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Fish River Lives Up to Its Name

By DAVID RAINER

The vast Mobile-Tensaw Delta may have the corner on notoriety in terms of outdoors activities, but when it comes to cool-weather fishing there is another spot in south Alabama that deserves some credit.

Fish River lives up to its name in the fall and winter for anglers who love to catch the inshore saltwater species, as well as freshwater fish.

Fish River is a small, spring-fed, coastal river in Baldwin County with relatively deep water that runs into Weeks Bay, which flows into Mobile Bay at Viewpoint ramp.

The thing Jay Gunn, a biologist aide with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Marine Resources Division and avid inshore angler, likes about Fish River is its size. Unlike the Delta, where an angler may have to search for days to find the fish, Fish River’s dimensions makes it much easier to locate the target species.

“It has some 27-28-foot holes,” Gunn said of Fish River. “These are thermal refuges and stay a little warmer in the winter. The best thing is the fishable water only about five miles long, from Highway 32 to Highway 98, with the widest part about 250 yards.”

The fare this time of year in Fish River include: speckled trout, white trout, flounder and redfish for the saltwater species, while largemouth bass are also regulars in the creel.  However, those largemouth bass should be caught and released. There is a “no consumption” advisory for mercury in largemouth bass in Fish River. Saltwater striped bass are also caught in the river at times.

“Normally, there’s always a saltwater wedge on the bottom of the river,” Gunn explained. “The saltwater sinks. As the tide rises, the saltwater settles into the deep holes. On a smaller scale, this is what happens in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta. It’s always brackish to some extent, so the saltwater species are always there this time of year. They leave the cold of the bay in the middle of the fall when the water temperature drops into the mid 70s. When it gets below 75, the fishing at the rigs and inshore reefs get less and less productive on a daily basis. By the time it gets below 70 the fish have moved into the rivers or wherever they can find deep water.

“Usually the river has white shrimp, but there can also be plenty of menhaden, and they feed on them, too. They do follow the bait. There are years when some of the other rivers like Bon Secour and Magnolia won’t have any bait and the fishing is sporadic. But if you can find the bait, the fish seem to be there somewhere.”

When Gunn and I backed his boat into the water at the Weeks Bay Reserve boat ramp at Highway 98, we didn’t start catching fish right away. We had to do a little exploring before the first speckled trout was landed.

“Here, you’ve only got five miles to look for them,” Gunn said. “They’re there, it’s just a matter of finding them, and that’s a whole lot easier than other places.

“When the fish first move into the river, they’re super active in 6 to 10 feet of water, usually along the flats next to the river channel. When it gets colder, they seem to group up in the deep holes. That’s when you look for them with your depth finder. Usually there is so much bait, you’re going to see a lot of stuff on the depth finder, but you’ll learn the difference between bait and fish. They just get in those 20-25-foot holes. Usually by Christmas, they’re in the deep stuff. The water temp will be in the high 50s and low 60s. You’re not likely going to catch them in the shallow stuff in 6-10 feet.”

The cold fronts in the fall are the main factors when you’re fishing in Fish River. When the weather is stable, the action is good. Weather changes affect the fish, but those in Fish River seem to rebound quicker.

“When you have a cold front, the first day of the cold weather, they seem to go in a hole and won’t bite,” Gunn said. “They act like largemouth bass. After a day or two of stable weather, they start feeding again.

“Fish River is kind of a miniature version of the Delta. But, if we get a flood, the fish in the Delta rarely go back. If Fish River floods, give it a week or so to clear out and the fish are right back in there.”

Because of the deep water in Fish River, there is also the trolling crowd, who steadily drag baits and lures up and down the river channel. Although some use their gas outboards, most anglers have the best luck using the trolling motor to maintain a lower speed. If you’re pulling soft plastics, Gunn also advises a heavier jig head of 3/8ths or ½ ounces to get the bait down into the strike zone.

Unlike the summertime, when the fish can be especially finicky about what they’ll hit, the fish in the fall are aggressive.

“Mostly in the fall, artificial bait can work as well or better than live bait,” Gunn said. “I think that’s because you can get the bait where the fish are. You can get the bait down. With live bait, you throw it out on a split shot or on a cork and it’s going to stay in one zone. With a plastic grub, when it’s sinking you’re fishing and when you’re bringing it up, you’re fishing.

“I mainly use soft plastics on a quarter-ounce jig head. Sinking MirroLures can work if you have patience. Some people think that’s what speckled trout fishing is, but you have to have patience. You can also use live menhaden and shrimp on a split shot, but most of the time you don’t have to. There are times when the saltwater fish don’t want to bite and you can take live shrimp and wear out the largemouths.”

When it comes to plastics, Gunn likes translucent and clear colors when the water is cool, and he insists light line is essential to a successful fishing trip.

“There was a guy fishing with braided line beside us the other day and he couldn’t get a bite,” he said. “We were catching one on almost every cast. The best day I’ve had on Fish River with three people fishing was 139 fish in one morning. I had lost count, but one of the guys I was fishing with was keeping up with it. Of course, we only kept our limit of 30, so we had a lot of catch and release.”

At times there are larger trout caught in the deep holes, but most of the fish this time of year will be from 12-18 inches long. Every trout under 14 inches must be immediately returned to the water.

“Most will be about 15 inches, and they sure are good to eat,” Gunn said.

After frying up a platter of trout fillets the night after our trip, I’ll testify to that.

PHOTO: Jay Gunn of Summerdale swings another keeper speckled trout into the boat during a recent trip to Fish River in Baldwin County.

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