Photo courtesy of Capt. Mike Thompson.
Motorists driving south on Dauphin Island Parkway cross several bridges en route to their island destination. The first large bridge they cross after turning off Laurendine Road is the Fowl River Bridge. This recently completed structure arches high above the Fowl River, allowing a view of both Mobile Bay and stream.
That view of the bay to the east distracts most drivers from paying attention to the view of the Fowl as it winds westward, bordered with luxury homes. The owners of these homes enjoy not only the beauty of the river, but also seclusion on a great waterway for angling.
The tucked-away geography makes the Fowl River the ideal place to fish when other area waters become stained or muddied. So few homes are along the Fowl that run-off is not too drastic, and the natural filtering by marsh grasses keeps the river quite clean in all but flood-type conditions.
During the months of November, December and January, the waters of Mobile Bay become muddy and less saline due to annual seasonal rainfall. This muddy water pushes saltwater fish up into the brackish confines of the Fowl River. Along with the fish, there are also lots of shrimp and minnows taking advantage of the salinity and sanctuary that the Fowl provides.
In addition to the river’s natural cover, the many boathouses and piers offer bait places to hide, and predators site to ambush unsuspecting bait.
Even though the Fowl River receives the most fishing pressure in the fall and winter months when saltwater fish seek sanctuary, the river has a decent population of freshwater fish that stay there year ’round. According to Ben Ricks, District 5 fisheries biologist for the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, the river holds good numbers of freshwater fish.
“The bass population seems to be in pretty good shape,” he described. “We get no complaints from anglers about availability. In fact, bass fishing in the Fowl River has been a very well-guarded secret for years.
“If you are looking for bass, you should concentrate your efforts along shallow banks,” Ricks continued. “The deeper parts of the river will hold salty water that the bass don’t seem to prefer.”
Largemouths are not the only freshwater fish that anglers can target. Bream numbers are also in good shape in the backwaters of the river.
“We hear about good numbers of bream back in the small feeder creeks of the Fowl. If you can find them, seed shrimp work well on the bream,” the biologist explained.
Buddy Puckett is the owner/operator of Memories Fish Camp. The quaint fishing operation is located on Fowl River Road. Many of his customers target bream during the cooler months.
“Even though the bream fishing can be spotty after the river cools down, people willing to hunt for the fish can be rewarded with some of the biggest bream of the year. Using a trolling motor, you can work the banks casting small Beetle Spins. The fish won’t be concentrated, but they will be of good quality,” Puckett said.
Anglers targeting bream are often surprised in cooler months by nice crappie, too.
“Every now and then, you hook up with some nice white perch while fishing for bream with small spinnerbaits. The fishermen who actually target the crappie keep an eye on their depthfinders to locate the deeper holes that are on almost every curve of the river. The crappie seem to hang in these deeper spots in fall.
“Crappie minnows are the best bait when targeting the crappie,” Puckett explained.
Starting in late September, the population of saltwater fish moving into the Fowl River increases. These fish are drawn into the river by ever-increasing numbers of shrimp. Speckled trout, white trout, flounder and redfish all share in the annual fall bounty.
Evidence of the location of the shrimp is revealed by large numbers of gulls and terns flocking wildly over pods of bait being driven to the surface by hungry fish below. It is amazing to watch the sharp-eyed sea birds time the jump of the shrimp as they attempt to flee the feeding fish. It is also the best and easiest way to find fish in the river.
The shrimp stay in the river on into the winter, until chilling waters signal that it is time to head toward the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
While the shrimp may leave, the saltwater fish stay as long as the salinity level is tolerable. And without the shrimp to feed on, the saltwater fish are not as choosy when it comes to feeding.
Bobby McElroy of Semmes is an ardent Fowl River angler during the cooler months. Known as “The Brain” to his friends, because of his serious study to all aspects of angling, he truly lives to fish. McElroy has a very successful ornamental iron works business that keeps him very busy. Despite the hectic job, McElroy always makes time to fish when the saltwater fish invade the Fowl.
To avoid any crowds, McElroy works on Saturdays and fishes on Sundays and Mondays. This allows him his pick of places to fish in the cooler months.
“The Fowl River is a pretty popular spot to fish in the fall and winter, especially if Mobile Bay is muddy,” he confirmed. “Therefore, I adjust my schedule so that I can fish with the least amount of boats being on the river. Sometimes on Monday I’m the only boat on the water.”
Besides figuring out when to schedule his fishing trips, McElroy has learned quite a bit about making the most of his outings on the river over the years.
“Starting in November, the saltwater fish, mainly speckled trout, will be staging close to the mouth of the river near the big bridge. The water temperature is usually in the 60s, so the fish will be closer to the bay. If the water temperature drops, the fish move farther up into the river,” McElroy said. “Another factor is the salinity of the water in the river. The river is pretty much protected, so when the bay muddies, the fish will travel farther up to stay with the saltier water.”
McElroy bases where he starts fishing in the river on his previous weekend trip. Even then he has to factor in rainfall and water temperature.
“I start fishing where I caught fish the weekend before. After trying that area, I venture to different parts of the river to experiment with baits and depths. A lot of folks will be looking for birds to find fish in fall, but I prefer to avoid those bird schools, because the size of the fish under those birds is usually small,” McElroy said.
During November and December, there are still some live shrimp available at local bait shops. A couple of dozen live baits give your chances at success a real boost. Most anglers fish a shrimp under a popping cork. The cork has a concave head that allows you to give your rod a swift jerk, which plunges the cork and makes a sound similar to a fish striking near the surface. This sound draws fish into the area where they can locate your bait.
If live shrimp are not available, there are other options. The D.O.A. Shrimp is a very life-like imitation that looks like the real thing. Fish it under a cork just like you would a real shrimp. Other plastics, such as Saltwater Assassins or Cocahoe Minnows, work well, too. Best colors on the river seem to be smoke or chartreuse.
If flounder are your quarry, you should try live bull minnows fished on a Carolina rig. Flounder also readily hit Berkley Gulp! Swimming Minnows fished slowly on the bottom.
When it comes to lures for speckled trout and redfish in the Fowl River, McElroy has his favorites. He uses these baits in a set pattern to determine what the fish want on a particular day.
“In very early morning, I like to start off with a topwater bait, such as a Zara Spook. I stick with this until the sun comes up over the trees. After that I fish sub-surface lures that stay in depths of 4 feet or less,” McElroy noted.
Even though McElroy fishes baits that run shallow, that doesn’t mean he concentrates his efforts only in shallow water.
“The water in the Fowl can be quite clear in the fall. I believe that fish in 20 feet of water can see all the way to the surface, especially after the sun gets up,” McElroy advised. “The speckled trout I’m after are normally looking straight ahead or upwards. Because of this, I feel that baits higher up in the water column are more effective in getting their attention.”
Over the past few years, McElroy has homed in on a few favorite baits. Some of these lures are modified by the hardcore angler to be even more effective.
“If the water is super calm, I use the Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnow. This bait will float on the surface, but dive when you pop it or retrieve it.
“Another favorite of mine is the Rapala Twitchin Shad,” McElroy continued. “I prefer the chrome and silver colors on this bait. It runs shallow and looks like the minnows in the river. I change out the hooks on all my baits and replace them with the bleeding red treble hooks.”
Modifications don’t end with just hooks on the Brain’s baits. He even takes it a step farther.
“I started experimenting with the weights and sounds of my baits several years ago. I wanted baits that ran a little deeper and made more noise. It was trial and error at first, but I started drilling holes in some of my baits and putting shotgun pellets in them. This added weight made the baits run slightly deeper and also added extra rattle,” McElroy explained.
The greatest benefit to fishing the Fowl River in the fall is that it is so protected from high winds. In fact, windy days can provide some of the best days to fish, with less pressure from other anglers. Unless the winds exceed 25 miles per hour, you can find a place to hide from the wind and still catch a few fish.
“Cold days with spitting rain are usually nasty enough to keep most folks off the river. The fish are already wet, so that doesn’t bother them at all. The barometric pressure is also low during weather periods like this and I think that low pressure spurs the fish to feed more aggressively,” McElroy said.
When the weather fronts come through and the north winds blow for a few days, the water temperatures start to take a nosedive. This can make the fish harder to locate. But, McElroy’s experience tells him just where to start when this occurs.
“When the water temperature drops, the fish head up the river to the deeper holes,” he offered. “The same is true when there has been a good rain. I target the deeper areas, but still use baits that are fished in the upper part of the water column. I just feel the bigger fish will be using that depth for feeding purposes.”
Two boat launches provide access to the Fowl River. Fowl River Marina is located on the Dauphin Island Parkway in Theodore. This marina has ramps that are capable of handling both large and small boats. The marina has a lounge and restaurant, making it a great place to relax and tell stories of “the ones that got away” after your fishing trip. Even though the marina has ample parking, it can get a little crowded on Saturdays. For more details, call (251) 973-2696.
The other launch location is Memories Fish Camp, located on Fowl River Road in Theodore. This laidback fish camp is on the upper part of the river and offers a ramp suitable for boats of 21 feet or less. There is a camp store; it’s a great place for up-to-date fishing information as well.
Their telephone number 1-800-922-1557.
Since the Fowl River is such a popular spot for fall and winter fishing, it makes it a popular spot for game and fish law enforcement, as well. Be sure to have both a fresh- and saltwater fishing license to cover all areas of the river.
Another thing to consider is the smorgasbord of fish you may encounter during a day of fishing Fowl River.
The Alabama daily limit for largemouth bass is 10 fish per person. The bream limit is 50 per person. The crappie limit is 30 per person, with a minimum size of 9 inches.
The limit for redfish is three per person with a slot limit of 16 to 26 inches. However, one of the reds may be more than 26 inches long. Both speckled trout and flounder must be a minimum of 12 inches, with a daily limit of 10 per person for each species. White trout have no daily limit or minimum size requirements.
The months of November to January can be plagued by rains and high winds on our Gulf coast. This causes anglers to seek out places that are sheltered from the elements. The Fowl River is the very best of such locations and provides a variety of species to target. Try it this year.