How to Fish for Trophy Panfish on a Spawning Bed

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This hefty bluegill hit a panfish popper over a shallow bed. (Colin Kearns/)

There are few events in the sporting life that are as consistent and accessible as fishing for bedding bream. Various species of this entire tasty tribe spawn from early spring through early summer, and posting up on a bream bed to fill stringers and coolers with bluegill, shellcrackers, and more is a full-moon rite of passage. But first you have to find them.

How Deep Are Bream Beds?

Bream require a bottom substrate soft enough so they can use their tails to fan out shallow, round nests that won’t wash away with a bit of surface chop or silt in from nearby muck. Sand and pea-gravel banks are ideal places to look, but bypass silty, mucky flats and steep banks. One rule of thumb relates to water clarity: The dingier the water, the shallower beds tend to be. In super-clear water and in reservoirs and large lakes, it’s not uncommon to find bream beds in water 20 feet deep.

In ponds with little pressure or boat traffic, search for beds in water 5 feet deep or less. I’ve seen them bedding super-shallow, in water so skinny they’ll fin as they dig out the craters, but 2 to 3 feet is more typical. In larger water bodies, look for protected coves and pockets, and a nearby depth change such as a submerged creek channel is a plus. On weedy shorelines, beds will begin just outside the deepest weeds. If shellcrackers are your target, get a little wetter: These pugnacious fish typically spawn in deeper water averaging 7 to 10 feet deep.

Monster-size bluegill—called copperheads—and whopper shellcrackers can grow seriously large. Anything over a pound is worthy of a chest bump, but 2-pounders and larger are out there. And you don’t have to wait till the spawn to knock the dust off your rod. Pre-spawn bluegills, especially, will move into shallow water with lots of structure to gorge before bedding down, and this can be a great time to shake-down cruise your boat and gear and use bream busters or cane poles to dangle crickets and worms into cypress knees and heavy timber. But once those bream go all “Sex and the City,” it’s time to get serious about finding the love nests and picking them apart. Here’s how to spring into action.

How to Find Bream Beds

You can track down a bream bed by water or land, trolling slowly through shallows or stalking shorelines.

By Sight

In water with decent clarity, finding bream beds can be as easy as seeing them. Wear polarized sunglasses and look for a bottom honeycombed with what appears as white pancakes. There can be as few as a half-dozen separate nests in a bedding area, or more than 100. If bream are bedding in deeper or dingier water, look for small bubbles that rise to the surface as the fish fan over their crater-shaped beds.

By Smell

When the spawn is really cooking, you can actually smell the beds. Many anglers say the scent is akin to overly ripe watermelons, but I think the air has a slightly sweet and fishy funk—about what you’d expect from an underwater fish orgy. Move slowly as you bird-dog the banks. This works especially well for bank anglers: Prowl shorelines that grade into underwater flats. If you can plan your stalk so the wind is moving across the water and into your face, all the better.

By Feel

Cane poles aren’t just for winching trophy bream out of the water. If you can’t see the bottom, gently probe the substrate with a long cane pole or bream buster. You’ll be able to feel when soft muddy bottoms give way to a bit of grinding crunch. Start there.

By Sonar

The advent of side-scanning sonar kicked the bream-bed search protocol into a high-tech gear. Now you can put your unit on its side-scan setting, move quietly 50 or 60 feet off the bank, and troll the shore until bream beds show up like moon craters.

If you can’t pin down a bed with eyes, nose, or sonar, start hunting-and-pecking. Cast small spinners into likely shallows around sandy or gravelly flats near structure such as weedbeds, stumps, or brush. If you catch a fish, cast again to the same spot. If you catch two fish, get ready. If you catch two, you’ve found your bed.

How to Fish a Bream Bed

It’s easy to float into a bed and pick off a half-dozen good fish. It’s a different trick to pull five times that many out of the water without moving the boat. Bedding bream don’t want to leave their nests, but they will if they’re bumped or pushed too hard, and you can definitely shut down the bite by fighting the first few fish out of the middle of the bed.

Once you find craters, back off. Try to see the edges of the bedding area. You’ll want to start fishing about 10 yards out from the edge of the bed and work your way in, because the largest fish are often nesting in the deeper water on the margins.

It will help to know what fish species are in the neighborhood. Bluegills will scarf down worms under a bobber, but bottom-feeding shellcrackers require a different approach. They feed heavily on snails and tiny mussels, so you’ve got to get the meal all the way to the bottom. Use a ¼-ounce bell sinker on a drop-shot rig and switch to crunchy crickets.

The Best Months to Fish Bream Beds

While the three days on each side of the full moons of April, May, and June are typically best, beds can host solid action all month long. And some species spawn a bit earlier. Shellcrackers will often nest a month prior to bluegills. If you find a crackerjack shellcracker bed, keep it in mind. A shellcracker bed that goes from hot to cool can fire up again with bluegills in another month or two.

As the season progresses—and the water warms—bedding activity often moves into deeper water. The beds where you whacked the giants on fly rods in April may require a deeper fishing tactic in May or June, so don’t assume that the entire bedding flat has gone bust just because your sponge spider is ignored in two feet of water. Stow the fly pole and chunk a cricket under a toothpick bobber. The best—and biggest—might still be yet to come.



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