Fall And Fishing In The Heart Of Dixie

This is a marvelous month to be on the water in the Cotton State. The weather can be wonderful -- just like the angling! (November 2006)

Few states offer anything like the diversity of top-quality fishing that's available in our state -- especially in November. The many species thriving in Alabama waters provide nearly every type of fishing imaginable.

It's interesting, however, to observe the variety of effects that, depending on latitude, the impact of November's cooler weather can make on the angling. Along the Tennessee River, cold-water saugers begin to congregate beneath schools of shad; at Lake Martin, trophy striped bass move into the shallows. Meanwhile, declining baitfish numbers in the Mobile Delta drive redfish into willingly attacking artificial lures, and at Lake Eufaula, crappie are still in a summer feeding pattern.

All very different, all offering their own sorts of exciting prospects. Let's have a closer look at each of these highlights of the Cotton State's fall fishing.

JIGGING FOR WHEELER'S SAUGERS

A challenge to catch, and delicious beyond belief, saugers (a.k.a. "jack salmon") are native to the Tennessee River drainage. Mottled brown to golden olive, with dark blotches on its sides, the sauger has a cylindrical body and a large mouth filled with sharp teeth. But it's the savor of its white, flaky fillets that most distinguishes it from all other fishes in Bama.

Saugers scatter during warm weather, so it's difficult to catch them consistently. Fortunately, November's cooler temperatures bring predictable fishing patterns, though discovering the right combination of location and presentation can often prove puzzling.

One angler who can readily find and catch saugers is Hazel Green's Alex Rawleigh, who has fished the Tennessee River near his home for more than 23 years. For most of these years he's kept a log of his catch. His accumulation of data -- water temperature, time of day, weather conditions, barometric pressure, current flow and depth -- have revealed how saugers respond to changing conditions.

"Sauger hold at different depths according to water temperature, current flows and the availability of forage," Rawleigh reported. "In November, with the cooler weather and greater demand for electricity, the dams usually generate from early morning to 12 noon or 1 p.m. The current positions the baitfish, and then the sauger form in large groups under their prey.

"My data shows sauger stage between 30 to 35 feet deep in November. There are many variables, so this is not 100 percent accurate -- but I've found it produces 85 percent of the time."

On good days, Rawleigh has used these predictive depth ranges to catch a limit of 10 fish in two hours. An average sauger weighs from 1 1/4 to 2 pounds; Rawleigh's biggest weighed 3 pounds, 9 ounces.

The angler says that the surface temperature in November averages between 50 to 56 degrees. The colder the water, he's determined, the deeper the fish, with saugers staging at depths between 38 to 40 feet in December and at 40 to 60 feet in January.

Like many sauger anglers, Rawleigh finds the most profitable fishing below a dam -- but he doesn't target the tailrace proper. Instead, he works riverine sections, where the narrow banks create the current flows required to position prey and predator.

A favorite stretch of the Tennessee River for Rawleigh is the 15 miles above Ditto Landing at U.S. Highway 231 on Wheeler Lake. Within this stretch, he concentrates on creek mouths and bends in the river -- places where the current changes direction. Additionally, he looks for changes in the shoreline, which often also indicate a change in depth.

"As you move up the river and into a bend," Rawleigh offered, "look for a long sandy shoreline interrupted by a small rock bluff. That same feature also extends along the bottom. The fish hold on that edge in 30 to 35 feet of water."

To fish creek mouths -- places like the Paint Rock and Flint rivers -- Rawleigh works the edge of the current break above and below the inlets.

The last key to finding saugers is baitfish: Rawleigh won't fish unless his depthfinder shows that they're present.

When Rawleigh finds a promising spot, he lowers a jig tipped with a minnow to the bottom. The minnow is rigged with a No. 4 or 6 stinger treble hook. A vertical presentation is essential.

"A vertical presentation does two things," Rawleigh said. "It allows you to feel the lure, which helps to keep you from hanging on submerged debris, and it keeps a tight line, which is necessary to stop sauger from shaking free."

To maintain a vertical orientation, Rawleigh slows his drift with a trolling motor and counters the current with various weights of jigs and diameters of line. He fishes a selection of hair-tipped jigs weighing 3/4 ounce to 1 1/2 ounces on 8- to 12-pound-test line. Strong current requires line of a smaller diameter. (Continued)

STALKING REDFISH ON DELTA FLATS

Scott Ritter of Dauphin Island is a winning professional angler who has stalked redfish in the Mobile Delta for more than 25 years.

"If our delta system does not get flushed from heavy rains," he said, "which usually does not occur until after Christmas, November is a fantastic time of the year for redfish. There's less bait, so the fish are easier to catch on artificial lures, and the fish are aggressive.

"November offers an opportunity to find schools of fish, instead of small groups. Also, you can catch redfish, speckled trout, flounder, sheepshead and largemouth bass in the same location."

Catches of up to 50 redfish are possible if you find a school, although Ritter's primary pattern involves hunting small groups or individual fish on the flats. These reds measure 14 to 30 inches.

To find schooling redfish, Ritter watches the flats south of I-10 for birds diving on bait being driven by predators. He also looks for the surface oil slicks created by feeding fish.

If you find schooling fish, and don't spook them with your approach, an awe-inspiring experience can follow. However, these are hit-or-miss events, so Ritter searches for smaller groups or individual fish on the flats.

"We call the area south of I-10 the grass flats," he explained, "but we lost a lot of grass to hurricanes Ivan and Katrina. Fortunately, the fish are still there.

"Look for fish on the flats whe

re points are formed by rivers. Another good place is the banks of the shallow bays in the lower end of the Delta. Also, fish structures like sea walls and pilings."

According to Ritter, the finest fishing occurs when water begins flowing back into the marsh grass after an extreme low tide. The low tide pulls the bait from the marsh, and as the water rises, that bait tries to move back into the cover of the marsh grass -- and redfish follow.

"The redfish love to swim along the edge of the grass as the water flows in," Ritter said. "Watch, and you will see their wakes or backs just out of the water."

Usually, though, Ritter finds the redfish by deploying "search" baits. His favorite: a Johnson gold spoon. Runner-up: a spinner-style bait. "If I had to pick one artificial bait for redfish," he stated, "it would be a gold spoon."

He uses the lure to cover water quickly as he drifts over the flats and large oyster beds. Ritter fishes the weedless, single-hook spoon with either a slow, constant retrieve or a jigging motion.

As every bass angler knows, spinnerbaits make great search baits. Ritter uses a variation for the same purpose on the flats and around structure. He also fishes it along the grass edge when the water is rising after a low tide.

Instead of the conventional bass baits, Ritter prefers jig-spinners made by Hildebrandt with a No. 4 gold Colorado blade. His jigs, which he buys separately, weigh between 1/4 and 3/8 ounce and are rigged with Berkley Gulp pogy or swimming mullet trailers.

Ritter works his spinner though the grass with a slow, steady retrieve, or jigs the lure, allowing it to rest on the bottom. "Unlike bass fishing," he observed, "it can lay on the bottom. If a redfish sees a little flash of gold when you barely jig the spinnerbait, he thinks there's something to eat in the mud and will suck it into his mouth."

TROLLING FOR STRIPED BASS ON MARTIN

"November is an excellent, excellent big fish month!" enthused striper guide Jim Parramore. "I love fall fishing! Because it's like a spring pattern: The cooler water in the backs of the creeks attracts the big loner stripers."

Troll a jumbo shad over the shallows that the fish are cruising, and they just can't resist it.

Starting in late October and running through early December, Parramore says, an average striper caught from the back of creeks weighs more than 20 pounds; his biggest weighed nearly 40. He's pretty sure that Lake Martin will produce the next state record.

Since big fish don't travel in schools, you've got to leave the dock with your hunting attitude on. Accordingly, this type of action isn't for everyone. "We may fish for six hours without a strike, or it might happen immediately," Parramore remarked. "Before the day is over, we will have an encounter with a giant striper. Sooner or later, one will blow that jumbo shad completely out of the water."

Parramore targets big striped bass by trolling large gizzard shad; for this he uses inline side-planers. Designed so that water pressure carries them out to the side of the boat during trolling, they are the only means of presenting heavy baits weighing 1 1/2 to more than 2 pounds to fish in shallow water. Typically, he trolls two planers on each side of the boat.

"The deadliest weapon ever invented for catching trophy striper is a side-planer," Parramore asserted emphatically. "The planer allows anglers to freeline shad away from the boat, and are especially effective in shallow water.

"If you see a big striper chasing shad on a gravel bar or point, you can put the shad on top of him by simply maneuvering the boat, yet you never get the boat close to him. You can control the shad, which is a great improvement over flatlining, or using a balloon rig. That's what makes a planer so deadly. Plus, you can cover a lot of ground."

The only planer boards that Parramore can use without having to modify them are made by Water Bugz; they weigh a mere 2 ounces. However, if the guide's working in a heavy current, he switches to Yellow Birds, to whose keels he adds weight, and whose line release clips he replaces with offshore clips.

Parramore pulls his planers on 20-pound-test Trilene Big Game with a 4-foot fluorocarbon leader. He places a bead on the main line before tying on a swivel; this keeps the planer from sliding down to the fish when he strikes. He completes the rig with a 5/0 Daiichi bleeding circle hook.

With a jumbo shad hooked and in the water, Parramore pulls off about 40 feet of line before attaching the planer board. He then uses just enough speed to keep the planer in position to the side of the boat.

"The depth of the bait is up to the shad," Parramore noted. "At times the boat is moving in water 20 feet deep, while the water below the planer is only 3 feet. When you catch a big striper in shallow water, the fight is unbelievable, because he cannot dive."

While Parramore believes that all the creeks on Lake Martin harbor striped bass, he recommends that anglers start by fishing the Tallapoosa River or Elkahatchee Creek.

To learn how to catch big stripers using planers, book a fishing trip with Parramore by calling (205) 533-3664 or (205) 699-3247.

SHOOTING JIGS FOR SLABS ON EUFAULA

At Lake Eufaula, November's cooler temperatures have yet to affect crappie fishing. In fact, the same productive pattern that has worked all summer is still going strong.

Jesse Bowman of Ozark, a guide and North American Crappie Association Classic winner, says that Eufaula's crappie remain in a summer pattern from May though mid-December. During this time, Bowman forsakes trolling gear for the limber spinning rod required for shooting jigs to structure.

"November is a good month for big crappie," Bowman reported. "Last year, I caught a number of fish weighing 2 to 2 1/2 pounds and three fish that weighed 3 pounds."

More than 30 years ago, Bowman started fishing bridge pilings and standing timber vertically with a long pole, but found it inefficient. He switched to shooting jigs with spinning gear, and the change greatly improved his catch rate -- and the method can do the same for you.

Shooting is like casting with a flip: The rod tip is loaded by pulling the jig to you, causing the rod to bow. Releasing the lure and line simultaneously shoots the jig in a low trajectory, as the rod quickly transfers its stored energy to the departing jig. (A little practice with the tactic at home is firmly recommended before you go fishing with it.)

"Casting light jigs overhead is difficult in the wind," Bowman said. "If you shoot the jig, it's accurate and fast. Once you learn this technique, it's the best way to fish."

Bowman shoots 1/16-ounce pearl-colored jigs that he makes himself. These are aim

ed at bridge pilings, standing timber and fish attractors. The most productive structures are in 20 to 30 feet of water.

"From fishing tournaments," Bowman said, "I've found that if a bridge runs east to west, the piling on the east side hold the most fish, and if the bridge runs north/south, the north pilings hold the most fish."

In November, Bowman finds crappie holding at a depth of 12 to 14 feet. He targets these depths by timing the jig's descent. "A 1/16-ounce jig falls one foot per second," he offered. "So count down 12 to 14 seconds. When you catch a fish, you can expect to catch more at that depth."

Probably the most difficult part of learning Bowman's technique is reading the line for a strike. Some fish make it easy; for others, you need Bowman's advice for reading line.

"I fish by sight, not feel," he said. "You cannot see the fish strike with a tight line. Watch your line as the jig falls, and you can see the line entering the water -- or coming back to you. If the line stops falling, flinches, or lays down, set the hook. When the line lays down, the fish has moved toward you and taken all the tension from the line."

The better to see the line, Bowman only uses 6-pound-test Hi-Vis Gold Stren monofilament. Without it, the slack line would result in his missing strikes using.

According to Bowman, the top places to fish at Eufaula in November are Barbour and Wylaunee creeks. On the basis of their electrofishing sampling, fisheries biologists also recommend fishing Cowikee and White Oak creeks.

To book a day of guided crappie fishing on Lake Eufaula with Jesse Bowman, call him at (334) 774-4808.

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