Cool Fishing In The Heart Of Dixie

As the weather cools into fall and then turns frigid in winter, the fish don't quit biting. Here are some options for action in these off-season months. (November 2008).

If you're unfamiliar with fishing from fall through winter in our state, these tales of big fish and fast action may amaze you. A word of caution, though: You may want to check with your doctor before tangling with fish weighing 30, 40 and even 60 pounds or tackling the repetitive motion of pulling so many panfish from shallow water. The excitement can be too much for a frail constitution!

The action begins in November and just gets better as the mercury drops. If you can tolerate cold, you'll find adventure on our waters this winter. Here's a look at some of our best fishing options now and in the coming months.

COOSA RIVER BLUE CATFISH

Greg Ledbetter's enthusiasm for winter fishing on the Coosa River is easy to understand, given his success: In less than four hours, he caught a stringer of seven catfish from Logan Martin Lake weighing more than 300 pounds, the smallest fish among those being more than 40 pounds. On the other hand, he caught his biggest Coosa cat -- 61 pounds -- at Neely Henry Lake.

Ledbetter and his wife, Kim, of Wellington, fish between 20 and 25 catfish tournaments a year. All fish are caught on rod and reel and all are released. Their straightforward methods target trophy fish.

These tournament pros catch good numbers of big fish in November, but take their biggest fish in January or early February.

"Winter is big-fish season," declared Ledbetter. "In November, the water is cooling, so catfish are preparing for the cold. Unlike spring, they are not concerned with breeding, and so do not have lockjaw. Blues feed often and aggressively in November. During a feeding frenzy, they are like sharks!

"The time to fish for trophy catfish is during the coldest weather in January and February. Blues do tend to get lethargic in cold water, but they continue to feed through winter, and that's how they reach massive weights. You may fish for two days and not get a bite, and then all of a sudden catch a world-record. We always catch our biggest fish in the dead of winter."

Before cold weather blankets the Coosa Valley, husband and wife team up to look for cats in open water on the lower sections of the lakes they fish. According to Ledbetter, blues cruise over an uneven bottom looking for balls of baitfish. "Look for small humps, creek junctions or any variation in the bottom," he advised, "even if it's only a difference of 3 feet. The key to finding big fish is a change in the bottom in open water."

When winter sets in, Ledbetter searches steep dropoffs on the main river channel, especially at the mouths of feeder creeks. "Many anglers make the mistake of fishing the deepest water," he cautioned. "Look for an area of incoming current that offers catfish warmer water and food. Due to the lack of oxygen in deep water, the 30- to 40-foot range has the best fishing in winter."

Whether you're fishing open water in late fall or the river channel in winter, Ledbetter said, the importance of finding shad with your sonar can't be stressed too much. "If they are not present," he explained, "you just about have to beat catfish over the head to get a bite."

But the opposite is true if you find shad in combination with white bass or hybrids. "They hit shad by swimming through a huge pod," said Ledbetter said of the bass species, "and it causes the injured shad to fall to the catfish waiting below. If you fish in winter, you can see it on sonar. You'll see a large pod of bait and smaller echoes at about the same level. Then you'll see large echoes, which are big catfish, below the action. When this happens, you can really lock into some monsters."

Ledbetter's method for catching big blues is to drift his boat slowly over the shad looking for actively feeding fish. It's a sideways drift with six rods deployed in order to cover more area. If the wind's stronger than 12 miles per hour, he uses a drift-sock to slow the boat; otherwise, he relies on the six sinkers dragging the bottom. Sinker weights vary with the force of the wind; they range from 1/2 to 6 ounces each.

Ledbetter spools his Abu Garcia 7000 reels with 30-pound-test Berkley Hi-Test monofilament, which is tied to a three-way rig. To the swivel he ties a 20-inch leader of 80-pound-test line with an 8/0 circle hook. Twelve inches of line attach the sinker to the remaining eye. He baits all hooks with fresh cut shad, carp or skipjack, but Ledbetter said skipjack outperforms all other baits.

ORANGE BEACH REDFISH

At the other end of the state, Captain Don McPherson of Orange Beach spends his winter mostly guiding anglers for 20- to 30-pound bull redfish. The fishing starts in late October and runs into April, but, the captain observed, it improves with colder weather.

"It's a natural setup for winter fishing," he explained, "as all the ingredients come together to form this great fishery. Huge schools of red minnows and menhaden move into the area and close to shore followed by schools of bull reds. When the reds arrive, they stay through early April. Plus, we often have a north wind, which creates calm seas off the beach. Lastly, we catch these big fish from shallow water, so when released, their survival rate is excellent."

Most of Capt. McPherson's clients know about tailing redfish in the shallows, but are often unfamiliar with the redfish he targets near the beach. In fact, they're two different groups of redfish.

Young fish grow in the marshes, small lakes and bays for about five years before moving into open water. These may weigh up to 12 pounds. The beach fish, on the other hand, have the potential to reach 60 pounds. Eric Easley of Semmes caught the current state record -- 45 pounds, 4 ounces -- in 2007.

By any measure, conservation is having a positive impact on this fishery. Alabama's creel limit is three fish per person in the 16- to 26-inch slot, one of which may be over 26 inches. But anglers fishing with McPherson at this time of year won't catch slot fish.

On a typical trip out of Orange Beach on the Getaway, McPherson's deckhand deploys lines within 20 minutes of leaving the dock. "That's another great thing about fishing in winter," said the captain. "Anglers don't have a run-time of an hour or more to the fish. Once we leave Perdido Pass, we usually set the lines out.

"Often we troll a spread of four or five lures at about 5 knots. We pull Mann's Stretch 20+, 25+ and 30+ deep-diving baits to search the water column. We also troll Clark spoons behind a No. 2 or No. 3 pla

ner."

The skipper runs the lures in water 15 to 35 feet deep, which is from just outside the second sandbar off the beach out to one and a half miles offshore. "Trolling is always a sure bet," stated Capt. McPherson, "but, ideally, we want to find baitfish and cast to them with light tackle. If we see gulls diving while we are trolling, often we reel in and switch to light tackle for fishing the school.

"It's exciting anytime you hook a big red, but there's nothing like seeing a 20- to 30-pound redfish explode on a topwater lure."

Watching your lure get hammered by one of these bullies is something you'll never forget -- but it doesn't happen every time out. Only aggressive bulls inhale a topwater lure. When it's happening, the skipper recommended, use a popper.

For those times when reds haven't churned the surface to white foam, Capt. McPherson suggested that anglers use jigs weighing 1 to 2 ounces and tipped with 3- to 6-inch curly-tailed trailers. Work these through the schools from the bottom to just below the surface.

To fish the clean sand bottom, reels on the Getaway are spooled with 30-pound-test monofilament for trolling and 20-pound test for casting.

To book a fishing trip with Captain Don McPherson on his 36-foot Hatteras, call him at (251) 981-8047, or visit his Web site, the address for which is www.getawaygulffishing.com

LAKE MARTIN STRIPED BASS

Lake Martin offers Alabamians yet another opportunity to fight aggressive big fish in winter. "We caught 14 fish that weighed over 40 pounds last winter," reported striper guide Jim Parramore. "The largest weighed 45 pounds, 4 ounces."

Parramore attributed his success to two factors: his focus on catching big fish this past winter, and an increase in baitfish. The guide pointed to two years of tremendous bait hatches on Martin.

In previous years, Parramore trolled inline side-planer boards from late October to mid-December in creeks and sloughs; then he would move back to the lake to fish for schoolie-sized stripes. Schooling stripers offer fast action in the colder months, but those fish only weigh 7 to 14 pounds. This past winter he continued to work the shallows with planers through January, February and beyond.

The guide changed tactics when he discovered that Martin's trophy stripers would attack big baits in shallow water during the coldest weather. "In the past," Parramore explained, "anglers believed striped bass only consumed small bait in winter due to a slower metabolism. The thinking was stripers couldn't digest big bait. What I've found is that big fish feed heavily on big bait in Lake Martin. I was amazed at this discovery: Even on the coldest days, big baits presented behind planer boards produce fish.

"In fact, the day before the Birmingham boat show, which was the first week of February, I needed a couple of trophy fish for display. Fortunately, I had some big baits and worked them in the back of a creek. They produced fish weighing 32, 30, 24 and 22 pounds."

An average fish caught using planer boards weighs 20 pounds.

Parramore stressed the importance of using lively gizzard shad weighing up to 3 pounds, which he catches in the tailraces on the Coosa River. "It's all about the bait," he emphasized. "Use the right bait, and you are going to be successful. Big live bait is everything to catching a big striper."

After entering a creek, Parramore deploys two planers on each side of his boat. For trolling in light current, he selects Water Bugz; for everything else he uses Yellow Birds. He pulls his planers on 20-pound-test Trilene Big Game line with a 4-foot fluorocarbon leader. To keep the board from sliding down to the hook when the fish strikes, he threads a bead on the line before tying on a swivel. The rig's "bitter end" has a 5/0 Daiichi bleeding circle hook, plus a treble stinger hook.

"Big stripers often bite the shad just behind the gills," Parramore observed, "so many of the big fish we catch are on the stinger hook."

The board is attached about 40 feet above the hook, so the shad has room to maneuver and change depths. Parramore maintains just enough speed with his trolling motor to keep the planers in position to the side of the boat.

"If you are looking for big fish," the guide continued, "start using planer boards in November and use them into spring. To me, it's the most exciting fishing out there."

While Parramore believes that all of Martin's creeks harbor striped bass, he recommended that anglers begin their search in Elkahatchee Creek.

To book a day of guided striped bass angling with Jim Parramore, phone him at (205) 533-3664 or (205) 699-1886.

WEISS LAKE CRAPPIE

Unlike our three previous destinations, Weiss Lake offers anglers an opportunity to catch large numbers of fish of the size that look better sizzling is hot grease.

Cedar Bluff's Jason Tucker, a longtime crappie guide on Weiss, said that crappie are easier to catch in winter than in spring, when they're scattered across the lake. "Crappie fishing is more dependable from November through mid-February," he explained. "The fish are easier to catch, and the lake is not as crowed. In January and February, I can catch 200 fish in four hours. On two days last winter, I had a limit before 11 o'clock. As for size, I caught 127 fish that weighed more than 2 1/4 pounds."

In contrast to the fish at our other destinations, Weiss' crappie are a bit more complicated to pattern. Tucker, though, makes it easier to understand fish movements from fall through winter.

From October to mid-November, Alabama Power draws the lake down to winter pool. This current positions the fish on the edge of river channels. When the drawdown is complete, Tucker said, fish suspend over the river channels or big bays; then, if the weather turns cold, anglers are certain to find fish at the warmwater discharge pipe on the Chattooga River near State Route 68 or in the warmer spring water of Spring Creek.

During the drawdown, Tucker slowly works a bottom-bumping rig along the edge of river channels at depths of 8 to 14 feet. "The fish are in big groups feeding on the edge of the channel, out of the current and behind cover," he explained.

Tucker baits his bottom-bumping rig with a minnow. This is the only time he uses live bait, which also results in incidental catches of bass, catfish and striped bass.

When water levels reach winter pool, Tucker follows the fish into deeper water. "The breaks become too shallow to fish," he pointed out, "so fish pull out and suspend in the middle of the river channel or in big bays. With the water down, over half the lake is bone-dry; that makes fish easier to catch.

"If th

e fish are deeper than 8 feet, use a Float-N-Fly to catch them. If they are shallow, use long poles in a spider configuration to troll jigs."

Tucker fishes two 1/16-ounce deer-hair jigs on his 9-foot Float-N-Fly rod. He's found a FB3 pear-shaped float is a perfect match for the combined weight of the jigs, which are spaced 12 inches apart. For long-pole trolling, he uses 1/32-ounce jigs.

As the water cools, Tucker has noticed, suspending crappie form tighter schools. If the weather turns frigid, he moves to where fish stack up in huge numbers in the warmer waters of the discharge pipe and springs mentioned earlier.

At the discharge pipe -- it's easy to find because of all the boats -- Tucker relies on the Float-N-Fly technique for catching large numbers of fish fast. In Spring Creek, he trolls surprisingly shallow depths.

"Crappie are shallower in winter than they are in spring," he pointed out regarding the time of year. He then added another thought about the water entering the lake at this time of year: "Spring water is already warmer than the lake, then if rain stains the water, the sun warms it even more. It's amazing how many fish you can catch trolling in less than 3 feet of water. You can catch fish while your trolling motor is churning mud off the bottom. We fished too deep for crappie for years."

In shallow water, Tucker trolls 1/32-ounce jigs at less than a mile per hour.

To book a day of guided crappie fishing on trip on Weiss Lake, call Jason Tucker, who fishes out of J.R.'s Marina on Little River, at (256) 779-6461, or check out the marina's Web site, www.jrsmarina.com.

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