Red-eared sunfish, a.k.a. chinquapin, bite extraordinarily well in the summertime — for anglers who know where to look.
Before turkey hunting totally messed up my mind, I always looked forward to spring and the opportunity to trailer my boat to a nearby lake to do battle with big, sway-bellied spawning bass, crappie hanging out around the roots of shallow cypresses or my favorite, finding a bed of bream.
For sheer fun, nothing quite rivals sitting comfortably in your boat two pole-lengths from a bed of writhing, darting, active bream.
A cricket, red wiggler or small crawfish skewered on your hook is all that is required to enjoy an exciting outing on your favorite lake.
Once the spring spawn is over, however, the bream pack their little bags and migrate. Don’t they? Nobody fishes for bream in the heat of summer or the dead of winter. Do they?Anglers who realize that bream actually don’t migrate have fun catching them all year long. In the coldest winter weather, anglers in the know regularly fill boxes with fat bluegills.
Black Lake in Natchitoches Parish and Lake St. John near Vidalia are two lakes known for super bream fishing in the coldest weather of the year. Anglers ply the bottom of the channels with red wigglers or night crawlers until a bream bites.
Then it’s a simple matter of tying the boat to a bush until you catch all you want to clean, running the risk of frost bite in the process.
Another time when it is unheard of to fish for bream are those sultry summer days when heat stroke, rather than frost bite, is the major threat. However, if you can stand the heat, you can catch bream — lots of big fat bream — from July on into winter.
I had the privilege of accompanying Jonesboro fishing guide Eddie Halbrook to one of the two lakes on which he guides.
He had called me to report that Grand Bayou Lake near Coushatta was producing for his clients good catches of bass, crappie and chinquapins.
I could understand the bass and crappie success, but chinquapins in August? Come on Eddie; you’ve had your head in the minnow bucket too long.
The date was set, and off we went to this pretty little 2,500-acre lake nestled in the hills of Red River Parish. Launching just before the sun peeked over the horizon, Halbrook motored up to a brushpile he had placed in open water. He motored up to the hidden brush using his on-board GPS unit.
“I marked this as a waypoint on my GPS, and it’s no trouble to find it while other fishermen don’t have a clue there’s a big brushpile under here,” he said.
Within half an hour, we caught enough crappie to convince me that Halbrook knew what he was talking about.
After a trip into a cove where the bass were schooling, allowing us to catch half a dozen or so, Halbrook gave me a wink and said, “Now the fun is about to begin. Let’s go catch some chinquapins.”
We roared off down the lake, slowing down to a crawl as Halbrook once again consulted his trusty GPS. There was our arrow; there was a dot. Once aligned, a marker was dropped, and the fishing began.
Less than a minute after tossing out a hook onto which half a cold worm dangled, the cork shuddered and begin to slide under. Suddenly, it was spring time all over again as I set the hook and fought a fat chinquapin, larger than my hand, to the boat.
We dropped anchor over the chinquapins at 11 a.m., and by noon, we had put three dozen, all of equal size and condition, into the livewell.
As we fished, we talked, and Halbrook explained what hot weather bream fishing is all about.
“I was like you for a lot of years. I assumed bream moved off to another part of the lake somewhere in summer, and you could forget about catching them. Then I met an old gentleman, Bobby Jefferson, who showed me what summertime bream fishing was all about.
“I already knew him since we worked at the same plant, and we often fished Caney Lake at the same time. I’d be after bass, but every time I’d ask Bobby how he did, he’d show me a box of big chinquapins he caught.
“The main thing I learned from Bobby is that chinquapins love to eat freshwater mussels. That’s why chinquapins are known in other places as ‘shellcrackers.’ They have crushers in their throats that enable them to crush shells of small mussels. The key is to find where beds of mussels are located, and I learned that on lakes with old road beds or sandy flats, there you’ll find mussels.”
This was confirmed later when Halbrook utilized his Aqua-Vu, an underwater video camera, where we could actually see the mussels on the sandy bottom where we fished in 8 feet of water.
“Another thing Bobby taught me was that chinquapins, especially this time of year, are a little finicky. You have to keep your bait real still before they pick it up,” Halbrook explained.
The day we fished, a steady breeze blew that kept us from melting in the sweltering August heat, but caused our floats to bob up and down several inches.
“On days like this,” Halbrook explained, “I go to my drop-shot rig. I’ll tie on a long-shank bream hook using a palomar knot, leaving about 6 to 8 inches or so of line on the tag end. To the end of the line, I fasten two No. 6 split shot.
“Fishing it on a tight line, I ease it into the water just until the sinkers touch the bottom. This means your bait is sitting still 6 to 8 inches above the bottom, even if there is a chop on the water.”
I tried it, and almost immediately, I felt a bite, set the hook and caught a big chinquapin. Another advantage to using the drop-shot rig is that you feel the bite immediately and can set the hook before the fish has time to swallow it. Chinquapins are light-biters, and fishing with a cork, the fish usually swallow the hook before you realize they’ve taken the bait.
“Now that I feel I can catch chinquapins just about any day I go out in warm weather, the word has gotten around, and I have clients from all over the country coming here from distant states to book chinquapin fishing trips. Not everybody likes to bass fish, and this gives me an opportunity to let kids and others who don’t fish much have a great time catching fish,” Halbrook said.
For a basic drop-shot rig, Halbrook uses an 11-foot B&M jig pole to which a small reel is added to take up line.
“I like to use the little mini-spin reels; they just fit the jig pole perfectly. I like to use 10- to 12-pound-test line to keep from breaking off when you hang your hook. I use a No. 6 long shank hook for ease in hook removal from the small mouth of a bream.
“There’s no better bait than Canadian night crawlers, best known as ‘cold worms.’ These things are so big, you can usually get three to four baits from each worm.
“If the fish get a bit finicky, I’ve got ’em started right back biting by tipping my hook with a crappie nibble.”
Halbrook catches chinquapins on Caney Lake, the other lake where he guides, in the same manner as on Grand Bayou.
“Actually, you can catch chinquapins on any of our freshwater lakes. All you have to do is find some sandy flats either out from shore or in the middle of the lake that have beds of freshwater mussels.
“I sometimes walk the shoreline to look for broken pieces of mussel shells that have washed on shore. I know that somewhere out there is a mussel flat, and you can bet there’ll be chinquapins,” he added.
Halbrook catches chinquapins on mussel flats all year long. He says they just move deeper once cold weather arrives.
“If you’re fishing an old road bed where the road goes downhill, meaning the water over them is deeper, chinquapins will usually just move deeper along the same road bed once the weather gets cold.
“I’ve actually caught them on Caney using a drop-shot rig baited with cold worms in 40 feet of water in the dead of winter,” Halbrook noted.
Halbrook makes good use of his on-board electronics to help him not only locate chinquapin hang-outs but also to enable him to return to the same area trip after trip.
“I spend a lot of time just slowly cruising the lake, scouting for ‘sign’ like a deer hunter would do before hunting season starts.
“I’ll take a map of the lake and study it carefully to find where any old road bed may have crossed the lake before it filled. Then I follow the road bed while watching my LCR to find areas in the right water depth that may be sandy.
“To confirm what my LCR tells me, I’ll drop the camera on my Aqua-Vu overboard and actually observe what the bottom really looks like. What I’m looking for is a fairly clean sandy or gravel bottom — lots of old roads were graveled or were of hard sand — and then I look for mussels. If I see a few chinquapins, that’s great. If not, I know they’re there.
“Next, I use my GPS to mark the spot as a waypoint. I keep a log of my waypoints and what the bottom looks like down there. The final test is to drop a cold worm down and locate the fish. Once that’s done, I have another spot I can take my clients,” Halbrook said.
When our half day of fishing Grand Bayou was done, we had caught crappie, bass and one channel catfish that hit a crappie jig before moving on to the highlight of the day, catching big, fat chinquapins.
Think bream fishing is only good in spring? Still believe they migrate? After spending a day on the lake with this experienced guide, I can assure you my mind is made up.
You can catch bream in the hottest part of the summer if you follow the advice Bobby Jefferson gave Eddie Halbrook. He has perfected it, and has become the local authority on catching chinquapins when it’s so hot, you could fry ’em on a rock.
To contact Eddie Halbrook, call 318-259-4454.