The Bream Species: Sunfish, Bluegills, Shellcracker, Warmouth and More

Young boy proudly holding up fish that he caught
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The term "bream" refers to any narrow, deep-bodied freshwater "panfish" and includes several species. Around the country, the prevalent breams may be known as brim, sunfish, panfish, or bream, but no matter what you call them, it is the first fish most of us catch and one of the best-flavored fish around. They live in many lakes and ponds, are easy to catch, provide hours of fun for all ages, and put a smile on your face when you dine on them.

In our area, we have bluegill, pumpkinseed, redbreast, shellcracker, green sunfish, and warmouth in most bodies of water. These oval-shaped flatfish pull hard when hooked. They eat various food, from bugs and worms to small mussels and snails. Although we lump them all together as bream, each species has its own characteristics.

Bluegills (Lepomis macrochirus)

Bluegill is the most common form of bream in most waters. They vary considerably in color, depending on water color, breeding season, and age of the fish. During bedding time, males take on bright orange bellies and backs with a dark blue to a purple sheen. Females are less colorful, and we often call them yellow breasts since they look faded compared to males.

Bluegill will eat anything they can get in their mouths, including small minnows, bugs, and worms. They spawn on the full moon every month from April through August, and that is a great time to catch large numbers of them. Filleted or fried whole, they are the favorite fish to eat for many people.

An old saying is that if bluegill got to 5 pounds, you could not land it because they fight so hard. The fisherman that landed the world record, a 4-pound, 12-ounce Alabama bluegill, might be able to tell you.

Shellcracker/Redear Sunfish/Cherry Sunfish/Sun Perch (Lepomis microlophus) 

Shellcrackers are also called Redear sunfish due to the red tinge around the side fin. Other regions have other names. As our local name implies, they eat snails and small mussels but will also eat worms and bugs. They get big; the world record is a 5-pound, 7-ounce fish caught in South Carolina.

Redbreasts are some of our prettiest sunfish, with bright red bellies. They are not common in ponds but are usually found in streams and rivers. Their populations have been decimated by the illegal introduction of flathead catfish into our rivers. They are smaller, too, with the world record being a 1 pound, 12 ounce Florida fish.

Redbreasts eat worms and bugs, and crickets are a favorite bait. Floating small rivers and creeks in a canoe is an excellent way to catch them, and the Apalachee river is one of the best in the state for them.

Warmouth (Lepomis gulosus)

Warmouths are not as closely related to the others, and they look different. They are very dark and have enormous mouths and will eat anything. They are very aggressive. The 2-pound, 7-ounce warmouth caught in Florida is the record.

Warmouths will hit anything that comes near them and often drive bass fishermen crazy hitting at their plastic worms. They seem to like to hang out around rocks and rocky banks and points, which are good places to catch them.

How to Cook Bream Species

Our mother loved to fry small bream and always said if they were big enough to make the grease stink, they were big enough to keep. She especially liked to eat the crisp fins after frying the fish. A three-inch bream was plenty big enough for her to keep.

If you scale a bream, then cut its head off and gut it, you can fry them whole. Anyone that has eaten a fried bream knows you can pull the top fin out, and it will take out the attached bones. Then the meat will fall away from the backbone.

I prefer bigger bream, big enough to filet. I like a boneless piece of fish, and they are easier to cook. Any leftovers make a great fish sandwich later. We keep a small deep fryer full of grease in my refrigerator and use it for frying fish and French fries. It would be best to have a bigger fryer to cook whole fish.