Cover image courtesy of Matt Doggett

Every year, around the months of April and May, I start to get a bit excited about the arrival of a certain species of fish. The memories of last year’s battles still fresh in my mind and the dream of that 5lb plus fish that could find its way on to my hook still strong! Of course I am talking about the black bream (Spondyliosoma cantharus). It must be near the top of all small boat anglers target list. It is a little powerhouse that rewards the angler with great sport on light gear and really does fight all the way to the net!

I am privileged enough to be able to target these amazing fish within minutes of my local harbour (Lyme Regis), and over the years I have seen their numbers go from strength to strength. With that in mind my aim in this article is to help guide those who may never have caught one before to get in on the action and hopefully, educate a few on how the bream live, spawn and the reasons why we should be protecting our stock for future years.

A very nice sized black bream for James Trevett

Let us start at the beginning… Black bream are born protogynous hermaphrodites. This means they are all born female but with the ability to change into male fish as they mature. The bream arrive all along the south and west coasts in early spring and the males tend to congregate in large shoals swimming around the site for days until they decide to get to work building a suitable nest. They meticulously clear a circular area of small stones and silt until they hit the bed rock. Some fish have been observed moving up to 70kg of gravel and sediment to the outskirts of their nest which acts as a protective barrier around it.

As if he hasn’t done enough already, the male black bream must then try to grab the attention of a female. Male fish have vertical white bars and will quickly flash his silver and black flanks to attract a passing female and lure them away from any nearby competition. While all this is happening he has to be on guard from other males who will try to bully him out of his nest and take it for themselves, and of course predators who may also fancy him for dinner! 

A black bream takes an interest in the camera, perhaps wondering if it is a threat to his nest. Image courtesy of Matt Doggett.

Providing everything goes to plan and our male black bream draws in a mate, she will make her own observations of the nest area and decide if it is a suitable breeding place for her. When she is happy she will lay thousands of eggs which are 1-2mm in size. Our male will then fertilise them and continue to guard them for up to 15 days. Time spent doing this is crucial as there are many marine animals that predate on the nest. Gobies, blennies, wrasse, molluscs and even other juvenile bream are not impartial to the eggs. 

The climate has a big part to play in this cycle too, as big storms with huge swells have been known to completely wipe out the breeding sites in past seasons. Once hatched, the juvenile fish will stay in the area for around four weeks before venturing off a little further in the hunt for food and to try to make it to adulthood in what we know is a fish eat fish world! For me, therefore, it is important to resist the urge of keeping the fish during April and May (the spawning season). The male black bream have an especially important role to play in the sustainability of the species on our grounds. 

The following 3D models, produced by Matt Doggett, demonstrate the considerable impact storms can have on black bream nesting sites. The first model shows a number of established nests on the 01 May 2021, whilst the second model shows the same nesting site a little over a month later following a couple of significant storms. 

When it comes to targeting these fish, it is best to look for ground that offers a hard base but with loose sediment on top, broken ground with patches of rough mixed in. The grounds in Lyme Bay are perfect offering plenty of good habitat and equally as important, food! Black bream love nothing more than feeding on small crustaceans and invertebrates as well as sea grass. I have often found them to have stomachs full of brittle star fish when gutting fish kept for the table.

Black bream are not all that fussy when they are feeding, however, when it comes to baits nothing beats a strip of squid or a fresh sliver of mackerel. These baits are tried and tested but, like always, it is good to have a few other baits in your armoury just in case they are being fussy. Crab, mussels, prawn and scallop frills can all do the job on their day. It’s often a good idea to ground bait too. A bait dropper will get the ground bait down under the boat and draw fish in from well down tide. Adding rice (yes rice!) to your ground bait will help spread the scent even further… I guarantee when you’re gutting your fish you will find it in their bellies.

This image, courtesy of Matt Doggett, shows the type of ground over which you should expect to find black bream. Note the nests that each male will be guarding, making it very important to return fish during breeding season.

If you do not have the best ground nearby then consider targeting these black beauties a bit later in the season around the inshore wrecks. It is not uncommon to see the bigger males holding on the wrecks and feeding up before making the journey to deeper waters in the winter. Anchor far enough up tide to avoid putting your baits straight into a congers mouth, and use a slightly heavier snood (in case of any rubbing on the wrecks). A juicy whole squid will soon tempt a greedy black bream away from the safety of the wreck and onto your hook… Now simply hold on!

Now when I was younger, I remember my dad calling black bream the ‘bastard fish’. I soon worked out this was because they were a bastard to hook! Well back in the late 80’s, early 90s ,that was probably the case. Fishing was somewhat simpler back then, the massive 3/0 hook attached to a 6oz lead on a 25lb snood was about as technical as it got! These fish have small mouths and like nothing more than pecking away at your bait, avoiding the oversized hooks for fun and laughing while you strike up and down six times before having to re-bait.

Their small mouths and subtle bites have earned them some disparaging names in the past!

Baited feathers were seen to be a god way of hooking these hardcore little scrappers but luckily, they are not the only choice anymore. Terminal tackle has come on a long way and made these fish much easier to target and more importantly, hook! Personally, I find a two-hook paternoster the most reliable rig, but a 2 up 1 down also works well. It does not have to be covered in your grannies jewellery either. 

Remember, most of the shiny stuff in the tackle shop is designed to catch the angler and not the fish. Keep it simple but, if you want to add a little something, then you do not need go over the top. In our bay, a simple small green bead or piece of green wool seems to add that little bit to the bait. I guess it may just help catch their eye or mimic the sea grass they will feed on, however, the most important thing about your rig is to keep it light. Use fluorocarbon to the hook, between 8-10lb should be enough, but when targeting the larger bream you may want to up this to 15lb. 

With more modern approaches bream can be a fun species to target

You should also fish with as light a lead as possible for the tide you are in. This will encourage you to feed line out as the lead lifts off the seabed, thus sending your bait back in the tide every time until you find the fish. Make sure you remember the sport aspect of this fishing and use the lightest rod you can…You will not regret it! I’m currently using a 4-8lb Lethal Fin-Nor rod. It’s great for what I do, and so sensitive to the slightest of bites. I also keep a Kenzaki 6 -12lb on the boat just in case the tide starts to pull and I have to up the lead size a bit. Any rod that has good tip bite detection will do the job. 

It is also vital that your reel is up to the job. When these fish go, they really go! Having your drag set properly is the key to playing the better fish so make sure you remember to do this. Currently I am using the awesome Penn Fathoms loaded with 30lb braid. These reels are sensible money so they won’t break the bank and they seem to deal with most inshore species that I have encountered, making light work of most other species that may show themselves while targeting black bream. 

Image courtesy of Matt Doggett

Selecting the right hook is greatly important. I have seen far too many hooks straightened by these hard fighting fish. Whilst you would happily catch fish between 1-2lb on a nice fine wire hook, I think it is best to be prepared. There are plenty of 3-5lb bream about and a fish this size will make light work of the wrong tackle. The Sakuma 450 Chinu hooks are ideal in my opinion. They will still catch smaller fish, but not let you down when you really need them. You do not want to be that guy talking about ‘the one that got away’, do you?

Even with all the gear and the right baits these fish can be hard to hook. They will try your patience and make you work for them at times. But when you see that tell tale sign of a bream bite, remember to take a breath! Don’t go thrashing around striking at every pluck (like my old man used to do). The softest of strikes (almost just a slow lift of the rod) at the right time will connect you with the fish. We have found that on occasions when they are being really fussy its best to not to strike at all. When you get the first few plucks, simply release the tension on your line. The lack of resistance can just be the difference in them taking it confidently or not.

These beautiful juvenile black bream have left the nest to hide amongst the seagrass, peck away at a fortune of prime rag bait targeted at stingray and finally grow into future years specimen fish. Image courtesy of Matt Doggett.

I love targeting these fish. They look simply stunning when being coaxed up through the water column and as I have previously mentioned they fight so hard for their size. But more importantly what I love seeing is them swim away again after catching them.

There is no better feeling than knowing you have achieved your target, had your fun for the day and now they can head back down to continue their job, which will in turn improve the fishing for us all. I hope you guys all feel the same so we can all continue to enjoy catching them for many years to come. 

We would like to thank Matt Doggett for the use of his images and embeds of his fantastic 3D models throughout this feature. 

The above video is just one of several available on Matt’s fantastic website, with a section entitled The Black Bream Project. It is well worth checking out to get a real insight into the behaviours of this stunning species. 

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