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OUTDOORS: South Georgia's spunky little panfish

The redbreast goes by many names

Now is a prime time for targeting South Georgia redbreasts, one of the region’s hardest fighting and better-tasting panfish species. (Staff Photo: Bob Kornegay)

Now is a prime time for targeting South Georgia redbreasts, one of the region’s hardest fighting and better-tasting panfish species. (Staff Photo: Bob Kornegay)

He bears many titles: redbreast, redbelly, yellowbelly, or, simply, river bream. Whatever an angler chooses to call him, chances are he doesn’t really know this fish as well as he should. That’s a shame, for this ubiquitous denizen of Southwest Georgia waters happens to be one of the prettiest, tastiest, and most hard-fighting freshwater panfish.

Correctly, he is the redbreast (Lepomis auritis), a plentiful warm-water panfish with which most South Georgia fishermen are at least nominally familiar. However, when it comes to the more familiar sunfish species, the redbreast included, they are seldom thought of by anglers as individual fish species.

“What did you catch today?” one might ask most any typical panfisherman as he pulls his boat onto the bank of any given creek or river.

“Well, the bream were biting pretty well,” might be a typical reply. “Caught a nice mess.”

In turn, we peer into the ice chest and discover that “bream” is a collective term. Before our eyes are bluegills, redears (shellcrackers), perhaps a green sunfish or two, and maybe even a couple of warmouths or spotted sunfish. More times than not, also sprinkled in among the mixed bag are a few redbreasts.

Redbreasts, like green sunfish, spotted sunfish, and warmouths, are usually happenstance fish for most regional bream fishermen. Primarily targeting bluegills and shellcrackers, local anglers tend to lump the redbreast under the common, catch-all “bream” heading. That’s certainly no major oversight, but, in the redbreast we find a fish that deserves more individual attention.

The redbreast does not grow as large as the more popular bluegills and shellcrackers. Comparatively, state and world redbreast records show a glaring size discrepancy. However, the feisty fish makes up for his relatively diminutive stature with glowing positive attributes.

First, the redbreast is a game fighter, particularly on ultralight tackle. Generally a species that does best in clean, flowing water, the average redbreast is in good physical condition from constantly fighting current and having to work hard to procure his daily nutrient requirement. There are those who also think this characteristic makes the fish a more aggressive feeder and willing biter, particularly during warmer months of the year.

Second, the down-sized panfish makes extremely tasty table fare. Firm of flesh and very palatable, a hand-size redbreast is a deep-fried culinary delight. Habitat can play a major role in this trait also. The redbreast prefers cleaner water with higher oxygen content and fewer pollutants than some other bream species and seldom exhibits the “muddy” taste of fishes found in less-than-ideal environments.

Third, the redbreast is arguably the most attractive of all the freshwater panfish. An adult male of the species, particularly when bedecked in seasonal spawning colors, is an extremely eye-catching species. Even meat-hungry and down-to-business bream anglers will pause to admire the vivid colors and markings of a redbreast before dropping him into a livewell.

For pure, ultralight panfish sport, the redbreast is hard to beat. Aggressive feeder that he is, he willingly strikes artificial baits when other bream varieties shun most lure offerings. On an ultralight spinning rig spooled with two-to four-pound test line, he is a battler worthy of attention. In a creek or river, where current increases the resistance put up by the fish, he becomes an especially game fighter on lightweight angling equipment.

Taking the time and minimal effort to match his equipment to the fish, a panfish angler will not be disappointed doing battle with the redbreast. Good ultralight baits for redbreast fishing include the popular Beetle Spin, small Panther Martin spinners, and in-line spinners such as Mepps or Rooster Tail. An ample day’s supply of lures such as these can be easily carried in a pocket-sized tackle box.

Warm-water fly fishermen also enjoy targeting the redbreast as a primary sportfish. In late spring and early summer, the feisty little bream shows a great willingness to hit popping bugs or even the dry flies normally used for mountain trout fishing. This is especially true during periods when certain species of insects are hatching off and falling into the water. For example, an early June mayfly (willowfly) hatch on Lake Seminole can give the most jaded cane-pole/live-bait bream fisherman a completely new attitude toward fly fishing. Redbreasts will succumb to fly-rod tactics when other bream species might ignore them.

Of course, if one prefers a more traditional bream-fishing method, there is nothing wrong with a fishing pole, a cage full of crickets, or a can of worms. The redbreast is not uppity or finicky when it comes to live bait. Feel free to pursue him with any bream offering you choose.

In south Georgia, redbreasts abound in a variety of waters, primarily creeks and rivers or impoundments fed by these flowing tributaries.

As a bream fisherman, whether you target these wonderful little critters specifically or just add the occasional specimen to your mixed stringer, you will, without question, come to know the redbreast.

The introduction will not disappoint.