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OUTDOORS: Fall panfishing is a viable option

Bluegills, shellcrackers, and redbreasts can be very active in the fall of the year. Panfishermen need not let a change in season deter them. (Staff photo: Bob Kornegay)

Bluegills, shellcrackers, and redbreasts can be very active in the fall of the year. Panfishermen need not let a change in season deter them. (Staff photo: Bob Kornegay)

In the fall, many area sportsmen naturally concentrate on hunting. When one does choose to ponder fishing opportunities, fall-run bass and crappies are the two fish species most often considered.

Bream fishing is seldom on most outdoorsmen’s minds in October and November. Knowledgeable Southern panfishermen, however, know this can be a mistake.

Our ubiquitous panfish species, often considered springtime and early summer fishes to be sought primarily when area waters first begin to warm up, can often become quite active as the fall season deepens.

The reason for this increased autumnal feeding activity among Deep South bluegills, shellcrackers, and redbreasts is not certain. Some experts believe it is a pre-winter feeding spree brought about by an instinctive urge to “fuel up” before colder weather permanently sets in. Others say dropping water temperatures just naturally make the fish more active after several months of the hot summer “doldrums.” Whatever the actual reason, fishermen need know little more than the fact that bream fishing can be quite good, sometimes outstanding, this time of year.

“When October comes, the bream fishing can really start heating up,” said Dave Brighton, a Southeast Alabama angler who largely shuns largemouth bass and other “glamour” species in favor of warm-water panfish. “Shellcrackers, in particular, often become very active and bite very well this time of year.”

According to Brighton, the only real difference between fall bream fishing and the fishing in the spring and summer is not a matter of tactics and gear, but simply the way we opt to target the fish.

“In October and November you’ll still find bream in sizable groups,” he said, “but you’ll seldom encounter the huge beds and feeding schools of bream that you see earlier in the year. Basically, you’ll be constantly dealing with fewer individual fish in one spot. You may wind up having to move a little more from place to place.”

This, of course, is not to say that bream do not concentrate in large groups during the fall. On all major rivers, reservoirs, and small ponds anglers may still from time to time encounter concentrated fish in their traditional spawning haunts. The difference now is, active bedding behavior has gone from major to minor and most of the fish are now congregating to feed rather than reproduce. These fish may often be timed and targeted successfully, particularly during late afternoon.

Another minor but important difference in bream fishing during the fall activity period is the overall average depth at which most bream will be located.

“They generally will be found deeper this time of year,” Brighton explained.

This change in the fishes’ preferred depth often makes bream fishermen totally miss the fish he is seeking. Brighton believes many anglers give up on late-season panfish merely because they are not considering deeper areas where the fish are most of the time and, thus, are unsuccessful.

“If you don’t locate fish right next to the bank like you do earlier in the year, just move out to where you normally find them when they are not shallow in the spring,” he said. “If you don’t find them there, move out even further and look for deeper structure somewhere near your favorite general area. I don’t think bream, as a rule, migrate that far from their usual spots. Besides, I find that deeper-holding summer and fall fish often run individually larger than those still in the shallows.”

During this late-year bream season, do not drastically alter your fishing methods and techniques. Change your ways only as much as the change of depth indicates you should. If the fish remain shallow, just continue to fish for them exactly as you would in the spring. You’ll find their basic feeding habits have not changed that much.

If you chance to find fish in deeper-than-normal water, first try dropping your bait directly down to the approximate depth at which you feel the fish are holding. If that proves unsuccessful and you are still convinced a concentration of bream is in the area, try playing the proverbial “waiting game.” Simply back off from the chosen spot, rig up a slip-sinker-and-BB “fish-finder” rig, and still-fish directly on the bottom, away from the boat. This can be especially effective on late-season shellcrackers, particularly in hard sandy-bottom areas.

If the fish are found in places you would normally find them earlier in the year,” Brighton said, “fish for them just like you normally would. Bream-poling with crickets always works just fine if they are really shallow. Or bobber fishing on light spinning tackle at depths of four or five feet is usually good. Never change your tactics or baits unless the fish are doing something drastically different from what you’re accustomed to seeing. For example, changing up by switching from crickets to worms to catch bluegills once in awhile might be good, particularly if they’re feeding on or near the bottom.”

All this said, there is absolutely no need to put away your bream fishing gear just because there’s a change in the season. The country’s widespread bream population, especially this far down south, will continue to be active through fall and well into early winter in many locations. Though one’s thoughts may naturally lean to the more traditional fall outdoor pursuits, the truly smart and adaptable sportsman will do well to keep his bream pole, cricket cage, and worm box ever at the ready.