Philosophy Of A Bream

The essence of catching bream is about fishing with family and friends.

Daryl Gay | May 1, 2007

f the beauty of bream fishing is that it is low-tech. An inexpensive rod and reel, a few crickets or worms, and the right friend and you are ready for a memorable day of fishing for these usually cooperative fish.

Spraying water sparkled down each side of the pointed bow of the plywood boat, meticulously built and triple-coated in olive green paint in our backyard, as it cruised up the Ocmulgee River. Just a couple of miles and we’d go by a big island on the right, then swing back around and enter behind it on the upstream side. Why? Because dad was driving and that’s the way it was done.

There were bream there. Always.

From the first time, when I was a toddler, until the last time — when I drove the boat — Dad and I always caught bream in this spot. My earliest fishing memory is a mind’s-eye photo of the front of that boat and the river peeling away from it in an inverted V-shape; the last camera- generated photo ever taken of my dad was snapped as we fished together behind that same island.

When I think about bass fishing, what comes to mind is almost always a singularly large fish that qualified as a trophy, whatever that may have been at the time. But with bream? As I brainstormed for this story and looked through photos, some of them decades old, very different images emerged. There was never one outstanding fish — but always an outstanding fishing partner. And many, many pleasant memories and lessons learned.

My dad, a carpenter, took great pride in his craft, and the three boats I remember him building exemplified that. They were to his exact specifications, built for bream fishing his way and fit the old Evinrude outboard like a glove, the combination performing just as he planned. His fishing was done on the Ocmulgee, from Dodge County Landing up to Sandy Hammock and down to Abbeville. I first learned to fish in current, with 10-lb. test line or larger, heavy split-shot or barrel sinkers and stout hooks. We tightlined the bottom, setting out a couple of rods each and watched the tips for any tell-tale bumps.

We caught a lot of fish that way. We would also follow fish out into the sloughs and creeks off the river, using lighter tackle and swapping the wigglers that worked well in current for crickets in still water. These tight, overhung backwaters were where I learned the backcast, and to this day I feel more comfortable flipping sideways and low  than overhead and long.

This photo from the late 1980s shows Jeff Hutcheson of Warner Robins (left) and Doyle Dowdy of Dublin with the results of a day spent fishing for bream. Catching fish is only part of the reward.

While my dad, Theo Gay, didn’t care much for pond and creek fishing, such was not the case with my grand- dad, H.G. Hooks. During expeditions with H.G., I learned to look for clean water and one other critical criteria: shade. He would put in however many extra steps required to get to dark, secluded water. Bream, like bass, love to lay up hidden in these ambush areas.

But unlike bass, bream are the fish of everyman. This universal fish is what most of us cut our eye teeth on, and our storehouse of fishing knowledge usually had its humble beginnings with these fantastic fighters and table fare.

If there’s one man I learned more about fishing from and with, it would likely be long-time compadre Doyle Dowdy of Dublin. We were introduced some 25 years ago by a mutual friend who believed, rightly so, that each of us was a fishing fanatic. It was Doyle who turned me on to ultra-light tackle, and if you have never fought a pound shellcracker on a buggy-whip rod and 4-lb. test line, you’ve missed the essence of bream fishing.

I remember Seminole guide Allen Carter remarking that it’s virtually impossible to stop the initial run of a shellcracker once he’s felt a hook — and Allen sometimes uses 20-lb. test in his home lake’s grassbeds! But to have a big ’cracker go singing line up a pond bank in a foot of water and be able to do no more than hold on and hope to turn him eventually is what I love most about this type of fishing. Four- or 6-lb. test lines are great equalizers; get to know a bream on his terms and you’ll appreciate him a lot more.

I’ve long had a love affair with bluegill, redbreast, warmouth, even stumpknockers, but the real class of all this group is the shellcracker, or redear sunfish. They grow shoulders. And if they grew as large as a largemouth, they’d turn your boat over and slap you around a little once in the water.

It is not possible for my thoughts to turn to bluegill without also turning to my late, great friend, George H. “Ned” Snellgrove of Dublin. Ironically, although some 20 years my senior — which is why I always called him Old Man — Ned had never expressed much of either desire or aptitude for fishing until a trip in my ancient Ouchita ruined him for life.

Or, as I prefer to believe, quite possibly prolonged his life.

The late Ned Snellgrove of Dublin, the “Old Man” to the author, with a mess of bream (and a catfish) caught on one of the weekly fishing trips with the author.

Ned had open-heart surgery many years ago, back before fishing became an everyday affair. Maybe this episode in his own words can best relate how he came to feel about fishing. He told it as we rode together to a favorite pond, the Ouchita trailing faithfully behind, one full moon weekend in May some 20 years ago.

“Had a fellow warn me about you the other day,” he jibed, and I saw a sparkle in his eye. “He had heart surgery the same time I did, and told me he’s heard all about me traipsing up and down the road fishing with you all the time. He sits in his recliner and changes channels all day, worrying about when his ticker’s going to quit. According to him, you and fishing are going to be the death of me. While he’s probably right about you, I don’t think get- ting out and going fishing has done anything but make me stronger.”

And then came the kicker.

“They’re burying that fellow today. And we’re going bream fishing again.”

Wednesday was our fishing day. In decent weather — and sometimes indecent — The Old Man and I probably didn’t miss 10 Wednesdays in 10 years. The first time he was able to go after they opened him up and dis- covered he actually had a heart, I put the Old Man on a bream bed that kept him so busy he completely gave out physically and got too tired to fish. I had long since put down my rod and began looking after him, but it was always, “Just one more…”

A 3-lb. catfish finally side- swiped his ultra-light, and when that fight was over, he was done. Had that cat not come along, who knows how many bream I’ d have been forced to throw back?

A time or two chasing bream over the years, I’ve thought my own thumper was going to require jumper cables, and especially on my very first trip with Jeff Hutcheson of Warner Robins. Just so you’ll know, due to a motorcycle accident Jeff happens to use a wheelchair. He’s also an avid outdoorsman, and I agreed to take him along on a fishing trip I had planned. At the time, I didn’t know all the in-depth details of Jeff’s

injury, such as the fact that he had a damaged radiator.

Well, something like that; seems he can’t per- spire, so that when we’ re catching fish and the sun is beating down, he can overheat. So I’ m sitting in the back of my boat all innocent-like with a young man whom I met an hour ago and literally carried into the front seat. And in the blink of an eye, he rolls out of it and into the pond!

So what’s next, Tarzan? Naturally, my initial thought is that he is currently drowning, so into Abandon Ship mode I go. But before I can dis- embark, up he spouts, treading water and laughing like the true maniac he is. Forgot to tell me that although he can’t walk, he can swim like a bream. Of which we caught quite a few that day, after he had water cooled down, and I could breathe again.

If all this sounds a little like fun to you, that’s because it is. And even now, some of the highest-quality time I spend with my wife and sons is bream fishing. Cheryl’s not going to go out and sit in a freezing predawn deer stand with me, but she’s right there when it comes to a congregation of bream! And while the fellas are exactly like me in that they will gladly chase down just about anything they’re sicced on, there are few things they enjoy more than pitching crickets. Our weekends together around a pond and fish cooker weave the fabric ever tighter. After all, there’s a lot to be said for keeping peace in the family — and those ol’ bluegills help out a lot!

The ease, the simplicity and the bare-bones requirements of bream fishing all add up to just plain good times. Think about it: this is not $50 outfit territory. These are the fish that made the Zebco 33 famous, and there’s no need for a 20-foot boat, 200-horse outboard and trio of packed tackle boxes.

I can’t think of a better example than countless boyhood days during the summer when my three uncles and I would make our way to a nearby creek or pond. Our outfit would consist of a cane pole apiece, plus a cut-down cotton sack containing the following: a can full of worms we had dug ourselves; a small cast-iron frying pan Ma had (finally) bequeathed to us; a potato each; a little Crisco for frying; a paper sack with a handful of corn meal; and a battered metal tackle box with nothing more than a few hooks, corks, sinkers and a spool of cheap line.

In those days, boys didn’t hang around the house; Nintendo had not yet replaced chores. And once those were done, we hit the trail. We’d fish until we caught enough to cook, then share duties of dressing fish, building a small fire and slicing potatoes, never wasting a peel.

Somehow, when I look back on those forays, today’s glamorous bass- fishing expeditions to major impoundments seem to lose a little luster. Those were simpler days, sure, but tell me what’s wrong with simplifying today’s hectic lifestyle. Got a friend in a crisis situation? Take him bream fishing!

I recall very well one such episode when the only message that came to mind was, “I gotta get him in a boat.” Take it for homespun philosophy if you wish, but bream are cheaper than psychiatrists! There have been times when I could almost feel the cares of the world slipping off my shoulders once I sat down in a boat seat or made that first cast to a shaded log in some remote creek…

Summer, and the best of bream fishing, are once again upon us. Three days before and three days after full- moon periods the next couple of months are prime bedding times, but you can pick up an old knothead bream just about any time, especially early and late in the day. Ponds, creeks, rivers, lakes — anywhere there’s water you and yours will find these fun, abundant, great-tasting fish.

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