By Mark Fike
Photos by Mark Fike
I have always been a kid at heart, and in some ways I guess that is good. My wife will attest to the fact that I can sit on a pond bank for hours and find something to fiddle around with. When it comes to fishing, I have my moments where I get really serious about catching big fish, but overall, I’d rather fish like a kid and stack the cooler or stringer up with some good eating.
Bass are on the beds in April and bream (a nickname for sunfish such as bluegill, shellcracker, pumpkinseed, or sunfish), soon follow as a general rule of thumb. In many areas the bream will be on the beds in May, but in some locations, if the water warms enough, they may do their spawning in April. Catching bream on spawning beds is a lot of fun. The fish are concentrated and very territorial, particularly if anything drops into their zone of water. This is an excellent time to take someone new to fishing out to give it a try given the high probability of success.
Some scoff at the idea of catching bream as kids’ fish. I would bet those same people either forgot what it is like to use a cane pole or an ultralight rod to fish for them or they never tried it. Bedding bream will put up a furious fight, turning and offering a lot of water resistance with their pan-shaped bodies to anglers trying to pull them in. Furthermore, they are extremely good eating. They thrive on a high-protein diet of insects and invertebrates and are willing feeders. While one or two fish won’t make a meal like a nice striper, bass, or catfish, a dozen or more will and catching a dozen or more at this time of year is not a difficult task.
Where to Look
In ponds bream can be found all over the place. They prefer the shallows, but the larger specimens will be found slightly deeper than the smaller ones that rob the hook of bait in short order. Once the fish start bedding, anglers can use polarized glasses and look into the shallow coves and on shallow flats for bowl-shaped depressions. This is where the fish will spawn.
In late April or early May they will begin staging for this and when the temperature is right, spawning begins. Be quiet when approaching a spawning area and plan your casts from outside the zone so you can pick off as many as you want.
A cane pole with a small wire hook is great. A #4 bait holder hook is good even if it is not wire. Wire has the benefit of being able to be pulled free of any sticks or logs if necessary, but a regular hook is easy to pop out of the fish’s mouth and get back to fishing quickly. I prefer to use an ultralight rod and reel. An ultralight rod with a spinning reel that is appropriately sized is perfect. This setup won’t break the bank, and I have used mine for years. I always rinse the reels off if they get near brackish water (they are great for perch fishing too!). Stick floats or bag of small split shot and some bait are all you need to get into the thick of it with bream.
I like to use red wigglers or garden worms I dig up near my chicken coop or near my garden. However, nightcrawlers, grasshoppers, and crickets are very good bait. The worms are just less expensive, and multiple fish can be caught with each piece of bait before rebaiting is required. When baiting the hook, leave a little piece hanging off the book to entice strikes. If you prefer to fish with artificials, small flies, poppers, or crappie jigs are perfect choices.
Cast past where you think the fish are and let your bait sink. I use the least weight possible and freeline when I can. Let the bait settle naturally and then give it a twitch every once in a while ever so slowly retrieving your line back to you. Watch your line and when it begins moving to the side or away from you, get ready to pop the hook and pull the fish in. Recast to the same spot quickly because the fish are aggravated when a hooked fish circles through their territory and they are more apt to attack the bait.
I enjoy eating fresh-caught fish. Most ponds tend to have plenty of bream and may be healthier if some bream were removed from the population. The only obvious example I can think of that would dispute that statement is if your pond is very predator-heavy and the only bream you catch are really big ones. That may indicate that the bass are eating all the small ones and you might need to remove some of the bass to balance things out. I know removing bass and frying them seems like a sin to some, but proper management does require some fish to be harvested to keep the population of predator vs prey in check. DWR has an excellent article online about this topic.
I filet all my fish. My wife hates fish bones, so I was trained a long time ago to just remove all the bones. So, to filet a bream, first of all only keep fish 8 inches or larger. Make sure your filet knife is very sharp.
Next, make a cut on the fish from top to bottom through the skin and down to the vertebrae just behind the gills at a slight angle. Do not cut all the way through the backbone. Cut to the backbone. Turn the sharp knife towards the tail and place your other hand on the fish’s head. As you turn the knife toward the tail, cut along the backbone bumping it with the side of the filet knife almost to the tail. You should feel the bone as you cut along. You will have to cut through the small rib bones as you go. Stop just before the tail and flip the flap of meat, rib bones and skin you just sliced over away from the fish’s head.
Now, use your filet knife to begin cutting just above the skin of the flipped over fish flap right at the tail where it connects and ride the skin separating the fish meat from the skin. Once you have done that, you will end up with a nice chunk of meat that has the rib bones still in it. Put this meat in a stack. Repeat on the other side of the fish. You should have a fish skeleton with a head intact and two strips of fish skin attached on one side of your cleaning area and two pieces of meat on the other side.
When you are all done cleaning the fish, put the skeletons in a bucket and use your sharp knife to remove the rib section off each filet. The ribs go up to the lateral line of the filet, which is approximately halfway up the filet, and curve downward. You can see the ribs and feel them. Just cut the arc of ribs out and toss in your bucket. A pile of boneless bream filets is then ready to be breaded and fried and enjoyed by family and friends!