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Under the Red Bud Tree

Seeking bream on their spawning beds

I knew the fish would be there. They had to be. In years past, two consecutive days of 70-degree weather in mid-April put the bluegills and sunfish hard on their spawning beds. We had had at least five of those warm days in just the last week or so.

But the fish weren’t there. Casting and hurrying from spawning flat to spawning flat, I covered every location and nearby structure that had held the feisty rascals in past years. They just were not there.

The recent rains must have driven the temperatures down and moved them off of their nests. I was despondent. So sure that the fish would be spawning, I had brought only my light fly rod and a box of small poppers. I had no plan B.

Drifting with the slight breeze down the middle of the impoundment, I consoled myself with an early lunch. I couldn’t just give up and go home.

Fish Are Biting

Trophy-sized stripers dominate the Chesapeake angling scene. The hottest part of the bite is south toward Chesapeake Beach, but big rock are being caught throughout the mid-Bay. The Susquehanna Flats catch-and-release is also red hot but not for long; it closes May 3. Shad are tapering off, the white perch run is over, but the sweet water bite is on. Bass and bluegills are in the shallows now and eager to please any angler looking for a fight, but largemouth bass are catch-and-release only until June 15 in non-tidal waters.

Desperately searching through my bug box, I came across an odd, size-eight popper. It was a chunky floater with black and yellow rings painted around its cork body and a yellow, grizzly hackle skirt and splayed tail. Maybe it looked like a bumblebee.

Some trees at water’s edge were in bloom. I had to start somewhere, so I headed toward the closest foliage that looked like it might attract bees. The most obvious was a tree with crimson blossoms or seeds on branches drooping down close to the water.

Quietly easing up to casting distance, I stripped off some fly line. Shaking off the lethargy that had accumulated with my earlier discouragement, I managed a half-hearted cast that just made it to the drip line of the fiery, hanging foliage.

Bang! A thick-shouldered form came up out of the water and violently engulfed the bug as soon as it touched. I leaned into it with my slight rod and felt a reassuring bend from the well-hooked fish.

Then it surfaced, and I was startled as the gaudy, saucer-shaped brawler launched out of the water, skittered on its side for a beat or two, then headed back deep and toward some half-submerged brush.

My light tippet held as my rod doubled over, and I held the fish away from its intended sanctuary. It repaid me by heading back under my boat and trying to foul the electric motor. I managed to survive that tactic as well, but just barely.

After another few minutes of a turning and stubborn battle, I finally lined the tough little guy into the boat. Carefully removing my now-precious popper, I beheld a heavy, 10-inch, male red-eared sunfish, a close cousin to the bluegill, in full spawning color. Bright orange, yellow and aquamarine hues decorated its gill plates and chest like the medals of a Soviet general at a May Day Parade.

I admired it for a moment, then slipped the beast back over the side and made another cast, this time with a question in mind. Was this an accidental catch, or had I stumbled on something? The answer came instantly with another smashing strike that pulled line from my fingers as a second rowdy fish headed toward the same sunken brush pile.

My heart was a great deal lighter this time as I gently maneuvered the scrappy fighter away from danger and persuaded him to have his tantrum out in more open water. This fish turned out to be a bluegill of almost a pound, bright in its own spawning attire

Then to my delight I quickly got another bluegill, and another, then another sunfish. Working on up the shoreline and pausing at each scarlet bit of low-drooping foliage, I invariably found fish. Sometimes just a few; sometimes a lot. I ran out of time before I ran out of battling bream.

Pulling the boat and heading home, I recounted to my partner that day, my pup Sophie, just how clever I’d been to salvage such an outstanding victory out of an all-too-apparent defeat.

Sneaking a quick glance to confirm her admiration, I caught the look in her eye that said she had been on way too many trips to buy into that story. Even my dog knew I’d just been lucky.

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