If you’re looking for bream big enough to fillet, head to Caney Lake this month to get in on some early spawning action.
Eddie Halbrook turned his nose into the air and started sniffing. He looked like a beagle that just hit a hot trail.“You smell that?” he asked.
I had to admit that I didn’t.
“It kind of smells like fresh cut grass,” he continued. “We’re getting close.”
Halbrook and I were on the prowl for some bedding fish at Caney Lake. It was the middle of March, and the usual allotment of sight fishermen were out in full force standing on their homemade platforms with their hands cupped around the edges of their faces trying to see the bass that were on the spawning beds so they could remove them with surgical precision.
We were looking for some bedding fish also but not bass. Halbrook had me down at Caney because the chinquapin were already in their honeycomb beds, and he had been steadily loading the boat with some enormous fish while everybody else was having to take a number just to get the chance to sight-fish a bedding bass.
Halbrook called me a couple of days after landing 28 chinquapin that weighed in at 42 pounds.
“You’ve got to get down here now,” he said excitedly. “These big old chinquapin have moved on the beds, and nobody even knows it because they’re all too busy bass fishing.”
Halbrook was right. Nobody I talked with in the days preceding our trip knew the chinquapin were already up spawning. In fact, many of them didn’t want to believe the panfish would even be near their beds this early in the year.
“Very few folks realize that the chinquapin will move up and begin spawning on the full moon in March,” said Halbrook. “Most everybody I know waits until April before they really start hitting the bream hard. Those fish won’t spawn before the bass will, but they’ll be spawning long before the white perch move up. And if you get out there early enough in the year, you’ll find that the beginning of the chinquapin spawn is some of the best fishing of the year.”
Halbrook has been guiding on Caney Lake (318 259-4454) ever since there was enough water in it to float a boat, and he’s seen his share of big chinquapin stringers come from the lake.
“Everything that makes Caney such a good largemouth and crappie fishery makes it an awesome bream hole,” says Halbrook. “The fertility of the lake allows it to produce some of the largest chinquapin you’re going to find anywhere in the country. And these bream begin spawning earlier than any other lake I’ve ever fished.”
While the big bream at Caney will begin spawning in March, Halbrook warned that you couldn’t just go whenever you please and find bedding fish. The most important factor determining when the chinquapin move up, he believes, is the moon phase — specifically, it has to be a full moon.
He says the chinquapin spawn could start as early as the middle of the month, but that it could be later.
“Just pay close attention to your fishing calendar and try to be on the water the week of the full moon, because you can count on the bream being on the beds at that time,” he said.
This year, the full moon is on March 18.
To go along with the full moon, Halbrook said another important factor that works in harmony with the moon phase is a warming water temperature. Once it gets around 62 degrees, the chinquapin will start ganging up and begin actively spawning.
“If we can time the full moon with a week or so of some warm, sunny weather, it can be some of the best bream fishing you’ll ever experience,” Halbrook says.
Halbrook said that the same creeks produce year in and year out at Caney Lake.
“Those fish will move up in the north side of the lake first,” he said. “That’s the side that gets the most sunlight, and places like Cypress, Boggy, Clear Branch and the back of Smith warm up before the rest of the lake does. I can look back in my fishing journal and see that they will use the same bed every other year, assuming it hasn’t been destroyed.”
Halbrook said the presence of lily pads is what makes these four creeks hotspots during warming weather.
“Those fish like to bed around dollar pads,” he said. “I guess they feel more secure and that they can hide if they need to. Those dollar pads are also another good indicator of when the fish are actually bedding. Once you see those pads start to sprout, you’ll know the fish are bedding because that’s a dead giveaway. In fact, if the pads already have leaves, you’re probably too late for the early spawn.”
Many years of experience have helped Halbrook pinpoint where the chinquapin are most likely to bed, but he says that you can find them pretty quick if you follow his advice.
“If you know what they smell like, you can’t miss them,” he said. “They put off a distinct smell that is unmistakable once you know what they smell like. The best thing I can compare it to is the smell of fresh cut grass.”
Other than sniffing them out, Halbrook suggested cruising around the dollar pads looking for the honeycomb pattern that the chinquapin make when bedding.
“Most of the time those beds will be in and around the pads,” he said. “And you’ll typically find them in 2 feet of water or less at Caney, although they sometimes bed out to around 5 feet.”
Halbrook added that the color of the beds would depend on the substrate where the fish are bedding.
“If the fish are bedding around sand, the beds will look yellow, and if they’re around lots of rock they’ll be almost black-looking. The diameter of the beds can range from about a foot to 2 feet.”
Once you locate one big honeycomb bed, Halbrook said to look close by to see if you can find some others in the area.
“Those chinquapin at Caney like to build honeycomb beds in groups of three to four,” he said. “They’re usually about 10 to 20 feet apart, but I have seen them up to 40 feet apart.”
After finding the chinquapin on the beds, Halbrook begins the process of moving them from the bed to his ice chest. He mainly sticks with some type of live bait, but he does admit to experimenting with some hair jigs dunked in worm scent.
“I’ve really gotten hooked on the big cold worms,” Halbrook revealed. “Those are the Canadian Night Crawlers that are kept refrigerated in small cartons and that you can get at almost any tackle shop or bait stand. Crickets work well too, but you’ll go through them quicker than you will the worms. And small live crawfish about 1 inch long can also work well.”
When using cold worms, Halbrook said he likes to really load up with a lot of bait.
“These chinquapin are shell-crackers,” he said. “And they frequently feed on small mussels. I feel that the more worms I can thread on a hook, the more it’s going to resemble a mussel shell and the more they’re going to want to eat it.”
Halbrook suggested using a hook with a long shank.
“I’ve figured out two things I like about the longer shank hooks,” he says. “I can load it up with more worms, and it makes it a lot easier to remove the hook from a fish that has swallowed it all the way down into its throat.”
Even though Halbrook likes the worms, he adds that sometimes the chinquapin prefer live crawfish.
“I’m not sure what makes them change,” he said, “but sometimes the largest fish just seem to prefer crawfish. Looking back I can recall that my best crawfish days have been just after a heavy rain, so maybe that has something to do with it. And those chinquapin are used to eating small crustaceans and mussels anyway, so maybe it’s just a little treat to them after they’ve been eating worms and crickets for a couple of days.”
When fishing live crawfish, Halbrook prefers to hook them through the middle of the tail from the top so that they can still kick around down there in the bed.
While Halbrook mainly uses live bait, he admitted that one of his most productive bream trips was when he had a guide customer who wanted to do a little experimenting.
“I can remember that he wanted to use those hair jigs that we use for crappie,” Halbrook recalled. “He brought some kind of worm scent with him, and we started dunking the hair jigs in the scent and the chinquapin didn’t seem to mind at all. I haven’t used it much since then, but I will every now and then if I’m just looking to do something a little different or the fish seem to be getting tired of everything else I’m showing them.”
No matter which lure or bait you rig up with, Halbrook said there are two different ways to present your lure to the bedding bream.
“The easiest way is to just rig up a jig pole with a fixed length of line,” he said. “Then you just ease around the bedding area and keep flipping your bait out until you find the hot zone. I try to put mine right in the middle of the beds that I can see.”
Halbrook went on to say that you could use a jig pole that had a built in reel at the base so you could adjust the amount of line you have out.
“That will keep you from having to move your boat around so much,” he added. “And no matter which jig pole you use, I’d suggest fishing with 15-pound-test line. Those chinquapin can get big, and they spawn around some pretty thick stuff. I’ve never noticed that heavy a line turning them off, so I always use it now.”
One thing that anglers trying to get in on the early chinquapin spawn need to keep in mind, according to Halbrook, is that there is a lot of commotion going on this time of year.
“It isn’t like late April or May when you can have some peace and quiet,” he said. “There’ll probably be a bass rig come by every few minutes looking for bedding bass and that can keep the bream on edge.”
To fish for these edgy fish, Halbrook said you could lay down your jig pole and pick up a spinning rod.
“That can save the day sometimes,” he said. “When you rig up a spinning rod with a slip cork, you can back off the beds enough to keep from spooking the fish. They don’t get jumpy a lot, but when they do you’re going to have to back off. You may also have to back off if the water is really clear and the fish can see you.”
Halbrook believes this early spawn is when anglers can catch some of the largest chinquapin of their lives.
“This is when the female chinquapin are at their largest,” he says. “An average size fish will run about 3/4 pounds here at Caney, but they can get consistently up to 2 pounds. I’d say a giant would be about 2 1/2 pounds.”
If you’re strictly looking for the behemoth bream, Halbrook said to pay close attention to what size fish you are catching out of a particular honeycomb.
“Those fish seem to run with other fish their same size,” says Halbrook. “So if you’re catching a bunch of 1/2- to 3/4-pound fish in one spot, keep moving around until you catch a big one. When you finally get a good one, stay put and fish that area hard. And spread out a little looking for those other adjoining beds that are sure to be close by.”
Another bit of information you can use to help you home in on the largest bream is to keep in mind how these fish spawn, which, Halbrook says, is almost just like bass.
“The males will move in first to make the beds, and the females come after the males are ready. They’ll go ahead and spawn and hang out four or five days until they move back out to deeper water near the creek channel. So if you’re only catching small fish, move back out to a nearby channel in 8 to 10 feet of water and fish around there a while, and you’ll probably find what you’re looking for.”
Halbrook added that you could tell the difference between the males and females by the way they look.
“The males are really dark and kind of drab looking,” he said. “The females are a lot thicker and they have a real orange or yellow belly.”
Bed fishing for these bream that are beginning to spawn may not be as romantic as darting around in a glitzy bass boat trying to find a spawning largemouth. But then again, romance never filled anybody’s belly with fried chinquapin fillets.
You say you never caught a chinquapin large enough to filet? Well, head to Caney Lake this month, and bring your knife with you because you’re about to find out just how large a chinquapin can get.