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OUTDOORS: Fishing with the Bream Master

By Keith Sutton

This article was published May 8, 2011 at 6:00 a.m.

Lewis Peeler of Vanndale shows why his “Bream Master” nickname is well deserved — a stringer full of bream caught while fishing with the author.

— I like to call him “the Bream Master.” During the more than 30 years I’ve been traveling the country and fishing with experts of all stripes, I’ve never met anyone who knows more about finding and catching bluegills, redear sunfish and other bream.

Lewis Peeler of Vanndale owns an insurance business with his wife, Sherry. But in springtime, whenever time permits, he’s on the water as often as possible, fishing for his beloved bream. He’s good at catching crappie, bass and catfish as well, but “perch jerking” — catching big bluegills and redears — is his specialty.

While fishing a south Arkansas reservoir last May, Lewis gave me a great demonstration of his panfish-catching skills. We had not fished this lake before, but Lew knew exactly what to look for to help us zero in on spawning areas where bream were on their nests.

“Do you see that oily surface film on top of the water?” he asked.

I did. Near the shoreline, there was a distinct “slick” that resembled oil on the water’s surface.

“That’s a sure sign bream are nesting there,” Lew said. “Cast a cricket right on top of it and see what happens.”

We cast simultaneously, and as soon as our bobbers bobbed upright, they both shot out of sight.

“Ha, ha!” Lewis laughed, obviously pleased that his prediction was right. “Get ready now. The fun is about to begin.”

Bull bluegills were spinning in tight circles at the ends of our lines, putting substantial bends in both our poles. But the 1-pound fish didn’t stand a chance against grown men with thoughts of a fish fry running through their heads. We quickly reeled in the fish, removed them from our hooks and tossed them in a cooler full of ice to keep them fresh. Then we cast again and again and caught another and another and another. Two hours later, the cooler was brimming with bream, more than 50 all together.

Had we so chosen, we could have continued fishing and doubled that number in a few hours. During the spring spawn, which usually begins in late April or early May in Arkansas, bluegills, redears and other bream are highly vulnerable to the angler’s hook, and those who know where and how to fish this season can enjoy fast-paced fishing fun.

Lewis Peeler learned how to find bream beds while fishing with his mother and older brothers as a youngster. One technique they taught him may seem a bit off the wall, but it’s an effective means for pinpointing heavy concentrations of nesting bluegills and redears during the spawn.

“Fisherman find bedding bream many ways,” he said. “Sometimes you can see their fins or the swirls made as they move in shallow water. Some folks use their ears and listen for smacking sounds the fish make as they suck bugs from the surface. My way of finding bream beds is a bit different. I use my nose.”

According to Peeler, wherever nests of bluegills and redears are concentrated, the air carries a distinctive, fishy odor. And anyone with a normal sense of smell can learn to zero in on that unusual aroma and find big beds that may hold scores of jumbo bream.

“I start by sculling my johnboat along the banks and looking for shallow flats or long sloping banks where the fish are likely to spawn,” he told me as we fished. “When I detect the smell of the beds, then I look for an oily film on the water, just like you saw before we started catching all those fish.

“I smelled them first, then looked for that film. It looks like someone spilled a little gasoline in the water. The two together — the oil slick and the smell — are a sure sign bream are bedding there.”

Wearing polarized sunglasses, Peeler next looks for “honeycombs” of nests, which appear as groups of circular depressions on the bottom. If the water is clear enough, individual fish may be seen swimming above each nest. If not, Peeler drops a bait in first one place then another until he pinpoints concentrations of fish.

“I typically fish with an 11-foot jigging pole,” Peeler said. “I tie a long-shank cricket hook on the line and then add the smallest split shot that will slowly sink a cricket. I prefer a really small cork and put the split shot 4 to 6 inches above the hook. As the split shot goes down, the cricket slowly follows.

“Most bream beds on the lakes I fish are on a firm sandy or light-gravel bottom,” he continued. “I start fishing in places like that and keep moving until I find the big dark-colored male fish guarding the beds. I don’t race through the cover but slowly scull my boat through an area, trying to hit all the likely spots. You must pay close attention when doing this. Many people drop a cricket in and around some cover, and if they don’t get a bite, they think there are no fish there. But that’s not always the case. Sometimes the difference between catching a fish and not catching a fish is just a matter of inches. It’s important to pay attention to the cover as you fish, and put your bait in lots of little nooks and crannies and close to stick-ups and trees.”

Peeler often fishes oxbows along the Mississippi and other big Delta rivers. Bream beds in these lakes often are in extremely shallow water near shore in places inaccessible by boat. When that’s the case, Peeler may leave his boat and wade-fish.

“Sometimes the fish are just out of reach and the only way get to them is to wade,” he noted. “My brother taught me this method when I was a kid. Using long poles or ultralight spinning outfits, we waded through water that varied from knee-deep to waist-deep as we hunted for bull bream on their beds. When one of us caught one, the other would come over, and we would work that bed together. We found some of the largest beds I’ve ever seen while fishing this way. If you move slowly and try not to disturb the fish too much, chances are good you could land 100 or more big bream in just a short time.”

Peeler said fishing for spawning bream is one of the most fun pastimes available to Arkansans. And he should know. Over the years, he’s spent hundreds of days on the water chasing his favorite panfish this season, and during that time, he’s caught thousands.

“Bream fishing in spring is absolutely a blast,” he says. “It’s one of the best reasons to spend a day on the lake. Everyone who loves fishing should give it a try.”

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