Basin’s Bream Buster

Biologist Jerald Horst has fishing for bream in the Atchafalaya Basin down to a science.

It wasn’t a man on the bow of the boat.

It was a machine.

View a snapshot of Jerald Horst from that day on the Atchafalaya Basin, and he might have looked as serene as a hiker reclining in a mountain glade.

His large frame tested the stress limits of a folding bow chair, while his right hand held a baby-blue jigging pole parrallel to the surface of the water.

Native flora, richly verdant beneath the warm summer sun, oozed from every available pore in the moist bank.

In the background, crickets and locusts called to the heavens for a mid-day soaking or an early dusk.

It was a scene fit for the front a Hallmark card, a hearty slice of Americana, an image seen every day on roadsides across this great land.

But the snapshot wouldn’t have told the story. Not at all.

Although he was certainly relaxed, Horst was about as sedentary as a worker bee.

The cork dangling from the end of his 12-foot jigging pole spent nearly as much time beneath the water as it did floating on it, and the action always resulted in an equal and opposite reaction from Horst.

He would pull up on the tree limb-length pole, the line would go taut and the bream would begin a frantic fight for freedom. Each and every time, the battling power of the bruiser belied its slightness relative to its bigger piscatorial cousins.

Horst repeated the process over and over and over again. He would yank in a bream, remove the hook, drop the future fillets into a wire fish basket, grab a cricket, pierce its back with the tiny hook, and ease the offering next to a grass bed, blowdown or stump.

He did it all faster than Asafa Powell can run 100 meters.

Indeed, it was a sight to behold, and before getting run in by an afternoon lightning storm, Horst and a rookie bream-fishing guest had put 173 monstrous bluegill, goggle-eye and chinquapin in two ice chests.

For Horst, that was a mediocre haul.

“Last week, my fishing partner and I caught 191,” he said. “We had several goggle-eye over a pound (each).

“That’s a typical catch. It’s not anything special.”

Maybe not for him, but most bream fishermen might beg to differ.

Horst has gotten bream fishing in the Atchafalaya Basin down to a science.

That’s probably not surprising. After all, the man does have a masters degree in fisheries biology, and has worked as a professor at LSU’s Sea Grant program for most of his adult life.

But probably more importantly, Horst owned a camp on the Atchafalaya River for 29 years, and has kept a houseboat docked in the cypress overflow swamp for the last decade.

“I figured it out once and determined that I’ve slept within the confines of those levees a full two years of my life,” he said. “I do have an emotional attachment to the place.”

That attachment is to squirrels in the autumn, ducks in the winter and, without a doubt, bream in the summertime.

“One thing all fisheries biologists recognize is the tremendous productivity of all river flood plains, and (the Atchafalaya Basin) is the largest of them all,” he said. “The Basin gets enriched every year by the rising and the falling of the Atchafalaya River.”

That productivity can be seen in both the numbers of bream and the size of those fish.

“The productivity of any habitat is measured in pounds per acre,” Horst said. “The pounds per acre of bream in the Basin is unparralleled.”

Those pounds per acre equal lots of pounds in the ice chest for Horst, who is an unapologetic meat fisherman. He tosses back the few small fish he catches, but most are brutes that are plenty big enough to fillet.

Horst’s method of getting these lunker bream on his line has evolved over the years, but his technique is very easily replicated.

Sticking with his meat-haul mentality, he eschews rods and reels, and fishes nearly exclusively with jigging poles.

“I started out fishing with fly rods, throwing poppers along the grass beds,” he said. “The problem is the best action on top (for bream) is early in the warm season. The bream really smack those poppers in April and May.

“But the water (in the Basin) is too high and muddy then.

“You can get some bream to bite on poppers in the heart of the summer, but the biggest bream are so nest-oriented by then that they don’t move very much vertically — or horizontally for that matter.”

So Horst made the natural progression to rods and reels, and he found them to be fairly productive, but it wasn’t until he began using jigging poles that he discovered just how many bream an angler could catch in a day.

“Jigging poles allow precision,” he said. “You can fish tiny pockets in the grass you couldn’t ever think about throwing into with a rod and reel.”

But not only are jigging poles more precise, the way they retrieve baits is less invasive to the fishery.

“If you hang up in a treetop, you can shake that thing until you’ve got mud flying up from the bottom and algae falling off the tree, and you can still catch sac-a-lait,” he said. “But bream will shut down at the slightest commotion. If you hang up on a twig, you won’t catch them.

“With a rod and reel, you have to retrieve your bait by moving it horizontally, and you’re going to hang up a lot. With a jigging pole, you just pick your hook straight up.”

The sound the bait makes when it enters the water via a jigging pole — Horst calls it a “dap” — also serves to attract fish.

“The sound the bait and cork make when they hit the water is incredibly important,” he said. “There’s no doubt that ‘dap’ sound attracts fish. You want to be able to drop straight down so your bait and cork ‘dap’ in the same exact spot.

“With a rod and reel, you get two daps, and that’s not as effective.”

Because the sound the cork makes when it hits the water is so crucial, Horst uses bobbers made out of cork rather than Styrofoam.

“They’re heavier than Styrofoam, so they make a better ‘dap’ sound,” he said. “Also, they’re less buoyant, so it takes less weight to get them to sit vertically in the water.”

Horst is particularly fond of the Betts 0 corks, which he teams with small wire hooks, reuseable split shots and, believe it or not, snap swivels.

“I use snap swivels simply to make it easier to change a hook,” he said. “It doesn’t make a difference at all in the number of bream you catch. Bream are not rocket scientists.”

With all of the hardware on his line, Horst uses just enough split shot to pull his cork into a vertical position, and he crimps the little ball of lead directly above the swivel so he can tell by the position of his cork whether his bait is on the bottom. If it is, he brings in his line and lowers his cork.

With this jigging-pole setup, Horst has become a bream-killing phenom. If perch had post offices, his picture would surely be plastered all over the walls.

His scientific research and studies have revealed characteristics of bream habits and heirarchy that he applies every time he’s in the field, and his jigging pole has proven the perfect tool to turn his knowledge into dinner.

For him, targeting bream means targeting bream beds, and he has a very pointed methodology.

Like many Basin anglers, Horst cruises around in dead-end canals with his trolling motor, and he drops his bait next to fishy looking stumps, blowdowns and grass beds.

“If I have a fishing partner on the back of the boat, I tell him to watch where I place my bait every time and place his bait somewhere else,” he said. “Three or 4 feet can make a big difference.

“If the guy fishing behind me pays attention and hits the spots I’m not hitting, I can cover a lot of water much faster. If he’s dropping into the water I just fished, I have to go slower so I can be sure I effectively fish the entire bank.”

That changes when Horst hooks a big, multi-colored, hump-headed bluegill from the front of the boat. His desire then is for the angler on the back of the boat to drop into the exact same hole.

“These fish will very frequently be tightly bedded up,” he said. “You can catch several fish out of the same exact spot.”

When this happens, Horst knows he has found a nest. How big the overall bed is, no one can tell, but he’ll fish the exact same nest until it plays out. Then he’ll make drops 2 to 3 feet in any direction from the specific honeyhole, hoping to catch other fish from that bed.

“Bream have a very structured spawning system,” he said. “The most-coveted sites are in the center of the bed, and that’s where the biggest fish will be. In clear-water lakes, you’ll see five to a hundred plate-sized depressions on a bed. Each one is a bream nest, and the biggest fish will have their nests at the center of the bed. They’re very aggressive fish, and the big one’s get their way.”

It’s these lunker bream that Horst covets.

“I dream about those big bluegill at night,” he said. “They’re so big, you can’t just pull them up. You have to screw them out of the water.”

These trophy-sized bluegill feed very differently than smaller fish.

“When you get that little peck-peck-peck on your cricket, that’s a little fish. You might as well move on. All you’re doing is wasting your crickets,” Horst said. “Big bream suck in the cricket and sit there in leisure. You have to really pay attention to the cork.”

Horst will fish the same bed until he catches two or three long-eared sunfish, known colloquially as sun perch. Then he knows it’s time to move on.

“The sun perch are always on the periphery of a bed, just waiting for an opportunity to move in and steal eggs,” he said. “When you catch a sun perch, it’s just about over. It doesn’t take many males to keep the sun perch out.”

When he catches a sun perch or two, Horst simply moves along and continues his dapping technique until he encounters another bed.

At any time along the way, a goggle-eye may strike. These fish look like small grouper, and they act like them too — devouring anything and everything that moves.

“Their bellies always seem to be loaded,” Horst said.

Goggle-eye can be targeted, but they’re never grouped up as tightly as bluegill. Typically, Horst said, they hang in pairs, usually a male and a female.

“If you catch one, you want to throw into the exact same spot, and you’ll usually catch the other,” he said. “They like the nastiest, weediest, stumpiest part of a canal.”

Horst also catches a few chinquapin and stumpknockers along the way.

“The chinks are just a bonus fish,” he said. “I love to catch them. The stumpknockers are chunky, but they’re not very big. I’ll usually catch five or six a trip that are big enough to keep.”

Horst’s fishing method is vital to produce his big hauls, but where he fishes is no less important.

In recent years, he’s done most of his fishing in the lower Basin, simply because it’s most convenient to the launch at Calumet Cut. But during most of his Basin-fishing career, he focused on the canals in the center of the Spillway because they were nearest to his camp.

“There are productive canals everywhere in the Basin,” he said.

A noticeable difference between the two general areas is that beds in the central Basin are noticeably larger than those in the southern Basin.

“When I used to fish in the central Basin, we’d catch 80 or a hundred fish off a single bed,” he said. “That was very easy to do.

“Down south, you have a lot of eight- to 10-fish beds. You have to cover more water.”

In either area, Horst said he focuses exclusively on dead-end canals.

“Since a canal, obviously, had to have been dredged, some type of firm bottom exists,” he said. “Bayous typically have either sandy bottoms, which are good for sun perch, or they have soft bottoms, covered with many years’ worth of detritus. Those aren’t good at all.”

The best canals, by far, are those with 1- to 3-foot-deep shelves along the bank that drop off into deeper water, Horst said.

“On that 1- to 3-foot shelf, that’s where they bed,” he said.

But even canals with shelves are no good if those shelves are covered with sand.

“What’s on the bank is in the water,” Horst said. “Don’t even stop in canals with sandy banks. They’re not worth a darn.

“Ideally, you want to see lumpy clay on the bank.”

Whenever he explores new water — something Horst loves to do — he puts his trolling motor on high and daps away, never letting his cricket sit in one spot more than three or four seconds.

“It’s all trial and error,” he said. “You’ve got to move fast. You never take your foot off the button when you’re hunting (for fish).”

He’ll be doing more catching than hunting this month, which is one of his favorites for bream fishing in the Basin.

“August is an excellent month,” he said. “The water’s hot, and bream love that hot water.”

They love it so much that Horst has found the action to be most unspectacular in the relative coolness of the early morning.

“The fish usually don’t start getting active until around 8:30 (a.m.),” he said.

So the fish are certainly there, and they’re very active, but by August, the rigors of a long summer spent constantly spawning have taken their toll on the big bluegill. The biggest of the male fish get rather skinny — “wedgy,” Horst calls it.

“The females are still fat, but those big males — those fish you can’t even get your hand around — are wedgy,” he said.

That makes them tougher to clean but no less tasty. So they go straight into Horst’s wire basket.

Machines have no heart.

About Todd Masson 739 Articles
Todd Masson has covered outdoors in Louisiana for a quarter century, and is host of the Marsh Man Masson channel on YouTube.