Breaming with Bass

When you understand the unusual predator-prey relationship between the largemouth bass and the bluegill, better fishing is just around the corner.

Field & Stream Online Editors

The back of the cove was pockmarked with clean circles, a scattergun of bull's- eyes that defined a frenzy of bedding bluegill sunfish. The "bream" spawn was peaking--and within reach of a 6-weight fly rod on a soft spring evening.

The aluminum johnboat nudged against a quiet anchor as I put a loop of weight- forward line and a size 10 yellow sponge spider into the air. One twitch, then rod raised against one of the round, robust alpha spawners. The hooked bluegill stayed down, zigging and twisting with flashes of copper. Then the tip surged, following a rush of undeniable power. Ounces had somehow been replaced by pounds.

The slanting fly line curved up as a 5-pound largemouth jumped. The tattered bluegill tore free, but outrageous fortune had pinned the small hook and, following several splashy moments, the bass plodded close enough to lip. Jeff Bonds and I admired the bristling hulk, then I slipped the fish into the pond. Bonds laughed. "Well, you've used up your luck for the year. Hell will freeze over before that happens again."

And yet, moments later, Bonds drew the chain reaction bass-on-a-bream strike. His 5-weight jolted and a ham-sided sow boiled to the top. The bass shook and wallowed and fell back free.

Bonds sighed and palmed the frazzled, half-scaled bluegill. "That fish would have weighed 6 pounds, easy." He looked up. "Maybe we're going about this backwards. Maybe we ought to be bass fishing first."

** **Robbing the Nest

The comment, made in jest, was dead center. At least, it was for anglers who recognize the unusual predator-prey relationship between largemouth bass and bluegill sunfish. Each species is at one time or another vulnerable to the other, and the savvy angler who understands this flip-flop timetable can improve bass-catching potential on most water.

The foremost of these situations occurs during the bass spawning period of late winter and spring. The bass on shallow beds become protective and aggressive, and the number-one threat to a ripe nest short of a broken dam is the bluegill sunfish. The ravenous bluegills prefer the mossy shorelines where most bass spawning occurs. They hover close in shadowing packs, quick to dart into a nest as the bass turns away. Even a mob of small 3- and 4-inch bream can terrorize the bed of a huge sow. The observant angler can perhaps watch this sad tableau when a bass fans a nest in clear water near a dock or pier. The harried spawner darts left and right, finning back and forth, never able to guard all corners as vicious little bream nip and tuck from the rimming weeds.

The vulnerable bass cannot drive away all attacks, but what she can do is knock the hell out of the occasional careless bluegill that lingers too long. Feeding may have nothing to do with this strike; indeed, the fish may have no interest in eating. The bass is in a defensive mode, trying to slam the offender and remove it from the bed.

A lure with a bluegill pattern can play to this advantage. Why not offer this extra tweak as you sail a plug against a spring shoreline? Both threadfin shad and bluegill sunfish represent prime forage for bass, but the bream has become a mortal enemy during the buds of spring. Any lure perceived as a real threat to the nest has the trump of drawing a defensive strike.

The ethics of deliberately casting to a bass protecting a nest are a matter of ongoing debate, and my intention is not to promote unsportsmanlike tactics. But the fact remains that whenever anglers are within reach of shorelines and shallows during the late winter and spring, a "blind" cast may plunk within the strike zone of an unseen bass fanning or guarding a nest. Whether the disruption was accidental or deliberate makes no difference.

It's your call. All I'm saying is that a uegill sunfish, more so than a threadfin shad, can light a fire in the weedbeds when bass move to spawn.

Tables Turned

But it's not over. Bass seem to delight in turning the tables. In many regions, bluegill nesting lags a month or two behind the largemouth bass spawn. During the late season, as the "bull bream" begin bedding, the concentrated activity can attract and hold prowling bass. And not just any bass.

As Bonds and I discovered, large bass can be attracted to these bedding areas. The mature bluegills represent a desirable forage base for the top-end fish. Fisheries biologists agree that bass weighing more than 4 or 5 pounds prefer baitfish at least 4 to 5 inches in length. (Chasing helter-skelter after small minnows is not efficient for an ambush-oriented predator). Under normal circumstances, the mature bluegills are drifting amid the weeds and brush, not always easy to corner, but during bedding an abundance of prime forage is holding in a defined open area and pinned to the bottom. There, on the edge of the sandy dropoff, lurking with goggle eyes and steel-trap jaws and ready to extract full revenge for previous nesting violations, waits the bluegill's worst nightmare. It is enough to say that the biggest bass in a given area can be drawn to a reliable source of mature bluegills.

Given this potbellied possibility, anglers armed with light tackle and aiming for bedding bream might consider carrying a heavier bass rod as a backup. A few casts with the big stick now and then might keep the perimeter honest. The salty old pluggers of decades past understood this trait. During the era when bassing amid the backwaters moved at a slower pace, the old gents with direct-drive reels and braided lines and large surface plugs deliberately hunted hotspots of concentrated bluegill activity among the muck and moss. They called them "peepholes." The beds are only one example.

An overhanging limb carrying a large nest of caterpillars or similar smorgasbord of terrestrial prey can attract hungry bream. A bird roost over water might serve the same purpose. The shade of a dock or boat stall or pier often draws a high density of sunfish. Regardless of venue, the opportunistic bluegills wait for the inevitable offerings to drop. But, while the preoccupied bream are clustered shallow and gazing up, the nearby weeds might stir as a battlewagon- class bass sidles close. For the angler approaching this select circumstance, it makes more sense to lead with a crippled bream imitation than, say, a plastic worm.

The Color Conundrum

Not coincidentally, many of the "top drawer" plugs used by the oldtimers played to this advantage. A large baitfish-imitation plug could be cozied into a tight area and allowed to linger within the defined strike zone, nodding and burbling and slushing with crippling effect on lurking bass. The elongated profiles and popular patterns did not always "match the hatch," but the color schemes of green, yellow, red, and white (often sprayed with a scale-type finish) did suggest a luckless bluegill. And, in this context, it is worth noting that good bass plugs share a characteristic traditionally reserved for horseshoes and hand grenades: Close does count.

An aggressive bass isn't particularly selective when the setup is right. But favoring the intended forage certainly earns points, and I am surprised at how few of today's bass anglers specifically use bluegill-imitation patterns; indeed, just finding a counterfeit bluegill amid the shelves of "blue shad," "black shad," "gold shad," "purple shad," "bleeding purple shad," "natural shad," "Tennessee shad," "citrus shad," "gizzard shad," and "mystic shad" can be a tad difficult. Scatterings of bluegill patterns are available but, as the above sampler suggests, shad dominate plug and spinnerbait marketing.

This is a strange stance, especially for anglers gearing for the many small waters not even stocked with forage shad. But, regardless of acreage, if mossy, bassy shallows are within reach, the odds are excellent that you will not have to fish too far before flushing a few native bluegills.

Mature bluegills in full-dress colors are dramatic, lending themselves to creative interpretations--certainly more so than the standard-issue threadfin shad. Frankly, many of the gaudier shad patterns are probably mistaken by marauding bass for bream. In other words, if your favorite crankbait or topwater plug is not available in a "spawning sunperch" or "coppernose bluegill" edition, select a shad pattern that favors the bold primaries of a sunfish. Adding a stippling of black or red dots with a marker pen might enhance the image; if nothing else, the hand-tweaking builds confidence. With or without the personal touch, a shad that looks like a bluegill can be as good as a deliberate imitation.

What's in a name? They're all fakes, anyway. The idea is to recognize situations that are "breaming with bass," and to play to the double option that bluegill sunfish can offer along the shallow shorelines of spring.

ting.

This is a strange stance, especially for anglers gearing for the many small waters not even stocked with forage shad. But, regardless of acreage, if mossy, bassy shallows are within reach, the odds are excellent that you will not have to fish too far before flushing a few native bluegills.

Mature bluegills in full-dress colors are dramatic, lending themselves to creative interpretations--certainly more so than the standard-issue threadfin shad. Frankly, many of the gaudier shad patterns are probably mistaken by marauding bass for bream. In other words, if your favorite crankbait or topwater plug is not available in a "spawning sunperch" or "coppernose bluegill" edition, select a shad pattern that favors the bold primaries of a sunfish. Adding a stippling of black or red dots with a marker pen might enhance the image; if nothing else, the hand-tweaking builds confidence. With or without the personal touch, a shad that looks like a bluegill can be as good as a deliberate imitation.

What's in a name? They're all fakes, anyway. The idea is to recognize situations that are "breaming with bass," and to play to the double option that bluegill sunfish can offer along the shallow shorelines of spring.