Bassin' The Delta

Late last summer the Mobile-Tensaw Delta was brushed by Hurricane Ivan. Did the storm have an effect on the bass fishing? Let's have a look.

The bass and their habitat in the Delta survived last summer's intense hurricane season in fine form.
Photo by Stephen E. Davis

The third of four hurricanes to impact the Gulf States, Ivan roared ashore near Gulf Shores on Sept. 16, 2004. Fortunately, and unlike the multiple strikes to hit Florida, Ivan was the only storm to cause death and massive damage in Alabama.

On the hurricane's approach, an NOAA buoy in the Gulf registered waves 50 feet high. Twelve-foot waves broke at Gulf Shores as Ivan's core maintained 130-mph winds. To expedite evacuation, the state reversed I-65's southbound lanes, turning the interstate into a one-way escape route.

In the pre-dawn hours, Ivan moved ashore, proceeding inland to the northeast. Destruction was catastrophic. Hugh trees fell, many taking out power lines and poles. A state-record 1.1 million homes and business lost electrical power.

The impact of fierce winds also forced debris into the waters of the Mobile Delta and caused a fish kill as far north as Claiborne Lake.

"Because we had fish kills after hurricanes Fredrick and George," explained Joe Zolczynski, fisheries biology supervisor for District V, "I expected this would happen with Ivan. We began receiving calls from the public about fish dying approximately five days after the storm.

"Our investigation revealed that fish kills occurred throughout what we call the Upper Delta, which is essentially north of Interstate 65, extending north into Washington County. My assistant, Cliff Young, and I did quick roving surveys to determine where fish were dying, and then we returned and did 100-yard counts to determine essentially what had happened.

"We found that we had a moderate fish kill in the Delta that involved non-game species more than it involved game fish. The most heavily affected two species were threadfin shad, because they are so numerous, and freshwater drum.

"Whenever we took water quality readings, we found the level of dissolved oxygen to be very low. Those low levels caused the fish to die."

Decaying organic debris, which was blown into the water, caused the extreme drop in dissolved oxygen. On Sept. 29, Zolczynski found that oxygen levels had increased from below 1 part per million to 2 parts per million. That was the first day that he did not see any fish in distress.

"The long-term effect that these kills will have on the Delta we have yet, obviously, to determine," Zolczynski said. "As we gather data, we will get a better picture. The Delta is a dynamic system that will rebound very rapidly."

Fortunately, reports from bass fishermen through last fall and winter indicated that stringer weights are unaffected by the storm. That's not to say you find fishing unchanged. Areas without flowing water or aquatic vegetation may not hold the numbers of fish that you remembered before Ivan.

Two anglers who have not had a problem locating fish on the Delta are Mobile City champions Lee Grandquest of Semmes and Kevin Zellers of Citronelle. The former has won the prestigious tournament three times in the past seven years and is the reigning champion. Both anglers say high water in the months before May make for great fishing.

"If we have a wet spring," advised Grandquest, "May can provide the best fishing of the year. Normally, the river will recede in April or May, but until then many places are unfishable. The water and the fish are so far out into the woods that there is no pressure on them. So when the water finally recedes, it's possible to catch big stringers of bass.

"On the other hand, if we have a dry spring, which usually occurs every other year, fishing pressure starts in February."

Zellers concurred with Grandquest and added that another reason May is one of the best months of the year is because the fish are in all three stages of reproducing.

"Since the water temperature in the lakes is usually 10 degrees warmer than it is in the river," Zellers explained, "you find post-spawn bass in the lakes and pre-spawn or spawning fish in the river. Because of this and the wide variety of habitat available, there are many different ways to catch fish in the Delta."

Of the many patterns and places available to Grandquest and Zellers, they concentrate their fishing on the Middle and Upper Delta. Only during periods of extreme high water, which are unusual for May, will they fish the Lower Delta.

Both anglers start their day fishing the lakes. They recommend lakes Bates, Sheppard and Tensaw. Additionally, Zellers likes Hal's, Jim Burr and Three Rivers lakes.

"The early bird gets the worm in May," cautioned Zellers. "It's critical to establish an early morning bite in the lakes."

"The most productive pattern in May occurs during the first hours of the day," Grandquest agreed. "On weekends, boat traffic begins to muddy the banks by 9:00 o'clock, turning the fish off. If you are fishing during the week, especially if it's overcast, you can catch fish all day long."

A misty morning, a high tide and peaceful solitude on the Mobile Delta: what could be better? Picture a Zara Spook swimming like a snake under the branches of an old cypress and feel the anticipation of an explosive strike.

"I throw a topwater bait all day -- never change," Grandquest noted. "The topwater bite may slow during the middle of the day, but if you move to a shady bank, the fishing will improve. The Zara Spook and the buzzbait are my favorite topwater lures in the lakes."

Grandquest uses a 4 1/2-inch Zara Spook in a frog pattern or in white-and-chrome. His buzzbaits are white, black or chartreuse-and-white.

"Normally," he said, "I use a 1/4-ounce buzzbait, but if the fry are small -- which is often the case in May -- I downsize to 1/8 ounce.

"Work the lures around cypress trees, which are plentiful, and lay-downs. A high tide is important because the higher water will position the fish closer to the trees," Grandquest continued. "Under a low tide, you will have to fish farther out around lay-downs."

Zellers' approach to fishing the lakes differs from Grandquest's. His pattern is based on locating

shad.

"Shad run up and down the banks and into each other, forming big schools," Zellers said. "They are in the lakes to spawn. As you would expect, the bass wait to ambush the shad as they move down the bank.

"This activity usually lasts until 9 o'clock through the month of May. In these first hours of the day, it's not uncommon to catch 20 to 30 bass, and some of these fish weigh up to 5 pounds. I've caught several 7-pounders in May. It usually takes a 5- to 6-pound largemouth to win big fish in a tournament."

To find the shad and catch the waiting bass, Zellers keys on another predator -- the large wading birds of the Delta.

"Wherever you find the birds," Zellers reported, "you will find the shad and the bass. The birds follow the shad, which are swimming in inches of water, down the banks. In May, the shad hold in an area for two or three days before moving, so usually you can return the next day and expect to find them in the same places."

Like Grandquest, Zellers said boat traffic can disrupt fishing.

"Boats maneuvering in and out of the lakes near where the shad are running will cause them to scatter," he noted. "Try to find areas where boaters must idle due to stumps and trees. Sometimes, though, the shad don't cooperate, and you'll just have to deal with the traffic."

Zellers employs an assortment of lures in the lakes. His favorite is a 1/4-ounce spinnerbait, followed by a white Devil's Horse. Secondary lures in Zellers' arsenal include white buzzbaits, silver Bang-O-Lures and trick worms in white or chartreuse.

"The shad running here are about 3 inches long," Zellers advised. "Most anglers use too big a spinnerbait. I modify all my spinnerbaits by cutting the length of the skirts and changing the blades. Silicone skirts offer more realistic colors, while Colorado blades keep the bait compact. Another important feature is a light wire, so the blades can pulse as they rotate through the water. Try to make the lure resemble a shad as much as possible.

"If the bass are busting shad, the best presentation is to run the spinnerbait into cover and let it flutter down like a dying baitfish."

Even though the spinnerbait is his favorite because of the numbers it produces, Zellers said it is not necessarily best for big fish. While he has caught 7-pound bass on the spinnerbait, he has caught more big fish on the Devil's Horse.

Conditions & Access

For information on current fishing and water conditions in the Mobil Delta, visit Quint's Hardware & Sporting Goods in Saraland or give them a call at (215) 679-1300

Boating access on the west side of the Delta is available off the U.S. Highway 43 at Fort Stoddard, near Mount Vernon. On the east side, use Cliffs Landing or Dixie Landing. Both are located off State Route 225 south of Stockton.

 

"Often, topwater lures produce bigger fish," he argued. "The fish are aggressive because they are post-spawn and feeding on the shad. They hear a disturbance on the surface and run up to see what looks like a big shad floating on top of the water. What angler doesn't like to see a big bass bust a topwater lure? It's enough to make your day."

To call up the big ones, Zellers works the Devil's Horse up to where he thinks the fish are holding and then uses long pauses and short jerks to keep the bait in the strike zone as long as possible. He may work the same spot three times before moving. His favorite fishing spots for the Devil's Horse are at the ends of boat docks or where a group of cypress trees form a point -- places close to deeper water.

If the bass are passive, Zellers switches to a jerkbait or a 7-inch floating worm. The floating worm does double duty as the follow-up lure if a bass misses his spinnerbait or Devil's Horse.

During periods in May when the water is receding, Grandquest and Zellers find excellent fishing at the mouths of ditches and cuts draining into the lakes. The water must have receded enough, however, to restrict the water draining from the bottoms to the cuts and ditches. This unique situation attracts bass that lie in wait for their next meal.

"When the water is falling," Grandquest said, "all the drains are exceptionally hot."

Since crawfish frequently wash from the drains, both anglers recommend small crawfish-colored crankbaits or soft-plastic imitations.

Once the early morning bite has ended, Grandquest and Zellers leave the lakes and move into the river. The key to successful river fishing is current.

"The tide means everything," Grandquest acknowledged, "if you are fishing the Middle Delta, which is from McReynold's Lake to Tensaw Lake. If you don't have a falling tide in that part of the Delta, you can forget it. But if you are fishing in the Alabama River above where it splits with the Tombigbee, you will have current all day long. The Alabama is constantly flowing."

River fishing requires a strong trolling motor. The current is not so strong that it is unfishable, but plan to have your trolling motor running for the entire time. Specifically, both of these anglers use a powerful trolling motor to control and maintain their boat's position relative to blow-downs coming off the riverbank.

While many anglers concentrate on isolated blow-downs, Zellers spends his time hitting high percentage areas with more structure.

"Isolated blow-downs produce fish," he said, "but it's not the best pattern on the river. Look for fish at the end of a bank covered in blow-downs. For example, if you find a bank with a 200-yard stretch of blow-downs, usually the fish hold on the first group of five trees or the last group. This is not to say that you will not catch a fish in the middle, but most of your bites are going to come from either end. So that's where you should concentrate your efforts. If you find fish at either end, the pattern will hold the remainder of the day.

"The fish in this situation hold anywhere along the log there is a current break," he added. "However, early in the day fish hold close to the bank, and then they move deeper as the sun rises."

Another tip from Zellers concerns old logs resting on a firm bank.

"Do not fish mud bars; you will not catch a fish. But if you find an old log on a hard bottom, the current and barge traffic will have eroded a bowl under the log. These washouts are excellent ambush spots for bass.

"It's not uncommon to catch a 6-pounder, but it's to

ugh landing a big fish in the current around a blow-down."

Zellers fishes blow-downs with a 7-inch plastic lizard on a 5/16-ounce sinker, while Grandquest prefers a 3/8-ounce jig-and-pig.

Although tournament fishermen target largemouths because of their size, anglers who enjoy fast action and a hard fight spend their day fishing for spotted bass. Catching a 2-pound spot -- which is a better fighter than Old Bucketmouth but without the aerobatics -- is like hanging a largemouth twice its size.

"During tournaments, I fish for largemouth and catch spots by accident," Zellers admitted. "Often it's a mixed bag fishing the river. I have won tournaments because my big fish was a spot that weighed more than 4 pounds. An average spot weighs 2 pounds, and if you target only spots, you can catch 50 fish a day in May."

Zellers said the best fishing for spots is between Dixie Landing and Gainestown on the Alabama River, and the best structure is wing dams.

"The best fishing occurs on the ends of the jetties," he said. "It's possible to catch as many as 15 fish from each one. When the fish stop biting, move upstream to the next jetty.

"To fish jetties, work your lure on the edge of the current where it breaks. The spots hold just out of the current, waiting for baitfish. Usually, logjams form in the same area, so it's easy to get hung."

For that reason, Zellers prefers a Texas-rigged worm or lizard, but he also uses small crankbaits or even a Rat-L-Trap.

"The Rattle-L-Trap is difficult to fish," he admitted, "because it gets hung so often. Even so, I caught my biggest spot on the lure; it weighed 4.3 pounds."

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.