Bream Fly Fishing - By Cliff Hilbert
FLYFISHING FOR BREAM
By Cliff Hilbert
When I was in my teens in New Orleans my grandmother gave me my uncle’s old bamboo fly rod, now don’t get excited about the bamboo rod because it was an el cheapo and a wet spaghetti noodle would cast better. I taught myself how to use it and went down to the local lagoon and caught bream on it using poppers. Some years later I bought a brand new fly rod from Walmart (must have cost all of $25 including the reel and line, but remember that this was the 60s). I used that one for years, mostly on bass fishing, but every now and then I went bream fishing with it using poppers.
About five years ago I bought my first good fly rod, a 6/7-wt, 9’ St. Croix Imperial from Jim Green at Backcountry USA in Tyler. I used that for bass, bream and trout fishing (I was just learning the wonderful world of wading for trout). I asked Jim about a better rod for bream and he suggested a 7’, 3-wt. St Croix Imperial, which I bought. Now I was armed for battle! While at the shop I was looking at Jim’s bream flies and saw a number of them weren’t poppers (imagine that!). I bought several of them and began to use sinking flies (wets) for bream for the first time in my life. My favorite was a Cypert-type minnow imitation which I caught a lot of bream on, including my first state fly fishing record – a .23 lb longear sunfish.
About two years ago I began to use some of my trout flies for bream, mostly prince nymphs and pheasant tails, and found out that the bream absolutely loved them! I learned that many of the bream didn’t come up very shallow, and started using flies like a #12 bead head prince nymph, #12 copper johns # 12 bead head red squirrels and others like that which would sink fast. My catch rate and fish size went up dramatically. I also use bead head caddis pupa, zug bugs, scuds and bead head wooly buggers for bream. Bream feed mainly underneath the surface and they feed mostly on micro-organisms and insect pupae and larvae, just like trout. Of course they feed on topwater insects, but that is not a main part of their diet.
I rarely use a tapered leader for bass or bream fishing, and I have no trouble at all getting the flies to cast correctly. Most of the time I use 5 lb tippet material for a leader because tippet material is usually thinner than monofilament and thus it sinks faster. In bream fishing you don’t need the fly to alight on the water with very little disturbance. Bream are naturally curious and are drawn to a disturbance in the water. So, if a fly makes a nice splash when it hits the water it will not scare away the fish. To the contrary, it will excite them and draw them in. Ask any scuba diver who has watched fish behavior and he will tell you the same thing, bream are curious creatures and drawn to disturbances, much like people, ambulance chasers being a prime example (no, I’m not talking about attorneys, although the shoe may fit some). Recently at Lake Athens I lost several large bream because they broke my 5 lb tippet material I was using. No, they weren’t THAT BIG, but the leader was getting frayed because of the constant rubbing against vegetation and boat docks, and it would break easily. I switched to a 10 lb mono for a leader and I didn’t lose any more fish after that. Bream are not leader-shy, and you can increase the size of the leader and it will not bother them. I don’t use long leaders either. Most of the time my leaders are as long as the rod or shorter.
Ok, that’s what I use, now for how I use that equipment. When I’m bream fishing I usually fish in coves, big and small, although that’s not a rule because I do fish out on the main lake as well. I try to fish the edges of vegetation, most of the time in 2’-5’ of water. Bream use the vegetation to hide in, and they will come out of it to attack food. If the vegetation is not heavy and I can cast into it without getting tangled in it on every cast, then I will try to cast the fly into those areas. Depending on the depth, I may let the fly sink for 2-3 seconds before I impart action to it, or I may begin to give it action as soon as it hits the water. Rarely will I fast-strip the flies in. Most of the time I just strip in 1”-3” of line at a time, just to give the nymph a little movement. If I strip it in 2’ or so and haven’t gotten a hit, I recast it to another spot. If the fish were interested in it they would have hit it by then. If I get a hit I will usually cast back to that spot at least once or twice more. If I catch a fish, I’ll cast back there several times. If I come upon an area of shoreline that has no vegetation or structure, I don’t waste my time with it because if there is no place for the fish to hide then they won’t be there.
If I spot a hole in the vegetation where I can cast the fly and work it for a couple of seconds, then I’ll cast it into that hole. The new public waters state fly fishing record redear I just caught at Lake Athens on July 1, .85 lbs 10.5” x 10.2”, was that exact scenario. I saw a 2’ opening in the vegetation very near the shoreline so I cast the Copper John up into it and immediately the redear hit it. Now a #12 Copper John doesn’t hit the water gently and sink slowly, it hits the water with force and is propelled downward very quickly. The fish are very, very quick to attack something small and fast-moving like that. They are much quicker than we think. They react out of instinct. That was not a wary old bream that slowly studied the fly before he hit it because he didn’t have time, he hit it as soon as it hit the water. On July 4 I was fishing at a private lake with one of Gene Bethea’s purple and gold LSU clousers he tied for me and I cast it into a 4’ hole in the vegetation in the middle of the lake in water that was 7’ deep and caught a 1.3 lb redear, a new state record for private waters. I let it sink for 4-5 seconds, gave it a twitch and the fish took it. Openings in the vegetation are great places to fish because the fish can hide in the vegetation and attack anything that comes within range. Sure, you get tangled in the grass , but that’s just part of fishing.
If I see a log lying down in the water, I’ll work my fly alongside that log for as far a distance as I can. The fish will be under the log many times, it is a place for them to hide. The state record longear sunfish, .44#, I caught on Lake Jacksonville last year was under a fallen tree I was casting to in the back of a little cove. If I see a big tree or brush pile in the water, I’ll cast as close to it as possible, let the fly sink as far as possible without tangling in the brush, then slowly twitch it away from the pile. Many times the fish will come out of their hiding place to attack the fly. If one comes out, then usually more will come out. If I get tangled in the pile, then I’ll go get the fly if possible. I don’t worry too much about messing up that particular spot because there are many more places to fish on the lake. If I see a stump in the water, I’ll cast to the stump and let the fly sink next to it. Stumps are hiding places for fish.
I fish boat docks for bream and I catch a lot of bream from around the docks. I try to side-arm cast my fly up under the docks and let them sink for several seconds. Much of the time when a fish hits it you will see just a very slight twitch in the line as it’s sinking (I try to watch the leader as opposed to the fly line) or you’ll just see the leader moving in a direction it shouldn’t be moving. And, many times, you won’t even know you have a fish on until you begin to twitch the line to give the fly a little action and you notice a little tension on the line which shouldn’t be there, it may be a fish. I cast alongside boat docks also and let the fly sink for a few seconds, depending on the depth of the water, then begin to twitch it towards me. I will cast into the boat stalls as well, as far up into them as I can, then let the fly sink. Sometimes I will use a #14 beadhead Prince Nymph, Zugbug, scud, etc, other times I will use a #10 or #12 beadhead nymph, just depending on how fast I want the fly to sink.
If you were to ask me how I choose a different size fly over another one, most of the time I would tell you that it is just a feel I have for a certain size or fly at that time. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong, fishing is a trial and error thing. If I find a fly that is working for me, I’ll stick with it. If it’s not catching fish, then I’ll try something else. If I try several flies and nothing is working, then I’ll try and change my tactics from a slow retrieve to a fast one, from fishing shallow to fishing deep, from one color to another one. There are times when they simply aren’t in a feeding mood and nothing you throw at them will work, that’s when I go home (hey, I’m not a glutton for punishment).
Bed fishing during the spawn is, without question, the most fun time of the year for bream fishing. Most of the beds you’ll never see, usually because they are too deep for you to see, except in very clear water lakes. But when you do find them in shallow water the fishing is usually fantastic. My favorite is using live crickets but, since this is about fly fishing, I’ll discuss that instead. If the beds are very shallow I’ll use a smaller and lighter fly, if they are 3’-6’ deep I’ll use a larger, heavier fly to get it down much quicker. I find that in bed fishing, generally the fish like it on the bottom, being worked slowly across their nests. That’s not always the case, but I’ve had most of my success like that. When I’m fishing like that I rarely watch the line. Instead, I know the fish has taken it because when I’m working the line in there will be a tension on it that shouldn’t be there. The easiest way to tell you have a fish on is when they take the fly and run off with it, that’s usually a pretty good indication you have a fish, lol.
This year, for the first time, I used dry flies some of the time while I was fishing the beds. It was fun and I did catch a lot of fish like that, some very nice ones. But most of the time they would just come up and slap at the fly to kill it, those are typically smaller bream. I’m sorry guys but when I see a fish hit the fly, I’m simply not patient enough to wait until I feel the tug on the line to set the hook. I set the hook when it slaps at the fly, or at least try to, thus I miss most of the topwater strikes. With sinking nymphs I don’t miss near that many, and I catch many, many more and bigger fish with wets than I do with dries – this from a guy who had never used anything but dries until about four years ago. I’m not knocking using dry flies, but I’ve found that, personally, I am much more successful with sinking nymphs than with dries.
Now when I do use dry flies, I don’t let them sit motionless while I smoke a cigarette, mainly because I don’t smoke. I give them a fair amount of action on the surface. Many times when a dry fly hits the water it will immediately be hit by a bream, which throws out the notion that you have to let it sit motionless until you die of boredom. I don’t let my topwater bass bugs sit still for more than a second or two, and I don’t let dry flies for bream sit motionless for long. I’m aggressive in fishing just like I am in most others things, and I like to see action in the flies. I’m not going to sit around and let spider webs grow on me just to give the bream time to decide if he wants my offering or not. But that is my personality, others are different and like slow fishing – if that’s what they enjoy, well that’s great for them, each to his own.
Many people like to use spiders when fishing for bream. I’ve had several given to me by friends who tie flies (I haven’t taken up that addiction yet and never will – there is a fine line between a “hobby” and a “mental illness”, just kidding guys), and I’ve used these spiders, the sinking variety mostly, and have caught some very nice bream on them. They are an excellent fly and do work well. Bream seem to love those things with plenty of legs dangling all over the place.
Before I close let me add this, my third rod is an 8 ½’, 4-wt. St. Croix Avid, which I bought for trout fishing. But when I know that when I’m going bream fishing on a windy day, I take this rod along because it handles the wind better than my 7’, 3-wt. If I know that I am going to be fishing deep for bream all day and using larger and heavier flies, I also use my 8 ½’, 4-wt. That way I won’t come home with welts all over my back and the back of my head from the fly hitting me (that hurts you know!)
One last thought. We have all heard of those “wily old bream” who have gotten large in their old age because they are so smart. Bull!! Fish are stupid, they are not wily, nor are they smart. They feed on instinct, they react quickly to a disturbance in the water – if they didn’t, then they would go hungry because the others bream would beat them to the punch. If they haven’t been caught yet, it is simply because no one has ever thrown a hook their way with something that interested them. When was the last time you saw a big yellow spider with long white legs crawling across the top of the water? Yet you fish with yellow poppers and spiders with white legs and some fish will hit them, others won’t. Does that mean that some fish are smarter than others? No, it simply means that that fly didn’t trigger the feeding instinct in some fish at that time, the next day it might. Why did that wily, wise and discriminating 9 lb bass at Fork this year hit my chartreuse popping bug (which looks like nothing she has ever seen before) after living all these years? Because she was so wily and smart? No, she hit it out of instinct, a reactionary strike. She was lucky, because I kissed her then let her go back home, but she sure wasn’t smart. (She gave me a real sweet kiss too, mmmmmm.)
None of the above are hard and fast rules. These are the tactics that I like and that work for me. If you do things differently and catch fish, then good for you, keep using what you’re comfortable and successful with.