Used to be, all I needed was a half day off during the full moon of May. Drag my canoe 100 yards through the woods to the Carpenter Pond in North Carolina and whack bedding bluegills until it got so dark even the wood thrushes quit singing. Have I ever been happier with a rod in my hand? Probably not. Back then, bream fishing encapsulated all that was pure and simple and right in the world. These were not fish whose shapes were embroidered on shirts with UPF ratings, not fish that you worshipped. These were fish that ate worms. Fish that you threaded onto a 49-cent stringer and released in a frying pan. Sometimes I ask myself: What happened? What happened was, I forgot about the bream. But this much I was honest enough to know: After angling for bigger and more glamorous fish, a return to the blissfulness of bream was going to require the big thinking of a bona fide adventure. The result? A Panfish Odyssey. An eight-day road trip through the epicenter of bream biodiversity, down where Georgia butts heads with Florida. Down there with oddball bream such as stumpknockers and warmouths, shellcrackers and swamp fliers. And bluegills that defy description. I hooked up with photographer Colby Lysne, who’d never even heard the word bream. We met in Jacksonville, Fla. We brought six spinning rods, four fly rods, and a field guide to freshwater fish. If I were going home again, I wanted one heck of a reunion Tao of the Bobber Ron Morris tosses a cricket through a dinner-plate-size hole in a mass of tangled vines and Spanish moss. Morris, 53, is slender as a willow branch, bearded and baked by the sun. His friends call him “Altamaha Jones.” He frowns with his cast, and from the front of his boat I know he’s thinking: That ain’t right. He lifts the rod tip and wiggles the cork a few inches left. A swirl of river current carries cricket and cork, like a child’s toy boat, into a dark corridor beyond the vines. And there, where the grapevines shade a maple tree, the bobber disappears. “There he is,” Morris mutters. He lifts the fat shellcracker over the side of his battered johnboat. “He can’t hide but so long. “Looks like you got yourself a titty bream!” Jason Strickland calls, from the far side of a dense curtain of grapevine and greenbrier where he’s fishing with Lysne. And Lysne takes the bait as well. “What in the world,” he asks, “is a titty bream?” Strickland laughs. “Where you from, boy? That’s a bream so big you can’t get your hand around him. You got to lay him on your chest and hold him down to get the hook out of his mouth!” It is day two of our panfish odyssey, and day two of trailing a pair of Altamaha River rats through water so wild it’s on the list of the Nature Conservancy’s “Last Great Places in the World.” Winding through Georgia’s Coastal Plain cypress swamps, the Altamaha is as endlessly exciting for panfishermen as Paris Hilton is for teenaged boys. Stand on a sandbar, and the river appears an inscrutable plain of mud soup. But in its flow live the big spawning bluegills locals call “copperheads,” plus redbreast sunfish, shellcrackers, spotted sunfish, pumpkinseeds, warmouths, white and black crappies (a.k.a. “white perch” to South Georgians), fliers, and dollar sunfish. Morris and Strickland fish it hard and often, and usually out of Jesup, Ga. At the moment we are anchored at a place known only as the Cracker Barrel. The pair have fished this exact “bream drop”—meaning any spot that’s worth a few casts—for better than 10 years. Strickland’s daddy fished it for decades but only showed it to his son after turning his attention full-time to white perch. Strickland doesn’t begrudge his father. “People are serious ’bout their bream,” he figures. They have to be in these parts. Bream fishing the Altamaha is “kamikaze fishing,” as Morris calls it. During the spawning season, panfish move to the shallows and sandbars, but most of the year catching them means throwing a hook into places most anglers would never consider. “Catch a fish, lose a hook, catch a fish, lose a bobber,” Morris says. “You got to play it right to get your rig out of that junk. A lot of people can’t take it. But that’s what you have to do for these ol’ river bream.” Later that afternoon, I switch to fish with Strickland. At 49, he’s affable and chatty, chewing on a cigar with the cuffs of his burgundy sweatpants pulled up to his knees. He uses his “pa-in-law’s” ancient fiberglass fly rod with an underspin reel attached. With it, he can underhand pitch a cricket into a circle of water no bigger than a softball. Every time. Last week, Strickland tells me, he and his daughter slipped into the head of a narrow slough where caterpillars dropped from a gum tree, then floated into the backswamp. They caught 80 fish without moving the boat. He shakes his head. “I heard an old-timer once talk about how they’d shoot a possum and hang it in one of them slough trees. When it’d rot, the maggots would fall into the water, drift down, and pile the fish in there. Them old boys would tear the fish up. Ain’t that something?” Something, indeed. That night, we fry fish by the river and sop up the grease with biscuits baked in an ancient Dutch oven. Pileated woodpeckers hammer in the dark swamp woods while Morris looks across the broad expanse of river, its surface roiled with current seams and eddy lines and boils of upwelling water. “I used to bass fish,” he drawls, “but I burned out. When my boy was coming up, I’d take him and it was always: ‘Sit down, shut up, don’t do that, be quiet.’ He quit fishing for a long time.” Morris pokes at the fire. “Once I got hooked on these ol’ river bream, I gave up the bass. Now, if I’ve got water moving under me, I’m happy. Sometimes, if it gets too long since I’ve been on the river, I’ll sit on the toilet and flush a few times, just to make myself feel better.” Casting for Gold On our last morning on the river I’m back in the boat with Morris, doing my best to do what he did all day long the day before. When he steers the johnboat toward shore, I longingly eye a hard edge of lily pads, the kind of cover that requires but a modicum of casting skill. Nothing doing. “You’d better duck,” Morris instructs, threading the johnboat between dense willows and denser vines. I swat away spiderwebs. “Here,” he says. “This ain’t so bad.” I drop a cricket 4 feet from the boat and let the river do the rest. With the bail open I feed line with my left hand, keeping the cork slanted toward me as the current carries the weighted cricket under trailing fingers of shrubs and vines. Just as it’s about to catch, I stop the bobber, angle it right, and thread the cricket deeper into the woods. Twenty feet away it settles into a slot of water as grim as a bad day in a Faulkner tale. Right where I want it. “I know what you’re thinking,” Morris tells me. “When you know there’s a fish there it starts to get personal, even if you figure it’s a little one. You just want to see the color of his eyes.” Suddenly the bobber ticks once, twice, then disappears. This is not a little one, however. It’s a bragging-size shellcracker, his eyes black as coal and haloed with concentric bands of red and gold. I pull him into the boat, and Altamaha Jones clucks twice. “What you got there,” he says with a big grin, “is a sure-nuff titty bream.” Redbelly Boys Jim Greek stashes a camouflage sun hat between his legs as he opens the throttle for a run up the Suwannee River. “Watch out for jumping fish,” he cautions. “We’ve had some bad times with them.” “Jumping fish?” I ask. “Sturgeon. They jump for no reason at all. Had a fellow not long ago, fish jumped, he swerved to miss it and run up in the trees. Killed hisself.” I am stunned into silence as the 16-foot aluminum boat settles on plane at 40 mph. I assumed there might be hazards in the Deep South—fire ants, alligators, maybe cottonmouth moccasins. But free-jumping 100-pound prehistoric migrating fish? They weren’t on the list. We’d had a last-minute change of itinerary. Our second stop had been planned for the Okefenokee, where locals fish for a peculiar little bream called the flier. But much of southern Georgia is on fire, and the blaze is centered just outside the swamp. Smoke hangs heavy over vast peanut fields. Hand-lettered signs in yards thank local firefighters: our heroes! they exclaim. For now, the park is closed. Okefenokee’s fliers will have to wait. Instead, we made a few frantic phone calls and headed to the labyrinthine Suwannee River, 70 crow-fly miles from the Gulf of Mexico. There, we joined up with Jim Greek and Billy Cason, a pair of 64-year-old anglers. They met 13 years ago, when Cason was running a backhoe on his peanut farm and Greek, his neighbor-through-the-woods, dropped by to ask for help covering his trash heap. Cason came within 30 minutes, and a few days later they went fishing together, forging a friendship on the backs of redbellies. Folks in my part of North Carolina know redbellies as “robins,” or redbreast sunfish, the handsomest bream of Southern rivers. During the spring spawn, the male redbelly is a riot of crimson, green, and blue. Fishing for redbreasts is a tradition so steeped in Southern culture that they are the subject of local festivals and highbrow doctoral dissertations. Greek and Cason, however, are more interested in how to entice one onto a hook. “A worm’s about the sorriest bait there is, at least for river fish,” Greek says matter-of-factly as he threads a cricket on a hook. The duo’s go-to rig is a No. 6 extra-light wire hook topped with a small orange bead and a 1⁄16-ounce bullet weight. But it’s the bobber that matters most. They remove the peg from a 2-inch slip cork and push a plastic insert from a slip cork the next size up into the line channel. “That makes the line slide through the cork easier. It doesn’t get hung up as bad, and drifts deeper. Sometimes those little things make a big difference.” A retired Florida wildlife enforcement officer, Greek spent a career checking fishermen on redbelly streams—and he kept his eyes open for those whose stringers were heaviest. “In one month’s time I certified the world-record redbelly four times,” he says. “The biggest was better’n 2 pounds. Now, that’s a fish.” I switch to Cason’s boat at midday, after a lunch of crackers and Vienna sausages in the shade of the river bluff. I’m starting to get the hang of the difference between cork watching on the two rivers. Unlike those bobbers on the Altamaha, pegged to the line and telegraphing the nibble and sniff of every fish, these are free-floating, untethered, and the hook might be 5 feet or 20 below the bobber. That makes each movement a mere suggestion of what’s happening down under, and I watch my float with a prosecutor’s bent of mind, looking for tics and nervousness, the way one end suddenly swings a half inch against the current, which suggests that the cricket underneath is no longer bump-bump-bumping along the bottom but has, instead, lodged inside the toothed lips of a spawning redbelly. Cason didn’t grow up watching corks drift over redbelly beds. “We always went dynamiting for fish,” he tells me. “Light that fuse with a cigarette and let ’er go. We’d shoot the shallows for the spring runs of mullet, shoot the treetops for redbellies, bass, and them ol’ hogback suckers.” The practice was illegal, of course. If the warden caught them, the group split the $35 fine. And it was dangerous. “There were several blind and one-armed men back home. They’d clipped the fuse just a mite too short.” From gunpowder, Cason moved to cane poles and plywood boats. Now it’s ultralight spinning reels and outboards, and two to three mornings a week on the river with Greek. It’s amazing to contemplate how many fish have come over their gunwales, how many family fights they’ve hashed out in the safe enclave afforded by a 16-foot boat. The pursuit of trophy panfish seems to produce relationships refreshingly free of hype and ill-spirited competition. Maybe it’s because the best you can do is brag about a fish not much bigger than your hand. And the worst you can do is spend a fishless day with someone else who holds in high esteem a creature that will happily suck down a waterlogged cricket. When we meet Greek and Lysne at the boat ramp, Greek fires first: “Did you kill ’em?” His grin tells us that they sure did. Lysne is buzzing. “They were sucking down the corks so fast you couldn’t even remember where you cast,” he says. “Then they went to nibbling. Then they turned off. But look at this.” He opens up the live well. Thirty-eight redbellies are stacked in the hold, flanks of copper already fading to their muted, dying colors. “It ain’t all the fish in the world,” Greek admits, “but that there’s a morning, I’ll tell you what.” Another cookie-cutter perfect day later, Greek and Cason are already in the water when we pull up in the morning. While we futz with our gear, they catch a dozen fish not 10 feet from the ramp, whooping it up like kids. Climbing into Greek’s boat, I notice the cellophane wrapper is still on his fishing rod handle—the rod isn’t new; he’s just never bothered to remove all the packaging. The first place we fish is by a shelf of sand that falls into deep water, pocked with fish beds like yellow moon craters. We cast our crickets toward the reflections of cypress trees and saw palmetto. “Most people don’t like to fish,” Greek says, taking his eyes off his cork to watch a swallowtail kite. “They like to catch fish. There’s a difference. I fish year-round. Good fishing or bad. Whether I need to or not.” Just then, Greek sets the hook again and the ultralight rod bends in a deep C. “Oh, yes, oh, yes,” he murmurs. The fish comes up through the Suwannee’s amber waters and into the sun, another 10-inch redbelly bound for the Friday-night fish fry at Elim Church. Gator Raid In some dim part of my brain, I know that the gator is close, but a 3-pound bowfin is about to break Lysne’s ultralight rod, and the fact that I am yelling at Lysne—“He’s coming, man! You gotta get the fish in the boat!”—and the fact that he is yelling back—“The rod won’t lift it!”—doesn’t help. I step over the cooler and grab the line just as the 8-foot gator lunges. The dim part of my brain suddenly brightens, but too late: The reptile comes over the gunwale, jaws open, as I backpedal in shock. It snaps at the bowfin not 5 inches from my wrist. My garbled scream echoes across the Okefenokee Swamp. For long moments Lysne and I stand quietly, staring at the wet spot left by the gator’s head sliding back into the water. Finally, Lysne breaks the silence. “Fresh undies for the captain?” After days of being schooled by some of the best bream anglers in the South, we’d hoped to settle in at the Okefenokee Swamp for solitude and a solid few days of dabbling yellow sally flies for that smallish swamp bream called the flier. I’d heard tales of anglers landing 100 of them in a few hours of fishing after Sunday morning church. But the fires—now 100,000 acres and growing—are scrambling our schedule. And the welcoming party of rough-looking gators, pushed into what little water remains, isn’t helping. Twice we pole a rental aluminum johnboat into Stephen Foster State Park’s Billy Lake, a 3-mile-long Rorschach blot of muck, ooze, and towering cypress trees. We notch our rods with two more bream species—the delicately spotted flier, and the crayfish-grubbing warmouth. But eventually the surly gators do us in, and we leave. There are more fish awaiting us in the Sunshine State. Shellcracker Lust From the Okefenokee we head south on the soulless lanes of Interstate 75. We’re tired and punchy after six days on the road, “riding the lightning,” as Lysne calls our strategy of caffeine abuse. We want to get off the interstate, take the roads less traveled. But in classic modern style, we’re overscheduled. On the map I see red type outside Archer, Fla.: the Fred Bear Museum. When I was 12, I was a charter member of the Fred Bear Sports Club. How can I pass this up? But we have to burn up road to somewhere south of Ocala. Curious to see a caged, 13-foot gator? No time. Want a shark in a bottle? No time. We have a date with panfish 100 miles away at a little piece of heaven on earth. Spring-fed and carpeted with eelgrass, Lake Panasoffkee is like an old-timey Florida version of the Carpenter Pond, a distillation of all that was good and pure in my days gone by, but expanded to 4,460 acres and still alive and well, miraculously. Wide-eyed, we roll along the lake to the Pana Vista Lodge. Opened in the mid 1930s, it’s a hodgepodge of wooden structures under Spanish moss–draped cypress trees. The spiritual center is a low-slung, tin-roofed tackle shop. Rattlesnake skins, alligator skulls, and ancient Polaroids of huge bass plaster the walls. But it’s the mounted shellcrackers that drop my jaw. These are ridiculously huge fish with tiger-striped flanks and mouths set for eternity in plaster-cracked O’s. “We held the state-record shellcracker for a long time,” Jim Veal Sr. says from behind a weathered counter. He’s a slim man sporting fuzzy gray lamb-chop sideburns and chewing on a dark cigar. “Three pounds 7⁄8 ounces. Now they’ve got these hybrid bluegills you can buy: ‘Georgia Giants.’” He spits the words out like bits of cheap tobacco. “You heard of ’em? I call ’em steroid bream.” We’d love to linger at the old tackle shop, but the lake itself beckons just a few hundred yards away. We load up on crickets and worms and a not-so-positive fishing report: The shellcrackers have yet to show on the beds, and the forecast is for isolated and widely scattered bluegills. “Look for potholes in that grass where the big ol’ copperheads have fanned the silt off the shell bottom,” Veal advises. “A few folks have done pretty well with them.” I grumble on the way out. “Man, this is the best place in the universe to catch monster shellcrackers. I can’t believe we’re missing the bite.” “I don’t know,” Lysne muses. “Sounds like somebody’s catching fish. Are you dissing the lowly bluegill?” “Not dissing anything,” I say. “Bluegills are fine. But did you see the size of those shellcrackers? I didn’t know they got half that big.” We motor the rental through an outfall canal while funky snail-eating birds, called limpkins, eye us nervously. We fish hard, the way we were told to, seeking holes in the eelgrass, dabbling with crickets in the bare spots. We catch next to nothing. We troll. We anchor and fan casts. We catch the occasional bluegill but never are we in danger of sinking the boat with fish. After seven days, the bream gods are exacting revenge. Backwater Bliss In the night, we scrounge three-day-old asparagus from the meltwater at the bottom of the cooler and grill a hunk of pork for dinner. It’s been a very long, very trying day. We sip beers and listen to the crickets and cicadas as laughter drifts over the lodge compound. Barefoot kids are riding bikes, and old men are walking their ridiculous lap dogs. It’s hard to be down in the mouth for long. I remember Altamaha Jones, a week before, checking biscuits in a Dutch oven. “You hear people say, ‘Well, I think I’ll take the kids bream fishing,’” he’d said. “Like all you have to do is throw your hook out and the fish will jump on it. But that ain’t how it always is. Not with these fish.” We’re up early on day eight, with mere hours before we’ll have to dash back to the Jacksonville airport. After playing to the party line, we decide to use our fish sense and hunt the bluegills down. A meager breeze is just enough to drift the boat over the eelgrass. We set our lines for varying depths. We forget looking for beds. We ignore the knots of boats congregated elsewhere. And soon, we feel something different about the day. “I gotta tell you,” Lysne says. “It’s good to try to figure it out. Yesterday felt like I was walking around on a leash, you know what I mean?” I do. And the difference—whether it’s a shift in mood or moon or modes of fishing—is amazing. We catch fish one after the other. The bluegills give us a quick little hint of their intentions, a tiny tap on the bobber, then suck it in. For two hours it’s crazy rod-bending, take-me-back-home bluegill fishing. Titty bream, just about every one. Finally, we run out of crickets and scrounge the boat bottom for escapees. I catch a copperhead ’gill on a legless cricket, another on a dried-up cadaver, and my last big one with little more than a cricket drumstick—just a leg with a little piece of meat attached. Our whoops and laughter ring over the lake. Have I ever been happier with a rod in my hands? After all, it wasn’t the fish or fishing that had changed since my afternoons on the Carpenter Pond. It was me. I turn the boat back to the landing and open up the throttle. The little 8- horsepower takes us toward home. But in a way, I’m already there.