December 5, 2013
By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
When the first real cold front of the fall sweeps through Alabama, my attention starts to focus on the many hunting opportunities that our great state offers. However, that doesn’t mean I disregard a fishing invitation when it comes my way this time of year.
In fact, fall and winter fishing in L.A. (Lower Alabama), can be some of the best of the year along the Gulf Coast.
When my buddy, Jay Gunn, sent a text and asked if I wanted to go fishing in Magnolia River recently, I sent a one-word text back – “certainly.”
Gunn guides on the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, mostly in the Gulf Shores-Fort Morgan area. He wanted to check out Magnolia River and Fish River to see what we could find in terms of speckled trout, redfish and white trout.
After fishing Magnolia for a while with little luck, we made the short run down Weeks Bay to Fish River, where the river channel is deeper.
“I always start shallow and work my way deep,” Gunn said. “Most of the time, it seems the shallow fish are the most aggressive. In the fall and winter, when it warms, that’s when the specks seem not to bite as well for whatever reason. When it gets cold again, they seem to bite again. You would think it would be just the opposite. You would think their metabolism would pick up when it’s warm and they would feed more.
“Normally the fish follow the shrimp around, but this has been a year when there weren’t a lot of shrimp in the rivers. Actually, there haven’t been a lot of shrimp in the bays, either.”
I talked to shrimper Doug Plash in October about shrimp, and he said the shrimp numbers were so low he couldn’t cover his fuel costs at the time.
Speculation about the poor shrimp crop centers around the unusually wet spring and summer, which kept the salinity in Mobile Bay and the estuaries low, which kills the larval shrimp.
“During the late summer and fall, the fish were a lot more scattered than in the past because of the poor shrimp crop,” Gunn said. “Now the fish have to feed on menhaden and threadfin shad, which most people call alewives. Those fish seem to move a lot more than the shrimp do, so that’s why the fish seem to be more scattered.”
While Gunn had already secured plenty of live bait fish with his cast net, we decided to try plastic minnow imitations in Fish River.
Fishing the river ledge, I cast the ¼-ounce jig up on the shelf and hopped it a couple of times. I thought for a flash that I had hooked one of the numerous snags on the ledge, until the snag started moving at a rapid pace.
When I set the hook, the drag started to whine on the spinning reel spooled with 10-pound fluorocarbon line.
“Aha, they’re still here,” Gunn said within seconds of the hookset.
I wasn’t sure what “they” meant, but the fish was certainly powerful and wasn’t about to be horsed to the boat. A few minutes later, that familiar bright bronze flash appeared as the fish neared the surface. I reached up and loosened the drag a bit more to ensure this brute of a redfish didn’t have a chance to break the line when he made his numerous runs.
Slowly, the fish began to tire and eventually ended up in the net.
“Boy, these redfish in Fish River sure are pretty,” Gunn said. “They just shine.”
After measuring the fish at 38 inches and taking photos, Gunn slipped the big red back into the water, and it quickly swam back to another ambush point.
“It happens about every five to eight years,” Gunn said of the influx of bull redfish into Fish River. “For some reason a bunch of bull reds show up in Fish River and Magnolia River. I guess they follow the menhaden up there. They get up there until we have a real cold front. A few stragglers will stay there all winter. Sometimes a lucky dog will catch one of them. If he’s real lucky, he’ll catch two.”
Not more than 15 minutes after the bull red disappeared into the tannin-colored water of Fish River, another fateful cast was made. This time, there was no doubt a big fish had slammed the bait. Another fight was on with similar results. Thank goodness for quality drag systems on small spinning reels.
“The thing about fishing this time of year is you’ve gotta be patient,” Gunn said. “The fish may not bite at daylight. A lot of times they don’t bite until on up in the day. Winter tides are such that low tides are early in the morning, say 3 a.m. to 10 a.m. When the tide starts moving, they bite a lot better.”
Although we fished Magnolia and Fish rivers, Gunn spends a lot of his winter fishing time in the Intracoastal Waterway and Little Lagoon.
“The water temperature stays a little steadier in the canal and lagoon,” he said. “The salinity stays pretty steady, too. There’s not a lot of freshwater influx. The fishing is just steady and dependable. In the canal, you may end up with a variety of fish – redfish, speckled trout, white trout, puppy drum and sheepshead.”
During the fall and winter, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta is known for its fishing for inshore saltwater species like specks and redfish. Traditionally, the Delta fishing is prime because of the migration of white shrimp out of the multiple rivers at the head of Mobile Bay.
Capt. Bobby Abruscato has made a living fishing around Dauphin Island and Bayou La Batre, but six years ago he started exploring the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. Now, he seldom leaves that area during the fall and winter because of the abundance of speckled trout.
“Earlier in the fall, when the water temperature was still above 62 degrees, I was fishing the shallow flats around Del Van Bay, Grand Bay and the Spanish, Raft and Appalachee rivers,” Abruscato said. “Those rivers are shaped all the same. There’s a shallow dropoff on one side of the channel, and there’s a steep dropoff on the other side of the channel. I was catching trout mainly with shrimp-imitations under corks.
“Then when we had these cooler snaps, I started catching them on the edges of where it drops down into the main river channel. Lately, since we had that last cold front, I’m catching them all on jigs in the river channels. They do that every year when it cools off like this.”
Abruscato also noticed a lack of shrimp during his fishing trips, and he said shrimpers have told him it was the slowest year they could remember in Mobile Bay.
“When the shrimp move out of the Delta, you’ll get the birds following the shrimp,” he said. “The trout will push the shrimp to the surface where the birds can reach them. This year the bird activity has been almost nil.”
But the fish, especially speckled trout, are still there. Although Abruscato said the fishing isn’t as good as it was last year, he’s been catching a limit of 10 specks per person consistently.
“And in the last two weeks, the quality of the fish has gone up,” he said. “We may only have five throwbacks all day. We’re catching quite a few fish from 18 to 23 inches.
“We’re catching some slot (16 to 26 inches) reds, but no bull reds. Everybody’s got trout on the brain right now. I’ve got trips later this month where customers want to catch redfish, so I’m going to have to find some. I’m sure some are up there. They always are.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) The bright bronze color of this bull redfish is evident as Capt. Jay Gunn shows off this Fish River catch before he slips the fish back into the water, where it quickly disappeared into the depths of the river channel. The second bull red of the day, which was almost identical to the first, came on the same minnow-imitation lure bounced along the river ledge.