Summer Refuge

When the sun scorches the slick surface, Toledo Bend’s bream move to deep water, where they bite anything an angler drops to them.

Most people fish Toledo Bend Reservoir on the Louisiana-Texas line for largemouth bass, but sometimes largemouths turn into closed mouths.

No matter. When bass don’t bite, people can usually find other critters to take baits in the stumpy 186,000-acre reservoir. Sometimes, people switching from largemouths to small mouths find plenty of action.

On one uncharacteristically calm summer day, nothing disturbed the glassed surface of the huge reservoir. A post-frontal high pressure system complete with cobalt skies caused bass to sit tight in their holes and shut their mouths.

Noe Garcia, a Toledo Bend guide from Zwolle, and I tossed just about every lure we could think to tie to monofilament line without so much as a bass thinking of striking.

By 11 a.m., we both had enough of chunking plastic at stumps.

“You want to catch fish?” Garcia asked. “I know where we can catch plenty of fish.”

“At this time of day under these conditions?” I asked incredulously. “What do you have in mind?”

“I’ve still got a bunch of crickets left on the boat from a previous trip,” he said. “I also have my bream rods with me. Want to try something different? I don’t think the bass want to cooperate today.”

As someone who will fish for any species, anywhere, at any time, it didn’t take much convincing to talk me into tapping the almost unlimited and underutilized bream population of Toledo Bend.

We headed to some banks just south of Pendleton Bridge for deep, pole-bending fishy fun. Joe Joslin, a Toledo Bend guide from DeRidder, would agree with that location selection.

“I’ve had really good luck in July and August for deep bream around the Pendleton Bridge,” Joslin said. “I fish the edges of the drops in 18 feet of water. We catch a lot of chinquapins, bull bream and other species. My favorite bream hole is about 400 to 500 yards south of Pendleton Bridge in some deep flats along the edge of the Sabine River channel. We’ve caught 200 to 300 bream in a day there. Once, I used 1,000 crickets in one day.”

When most people think of bream fishing, they think of two things. They think of fishing near shorelines with floats in shallow water or using fly rods over beds. Garcia wanted to tempt the really big bream, those that sit in deep water almost unmolested by anglers.

Every spring, several species of panfish, including bluegills, goggle-eyes, chinquapins and many other varieties all lumped together as “bream,” make beds along shallow, sandy banks. These beds consist of shallow depressions fanned out in the mud or sandy bottoms with their tails.

They may return to the same beds year after year, generation after generation.

“Most bream species spawn in Toledo Bend from May to September when the water gets above 78 degrees,” said Bobby Reed, a Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries biologist in Lake Charles. “Bream may spawn five or six times a year, normally producing between 5,000 and 6,000 eggs per pound of body weight with each spawn.”

Since bream breed all summer, some bream stay shallow throughout the warmer months through late fall when the water becomes too cool for them. However, during the summer, heat may become too intense for many larger bream. They drop into cool, deep water. They also go into the depths to get away from people and to hide from marauding predators such as largemouth bass.

In Toledo Bend, they might drop down as much as 15 to 25 feet. They use the old Sabine River channel for navigation and often suspend along the channel drops. The hotter the summer, the deeper they may go until they reach cold water almost devoid of oxygen. Nothing lives below that layer.

Deeper water gives bream more consistent temperatures and some protection from the elements. In addition, in a heavily traveled lake like Toledo Bend, waves from boat wakes ravage the shorelines. In deeper water, bream find relatively stable water and refuge from such tribulations.

Even in deeper water, bream may still make beds and spawn. Gregarious fish, they cluster together in large numbers. As a primary forage fish for bass, catfish and other predators, numbers provide bream with a certain degree of safety, just like wildebeests and antelopes of the African savannas warily watching lions.

Numbers don’t help them stay away from dedicated fishermen. In fact, if someone catches a large bream in one hole, he or she could load an ice chest without moving the boat. In deeper water, anglers would less likely disturb the school, so that trend would hold even more consistently than in shallow water.

First, anglers must find bream. Then, they can load the boat. Typically, with massive numbers of these underutilized and highly prolific fish, that seldom presents much of a challenge even in such as vast watershed as Toledo Bend.

“People can find bream throughout the lake,” Garcia said. “It’s not hard to get them to bite. Finding them is the trick. Once you find them, someone can catch dozens. I fish the flats along the edge of the river. I fish the edges of grass. I find most bream where the grass ends and deep water begins.”

Like bass and most other species, bream need cover to hide from prey and predators. They like grass that provides excellent concealment from roving bass. When hungry bass show up for dinner, they quickly dart into grass or other cover. They also hide around logs, sunken stumps, blown-down trees, brushpiles and the edges of creek channel drop-offs.

“I usually tie up to stumps on the edge of the river channel and vertically fish a tight line,” Joslin said. “I don’t move it much. With the boat tied to a stump, the line will have some movement with the waves. We’ve caught hundreds of bream that way, some pretty big for bream. My mother-in-law, Hazel Perkins, caught a chinquapin going 1.2 pounds like that. In the summer, we usually fish late in the afternoon from about 5:30 to 7:30.”

In warm weather, bream often congregate along sloping points with plenty of grass. Grass not only provides excellent cover, the green plants add vital oxygen boost to the water, a major plus during the heat of late summer.

Along these points, bream can move up and down in the water column to find the preferable combination of food, oxygen and temperature.

Garcia pulled up to a long sloping bank where a creek entered the main-lake body. The creek channel created drop-offs that fish could use for navigation the way people use highways. The channel also formed a sloping point dotted with several submerged stumps and grass beds.

“I’ve caught a lot of big bream here in the past,” Garcia explained. “We are in about 18 feet of water, but the banks slope from nothing to about 25 feet before it drops off into the lake channel. Let’s see if anybody’s home. Bream often move back and forth between shallow and deep water at 12 to 20 feet. I find a lot of bream at 15 to 20 feet, but I’ve caught them down to 35 feet before.”

Even in deep water, bream don’t demand heavy or expensive tackle, just enough line and weight to let the bait sink to the bottom. Bream don’t need much finessing either. As long as they can find bait, they bite. Dangle bait in front of bream, and they usually respond with good action.

Any weight that might pull a bait to the bottom may work. To get into their small mouths, use a narrow gap, long-shanked hook on light line. Long-shanked hooks permit anglers to unhook bream easier and faster if they swallow the bait deeply.

An ultralight spinning or spin-casting rod magnifies the fun of catching big bream. Other people use crappie jigging poles, bamboo poles or even fly rods with baited hooks and split-shot sinkers instead of cork popping bugs or feathery flies.

“I usually use 6- to 10-pound line on a spinning reel because we sometimes catch catfish when bream fishing,” Joslin said. “I usually tie a lead bell sinker to the bottom and hook a bream hook about 12 to 18 inches above it. It’s almost like a drop-shot rig.”

Sometimes, bream suspend over channels or deep holes. Use a small bobber with a weight large enough to barely pull it down to reach the desired depths. That allows people to stop at depths where bream suspend.

Some people use a slip bobber or leave a hook fastener open slightly to allow the line to slip through the opening. Anglers can fish vertically away from the boat in any depth with this method. A weight pulls the line slowly through the bobber until it reaches bottom while the bobber remains floating on the surface. When the angler retrieves the line, the bobber falls back toward the hook.

Garcia prefers a 14-foot crappie jigging pole anchored by a Zebco spinning reel. On the terminal end of 6-pound clear line, he attaches a long-shanked bream hook and a small split-shot sinker.

“The lighter the line the better,” Garcia explained. “A lot of people use a cane pole and no reel, but I like the ultralight spinning reels. With a long pole, I can fish many areas quite a distance all around the boat to locate the most productive bream beds.”

At the sloping bank by the creek mouth, Garcia threaded a live cricket onto a hook. Anglers can also use earthworms, nightcrawlers, grasshoppers, bread, small minnows or live grass shrimp. Bream hit just about anything they can grab with their tiny mouths. Some people even fish for them with small spinners, jigs or beetles.

“Crickets are my favorite bait,” Garcia said. “They are easy to hook on and a lot faster than worms. They also catch bream more consistently. I usually throw to the flats, let the bait sink and slowly bring it back. In deep water, I fish straight down. Most of the time, the cricket doesn’t get a chance to hit the bottom. If I’m catching a lot of smaller fish near the top, I’ll put a heavier sinker on the line to make it go down more quickly.”

After hooking on his bait, Garcia looked at the contour of the shoreline and then glanced at his graph depth finder. He looked for creek channel edges and deep shelves along those edges. He also scanned for deep grass.

“I look for bream along edges on my depth finder,” the guide explained. “They congregate wherever they can find grass and access to deep water. I’m picking up some grass on the bottom and a few fish. Let’s fish. I use a drop-shot rig with a hook above a small split-shot sinker. Sometimes, I put two or three hooks on the line, 6 inches apart.”

He tossed his light tackle toward the point and let it sink. Almost immediately, a big bream inhaled the offering and the fight commenced.

Pound for pound, or more appropriately, ounce for ounce, bream outfight just about any fish in fresh water. This one proved more the rule than the exception.

What they lack in size, bream more than make up in pugnacious spirit and sheer numbers. Hardly a wall-hanging lunker, an 8-ounce bream fighting against light tackle feels like a 5-pound bass. They typically turn sideways to use their flattened bodies for leverage, and never quit pulling.

“If bream grew to 10 pounds, nobody would ever pull one in,” Garcia remarked, admiring his first catch of the day. “They are so aggressive. If they had teeth, nothing else could swim in these waters. People can fill a boat with these things. I’ve caught more than 100 in a day, most between 1/2 to 3/4 pounds, but an occasional fish going about a pound.”

In about five hours of bass fishing, we didn’t register a single strike in all the places we tried. In about 30 minutes of bream fishing from one spot, we placed a couple dozen bream in the boat. Garcia even landed a 10-pound gaspergou on the light tackle.

On other occasions, he boated crappie, catfish, white bass, yellow bass and even a few largemouths on his crickets. Sometimes, he can double his chances by combining his options.

“In the summer, bass are more aggressive in the morning,” Garcia said. “We’ll fish bass at daylight for a few hours and then shift to bream fishing. Bream bite all day long and all year long.”

In May, anglers start looking for bream in deep flats and along channels, but they can catch bream with this method all year long. Action probably peaks in July or August when temperatures reach extremes, but bream also retreat to the depths to escape cold temperatures in December, January and February.

“I use this deep-water technique in the winter also. In winter, I’ve caught a lot of bream while crappie fishing in deep water along the river channel. The Chicken Coop north of the Pendleton Bridge on the Texas side is one of the better winter places to fish. The river runs along the high banks and creates holes 35 to 40 feet deep. Fish congregate in that area in the winter.”

Toledo Bend swarms with bream. Bream provide one of the primary forage species for largemouth bass and other predators in the sprawling lake. Almost any place on Toledo Bend with the right combination of oxygen, cover, food and good water can hold deep bream. Look for flats in 15 to 25 feet of water, preferably where a minor creek channel enters a major channel or the main lake.

Many people fish near Cypress Bend Marina, where the Sabine River channel runs close to the bank offering easy access to both deep and shallow water.

Other areas include the Indian Mounds area, Housen Bay, Six-Mile Creek, Low’s Creek, Indian Creek and Tennessee Bay.

Among the most prolific and numerous fish in Toledo Bend, bream can stand a bit of population reduction. Without limit, Louisiana sportsmen can catch all they want and should keep all they catch. In a small body of water, too many highly prolific and voracious bream can stunt the size of the entire population.

For people tired of spending too much time casting and not enough time hooking, bream make the perfect game fish. On those days when almost nothing else cooperates, if you want to feel something besides a stump or grass clump tugging on the end of a line, try snatching bream.

With very little initial investment, anglers can literally boat hundreds of delicious fish in a very short time. It’s also an excellent way to introduce children to fishing. Bream almost always bite and they always fight.

For booking trips on Toledo Bend, call Garcia at (318) 645-4029 or Joslin at (337) 463-3848.

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About John N. Felsher 5 Articles
Born in New Orleans, John N. Felsher grew up in Slidell, La. He worked as the outdoors editor for several Louisiana newspapers including the Lafayette Daily Advertiser and Lake Charles American Press. An avid sportsman, he’s a full-time professional freelance writer and photographer with more than 3,300 bylines in more than 160 different magazines. He also hosts an outdoors tips show for WAVH FM Talk 106.5 radio station in Mobile, Ala. Contact him at j.felsher@hotmail.com or through Facebook.

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