Summer Panfish: Great Tips to Catch a Limit
Bream fishing in Arkansas waters during the summer offers a variety of panfish. Here’s where and how to catch these fun, small fish.
By Marshall Ford
Fishing live crickets under a bobber is the traditional way to catch bluegills during the summer, but it’s not the only way.
There are a lot of different ways to catch bream in hot weather, but the best fishing method depends on where bream are concentrated at any given time. When you find them, you’ll have to factor in habitat types, water depth, clarity and moon phase.
Sure, it takes some thought to make the decision, but the payoff is catching big messes of tasty panfish at a time when not much else is biting.
Bream fishing is a lot of fun, too, so rig up a couple of rods and help us unravel summer’s bream fishing puzzle. You’re sure to be glad you did.
WHAT ARE BREAM?
When anglers talk about bream fishing, they refer generically to an extended family of sunfish that inhabit Arkansas lakes, rivers and streams. The bluegill is the titular head of that family because it is our most abundant and easiest caught sunfish.
It has a short, deep, oval body and a short, wide tail. It is identifiable by the dark flap on its gill plate and inhabits virtually every kind of water in Arkansas.
The redear sunfish, also known as the shellcracker, looks similar to a bluegill, but it has broader shoulders and a red border on its ear flap. It inhabits darker, deeper and more tranquil waters than the bluegill.
The longear sunfish is the smallest of the group, but it can attain admirable sizes. It also is the most beautiful sunfish, with brilliant colors and an elongated ear flap, compared to the rounder ear flaps of the bluegill and redear. It thrives in the clear water of our upland creeks and rivers.
Rounding out this group is the green sunfish. Its body is not as deep from back to belly as the other sunfish, and it acts more like a bass than the others. The green sunfish is more solitary and lurks in shadows waiting to ambush prey. It strikes hard and fights hard, and a big one is a handful on ultralight spinning tackle or fly tackle.
From experience, I can tell you that the green sunfish is the most likely to revolt and drive a hook deep into your finger as you try to separate it from a battery of small treble hooks. The potential for this exchange is vast because a green sunfish will grab all kinds of lures when nothing else will.
During the summer, bluegills spawn on every full moon, which means the best times to catch them are within three days either side of the full moon.
In May and June, bluegills spawn in shallow water, which means you can catch them easily with crickets under a bobber. To catch the biggest fish and the biggest numbers, look for a spawning area on a flat or hump.
You’ll recognize a bream spawning area’s saucer-sized beds where the bull bluegills have fanned nests from the gravel. The biggest one I ever saw was in the Indian Creek arm of Beaver Lake, near Beaver Dam. It was so vast that it looked like a crater-pocked moonscape. There is no telling how many millions of bluegills spawn in that one area, but you can rest assured that the fry supply a lot of food for bass, crappie and other game fish.
Later in the summer, when the weather and water get hot, bluegills spawn in deeper, cooler water. In ponds and small lakes, that will be in the deepest holes that have gravel bottoms. That might only be 10 to 15 feet deep, but in big highland reservoirs, like Lake Ouachita, they might spawn at 30 feet.
Sidebar: Eating is the Best Part
With their firm white flesh and mild flavor, bream are delicious to eat and easy to prepare.
Bream are bony, and so we want to fillet them. The best filets come off a big, thick-shouldered fish.
Our favorite way to prepare them is to mix salt, black pepper, garlic and a small amount of cayenne pepper in cornmeal. Coat the filets and deep fry them until they are golden.
Bream also are delicious as ceviche.
To make ceviche, cut raw filets into small chunks and place in a bowl. Squeeze juice from a generous amount of limes over the chunks and mix in chopped green onions, diced green peppers and red peppers and any other veggies you like. I like to add chopped pecans to add a little crunch.
The lime juice will “cook” the bream in about 30 minutes, making a healthy, low-fat alternative to sushi.
The concoction makes a tasty dip that goes great with tortilla chips or crackers.
One reason we love fishing at Lake Ouachita is boating in for a lakeside meal at Mountain Harbor Resort or Shangri-La Resort. Bring your filleted bream to the restaurant, and they’ll fry them up and serve them to you with your choice of sides, salad and drinks.
Hugh Albright of Royal, one of the best-known bass guides in Arkansas, also is an accomplished bream fisherman. He said fishing deep is his favorite way to catch them.
“When I scuba-dived as a kid, I remember seeing those beds like you see in the pockets,” Albright said. “There were 40 or 50 of those in 25 to 30 feet off a hump or flat in June, July and August. They come off that shallow spawn in June, and we start fishing 10 to 12 feet deep around timber.
“As it goes into July, when you get into full moon, they’ll be out there 22 to 25 feet and on to 30 feet deep,” he continued. “You can catch them all the way through October like that.”
Albright uses crickets in deep water, but 20 to 30 feet is too deep to fish with bobbers. He fishes them on a tightline, or on a modified drop-shot.
“You can catch them on little grubs and plastic meal worms, but crickets are best because they are the cleanest and easiest to deal with,” Albright said. “They’re easy to keep alive as long as you keep them in the shade.”
To catch bluegills, you first must find them. Modern electronics help you find them faster.
“Electronics are pretty important,” Albright said. “You can see them on sidescan and downscan. They look like little lightbulbs, little dots of light.”
Once you find bluegills, catching them is fairly simple. First, you have to keep your boat positioned over the fish. Electronic graphs help with that, too. Then, it’s just a matter of getting your cricket to the bottom where the big bluegills are, but first you have to get your cricket past all the smaller bluegills hovering higher in the water column.
For that, Albright uses a No. 3 split shot about 8 to 10 inches above a No. 2 Eagle Claw, long-shank Aberdeen hook.
His rig consists of a 6- or 6 1/2-foot light-action spinning rod with a small Pflueger spinning reel spooled with 4- to 6-pound-test line.
“I think they bite that 4 (pound) a little better,” Albright said.
When the sinker reaches bottom, he reels up a bit so that the cricket hovers a few inches off the bottom. It takes a precise touch and some trial-and-error work to get down to the right depth consistently.
It’s not an issue with a drop-shot because the depth of the dropper line is pre-determined.
“You’ll catch bluegill and redears,” Albright said. “Some of them will be 8 to 10 inches long, and you’ll catch redears a pound to a pound and a half. Bluegills are not as big, but they’re big enough that you can’t get your hands around them.”
If you can stand the heat, you can catch bream all day when they’re deep, Albright said, but he recommends going easy on yourself. You’ll catch plenty by fishing a few hours in the morning or evening.
The combined daily limit is 50 for bream longer than 4 inches, but that’s a lot of knife work. If you catch palm-sized bream, you don’t need many to make a good meal.
Jim Hall of Fayetteville catches bluegills and redears in all of the small lakes around Northwest Arkansas. Lakes Fayetteville, Bob Kidd, Prairie Grove, Crystal, Leatherwood and the Bella Vista lakes are not deep so bream are limited in their movements.
That also means they can be skittish and sensitive to disturbance, but Hall has developed a method of fishing with P.J.’s jigs that he says provides some of the “funnest, most exciting fishing” of his rich and varied career.
“I’ve fished all over the world,” Hall said. “I’ve caught king salmon up to 40 pounds. I’ve caught silver salmon in Patagonia, but I love to fish for bluegills in Arkansas.”
In the summer, Hall said he usually finds bluegills in depths of 5 to 10 feet. You can’t get very close to them at those depths in the clear waters of northwest Arkansas, so Hall makes long casts with a 5-weight fly rod with tiny, 1/125-ounce P.J.’s marabou jigs.
“The shallower they are, the spookier they are going to be,” Hall said of these panfish.
Hall trims the hair even with the hook bend, and sometimes he pulls out a few strands to make it a little lighter. If fish won’t bite a bare jig, Hall said, he’ll tip it with a small Berkley Gulp Alive! Maggot.
“If they’re not super aggressive, a tiny Maggot hangs parallel to the hook shank so it looks like it’s part of the jig,” Hall said. “You can use waxworms, but it’s a hassle, and you don’t have to.”
He also uses a tiny strike indicator. It’s necessary, Hall said, because the bites are so subtle that you might not notice them with a larger, more buoyant bobber. Also, bream will likely spit out a jig if they feel resistance from a bobber.
“If they pull down a light indicator on a fly rod, you’ve got them,” Hall said.
Like Albright, Hall searches for spawning beds. He finds them in areas with gravel bottoms, and he moves a lot until he catches fish.
Presentation is the secret. Your presentation must be almost imperceptible, but that’s not hard with such light lures.
“The trick to the presentation is using nothing heavier than 4-pound-test line on a leader,” Hall said. “If you use a tippet, use nothing bigger than 5X or 4X.
“That jig is not going make a big splash, and that tiny little Styrofoam float, you can’t mess up the presentation.” he added.
If fish are uncooperative, you must be willing to fish different depths, Hall said. If bluegills or redears are hunkered in the deepest holes, you have to modify your approach to reach them. It’s not as easy as dropping something down fast with a split shot.
“You can take a 9-foot sinking tip, lead-core leader on the end of your fly line and run a 9-foot 4X tapered fluorocarbon leader off that to put a jig on the bottom in 15 to 20 feet of water,” Hall said. “That’ll get right down there like you would on an ultralight spinning rod with worm.”
Remove the strike indicator for that situation, rare as it is.
“I’m too lazy to do that anymore, and I don’t ever have to,” Hall said.
Hall says he can easily catch far more ’gills most days, but he said he’s too lazy for that, too.
“I don’t want to fillet that many bluegills, so I don’t stay out there long enough do that,” Hall said. “I average catching about 15 keepers an hour, but I’ve had times when they really hit when I caught 50 an hour.”
When the fishing is that furious, it’s better than a high-scoring football game.
“I love watching a strike indicator go down,” Hall said. “I’ve never gotten over it.”
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June 15, 2017 at 05:11PM