River bream are peculiar fish, the most difficult to understand of all river species, I think. Some days they come to net so easily that you get the impression a bright chimpanzee could catch them. Other times you try everything you know to tempt one fish from a shoal that is obviously feeding but steadfastly refuses to have anything to do with the hookbait. Yet other days produce a bite every throw: bold, unmissable bites which nonetheless are inexplicably missed one after another.
HABITAT AND BEHAVIOUR
Bream are generally associated with deep, slow stretches of river but they also do well in the upper reaches and smaller tributaries and are becoming increasingly widespread in faster currents such as those of southern chalk streams. Weirpools often contain a resident shoal or two, and at times they can be caught even in the white water. But it is the wide placid reaches of lowland river which contain the most worthwhile shoals, East Anglian streams notably providing some of the best bream fishing of all. The unhurried environment suits the bream’s nature, which is just as placid as where it lives. Even on the hook they seem in no hurry to escape.
The species is criticised for its lack of fighting spirit; but of course they are not built for power and their weakness is amply compensated for by their bulk and numbers – you can soon fill a keepnet with bream. In any case, their faintheartedness applies only in sluggish water. Bream hooked from clear flowing upper reaches soon silence the critics, fighting with the tenacity of a tench or chub of the same size.
My first experience of hard-fighting bream came years ago during a chub session on an overgrown tiny river. I thought that chub would be lying in the fastish shallow gravel run under the trailing branches of a willow on the far bank. I legereda large wodge of flake there and watched the tip for bites. After a while the tip walloped round and I struck into a heavy ‘chub’ which forced me to yield line as it bolted powerfully downstream. Right up to the net I still thought it was a chub, and could hardly believe it when a singularly handsome bream surfaced before me, the first of a bag of equally immaculate fish from that apparently unlikely bream swim.
That’s another thing about bream from upper rivers and similar purer environments. Not only do they scrap, but they are better looking, cleaner-handling fish with broad shoulders and lacking the thick slime typical of slow water bream. I presume that the slime affords some protection in the more polluted, parasite-infested reaches of middle and lower rivers.
Bream are a true shoal fish. There may be three or three hundred together. If one feeds, they all feed; if one moves, they all move. They are also perfect pike fodder. I have read that their flat ‘tea tray’ shape has evolved so that bream can more easily weave their way through submerged rush beds where they find sanctuary from their tormentors. 1 think that is nonsense-in all my days of fishing I have yet to see or hear about bream found amongst rushes, except on isolated occasions when they were spawning. In fact, their flat shape evolved to allow them to pack more tightly together when danger threatens. Those deep flanks are adapted to give a large area of mirror camouflage, for beneath the water bream reflect perfectly the surroundings they happen to be in, as do other shiny, scaled species. The bream’s only defences are camouflage and numbers. A pike feeds by stalking a shoal, selecting and lunging at a chosen individual fish. I can well imagine it being disoriented when confronted by a milling group of mirrored tea trays.
My experiences with fast-water bream were exceptions to the rule. Nine times out of ten you are more likely to locate them in the deeper, slower sections, in holes, pools, slacks and eddies, in quiet water out of the main flow with a mud or clay bottom. This highlights another peculiarity of the species: they are the only fish that seem to prefer a soft bottom to one of clean gravel.
Locating fish is not so much a question of finding a likely stretch as pinpointing the whereabouts of the shoal in that particular area. In summer the problem may be resolved easily because it is common to see a whole shoal basking just beneath the surface, the occasional dorsal fin waggling in the air and the odd vortex as a bream swirls. It is an impressive sight particularly when the shoal numbers several hundred fish.
On those days bream dangle before you like the proverbial carrot before a donkey, for although I have taken a few basking fish from still waters I have never been in the least successful on rivers. The shoals may feed on the river bed directly underneath their basking area, but more often they move a short way up or down stream before getting their heads down. The best strategy is to prebait a swim adjacent to the shoal – not so close as to disturb them -then settle down to fish when the sun loses its heat and sends the bream deeper. If they feed at all there is every chance that they will home in on your baited patch.
Rolling bream reveal another clue about where to fish. Dawn and dusk are the most reliable times to watch bream roll, although in muggy weather they may continue throughout the day. A good chop on the water does not appear to encourage river bream as it does in still water; in fact you are more likely to see river bream when not a ripple disturbs the surface.
It is important to know that bream roll in two different ways depending upon what they are doing. When feeding, they lollop over and make a considerable boil as they do so. Usually you can spot their broad Hanks, and sometimes the tail clears the surface then smacks the water as the fish flops over. When you see bream rolling like that you’re in business.
The second type of rolling is very different, easily distinguished and marks the fish as travellers on the move to another feeding or resting area. They slice through the water, head, shoulders, dorsal fin and upper lobe of the tail cutting through the surface, usually so quietly that you miss the shoal unless you happen to be looking in the right place. I have known the odd fish accept a slow falling bait offered in front of a moving shoal, but you are better off following at a safe distance to try to find out where they are going. Following the shoal’s movement is easy enough when they come to the surface regularly. They all head in the same direction. Mind you, where they cease coming up is not necessarily where they have chosen to feed or rest. Sometimes bream keep moving so deep that you cannot spot them.
Two friends of mine once devised an effective method of locating a particularly elusive shoal in a featureless stretch of river. They ‘leapfrogged’ along the bank using swingtip leger tackle, but without hook and bait. An odd way to catch bream, you’d think but the plan worked well. The idea was to alternate their way through the swims by casting across the river, pausing and retrieving until either the swim had been thoroughly searched without result or produced line bites, which indicated they had found the bream. With the spot marked, they went back for the rest of their tackle. Their good thinking was usually rewarded with a nice bag of fish.
Bubbles and areas of coloured water are sure signs of feeding. Anglers love to argue about how and why all kinds of fish make bubbles. I have even heard the opinion that the bubbles break forth from the fish’s vent! But of course bubbles are caused when a feeding fish sucks up gases trapped in the bottom along with muck and food.
The gases are expelled through the back of the gill rakers and rise to the surface as bubbles. The size of the bubbles is controlled by the structure of the gill rakers; the more numerous the rakers, the smaller the bubbles. Tench have many rakers and thus produce a mass of tiny bubbles when gases are sieved through their gills. I have never examined a bream’s rakers but as their bubbles are pea-sized I suppose they have relatively few. You may see half a dozen bubbles or a great patch depending upon how vigorously the fish roots through the bottom and upon how much gas is trapped there.
In clearer summer conditions the bottom-rummaging of bream so discolours the area that it can be seen clearly, and this is obviously the place to fish. Remember to allow for the rate of flow before putting in your bait though. The discoloured water is always downstream of the exact feeding zone. Where you find bream one day is not necessarily where they will be the next. They are habitual nomads and their wandering appears more frequent in summer than in winter. Cold water prompts them to take up residence in a comfortable, usually deep spot in which they remain unless floods or very mild weather spur them to move. Summer fish are like sheep: they graze an area for a while, perhaps a day, perhaps even a fortnight or more, before they eat themselves out of house and home and thus find it necessary to travel on. A regularly baited swim will hold the shoal for much longer, even indefinitely. The key word is regularly – miss a few days and you may return to a vacant swim.
Line bites are common wherever a shoal is moving about in a swim. They are most often encountered on leger rigs and are due to the bream bushing or swimming into the line, causing false reactions on float or indicator. Once you have found the shoal, when to fish for the bream is governed by the weather and light conditions, as it is with most river species. Like roach, bream feed best in low light. Much of the best river fishing is confined to early and late in the day, and throughout daylight should skies be overcast. Warm summer nights may produce the best sport of all on some rivers but not on others. As I say, bream are difficult to understand.
Winter breaming is best restricted to the mild spells or when rain injects extra colour into the river. A mild period coinciding with a flush of coloured water- com- lowed in preference by red worms alone, maggots, casters, flake, crust and punched bread. It is curious that a cocktail bait frequently works when either bait alone. or any other, is rejected. Brandlings, those small red worms with yellowish rings and a pungent odour, are often recommended but are a poor substitute for proper red worms. Brandlings are found in the bottom layers of old pig manure or compost heaps. Reds are more selective: heaps of well rotted horse manure are the best places to dig them. Marsh worms are even better than reds, about twice the size, lively, similar colour, but difficult to find in numbers. You may discover a few by turning over old riverside logs or by digging in marshy areas of bankside vegetation where that is allowed.
Bream suck in and blow out a bait sever- mon enough in most winters- is an opportunity not to be missed by any keen bream angler. Whether bream feed after dark in winter is something I have never discovered, though I have no doubt that the nocturnal bream enthusiast would do well to try.
Match and some specialist anglers excepted, I cannot help noticing that most fishermen are decidedly sloppy about the quality of bait they are willing to use. Good bait is vital for any species, and none more so than for bream. However, provided the quality is there bream will take a whole variety of baits, my favourites being a cocktail of red worms and maggots, or maggots and flake. They are closely fol- al times before swallowing or rejecting it. The poorer the bait, the higher the chances of eventual rejection. Red worms remain fairly lively if stored in some of the manure from which you dug them. Maggots straight from the shop definitely need to be cleaned. Drop them into a riddle containing bran or bread crumbs moistened with a little milk, and let the maggots work their way through the meshes to fall into a container beneath. Repeat the process two or three times for best results.
Specials are the best maggots to use. Bream find plump, soft gozzers irresistible. You are unlikely to be able to buy them because they are hard to breed in commercial numbers. Breed your own instead: gozzers are just the larvae of bluebottles fed on pigeon meat. If you cannot get pigeon, a pig’s heart from the butcher will do. Good specials can be bred from chicken.
All you need is a large tin with a few big holes punched in the lid. Place the pigeon’ inside – preferably it should be ‘high’ already – and leave the tin in a shady spot for a day until the meat is fly-blown. You will see clusters of creamy coloured eggs on the meat. Remove the pigeon and wrap it in plenty of newspaper. After three or four days the maggots should be about half grown. Add more meat if necessary, then leave for a further four or five days. Riddle the maggots as described above.
Flavoured maggots work well for bream, and although I have yet to try it I see no reason why the flavour could not be imparted by adding it to the meat upon which the maggots are bred. Carp-type special pastes are nowhere near as effective for bream as they are for other species. I once caught a number of bream on shrimp concentrate based paste from a swim prebaited for tench. However, I would probably have caught them on more conventional baits as well.
Thoughtful groundbaiting is every bit as important as good quality hookbait. The well-worn advice about lots of feed for bream holds true only on big, heavily populated rivers. I would advise considerably more caution about baiting on small and medium rivers where quality, smell and method of feeding are vastly more important than how many bucketfuls are tipped in.
An excellent groundbait for attracting and holding bream consists of 60 per cent white bread crumb, 20 per cent layer’s mash and 20 per cent of a smelly concoction of fish blood and bone meal (the latter two ingredients are available from animal food merchants). Add the dry mix to water (flavoured to match the hookbait if necessary) to obtain a firm mixture that breaks up on the bottom, not as it hits the surface or even at half depth. If the ball breaks up too soon, two things happen: much of the food drifts downstream in the current, perhaps taking the bream with it, and it encourages bream to feed off the bottom as they rise to intercept the falling particles. They can be caught on slowly falling or trotted baits, but bream are much easier to hook when they feed hard on the bottom. That is where you must concentrate the groundbait for best results.
The holding quality of the mix is enhanced by the addition of feed maggots, casters, chopped worms, nips of flake or other samples of hookbait. Squats are the best shoal holders I know – use as many as can be crammed into the mix without ruining its binding properties. Pinkies or ordinary maggots are considerably inferior because the groundbait will not bind properly, and anyway the maggots tend to creep out of sight in the river bed debris. When only pinkies and others are available, I scald them in boiling water. Put – them in a fine meshed sieve and pour the water over them whereupon the maggots stretch to nearly twice normal length, turn pale and no longer creep around.
Good sport is better assured on any river by prebaiting a swim for a few days before-hand. Big shoals in big rivers need a correspondingly enthusiastic prebaiting campaign, topped up during the fishing session in accordance with how the shoal feeds. When the bream feed heavily, add groundbait frequently and liberally. If sport is slow, further heavy groundbait is unlikely to improve matters.
The bream of medium and small rivers respond better to a reasonable dose, say five or six balls when you start fishing, followed by careful topping up with small balls or by loose feeding with maggots, etc. The latter method encourages midwater feeding, unfortunately. If I know there are bream already feeding in a small river swim, I refrain from groundbaiting at all until the action slows down. Even then I bait sparingly and carefully, for I have seen many a shoal so alarmed by heavy bombardment that they leave the swim.
TACTICS AND TECHNIQUES
The mood of the bream and the type of river and swim dictate which method to use. Big rivers call for swimfeeder tactics which help to top up the groundbait and keep it all in the right spot. Swimfeeding can work on smaller rivers as well, but I confine them to deeper swims and coloured water. I have seen fish spooked by feeders splashing into clear water. Mostly I prefer to do without, preferring a simple paternoster leger rig with a long hooktail. A leger rod for feeder fishing needs back- bone to handle the weight: try a medium action 10-12 footer of 1lb test curve and matched to 4 lb main line plus a lighter hook link. For straight legering a lighter rod of the same easy action is more suitable, with a 2V^—3 lb reel line and light link. Either rod may be fitted with a threaded tip ring accepting a screw-in swing, spring or quiver tip. In my view a ready spliced quiver beats all.
A very long hook link is of importance when you are legering for bream. Long tails allow a more natural bait presentation and that helps to reduce the suspicious suck-blow routine. Hook points should always be honed needle-sharp and protrude from the bait so that there is every chance of the point taking hold as the bait is blown out. When that happens bream wallop the rod tip round like chub.
The prick of the hook makes it bolt. On the other hand, bites can be so incredibly small that great concentration is required to see any indication at all.
I recall occasions when barely ‘/tin movements of the quiver tip have resulted in good catches, the bream usually hooked well inside the mouth. Bream often give small bites even though they are feeding confidently. Sometimes, especially when you are loose feeding, the bait is intercepted as it sinks. A bite is easily missed if you are not watching for it, so after casting, stop the line flowing from the reel immediately the leger hits the water; now the rig sinks on a tight line to the rod tip, and when the leger hits bottom the pressure on the line is reduced and it falls slack. You soon get used to the time it takes for this to happen. A bite is recognised by the line staying tight to the rod instead of falling slack at the expected time.
When flow is not too strong and distances are small, it is effective to lay on with a 12 or 13ft match rod and float tackle, presenting the stationary bait which bream tend to prefer. At the same time, bites are positive and detected early. It is also aesthetically a nicer method for those who like to watch a float.
Feeding bream tilt their heads downwards to take a bait. Amid much tail waving, they are likely to foul a line lying straight up and down between float and river bed and thus produce false indications. With a number of bream feeding in the area there is no obvious remedy except legering, but you can reduce the problem by allowing a long length of line to lie along the bottom between hook and shot, an arrangement that in any case produces more confident bites because the bream feels less resistance.
When you get lovely sailaway bites yet miss every strike, it sometimes pays to increase the tackle’s resistance. To understand why this happens, consider how a bream feeds. Its lips can be extended like a telescope, a facility it uses to suck in baits from an inch or more distant. Sometimes, for reasons that only a bream can answer, the bait is merely sucked to the extreme outer edges of the lips and held there. Perhaps the bream is suspicious; perhaps the bait is poor. Whatever the cause, the strike misses for the simple reason that hook and bait were not in the mouth at all.
I believe that Cheshire bream angler Graham Marsden first suggested that increasing the resistance may provide a solution. The theory is that upon taking up a little free line the bream then feels the bait about to be pulled from its mouth by the resistance. It feels obliged to take a better grip, which it does by sucking the bait further into its mouth.
In practice the method does work, but not always. Instead of taking a tighter grip, the bream may decide to spit out the bait. But the trick pays off often enough to be worth a try when you keep missing bites. Increase the resistance by adding more shot when laying on, and by allowing the line to tighten and the tip to bend into the bite when legering.
Generally speaking, the only movement I like in a bottom fished bait is when I tweak it along a few inches. This often prompts the bream to bite. Other than that I think a static bait is better. There are sometimes exceptions, often coinciding with an extra push of water along the river, when a trotted bait is more effective. However, the bait should be fished to travel through the swim at less than the current’s rate. It is best running at little more than a crawl, this is achieved by setting the float overdepth so that about 24in of hooktail drags along the bottom behind the float. Swim depth must be plumbed accurately and the bottom shot set just to drag the river bed. A waggler float with buoyant antenna of peacock quill or sar-kandas reed, fixed bottom end only, is best. The dragging shot repeatedly catches on the river bed and is pulled into the debris, so the float is slightly undershotted to provide an extra bit of buoyancy to counteract the problem by lifting the shot free.
As the float drifts downstream it slowly dips as the drag shot catches, pops up again and continues down. Bites are easily distinguished from this natural dragging action. The float either lifts or slides under and away positively. Larger floats carrying more shot can be used when the water is choppy, but in really rough conditions the method is ruled out. On the right day, though, drag-trotting can be deadly. Because depth setting is crucial to success, it is a sound policy to measure the position of the float by aligning it with the rod rings. Should you break off, the float can be reset exactly right.
Handling the Catch
Treat your bream with care. They are extremely fragile fish, prone to disease and fungus when their protective layer of slime is displaced. I sometimes despair on seeing a packed keepnet hauled ashore, the bream red and sore from continually rubbing themselves against the meshes. Those at the bottom are badly crushed and unlikely to survive. It is a fact of fishing that many anglers like to admire the whole catch at the end of the session, but do spare a thought for bream and consider slipping them back one by one asyou catch them. If you must keep them, use several large keepnets instead of one.