None of my fishing experiences take me back to my childhood like bluegill fishing. As it turns out, bluegill are just one of many narrow, deep bodied species of panfish that fall into a category known locally as bream. Catching any of the bream varieties provides great family fun.
I was reminded of my childhood fun during a recent writers camp in West Volusia County, Florida where the waters of the St. Johns River holds plenty of aggressive and hungry panfish. A drive to central Florida to visit the area and its abundant fish and flora is always a trip to remember.
The occasion was made possible by crappie fishing pro, Whitey Outlaw. The West Volusia Tourism Advertising Authority hosted the event at Hontoon Landing near Deland. Crappies were one species on the agenda, but plenty of attention was given to the outstanding population of bream that inhabit the St. Johns River.
The scientist at Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC) identify bream as a local term for panfish belonging to the sunfish family. According to the FWC website, “The most common of these are bluegill, redear sunfish (shellcracker), redbreast sunfish, spotted sunfish (stumpknocker) and warmouth.” All of these varieties can be found in the West Volusia waters of the St. Johns River. Regardless of which ones you catch, bream fishing is fun fishing.
It doesn’t get much simpler or more fun than watching a bobber go down from a hungry bluegill and it doesn’t take sophisticated equipment to enjoy it. Outlaw uses his own signature series rod from B’n’M Poles. He named it the “Double Duty,” because it is just as effective on crappie as it is on bream.
The day we fished the river we rigged the Double Duty with 10-pound test Vicious Fishing Line, a number 4 bream hook from TTI Blakemore, a split shot and a small bobber. Outlaw’s favorite bait is a cricket, and that’s what we were using. Outlaw is quick to point out, however, that bream will readily hit earthworms and grass shrimp too.
The Double Duty doesn’t require a reel; it is more like fishing a cane pole. With no reel on the pole the line is run through the tip guide and knotted to a tiedown on the blank. Make the line about a foot longer than the pole so it can be flipped around from spot to spot.
The main thing about the pole is weight. “You are gonna’ have a pole in your hand all day,” prompts Outlaw as he flips the bait toward the St. Johns River shoreline. The Double Duty is light and you can fish all day without getting tired.”
We caught bream all along the river casting toward the edge of thick grasses and lily pads. Anytime there was an opening or notch in the edge of the cover or a fallen tree extending out into the river the bite was better. The bream appeared to like the wood in the mix and those spots would often yield multiple fish. If a bite did not come fairly quickly Outlaw would simply raise the pole to retrieve the offering and flip the rig to a different spot.
The St. Johns River in West Volusia has numerous run-arounds where you leave the main channel and find slower moving water. Often times these run-arounds are where the bream spawn.
Outlaw uses four basic principles while searching for spawning bream. “I go by smell, bubbles on the surface, water clarity and water movement to find the bream. I only need to find one of these factors, but when I find a combination of two or more I know it is gonna’ be good.”
Bedding bream produce a smell as they lay and fertilize the eggs. “It is a plain old fishy smell, that’s exactly what it is, a strong fishy smell,” comments Outlaw. “Find the smell and you’ve found the bream.”
The next thing he looks for are bubbles on the surface. “The bream will make bubbles, but not all the time. It’s just when the bucks are fanning the beds. Little bubbles come up to the surface where they look like soapsuds floating on the water. When you see the bubbles the males are in there fanning the bed and stirring them up. It is easy to see those bubbles, and you know you are gonna’ catch some.”
Outlaw will stand up in the boat and check the water clarity. “If the water is stained from the males fanning the beds, I look for the muddiest spots. That is where the beds are. If the beds are already fanned out the water is clearer and you can see the actual beds.” He warns anglers of that possibility. “Clear water fish are spookier and need to be approached with stealth.”
Finally, Outlaw looks for water movement. “I call it nervous water and it is a clear indication that fish are present,” explains Outlaw. “If the bed is real active you can see the water moving in the area. Those fish are working and making ripples on the water. That movement is the perfect target to cast the cricket to.”
Outlaw’s final tip is to get the fish out quickly. “You need to lift that fish up and out of the bed quick to keep from spooking the other fish. When the fish on the line is moving and running in circles it will scare the other fish off the bed. You gotta’ get em’ out of the water as quick as you can, that way you have a chance for bigger numbers. That is why I developed the Double Duty with a strong backbone.”
Casting bait to bream is not the only way to catch them. TJ Stallings, a near 50-year veteran of the fishing tackle industry, has a passion for catching bream, especially coppernose bluegill, on Road Runners.
Stallings instructs anglers on how to present the Road Runner in woody areas on his blog page. “Try to tap the tree with your Road Runner when you cast. A perfect cast has a ‘tink-bloop’ sound. It’s like a rim-shot.” Complete the presentation with a slow and even retrieve. “The best lure colors are black, red, yellow, and just about any color that is opaque.”
“Some of the best bream fishing is during the spawn,” continues Stallings. “While the Coppernose bluegill can be caught anytime, peak season is the full moons of March, April, and May in central Florida.” Stallings should know, because he has been a student of the coppernose critters from way back when he worked in Orlando at his dad’s tackle shop. Old timers to the area will remember Tim’s Tackle Box as the go-to shop for fishing tackle.
Stallings recommends fine wire Aberdeen hooks when using worms and crickets. “I’d start with a size four or the smaller size six,” advises Stallings. “If you are losing bait too often, go down a hook size.”
Access to the St Johns River is easy. There are numerous parks and boat ramps that give anglers access for shoreline fishing or angling from a boat. For more information visit the West Volusia website.
Bream fishing is a family friendly adventure. It’s not only rewarding from a sporting point of view, but it will also put some fine eating on the dinner table. I highly recommend putting the family in the car and hittin’ the road for the river. It could not be simpler. Once you are there just follow the river and its run-arounds. After all, that’s where the bream are.
Epilogue: Writers camps like Outlaw’s are conducted all over the U.S in support of the fishing industry. Supported by a host of sponsors, they bring together product manufacturers, outdoor writers, TV hosts, Internet bloggers and professional anglers all to the encouragement of recreational fishing. The journalistic efforts that result help to educate the general public on the wonders and joys of fishing.
The Whitey Outlaw 2015 St. Johns River Writers Camp was sponsored by B’n’M Poles, Rockport Rattler, War Eagle Boats, Driftmaster Rod Holders, Midsouth Tackle, Minnkota / Humminbird, TTI Blakemore, Vicious Line, Hydra Force/Lucus Marine Products, Yeti Coolers, Hontoon Landing, and West Volusia Tourism.