Ocmulgee River ‘Buster’ Bream

Due to high water, the author was unable to fish the Ocmulgee River. Instead, he sat down with river legend, John Pearson.

Les Ager | May 1, 2005

May is bream month. For any Yankees that may read these words, bream is Southernese for bluegill.  I’ve given serious thought to corresponding this recommendation to George W. for his official proclamation. But I really think it is already such a consensus among us anglers that no official declaration is really necessary.

May is the month when bream move into shallow water to begin their spawning ritual. In mild years or in more southerly waters there may be some spawning activity earlier, but May is the real beginning. While they will spawn repeatedly all summer long, their first attempt after the long winter is eagerly anticipated.

Males will find firm bottoms — preferably sand — in water anywhere from a few inches to a couple of feet deep, and there they will fan out shallow depressions. These spawning beds are called “pots” by a dedicated bream angler. The males are not as territorial as some sunfish species and a good bottom in just the right depth can sometimes attract hundreds of males, so that each pot literally touches the adjacent ones.

John Pearson, of Perry, will stay at home if the river is out of its banks. Here, he admires some wood carvings he’s created over the years.

These large aggregations of spawning bream are called beds. Bedding bream can be so abundant that they give off an unmistakable fishy odor that can lead a keen-nosed fisherman to them. And locating the bed is the key. Once you’ve found it, catching the fish is often almost too easy.

When you’ve got the bream hemmed in within the confines of a pond, finding and catching bream is lots easier than in bigger waters. Lots of fishermen are successful at catching big bluegills in ponds, but finding one who can consistently catch big bream from the river is uncommon. I’ve concluded that it’s almost exclusively because few fishermen target big bream on the river. And the Ocmulgee River has its share of big bream.

Bluegills are not a fish of moving water. They thrive where the river is big enough to offer expanses of water that is not moving. There, the current brings in nutrients that form the basis for their food while the still water provides habitat for the fish. On the Ocmulgee, the better bluegill habitat doesn’t really begin until you get several miles south of Macon where the river widens and slows. It has big sandbars that shelter bluegills in their downstream reaches. It has dead lakes, old channels, and oxbows that provide the life-giving connection to the river but offer acres of still water.

The best habitat begins in Houston County, below Knowles Landing at the State Route 96 bridge. The farther you go downstream from that point, the better the bream fishing is likely to get.  The stretch from there down to about Abbeville twists and turns like a serpent, and oxbows and dead lakes are common. Below here the river is large and sluggish. It doesn’t meander quite as much, but oxbows and dead lakes are more abundant. Access to the river is more abundant, too, and fishermen are more numerous here.

Buster bream like this will come from the Ocmulgee River this month. Look for bluegill to bed in slack areas as water levels hopefully return inside the banks.

When I came to middle Georgia nearly three decades ago, I learned that the Pearson brothers of Fort Valley were expert river fishermen. Joe, John and Jimmy spent many a day fishing from an old flat-bottomed skiff with a decrepit outboard, exploring and developing the fishing techniques that the river demanded if they were to be successful. They sought catfish, bream, shellcrackers and bass but eventually came to specialize in bream and shellcrackers.

Last month I had planned to spend a day on the river with John. However, the constant parade of rain meant the river was out of the banks and unfishable. Instead, I spent some time with John at his house in Perry. One of the first things I noticed was that John has taken his love of bream and fishing to a whole new level. After his retirement from farming a few years ago, John’s interest in fish and fishing found another mode of expression. He developed an interest in woodcarving and naturally turned to fish as his models. In the intervening years he has developed a skill that I envy. He has produced wooden fish that rival Mother Nature’s creations in their reality. And while I envy his ability to catch big bream, as well or better than anybody I know; it’s his ability to transform a hunk of wood and some paint into a creation that is almost indistinguishable from a real-live fish that I most admire. I’ve always been frustrated with my inability to express the natural beauty that I see in fish and other wild things. I’m envious of anybody who can recreate nature’s art.

I’ve always felt that there was some attribute or “sixth sense” that the better fishermen that I’ve known possessed that also defied explanation.  There always seemed something that they had that I not only lacked but also was always unable to understand or acquire. Some of the best fishermen I’ve known had an almost innate ability to understand and interpret the aquatic world in a way that I just simply cannot. John’s ability to understand and express fish and their behavior is reflected in his carving and his fishing.

John begins bream fishing in the river as early as water levels permit.  Even though the bream may not be spawning yet, he jumps at a low-water opportunity as early as March or April.  He watches for river levels to stabilize well within the banks. He knows the water level is about right if the sandbars in the inside bends are visible.

Rising water in the river is a definite turn off for bluegill fishing. But as the water begins to recede, the fishing picks up. The best fishing is when the level is relatively stable and well within the banks.

However, high-water levels have their advantage. While fishing during high water is definitely not productive, the length of time the river spends outside its banks clearly improves bluegill growth rates. John has noticed that the best catches occur in summers following a year with the river out of its banks for lots of the winter and early spring.

During the early spring before spawning has begun, the bluegill will usually be found in deep water. John begins his search in eddies and other slack water spots protected from the current that may be five to eight feet in depth. Hard sand or gravel bottoms are invaluable attributes, too.

John and his cousin Bucky developed a method for bream fishing these deeper, non-spawning fish that is unique. They got the idea while looking at the river bottom with an underwater video camera. They noticed that the more the camera bounced along the bottom, the more bream would come right up to the camera.  It was as if they wanted to find out what it was stirring up such a commotion in their back yard.

In an effort to capitalize on this natural curiosity, they developed a rig for bouncing their baits along the bottom. They start with an ultralight spinning outfit spooled with one of the new super braid lines, usually in 8-lb. test.

At the terminal end they add a 1/2-oz. egg sinker above a swivel. To the other end of the swivel, they’ll add a leader of about one foot of 8-lb. test fluorocarbon monofilament and tip it with a No. 6 long shank wire hook. In the springtime, he baits this rig with a cricket or a gob of red wigglers, especially when in an area known for shellcrackers as well as bream.

This heavy rig is usually fished vertically, straight under the rod tip, bouncing the sinker along the bottom as they move the boat through a likely area. Their theory is that the movement and vibration of the sinker bouncing along the hard bottoms brings fish from some distance. The heavy sinker keeps the rig right under the boat, even in a slight current. The small braided line gives them good feel of the bottom and provides the strength to muscle it free when it becomes snagged, yet it is still small enough in diameter to provide little drag in the current.

Regardless of the time of year, John says that bream will rarely be found in areas where the current is strong. He spends his time searching the flats and eddies below sandbars and other areas on the main river that are protected from the current. Even better are the sloughs, dead lakes and oxbows that are completely protected from the river flow but are still connected enough to allow navigation from the river.

Spawning activity usually begins on the river as the water warms into the low 70s. Big bream beds may contain hundreds of pairs of actively spawning fish. These big beds are rare in the more variable habitat of the river. More likely you will encounter between two and a dozen pairs of fish bedding in the same area. It is easy to understand why this is the case.  Finding enough suitable space for more fish than that is difficult in the ever-changing river. But when bedding is at its peak, it may seem like there are a couple pair of bream in every suitable location; and indeed that may be the case.

John feels that moon phase is an important factor in when bream spawn. He has noticed that the week prior to either a full or new moon seems to have the most activity. And if the river levels are normal and stable, either of those moon phases in May or June are prime for catching big bluegills on the Ocmulgee. The fish move up quickly if the river level is stable and the temperature is rising into the 70s. Once spawning has begun, it is likely to continue for about a week or so, if the water levels remain stable. Rising or falling water may push the fish off the beds and postpone spawning until the next full moon.

Another reason John looks to late May and early June as the best time for bluegills on the river is the availability of bait. He says that catalpa worms are hands down the best bait for river bream. This caterpillar of the catalpa moth begins to show up on trees sometime in May and will continue to hatch off and on all summer.  These green and black juicy morsels are tough, so they stay on a hook well.  As an added plus, they not only catch bream but are an excellent channel catfish bait as well.

As the summer heats up, John has noticed that, like him, the bluegill seems to be more active early in the day and don’t feed as well after the sun is high. Part of this may be due to the clearer water at that time of year.  As the flow diminishes, the clarity increases and the bluegill can see their potential prey from quite a distance.   As the river temperature increases, the flow diminishes and river levels drop, and bream will move toward the deeper water, sometimes in the main river current. Even then, they choose deeper pools where the flow is slower and is diverted by the woody snags along the bottom. Under these conditions, John again resorts to the bottom bouncing method.

It’s in the fall when he likes to use a 4-weight fly rod and a topwater bug for bream. It’s then that the river is at its clearest and getting “buster” bream, as John likes to call the big ones, to look up at a topwater bug is easiest.  John’s brother Jimmy creates most of their topwater bugs these days. Their former favorite, a round popper known as a Round Denny, is no longer available.  Jimmy ties a foam version that is similar and just as productive. They also use a foam creation they call an Earwig. It looks like a cross between a caterpillar and a spider, with a long black foam body and several pairs of white rubber legs.

All of the topwater creations that John uses have one factor in common.  They are made to create relatively little disturbance on the water. Popping bugs are notably absent from his box.  He fishes the topwater bugs slowly, barely twitching them between long pauses. The shorelines of the dead lakes and slough off the main river are his primary focus when fishing these topwater bugs. Strikes are more like a quick whirlpool, as a big bream sucks the bug below the surface with a distinctive slurp.

John and his brothers call the big bream over three-quarters of pound “busters.”  Busters of over a pound are not as uncommon in the Ocmulgee as most fishermen believe. John says that they typically average about one buster for every 60 to 70 bream caught. On a good day they may bring home a half dozen or more busters.

John’s formula for catching buster bream on the Ocmulgee is deceptively simple. Fish when the river is stable and well within the banks.  Have plenty of the best baits available, catalpa worms. And fish the areas protected from the main current.

Remember, May is bream month.

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