Chuck Porter leaned forward, nose in the air, and turned his head slightly. Then he locked up solid. He slowly stretched out his arm and pointed to a tiny pocket of open water in a small clump of cypress trees about 30 feet in front of us.
"I smell a bream bed and I bet it's right in that clump of trees," Porter said.
A quick burst of power from the trolling motor put the boat on a slow glide path to the targeted area. As the bow of the boat reached the outer tree, he gently caught a cypress branch with his left hand to stop his forward motion. With his right hand he made an underhand flip with his bream-buster, loaded with a cricket, into the small opening.
The tiny cork never stopped moving. As it gently touched the water, it moved sideways a foot or so then slipped below the surface.
The game was afoot.
The big bull bream zipped around the tree toward open water with Porter's arms and legs contorted in an effort to keep up with the powerhouse panfish. He changed hands with his rig and finally brought the 14-ounce, deep-purple-colored beauty to the boat. It was the first of two dozen huge bream to be snatched from that single spot.
"Bream fishing at Lake Marion during May has to be as good as it gets in South Carolina," Porter said. "I love to fish for largemouth, crappie, striper and catfish. But during May, it's hard to stay away from the bruiser bream here on Lake Marion."
Porter isn't alone in his thinking. One of his good fishing buddies is Bobby Mims, who also fishes Lake Marion for big bream. Mims and Porter sometimes team up; sometimes they meet in separate boats.
"It's amazing how a good bream bed will bring fishermen together on this lake," Mims said. "Chuck and I stay in touch about fishing, but sometimes we'll both go without the other knowing it and we'll end up fishing the same area before the morning is done. I'd like to say great minds think alike, but usually it's a matter of us both working out the bream fishing pattern for the day and ending up at the same spot."
During May, Porter and Mims give pan fishing at Lake Marion extraordinary high marks. But Porter said the prime time for catching limits of huge bream and shellcracker in a short period of time is during full-moon days.
"The few days right before the full moon are prime time for big bream at Lake Marion," Porter said. "They'll really gang up at big beds at this time. Sometimes you can smell the beds, but my primary method is to work potentially good areas thoroughly.
"I look for a sandy, hard bottom area for the bream to bed. Over the years I've found a number of spots that'll hold bedding bream from one year to the next.
"Of course, these proven areas will be high on my personal priority list for fishing. But if that doesn't work, or if a person hasn't fished at Lake Marion often, I've got a routine that works well for finding bream beds. Plus, I like to scout out new areas. You never can have too many good bream beds located."
Porter will focus at shallow water almost exclusively during May. Early in the year the fish may be a bit deeper. He said this is certainly true in March and April. But by May, most of the action is in as shallow water as sometimes 5-feet deep.
"The entire lake provides excellent fishing, however you'll need to focus your efforts at the creeks and coves during this time of the year," Porter said. "The bream will bed among the cypress trees at sandy or gravel bottoms as well as in the backs of coves and creeks and even in small embayments where there's ample shallow water and sandy bottom. Typically they avoid a mucky bottom."
Mims said standard gear includes everything from long cane poles to small, sleek fiberglass and/or graphite poles.
"A lot of fishermen like the graphite because of the light weight and ease of maneuverability within the tight confines of numerous cypress trees," Mims said. "It's not a sensitivity thing.
"When a big bream bites, you don't need a sensitive tip to know it. But the lighter weight can make fishing more enjoyable if you stay at it all day. This is especially true when you're hauling in huge bream and shellcrackers."
"I like to get in the tiny opening in the trees and catch them out of places other anglers often pass by. While plenty of fish can be caught around the edges, there are always some untouched hot spots a bit off the beaten path.
"Most of the fish will be taken in shallow water, sometimes from water only a few inches deep. Those long light poles are great for places like that."
"I've encountered situations where I moved only 30 or 40 yards and went from no action to limits of bream for everyone in the boat. The key at Lake Marion is to keep moving until you lock into a strong pattern.
"Many times that's as far as you'll have to go. Bream, big bream, will literally come over the gunwales of the boat as fast as you can bait up and get it in the water."
Porter also uses light spinning or spin-cast tackle. There are times when the bream are really spooky, and anglers need to stay farther away.
"Most of the time, you can get in tight and catch bream, especially when they're on the beds," Porter said. "However, there are times when I have much more success by staying away from the targets and casting baits from a distance.
"You'll sometimes see the swirls of the fish as they retreat to deep water as you ease along the shoreline. If the water is too clear, which is sometimes a problem, then you'll need to back off a bit.
"To do this I use light spinning tackle or the small push button spin-cast reels. Both will work well. Also, if there are pads, weeds or stickups between your boat and the fish, you need to consider that when positioning your boat.
"When hooked 30 feet or more away from the boat, these big bream will not come straight in. Boat position can be absolutely critical. If you hook and lose a couple of these big bream, odds are good that you'll spook the fish from that area for a while. Remember the exact spot and slip back in later and try again. You'll likely get some fast action."
Porter said most Lake Marion anglers go with 8- to 10-pound test line. While that's a bit larger than most would prefer, there are so many potential snags to consider.
"I'm constantly fishing around trees, pads, weeds and cypress knees and other debris for the fish to wrap around," Porter said. "The big bream sometimes require that extra bit strength to wrestle them into the boat. Eight-pound-test line can be used successfully, but that's about as light as I would go at this lake.
"Usually, there's enough coloration in the water at Lake Marion that the size difference between 8-pound and 6-pound-test line isn't crucial. If you go with real heavy line, such as 12-pound-test or larger, you probably will notice a drop in your bream fishing action."
Mims said while a lot of the attention is focused on bluegills, the shellcracker population is awesome at Lake Marion.
"You can catch these huge shellcrackers with crickets at times at Lake Marion," Mims said. "As a general rule, the shellcrackers seem to prefer worms. When we're looking for a bed of fish and there are two of us in the boat, one of us will often use worms for bait, while the other one uses crickets.
"We'll simply work along the shallow shoreline where there are hard bottoms. We'll pitch or flip the crickets and worms back in the pockets around the trees and other cover. Sometimes we'll hit a bed of bluegills, while other times we'll find shellcrackers. There are times we'll even find them together, but it's usually primarily one or the other.
"The shellcrackers on the lake get exceptionally large with many of the fish in excess of a pound It's not uncommon to catch shellcrackers that weigh in at 2 pounds.
"In fact, the Diversion Canal area between lakes Marion and Moultrie is known to produces some of the biggest shellcrackers anywhere in the state. The entire lake is teeming with these big fish. But often fishermen will miss out on part of the overall fishing because they fish only with crickets."
Mims also said the current state record for shellcracker is listed by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources as a 5-pounds, 7-ounces shellcracker taken from the Diversion Canal.
While fishing the bedding action is prime time for most Lake Marion anglers, that's not the only time to catch big bream during May. Porter certainly keeps up with the moon phase in terms of bed fishing. But he said the moon phase doesn't really factor in whether he goes bream fishing or not.
"The bream are there to be caught throughout the month," Porter said. "In fact, right on through June we'll usually have some excellent shallow-water bream fishing. When the fish aren't on the beds, you just have to hunt and peck around a bit more to be successful."
One method is to continue the pattern looking for bream beds already described, only plan to stick with it for the entire day.
"I'll simply work along the shoreline looking for small bunches of bream," Porter said. "Even when they are not on the beds, they'll usually be found in small bunches of a few fish scattered around the shoreline.
"Typically there'll be frequent catches of smaller fish that'll need to be culled. By staying on the move, you'll usually catch a limit of fish.
"I recommend flipping or casting crickets and worms around shallow water cover at hard-bottoms sections of the lake for best results."
The fishing doesn't have to be all about live bait. There are good techniques that work using artificial lures, Mims and Porter agreed.
"Topwater fishing with popping bus can be very good, especially late in the afternoon," Mims said. "When the fish aren't bedded but are scattered around the shallows, a fly rod and popping bug make a great combination. A person can cover a lot of territory and catch some whopper-sized bream."
Porter described another technique that has the same effect but doesn't require a fly rod.
"Some fishermen seem to avoid using a fly rod, but you can use a popping bug on a spinning reel to do basically the same thing," he said. "Take a clear-plastic float and put it a couple feet from the popping bug. That gives you the necessary casting weight to get the lure where you want it. Slowly reel and twitch the lure in and the big bream will sometimes be very aggressive.
"Also, the use of a small beetle-spin lure with light spinning gear is great for big bream. The crawfish pattern is a good color choice, as are the chartreuse or white color patters.
"Cast a small spinner to the shoreline cover or at cypress trees and knees and reel it in slow and steady. It really is as simply as that at times. I prefer the late afternoon for this type of fishing."
Porter also said there's one more consideration when bream fishing at Lake Marion.
"During May, odds are pretty good you and your buddy can get limits of big bream without fishing the entire day," Porter said. "Since I also love to bass fish, I bring a bass rig with me and often I have the opportunity to enjoy the best of both of these fishing worlds."
Fishing for tackle-busting bream at Lake Marion during May is one of the most sure-fire fisheries in South Carolina. In some years, when there's an early spring, there'll be good bedding and spawning activity during April. This is especially true with shellcrackers, a species that tends to spawn a bit earlier than do most species collectively referred to as bream.
By May this lake will have warmed sufficiently to allow anglers the opportunity to catch plenty of big bream whether they're spawning or not.