By John N. Felsher
The tiny cork offering landed in a pocket between two large weedbeds and sat motionless for a few moments until the ripples faded. Then, with one flick of the angler’s wrist, the bug plopped on the surface.
That commotion caught the attention of a small fish with a big attitude. The sunfish rose to examine the bait more closely. Then, it annihilated the temptation with a devastating strike as if someone tossed a huge rock into the placid black water of Lake George in central Florida, about 60 miles north or Orlando.
Pound for pound or more appropriately ounce for ounce, several sunfish species collectively lumped together as “bream” can outfight anything in fresh water. What they lack in size, they more than compensate for in determination and pugnacious aggression. Among the most common, widespread and aggressive sunfish, bluegills can weigh more than four pounds, but few exceed one pound. The Florida state record weighed 2.95 pounds.
Also called shellcrackers because they love to eat snails, redear sunfish look like paler versions of bluegills, but with orange to red highlights on their “ear flaps.” Shellcrackers can grow larger than bluegills and commonly weigh more than a pound. The Florida state record weighed 4.86 pounds, but the world record exceeded five pounds.
Anglers frequently find excellent bluegill and redear action at Lake George and might also catch several other panfish species. About 14 miles long by six miles wide, Lake George spans 46,000 acres along the St. Johns River. Mostly surrounded by wilderness with few traces of civilization along its shorelines, the large, shallow lake averages about eight feet deep. Some holes drop a bit deeper. Thick vegetation may extend several hundred yards from shore.
Capt. Steve Niemoeller of CFL Fishing Charter Service shows off a bluegill he caught while fishing on the St. Johns River near Astor, Fla.
“The lake has a lot of thick weeds that are good places to fish for big bream,” explained Steve Niemoeller with CFL Fishing Charter Service (888-629-2277, bassonline.com) in Deland. “The lake also has a lot of shell beds and a hard sandy bottom. The west side of the lake between, Juniper Springs and Silver Glen Run is a good area with lots of good, hard bottoms for bedding. Just above Juniper Springs, the Cabbage Patch is another good area. It’s a big flat with a bunch of grass. Right in front of Silver Glen Run the water is a little deeper, so it’s a little harder to find fish there, but that area can still hold some big bream. On the eastern side, go behind the grass line to find hard bottoms.”
With hard bottoms, fertile water, abundant forage and excellent grass cover, the second largest freshwater lake in Florida produces some of the biggest bream in the Sunshine State. Sand flats covered in hydrilla, eelgrass and other weeds create ideal spawning conditions. Among the most prolific freshwater fish in the world, bluegills and other sunfish may spawn several times a year from early spring through fall. When spawning, bluegills hollow out depressions in the bottom. In the clear, black waters of Lake George and associated backwaters, anglers can often spot these bedding areas.
Capt. Niemoeller with a redear sunfish that he caught on a beetle spinner while fishing in a creek off the St. Johns River.
“Lake George is well known for producing big bream,” Niemoeller said. “I’ve caught redear sunfish in the 2- to 2.25-pound range. Redears in the 1.5-pound range are pretty common. We also catch some really big coppernose bluegills. My favorite time to fish the lake for bream is the first week of June.”
While on the nests, bream may attack anything that comes too close or passes overhead. Bream guarding the beds make prime targets for fly fishermen. Voracious predators of insects, sunfish hit various floating foam or cork creations adorned with feathers. Some of these popping bugs resemble tiny frogs, crickets, grasshoppers, dragonflies, minnows or other morsels. Anglers could also use wet or dry flies and small streamers.
“When bream are on the beds in shallow water, we’ll often smell them,” Niemoeller explained. “It’s kind of a watermelon smell. Juniper Springs on the southwest corner of the lake is one of the best places on the lake to find bedding bream. It’s a great place for fly fishing. Behind the Cabbage Patch about halfway between Juniper Spring and Silver Glen is one of the best areas for fly fishing.”
When fishing a floating popper, toss the bug over a bedding area, at the edge of thick weed patches or close to other cover. Let it rest on the surface a few moments and then give it a small twitch or pop. Let it rest again for several seconds. For bream, anglers typically don’t need to make dynamic action. Sometimes, just a twitch, a pop or dragging a floater a few inches across the surface might provoke a strike.
If bream won’t hit popping bugs or flies, try dragging a small jighead across the beds. Anglers can tip the jighead with a small plastic trailer or add a piece of natural worm. Diminutive crankbaits that resemble insects, crawfish or other morsels can also work on an ultralight spinning rod or even a fly rod.
Among the most popular panfish enticements, a beetle spinner typically consists of a single-bladed harness spinner attached to a jighead. On the jighead, anglers can put any number of soft-plastic creations. A small beetle or grub trailer in white or black with green stripes often produces big action.
Toss a beetle spinner over a bed or next to cover. Let it sink to the bottom or the desired depth. Then, slowly retrieve it just over the bottom. When working around submerged vegetation, let the spinner tick the grass tops. Occasionally, pause to let the bait sink a bit. Fish often hit spinners on the fall. Anglers can also “buzz” beetles over the surface or “wake” them just beneath the surface in a steady retrieve.
During hot or cold weather, bream may go deep. Fishing deeper flats along channel edges or holes frequently puts larger bream in the boat. Most bream anglers concentrate on the shorelines, leaving many deeper holes virtually untapped.
Mike Baker waits for another bite while using multiple rods on Crescent Lake near Crescent City, Fla.
“When I’m fishing in deeper water, I normally catch bigger bluegills,” said Mike Baker, a professional crappie angler and guide (352-267-0747, www.thecrappiefisherman.com). “I look for grassy areas with sandy bottoms and vertically jig baits off the bow just like I do when crappie fishing. People can easily downsize their crappie fishing techniques and catch a lot of bluegill or other panfish. Instead of crappie jigs and minnows, I just use an Aberdeen hook with crickets.”
Of course, the old standby also works over a good bed. Just rig up a simple bobber and a hook baited with a live cricket or worm. In slightly deeper water, add a small shot sinker, one just big enough to pull the bait to the bottom. Put it on the line between the float and the hook.
Other Bream Hotspots
Anglers can find more places to fish along the St. Johns River system than just Lake George. Although dwarfed by nearby Lake George, Crescent Lake looms large in the minds of many Florida anglers. Crescent Lake covers 16,000 acres on the Flagler-Putnam County line. Dunn’s Creek connects the two lakes via the river. A deep channel connects Crescent Lake to the misnamed Dead Lake and Haw Creek, which flows through some swamps southeast of Dead Lake.
Just south of Lake George on the St. Johns River, sloughs connect the 2,200-acre Lake Woodruff, the 1,800-acre Lake Dexter. Between Dexter and Woodruff, myriad channels create many grassy islands and flats. A bit more difficult to reach, these backwaters typically don’t receive as much pressure as Lake George or the main river. Any weed patch could produce a boatload of feisty panfish.
“Lake Dexter is a really good place to fish for bream,” Niemoeller recommended. “It has a lot of beds. The shallows along the main river shorelines also hold many big bream. They bed along seawalls and under overhanging trees where birds can’t get to them, sometimes in water only inches deep under good cover.”Keep in Mind
Many people unfamiliar with Florida worry about alligators. True, this wilderness system teems with large reptiles and many other creatures. On a summer morning, anglers frequently spot alligators surfacing near their boats, but the ancient reptiles usually stay away from people.
“We see alligators all the time,” Niemoeller advised. “Most of the time, they won’t bother people unless people bother them or feed them. However, watch the pets closely. Alligators will grab a dog in a heartbeat, particularly if the dog is walking near a shoreline or swimming in the river.”
When planning a trip to Lake George, also consider bringing a light jacket and rain suit. Even during a Florida summer, the early morning boat ride could turn a little chilly. Also bring good polarized sunglasses for spotting bream beds in the ebony water. Some bug spray or netting could also come in handy at times.
The Lake George area can provide excellent fishing all year long in a beautiful setting. Besides bream, the system produces bass exceeding 10 pounds, crappie, catfish, striped bass and hybrid stripers. During the fall, sportsmen might even make a “cast-and-blast” adventure, hunting ducks in the morning and catching fish in the afternoon.
Non-residents can buy a seasonal or temporary fishing license locally or on-line. For Florida fishing license information, see www.myfwc.com/license/recreational
CFL Fishing Charter Service
Lodging and Services
Anglers Riverside Retreatanglersriversideretreat.com
Bull Creek Fish Camp and Campgroundflaglercounty.org/Facilities/Facility/Details/Bull-Creek-Campgrounds
Castaways On The Rivercastawaysontheriver.com
Highland Park Fish Campwww.hpfishcamp.com
St. Johns River Campgroundstjohnsrivercampground.com
Flagler County Infowww.visitflagler.com
Lake County Infowww.visitlakefl.com
Putnam County Infowww.tourputnam.org
Volusia County Infowww.volusia.org