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May 23, 2021

Note to readers: On Sunday, May 30, Memorial Day weekend, this ‘By the Way’ column will move from the Sports Section to the Arts and Leisure Section of the Spartanburg Herald-Journal.  Please look for us there.

During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Upstate Forever, a land conservation and advocacy organization that protects critical lands, abundant waters, and the unique character of the Upstate of South Carolina. 201 East Broad Street. Suite 1C, Spartanburg, South Carolina, 29306, (864) 327-0090.

In the spring of 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic and on the Saturday before Mother’s Day, I took six grandchildren fishing at a local farm pond. I insisted that the daddies go with their children. We had a great time! Every grandchild and almost every adult caught fish, mostly pan-sized bream. This grandfather spent most of his time baiting hooks and untangling lines. What joy!

The full moon in May is called the full flower moon in the Old Farmer’s Almanac. It is the name used by several Native American tribes. May’s full moon was also called mother’s moon, milk moon, and corn planting moon. In May, the full moon marked a time of increasing fertility, with temperatures usually warm enough for safely bearing young, an end to late frosts, and plants in bloom.

The light of a silvery moon may provide the inspiration for a budding romance, but the full moon in May is the right time for bream fishing in our neck of the woods. This year the full moon will appear on May 26, prime time for fishing.

Even a novice angler can fill a Sheetrock mud bucket half full of bluegill and shellcrackers after fishing only a few hours.  Jigging with a cane pole from the bank or spin casting from a johnboat is equally effective. Crickets or red worms on a long-shank hook flipped into a bream bed are sure to provide a tasty supper of fresh panfish.

In May several years ago, one of our sons, his father-in-law, and I took our oldest grandson fishing on the full moon. We stopped at our local bait shop for red worms and Louisiana pinks. On that day, the bream had an appetite for Cajun fare. The tough, pink worms from the bayou were the main entrée.

The three adults on the trip had made a secret agreement. We wanted the young boy to land the first fish. It didn’t take long. Standing on the grassy bank of a well-kept private pond, our grandson landed a hand-sized bluegill. Two hours later, the four of us had forty-two bream in the bucket. Our grandson, of course, caught the most.

It took us nearly an hour to clean the fish, a messy process that is best done near the water’s edge. We used a cutting board positioned on the tailgate of my truck.

For supper that night, my good friend Carl Bostick, the other grandfather, fried the fish caught earlier that day. The sweet taste of pan-fried bream with hush puppies and coleslaw enjoyed outside under a full moon is the perfect way to end a day of fishing.

The Old Farmer’s Almanac identifies these spring days as an irresistible time for bream fishing. Even seasoned bass masters can be lured away from their plastic worms rigged on weedless hooks and artificial baits armed with treble hooks.  As exciting as landing an eight-pound largemouth bass is, ounce for ounce, snagging a feisty bream offers a fight beyond compare.  Besides, largemouth bass fishermen tend to be large-mouthed. The simplicity of bream fishing is a humble endeavor that is good for the soul.

The week after Christmas, citizens who know the finer nuances of bream fishing load their pickup trucks with Fraser firs, red cedars, and other discarded Christmas trees that have been lain on the side of the road like fallen soldiers.  Rather than leaving these trees to be gathered and ground into mulch, dedicated anglers haul them to their favorite farm pond and sink them in the cold waters of winter.  A clump of Christmas trees anchored on the bottom of a pond becomes a bream bed where fish find cover in the branches.

Also important to the experienced bream angler is the catalpa tree.  “Say catalpa, not Catawba,” an avid fisherman once told me.  “Catawba is the name of a river and a tribe of Indians.  Catalpa is the tree.”  Actually, catalpa is an Indian word that means soft wood.  This tree’s whorl of purple blossoms in the spring attracts the female sphinx moth to lay her eggs at night on the large green leaves.  When the larvae hatch, those leaves provide food for hundreds of catalpa worms.

Catalpa worms are the premier bream bait.  They’ve got a tough skin that holds a hook far better than either crickets or red worms.  One fisherman bragged that he had caught six bluegills on the same worm. He added, “A catalpa worm to a bream is ‘bout like a T-bone steak is to me.  It’s just too good to turn down.”

After a full moon in May several years ago, a fishing buddy and I went to a farm pond late one afternoon.  After about an hour, the only bites I had were from mosquitoes.  We quietly paddled the johnboat across the pond to a large bream bed. Fishing around the outside margin of the bed, we left the center of the bed undisturbed so as not to incite widespread bream panic. Using catalpa worms, we caught a bream on almost every cast, keeping only the fish we intended to clean and eat.  By dark, our basket was heavy with shellcrackers and bluegills.  With only the light of a nearly full moon, we continued fishing, setting the hook whenever we heard or felt the bream hit. 

Throughout the evening, bullfrogs, crickets, and a solitary whip-poor-will treated us to a concert.  The fragrance of honeysuckle wafted on a cool breeze.  Moonlight glistened on the water, and stars flickered faintly in the sky.  After fishing, we cleaned the bream and put our catch on ice.  We secured the johnboat to the trailer and headed for home. 

My friend reflected, “I needed this.”  I agreed. I needed it, too.

The psalmist David wrote, “He leads me beside still waters.  He restores my soul” (Psalm 23). Bream fishing is healing to the spirit; it is refreshing to the soul. Fishing, which requires patient timing, helps to reset our internal clock and restore the rhythm of life to a slower pace.

Driving home that night under the full moon, we said very little to each other.  My friend broke the silence.  “This must be why those first disciples were fisherman.”  

“Maybe so,” I commented.

In 2013 I was not fishing on the full moon in May. A young lady in our family was getting married. Though among our kith and kin, she holds the record for the largest bream ever landed, she wasn’t fishing that weekend either. Our daughter, Betsy, was a beautiful bride, and I was the officiating pastor. Her catch of the day was much bigger than her record bluegill and far better.

She has always been a good angler. As much as she enjoys fishing, on that weekend, she had bigger fish to fry.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at       

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