Lake Burton Full Moon Bull Bream

Find the spawning grounds, and you’ll quickly fill a limit of Burton bluegill during the June full moon.

Justin Raines | June 1, 2009

Ray Gentry is a regular on the waters of north Georgia, and there’s nothing he enjoys more than throwing artificials at bream when they bed on Burton.

Each year, beneath the light of summer’s first full moon, huge honeycombs of saucer-shaped depressions appear in Lake Burton’s sandy shallows. These are the storied bluegill breeding grounds, and each bed is fiercely guarded by huge purple-browed papa bream that will attack anything that gets near their nests.

Burton’s bream spawn lasts from May through September, with shellcrackers and bluegills hunkering down on their beds as the full moon approaches each month. During the week-long bedding period, male fish keep watch over the nest and will aggressively strike a variety of lures and live bait. Early summer is prime for hitting the big blue waters of Burton. With the moon reaching its peak on June 7, now is a great time to fill a cooler for the first fry of summer.

Ray Gentry has fished north Georgia for years, and every season he trades a few days of trout chasing on the Chattooga River for a trip to Burton when bream are on the bed. Ray said catching a mess of bull bluegills on his fly rod is an experience that just can’t be beat.

There are three public boat ramps and two private marinas on Burton. The Tallulah River boat ramp at the northernmost tip of the lake is a good launch for smaller boats with outboards of about 25 horsepower or less. The DNR ramp at the Lake Burton Fish Hatchery and the Murray Cove ramp are better for large boats. There are productive bream coves located near each of the boat launches.

Locating fish on Burton’s vast waters can be daunting for some species, but not so for spawning bream. Ray lets his eyes do most of the work. Bluegills tend to bed in 4 to 6 feet of water. With the lake’s excellent visibility, fanned-out beds are fairly easy to spot. Look for coves with shallow sand and gravel bottoms, preferably on the edges of deep water. The best coves also feature creeks and shade trees as well as submerged timber.

“I think you’ll find that the bream bed all over the lake pretty good,” he said. “It’s been my experience that the biggest bream tend to bed where the shallow water meets the deep water. Backs of coves, especially if there’s an inlet of fresh water, can be real good.”

Ray said he rarely uses his depthfinder. Instead he studies the slope of the shore, looking for areas that meet the water at a gentle grade rather than a sharp dropoff.

The bluegill beds themselves are easily recognized as clusters of distinct, swept-out circular depressions in the sand about 8 inches in diameter. In good spots, hundreds of beds can be found in a single cove.

Some of Burton’s major feeder streams are found near the north end of the lake close to the Highway 76 bridge. This is a good area to start fishing, especially for anglers launching from the Tallulah River boat ramp. Look and listen for the tributaries flowing into the main lake at the backs of coves near the bridge, and fish from shallow to deep water until the bream are located. Since fish tend to return to the same spawning grounds year after year, mark the coves where beds are found and return throughout the summer. Ray said he’s been hitting his favorite honey holes for a few seasons straight. With a little practice and time on the water, he said it’s easy to recognize the quality bedding sites.

Ray doesn’t use a GPS, and since many of Burton’s lake houses look alike, it can be difficult to find the cove near the big house with the Georgia Bulldogs flag on the dock. There are hundreds of houses and just as many Dawgs flags. Instead, use street names as points of reference. Most boat houses on the lake have address signs posted on them that are visible from the water. When I fished with Ray last summer and earlier this May, we launched at the Tallulah River and fished downstream toward the 76 bridge. Some of the most productive coves were located north of the bridge on the western shore of the lake near Vickers Road and Night Owl Lane. Below the bridge on the eastern shore, we caught fish near houses on Doe Trail and Acorn Creek Road. When putting in near Moccasin Creek State Park, try fishing the main feeder streams near the fish hatchery. The area where Dick’s Creek meets the lake is also a hot spot to hit. The Timpson Creek inlet on the eastern side of Burton is a good place to start searching for beds, especially when launching from the Murray Cove ramp.

Once the spawning grounds are located, look to see if fish are on the beds. Male bluegills hover in the center of each bed or near the edges. They will readily strike anything perceived as a threat to their eggs. Live crickets fished about a foot off the bottom are effective live baits for bluegills. Ray uses ultra-light spinning tackle and 4-lb. test line. When he’s throwing crickets, Ray likes to rig a slip bobber with a short-shank No. 10 hook and a small split-shot pinched onto the line about 10 inches above the hook. He’ll let the cricket sink to the bottom near the middle of a bed. If he doesn’t immediately get a strike, he’ll gently raise the rod tip and move the cricket slowly up and down through the beds.

“I’ve had better success with crickets than anything for bream,” Ray said. “I just sort of yo-yo it along the bottom. I don’t fish live bait a lot, but when I do, that’s been my go-to rig.”

Once Ray finds the depth where the most fish are striking, he’ll clamp down his bobber so that the bait floats at fish-eye level.

When using artificials, Ray keeps his tackle ultra light. He uses lures that can cover a variety of depths. Inline spinners such as Mepps or Rooster Tails and small Beetle Spins can be deadly on shallow-water beds. For the ultimate bream-busting thrill, Ray breaks out his trusty fly rod during the spawn. He likes to use an 8-foot, 3- or 4-weight rod with a 2-lb. tippet. For exciting topwater action, he uses popping bugs cast toward the middle of a bed when bream are holding nearby.

“If the fish are on the beds, I prefer to catch them with fly rods and popping bugs. That’s a lot of fun because the fish are shallow,” he said. “My experience has been that if you get a popping bug on top of a bed, they’ll just knock the heck out of it.”

If the fish are reluctant to rise to the top, Ray switches to a yellow-and-black, bumble-bee imitator that sinks slowly to the bottom.

“You drop one of those bees in front of a big bream and, man, you’d better hold on to your hat,” he said.

Shellcrackers tend to bed in deeper water about 8 to 10 feet down, which makes sight fishing for spawning redears a bit more difficult than locating bluegill beds. However, the lake is usually clear enough that anglers with keen eyesight and polarized sunglasses can still find the beds. Shellcrackers also prefer a rockier substrate than the sand-loving bluegills, said Anthony Rabern, WRD fisheries biologist on Burton.

Anthony recommended trying for bedding redear near the end of the fishing pier at the hatchery where shellcracker spawning habitat has been enhanced with rocky structure.

When chucking live bait for shellcrackers, stick to red wigglers fished a foot or two off the bottom. Adjust the depth of the bait until fish are found. Small crankbaits such as the Ugly Duckling wobbler and small Rapala Countdowns are good choices from the tackle box. Black-and-silver combinations and yellow-perch patterns seem to work well. Also try curly-tail jigs and Beetle Spins. Darker colors seem to be good if the water is clear. If recent rains have muddied the clarity, switch to chartreuse. The best part about fishing the bream beds is the big bulls are often not very picky about what they hit. Their instinct to protect the nest seems to outweigh their common sense during those days just before and just after the full moon.

“You can throw a bone to one dog and he might sniff it and take his time deciding if he wants to eat or not, but if you throw a bone into a pack of dogs, they’ll fight each other getting to it,” Ray said.

Once a spawn is over, bream will move off to slightly deeper water, but they won’t stray far from the original bedding site. Males and females feed heavily between spawns, and they can be found in the deeper, shadier parts of the same cove where their nests are located. During the period between full moons, when bream have moved off the beds, boat docks offer the most productive fishing.

“You’ll find them underneath boat docks next to pilings in the shade,” Anthony said. “Burton has a thousand boat docks, so there are a thousand opportunities to find fish.”

Try skipping small jigs or spinners beneath the planks and behind the pilings. Crickets and red wigglers are also effective for bream holding underneath the docks. Basically, large patches of shade near trees and docks will usually hold postspawn and prespawn fish.

Catch rates for big fish seem to increase during the bedding period, and taking advantage of a big bull bream’s ornery temper could earn lucky anglers a shot at the Burton bream records, which have been untouched since the mid-1970s. As of early May, Greg Taylor’s 3-lb. shellcracker caught on May 21, 1975 is still No. 1. A 1-lb., 15.5-oz. bluegill earned J. Gary Simmons a share of the Burton bream title in July, 1976. Anthony said 2-lb. shellcrackers are not uncommon, and Ray has personally boated several bluegills that weighed more than a pound, so it seems likely the lake still holds some record fish in its azure depths.

Whether fishing for fun or for the fryer, busting bream on Burton is a great way to spend a summer afternoon. Head for the tool shed, and dig out the dented screen-sided cricket box, find a Braves game on the old boat radio and head up to the Georgia mountains when the moon is full and fat. Fill the cooler with cold drinks, but be sure to leave enough room in the ice for a mess of fish, because when the Burton bream are on the bed, limits and skillets fill up quickly.

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