Common bream are one of the larger members of the carp family found in British freshwaters. They have deep, narrow bodies (hence the anglers’ name ‘dustbin lids’) and can swim with ease through weedy or reedy shallow water. Their long, dark dorsal fins are set well back near their blackish, deeply forked tails. Bream have small, underslung mouths which can project forwards while they root on muddy lake or river bottoms in search of food. Another distinctive feature is their covering of thick slime.
Young bream, called skimmers, are silver. As they mature, they turn a dark, golden-olive colour. Fully mature bream have dark backs and greenish-bronze flanks with white undersides. Some bream with disorders of the nervous system appear two-toned – one half of their body is darker than the other half.
Skimmers begin feeding on algae and plankton and then graduate to water fleas. Adult fish eat whatever food is available – including a wide range of plant material, insect larvae, minnows and bottom-dwelling invertebrates. Larger, older bream sometimes feed at night on fry and small minnows. Members of the shoal frequently roll on the surface of the water as a prelude to feeding. A variety of baits will tempt bream – corn, worms, boilies, maggots and bread – provided you fish them directly on the bottom.
Bream are a shoal fish – the ‘cattle’ of the underwater world. A shoal of bream, for example, can comprise hundreds of individual fish between 3-4 lb (1.4-1.8kg). One possible reason for grouping together is that it serves as a defence against predators. It appears that there’s safety in numbers.
Bream are thought of as stillwater fish. They are attracted to shallow, reedy bays to feed and bask in the sun. They are, however, more adaptable than many anglers think – they can thrive in moderate to fast-flowing rivers, sheltering just outside the main current under tree roots, in deep pools or near undercut banks.
The key to large bream populations is the diversity and quantity of food available. Waters rich in silt and plant life are an excellent source of food and cover. They usually contain great numbers of insects and snails – an important food source for skimmers. Some heavily fished waters may also sustain large populations of bream, for many anglers use vast amounts of ground-bait and loosefeed, providing food for the fish on a regular basis throughout the fishing season.
Spawning usually occurs at the end of May or early June – when the water temperature reaches 14-17°C (57-63°F). The males establish territories and develop hard, spawning tubercles on their heads and bodies. It is thought that the males swim alongside the females and buffet them, brushing the tubercles against the flanks of the females. This is a signal to the females to lay their sticky eggs, masses of which are deposited on weeds, reeds, underwater tree roots or debris on the bottoms of rivers or lakes.
Each female lays as many as 300,000 to 400,000 eggs which hatch in three to twelve days, depending on the water temperature. Warmer water may help the eggs hatch faster than colder water. Only a small fraction of the fry that hatch will survive.
During the first year, the fry reach 3-5in (7.5-12.5cm) in length. Overall, growth is slow. It takes five to six years for a fish to reach 2 lb (0.9kg), and ten years for one to reach 5-7 lb(2.3-3.2kg).