As the johnboat dirfted down the Shenadoah, startled wood ducks squealed plaintively and with a raucous splash took off into the clear spring skies. The six furry fluffs left behind squeaked their displeasure and paddled in a pack upstream.
It was easy for the fishermen's eyes to roam from their casting targets along the shore, where smallmouths were supposed to be lurking. And roam they did, until Mickey Johnson suddenly had his gaze wrenched back to the water.
"Drop the anchor. Quick!" he shouted, nearly choking on the words.
"Bream. Big bream," came the tersely muttered explanation as he dropped his bass stick and grabbed the fly rod he kept handy in the dented aluminum boat.
Having been wrapped up in the scenery, his partner was too startled to do anything but stumble for the anchor and plunk it overboard, rotely obeying Johnson's command. When the boat swung tight, however, he looked up and saw what put Johnson in such a tizzy. Bream as big as saucers were amassed by the hundreds in a weedy eddy for spawning.
The water was transparent and sloped from one to three feet deep where the fish hovered. Most of the big panfish were actually on their spawning beds. They hung nearly motionless over the shallow depressions fanned out in the sandy river bottom, the only sign of life dozens of gently rotating pectoral fins. Darker males decked out in rich spawning hues of purple, blue and black, darted to and from the deeper current water of the riffle nearby.
It was a marvelous sight, and for a moment both anglers stared in awe. Soon enough, though, they nervously threaded slippery lines through fly rod guides and tied small sponge rubber spiders to the three-pound tippets. False casting hurriedly, they dropped the soft imitations near the edge of the swarming pack.
Instantly they were rewarded with that sweetest of plebeian angling thrills, the sucking, topwater take of a bull bream. The rods arched taut. Pale orange fly lines flicked water into the air as the hooks drove home and bluegills lunged for deep water.
Minutes later, they lifted gingerly on the light tippets, hoisting flopping, 3/4-pound bluegills over the gunnel. Before the fish grew wary, 37 very fat bluegills had been fought to the boat. The top fish weighed close to a pound, the others a husky 3/4 pound apiece.
Although the size fish Johnson and his partner chanced upon their recent Shenandoah float was above average, the catch of three dozen fish in a couple of hours is typical. Water temperatures in the 60s have put bream in most local waters in the spawning mood. At no other time is the possibility of exceptional catches as good.
Bream spawn several times a year in Florida, but here in the mid-Atlantic region once a year is the norm.
Later in the summer the bream will move back to deep water. Now they're in the shallows, though, and with a bit of searching, you should be able to locate good concentrations either on the beds or spread out in loose concentrations near shoreline cover.
Some anglers stick their noses up at such a tiny quarry. Mickey Johnson doesn't. "Pound for pound," he says, "a bream will outfight a bass or any other fish in fresh-water."
"And where else can you get 30 or 40 fish in a couple of hours?" he asks.
Every area fishing water has bluegills or the closely-related redear and shellcracker sunfish. Finding a concentration of them is a matter of sniffing around, both figuratively and literally.
Inquire at marinas and tackle stores, or call the local fish warden, who may steer you to a secluded cove on a lake, the shallow end of a pond, or a slow, sandy-bottomed backwater in a river.
The second kind of sniffing around means just that. Skilled bream anglers claim they locate more beds with their nose than their eyes. The odor of bluegills in the shallows is pungent, something like the smell of cut melons. When you catch a whiff, head upwind slowly and steer in the direction where the aroma is strongest. Look for the fish hovering in the shallows.
Stay back at least 30 feet to avoid spooking the gills, and work on the fish farthest out on the edge of the pack first.Pluck the edge fish off with careful casts, then work back into the group. Eventually you'll spook the fish enough that they won't strike at all. That's the time to look for another bed and rest that one for a while.
Crickets and worms fished on 4-pound line with a No.6 or 8 hook and a tiny bobber will entice them. The tiniest plugs, jigs and spinners will also fool enough fish to fill a skillet.
For the finest sport, though, try fly fishing with a 7' to 9' rod, 5- to 7-weight line, 6' to 9' tapered leader, and handful of small cork poppers and sponge rubber spiders in sizes 8 to 12. Work out enough line to reach the edge of the swarm of fish with the fly, and drop it lightly onto the water. Chances are a bream will grab it then. If not, give it a light twitch and wait 10 or 20 seconds. If a strike doesn't come, false cast and drop the fly near another bream.
It's a bit tedious, but for the tastiest eating, most bluegill anglers like to fillet their catch. Cut these fillets into finger-sized strips, poach and dip in cocktail sauce.
And don't worry about keeping quite a few of these scrappy little fish for the pan. They're incredibly prolific. Remaining ones can grow fatter and healthier when some of the competition for food and space is thinned out.