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For those of us who fish in the Apalachicola River and its tributaries, catching pied or hand-painted bream is one of the highlights of any trip. Some of my earliest and best memories are of hanging onto a cane pole for dear life and steering a big pied back to me. That thrill is still is enough to make me drive two hours, bail a boat and fight mosquitoes all day.
It’s an experience I enjoy even more knowing that these colorful bluegills aren’t found anywhere else.
I’ve heard for years that pied bream are unique to the Apalachicola system, but confirming that information proved to be harder than I thought. So I reached out to the good folks at the Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).
The FWC, as it turns out, was way ahead of me on this issue. Chris Paxton, fisheries administrator for FWC’s Northwest Florida region, is very familiar with the pied bream and provided me with a ton of information and the best pictures I’ve ever seen. (The vivid colors start to fade after the fish leaves the water, so it’s hard to get them on camera.)
Paxton confirmed that you won’t find pied bream anywhere outside an area bordered roughly by the Apalachicola River to the east and the Chipola River to the west. He has taken them from the Dead Lakes in the south and Merritt’s Mill Pond to the north.
Paxton said they’re also found in Ocheesee Pond, but he suspects they were released there.
Interestingly, testing conducted by a University of Alabama researcher in ’04 and ’05 found that pied bream aren’t genetically different from their more ordinary looking counterparts in the Apalachicola system.
So, why do they show the characteristic mottling patterns that make them so unique?
Without getting too science-y, Paxton speculates that it could be a number of factors from the geology of the river system to diet to sexual dimorphism, changes in coloration related to mating. The latter seems plausible because all the samples he collected were sexually mature males. On the other hand, he said they found sexually mature males without the unique colors as well.
We might never know why pied bream bear their spectacular markings, but what’s most important to remember here is that, like tupelo honey, they are another part of our natural heritage that makes the Apalachicola River region unique in all the world.
Special thanks to Chris Paxton, Bob Wattendorf and Tony Young of the FWC for providing the information in this article.