m using a float to keep the bait up off the bottom, I use a worm. They can smell it and find it, and if they do that, they’ll eat it.”
Thomas has another reason why he prefers worms — cost.
“I know it sounds crazy, because if you’re buying worms, they’re really more expensive than crickets,” he said. “But I don’t buy them; I grow them at home and dig up my own bait. I got five worm beds, each about three yards square, that I have tended to for the past 10 years. I’m a landscaper so I always had compost piles and I found that the piles would attract and hold worms. Voila! I did a little research and found that if I started beds with some store-bought worms, they’d go to work reproducing.
“After that first year of leaving them alone, and adding paper and the usual compost stuff, I have never had to restock my worm beds again. I can to out there in the shady spots I picked, turn a few spades of dirt and I get enough worms to fish all day.”
Ken Merritt of Madison has his own source of worms, at least part of the year.
“I have four catalpa trees, which means that I get a lot of catalpa worms,” Merritt said. “They are the best bream bait, hands down, and they last. The secret is breaking off just a small piece, and learning how to use the hook to turn the worm inside out as you push it on. That one piece will last a while and by turning its insides out, the smell is stronger.”
Merritt said he picks enough of the strikingly pretty, chartreuse worms when available to freeze some, to be thawed later and used when the trees are bare.
“You have to take them before they go to cocoon stage,” he said. “After that, they are worthless other than the moths they become are what lays the eggs that produce the next year’s batch.”
Poles: Cane or graphite?
Most of us started fishing with cane poles, 12 to 14 feet of pre-rigged and pre-arched poles from the bait shop, and many still depend on these economically friendly tools that already have line, bobber, weight and hook.
“I still use cane poles, but the first thing I do is cut all of that line and other stuff off and replace it,” Merritt said. “I think they use at least 20-pound test line, and no telling how long it has been on the pole.
“I use nothing more than 10-pound line, and I prefer 8-pound if I can find it. I use enough that I have at least 1½ times the line than the length of the pole. Gives me more length to reach further out and also enough that if I break off a hook, I can re-tie and still have plenty of line. Then, I put on a Styrofoam float, a small split-shot and a No. 8 long-shank hook. I like the length of the shank to help remove the fish from the hook.”
Watts, a cricket man, likes an offset short-shank No. 6 or even No. 8.
“I get more bites off the short-shank hook because they can’t see it; a cricket can pretty much hide a small hook,” he said. “I also convert more bites into catches. The offset hook just works better for me, and I have no problem reaching in with needlenose pliers to retrieve one if it goes deep.
“One thing I don’t like is a gold hook; it’s too flashy. Same thing with a silver-toned hook. I want a brown hook or a red hook. The brown matches the cricket and the red, well, I read somewhere that it triggers a reaction from predator fish, and I read somewhere else that fish don’t see red. I don’t know about all that, but I do know red hooks work.”
Watts hasn’t used a cane pole in decades. He changed to a B’n’M Buck’s Graphite Jig Pole about 20 years ago, is still using the same one and has added to his stable.
“I use the 11-footer, and my original one didn’t have a true reel seat, so I just have one of those plastic reels on it to strip line with my hand,” he said. “It’s great for when I am fishing close. My go-to bream stick is a newer Buck’s Graphite Jig Pole that has a reel seat for an ultra-light spinning reel. I put the lightest, decent-quality reel I could find on it and put on 6-pound line. I have the 11-foot length for pole-fishing, but I have the capability of casting 30, 40, or even 50 feet without much effort.”
The casting difference can be crucial when trying to keep one’s distance from the bedding area.
“I got grandkids I fish with, so noise can be a problem,” Watts said. “I can hold further off the bed, reach it and still have the fun of fighting a bream back to the bank or the boat with a lightweight graphite pole.”
Casting a long pole can be problematic and takes practice, but B’n’M is among many companies that now make shorter, 6- and 8-foot jig poles with reel seats. This writer’s favorite pole is an 8-foot B’n’M pole that allows easy casting and fun fighting with any-sized fish.
Eating: Whole or fillets?
Watts puts his electric knife to work and fillets everything he catches. Thomas is just the opposite, getting rid of only the scales, heads and guts.
“I do fillets because I feed so many children fish,” Watts said. “I don’t want them dealing with bones. I am fortunate enough to live on a lake and have access to others that have big bream. If it isn’t big enough to fillet with a knife, then I toss it back.”
Those are words completely lost on Dawkins.
“It’s not blasphemy, but it’s pretty close,” he said. “I love to eat the whole fish, especially the crunchy tails and even the fins from small fish. I came by it naturally. Before he died, Dad told me to keep all the big fish and bring him only the small ones. He would take a 3- or 4-inch fish, knock the scales off, cut off the head and remove the guts and fry it until it was nearly as crisp as a potato chip and then eat it, bones and all. Give him about five or six of them, and he was set.
“But if we get into the big bream, and we usually do, then I will fillet a bunch for feeding the kids. By kids, I mean people from babies up to 40 years old. I’m 72, and my generation learned to eat whole fish. We didn’t waste much of anything. Kids today, they like it easy, but they don’t know what they’re missing by just eating fillets.”
Watts agrees with one aspect of the newer generation’s disconnect with bream fishing.
“Bream fishing is a lot like small-game hunting,” Watts said. “Fewer and fewer children are learning to squirrel hunt and go straight to deer hunting. Kids see so much about bass fishing and even marsh fishing for reds and specks, and that’s all they want to do from the start. They want to cast and reel and catch something big.
“I hate that, and I make sure that each of my grandchildren learn to bream fish and appreciate it. The bedding period in May sure makes that easier, because the one thing that will catch and keep a child’s attention is action, and when the bluegill bite is on, it’s non-stop. They’ll get hooked.”