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Estuaries Provide Sportfish Angling Opportunities

Date Published: February 22, 2001

Alabama Estuaries Provide Sportfish Angling Opportunities

David Armstrong
District V Fisheries Biologist
Spanish Fort, Alabama

Estuarine habitats or "estuaries" occur where fresh waters from rivers and streams meet and mix with salt waters from the ocean. In Alabama, estuaries occur primarily at the mouth of the Mobile River basin where salty Gulf of Mexico waters meet fresher Mobile Delta waters in Mobile Bay. The Mobile Delta is formed where the Alabama and Tombigbee Rivers join to create the Mobile River that braids out into many smaller rivers like the Tensaw, Middle, Apalachee, and Blakeley Rivers. These freshwater delta rivers constantly flow into Mobile Bay, which is the deeper, open-water portion of this estuary that divides Mobile and Baldwin Counties. Waters that flow through Mobile Bay and the Delta are constantly changing because tidal flows influence the amount of mixing of fresh river water with salty bay water. Weather patterns further influence the temperature and salinity of estuarine waters during the changing seasons of the year. Thus, daily tidal flows combined with changing weather patterns are responsible for fluctuations in water conditions in an estuary and this has a significant impact on the abundance of fish species.

In Alabama, 85 species of fish are considered either marine or estuarine. Marine fishes live in salt water exclusively, while estuarine fishes inhabit a mixture of both salt and fresh waters. Fishes that most people consider either fresh or salt water inhabitants often live equally well, and in surprisingly great numbers, in the Mobile Delta and throughout Mobile Bay. Such fishes include largemouth bass, bluegill sunfish, redear sunfish (or shellcracker), blue catfish, crappie, redfish, speckled trout, striped mullet, white trout, flounder, and croakers.

Fishes living in estuarine areas are especially interesting because they exhibit a variety of life history traits that are adapted to changes in daily tidal fluctuations. For example, the daily rise and fall of tides creates flows which help to flush and distribute various foods that fish need. Food items in tidal estuarine areas include shrimp; crabs; small fish such as anchovies, topminnows, and shads; as well as many types of insects that crawl on the rich, muddy bottoms or cling to aquatic vegetation. For this reason, anglers often take advantage of tides by fishing when tides are high or just beginning to fall, when critters that live near the shoreline are more active and fish are attracted by the availability of more food.

Movements of fishes are also influenced by weather. Rainy weather or hurricanes cause bay and delta waters to become increasingly "fresher" due to heavy flows of water from rivers and streams within the watershed, allowing fishes such as largemouth bass, bream, crappie and catfish to move farther downstream. Likewise, when dry weather or drought conditions occur, fish that normally find salty water more to their liking will move farther upstream. In fact, drought conditions in Alabama during 1999 and 2000 have led to an increased abundance of fishes such as redfish, speckled trout, white trout, croakers, and drum that tend to inhabit the lower coastal Alabama rivers and bays. Anglers take advantage of these conditions by targeting these fishes to a greater extent during the summer and early fall. As the coming winter and spring brings changes in weather, so do changes occur in the types of fish caught in tidally influenced waters.

Fishing tactics that anglers use in coastal estuarine areas are as varied as the number of species inhabiting these waters. Bream fishing is popular in the shallow delta bays and coastal rivers using artificial and live baits during the fall and winter months. Anglers seeking the ever-popular largemouth bass generally use an array of artificial baits or live shrimp in the riverine delta areas. Farther downstream, anglers who look for a variety of redfish, speckled trout, flounder, or sheepshead may try either live or dead shrimp and bull minnows, using a variety of bottom-rigging or casting techniques. Whatever the season, angling opportunities abound in Alabama’s gulf coast estuaries for a variety of freshwater and estuarine species.

Additional Link: Mobile Delta


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