February 13, 2007
Bream Fishing in Bitter Cold — Dance Bundles Up, Reels in a Boatload
By Bryan Brasher brasher@commercialappealcom
POCAHONTAS, Tenn. -
As Bill Dance pulled his aluminum boat along Tennessee Highway 57 earlier this month, he found his progress impeded by a small city truck pouring liquid de-icer onto the asphalt in front of him.
The thermometer inside Dance's vehicle read 19 degrees, and much of the Mid-South was bracing for a winter storm. But Dance was still eager to get out on the water.
Before he reached the 75-acre private lake in rural west Tennessee, two friends called to say he was crazy for fishing on such a brutal winter day.
But five hours and 41 plate-size bream later, he didn't feel crazy at all.
"A lot of people have no idea you can catch big bream in weather like this," said Dance, an Eads, Tenn., resident and longtime host of television's "Bill Dance Outdoors.""Everybody thinks of bluegill and redear sunfish as warm-water fish. But you can catch them in cold water, too. You just have to look in different areas to find them."
When Dance says different, he means really, really different.
Many of the shallow areas where people might look for bream during spring and summer were covered with a thin layer of ice when Dance dropped his boat into the miniature highland lake. Vacant honeycomb-shaped beds used by bluegill during the spring spawning season were even visible in some areas at the edges of the ice.
So Dance bypassed the usual places in favor of deeper water.
With the surface temperature at a frigid 40 degrees, he watched his electronic fish finder until he saw large schools of fish near the bottom in 18 feet. That would be the key depth for most of the cold, blustery day.
"When the weather is cold, bluegill and redear will often relate to structure," Dance said. "They may gather off the end of a long, sloping point, around a ditch or near any type of bottom variation with quick access to deeper water.
"But finding cover is not always as important as establishing a depth where the fish are holding. It's just a matter of trial and error and knowing how to read your electronics."
During winter when the water's surface temperature normally hovers in the high 30s and low 40s, there is often a layer of water near the bottom that stays 3 or 4 degrees warmer.
That's usually where you'll find the bluegill - and it's rare to find just one or two.
"They like company this time of year," Dance said. "Not only can you catch really big ones in cold water, but a lot of times you can find them bunched up together in big numbers."
Once Dance finds a good congregation of fish, he uses a "winterized" version of a springtime bait to put them in the boat: A tiny 1/32 -ounce jig on a drop-shot rig with a No. 4 split-shot.
"The fish are easiest to catch when they're relating to the bottom," Dance said. "That drop-shot rig with the extra weight makes it easier to get down to them and keep the bait in the strike zone longer."
Find right spot, go slow
Dance said the bait you use on the drop-shot rig isn't nearly as important as finding the right spot and the right water conditions.
Clear water is a must because bream are primarily sight feeders. It's harder for them to see your lure in deeper water because there is less penetration from sunlight. If the water is murky, the deck is stacked even higher against you.
A super-slow presentation is also important because it gives the fish more time to find and strike the bait - and if you're expecting bluegill to fight less coming from the cold depths, you're in for a surprise.
"No other freshwater fish exceeds the bream in ounce-for-ounce fighting ability - and that's no different in cold water," Dance said. "When you stick one of these fish in 20 feet of water on an ultra-light rig and you get to fight that fish all the way up to the surface, that's just plain, ol' fun."
Of course, it's a different kind of fun than the shirt-off, sunscreen-slathered experience most warm-weather bream fishermen are used to.
Multiple layers of clothing are a must, along with waterproof gloves and some type of hood or toboggan to keep the body heat from rising off your head.
If the temperature is below freezing, you can also expect to have ice form in the guides of your rod between casts.
"Just knock it out and keep fishing," Dance said. "It's worth it to catch these feisty fish."
- Bryan Brasher: 529-2343
COLDWATER BREAM FISHING
Things to remember when fishing for bluegill and redear sunfish in cold water:
Start your search for fish between 10 and 30 feet deep.
Watch your electronics and make repeated casts to identify the depth where fish are holding. Once you settle on a depth, keep your boat positioned to key on that depth.
Use 4- to 6-pound test line. Light line allows small baits to have more motion.
One of the better baits is a black tube jig, hair jig or plastic grub fished on a 1/32 -ounce jig head with a drop-shot rig. Using a "drop-shot" rig means using an extra weight beneath your jig head to help make longer casts and maintain contact with the bottom. Dance recommends using a No. 4 split-shot.
Use a super-slow presentation and avoid the urge to set the hook when you feel that first bump. Bream will often strike a bait two or three times before engulfing it and will usually stick themselves.
ICE WATER WARRIORS
Fishing legend Bill Dance of Eads, Tenn., has already filmed an episode of "Bill Dance Outdoors" devoted to coldwater bream fishing.
The episode, entitled "Ice Water Warriors," will air during winter of 2008 on Versus.
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