By Mike Thompson
Slow-rolling waves greeted us as we gently eased into the water along the Gulf beach side of the west end of Dauphin Island. The action of the waves lapping against the beach and the soft squawking of seagulls and terns were the only things keeping the morning from being silent.
The fact that my fishing partner, Pat Cornelius, and I were the only humans in sight on this stretch of beach made the morning even more special. We both had great expectations for this fine June dawn, especially buoyed by our late afternoon success of the previous day. Only able to fish for a couple of hours after work, we still had managed to catch enough speckled trout to make a great supper the previous evening.
Since the favored lure from the afternoon before was a blue and white plastic grub, we were still armed with that bait. Pat was the first to set hook to jaw as a hungry beach trout slammed his grub.
“This one has got a little meat on his bones, Mike!” he hollered. “He’s pulling a lot harder than the trout we caught yesterday afternoon.”
The bend in Pat’s rod confirmed his comments. The heavy pull, mixed in with a few strong runs, made for a more than mildly stimulating battle of man against beast. As Pat led the husky 5-pound trout up on the beach, I was engaged in a battle of my own.
The solid thump and immediate bulldog run of a fish intent on absconding with my bait was both a surprise and a thrill. Even though we were targeting speckled trout, the surf offers up many opponents. The fish could be one of many species patrolling the shallows of the beach.
“What you got there, Mike? From the looks of the rod, he’s mighty strong. Think it’s a big trout or a red?” Pat quizzed.
“I really don’t know,” I replied. “Could be a red, bluefish or a stud speck. Might even be a shark. When I get him a little closer, I’ll let you know.”
Over the next several minutes, the guessing game continued. It wasn’t until the fish took a long, leisurely run in a wave that I got my first visual contact. It was a redfish, and a true brute at that!
“I’m going to need a little help over here, buddy. I’ll lead him up on the beach and I want you to pounce on him,” I yelled.
Like a rodeo cowboy, Pat was soon riding the big brute. Way over the 26-inch maximum size limit, this redfish was destined for release. But we both had to stop our fishing to admire the copper-colored battler as it swam back into the waves, none the worse for the experience.
We hardly had time to catch our breath before another couple of hungry fish were bowing our rods into a crescent shape. All through the early morning, Pat and I did battle with fish in the surf of Dauphin Island. After a couple of hours, our stringers were heavy with both speckled trout and redfish. As we pulled the stringers along the beach, we relished the moment. Eager to get a few pictures for the scrapbook, and then back on the trailer headed for a late breakfast, neither of us could think of a better place to be on this fine June morning!
Dauphin Island is much like all the barrier islands along the Gulf of Mexico. The habitat of these islands offers fish species such as redfish, trout, bluefish, Spanish mackerel and flounder ideal places in which to feed and thrive. A multitude of bait species is the main attraction. With vast schools of mullet, shrimp and crabs, there is a little bit of everything around the islands to help sustain predator fish.
Any of the barrier islands can offer similar fishing to the trip mentioned earlier. Some are better than others. Things such as fishing pressure, freshwater run-off and commercial fishing activities all contribute to the success ratios at different barrier islands.
Small baitfish hit the beaches as water temperatures begin to rise in May and June. The predators are not far behind. As the fish appear on the beaches, the fishermen complete the top rung of the food chain.
Anglers familiar with the annual surf action start to test the waters as early as mid-April. Usually the water temperatures are too cool at that time for either baitfish or predators to be present in any significant numbers. However, should you get a warmer than normal spring, waters may be warm enough to trigger the surf action.
Since several saltwater species have size limits, it is good to have some sort of way to measure the fish. By marking your rod with either tape or indelible marker, you can create a quick method to measure speckled trout (minimum 14 inches); redfish (minimum 16, maximum 26 inches); and flounder (minimum 12 inches).
A wade-fishing belt allows you to carry along the most essential items necessary to fish. A good pair of long-nose pliers lets you remove hooks from fish with safety. You can also use the belt to attach your fish stringer and a small landing net.
The most important function of the fishing belt is to carry your tackle box. This small swing-open box can accommodate several of your favorite surf-fishing lures. The small box is often referred to as a belly box.
Because you encounter lots of sharp-edged shells along the beach, a good pair of canvas tennis shoes helps protect your feet from injury.
There are several other important, but often overlooked, items for the wade-fisherman to carry along. The first is a good pair of polarized sunglasses. The glasses not only protect you
r eyes but also are invaluable in locating depressions or other irregularities in the surf. Their ability to cut through the glare off the water is invaluable.
A large-brimmed hat also serves to protect you from burning rays and can be used to store extra fishing lures. And finally, all smart anglers should be sure to have plenty of sun block to protect any exposed skin. It only takes one painful sunburn to impress that lesson upon you!
Some of the best baits to use to combat winds and get distance on casts are spoons. Both the 3/4- and 1-ounce sizes work well in the surf. Their erratic movement creates a flash that fish can’t leave alone.
Crankbaits are also good. Chrome colors are best, followed by any combination of red, white or chartreuse.
Plastic grubs on jigs probably take more surf fish than any other offerings. There are a couple of reasons for this. Grubs are a lot cheaper than spoons or hard plugs and are used more often. That is because there are a lot of toothy critters in the surf that cut monofilament with ease. They also come in a wide assortment of colors. Add to that the assortment of jig-head sizes available. From 1/8 ounce all the way to 1 ounce, jigs can be adapted to any fishing situation.
Live baits, such as shrimp, are also an option when you’re wade-fishing. The major problem with live bait is transporting it with you while fishing. You can carry it along in a floating bait bucket, but that can be very heavy and cumbersome. Or you can use a floating bait net, consisting of nylon mesh suspended by a foam ring. Either way, using live bait slows you down.
Should you decide to use live baits, fishing them under a float is a great method for catching fish. Either a popping cork or the rattle-type cork can do the job when you’re using live baits.
In the early morning, it is not uncommon to catch fish within a few feet of the beach. As the sun begins to rise above the horizon, these fish back off the beach to hold in depressions or troughs. These troughs can be identified by the darker shades created by the deeper water.
The first trough is usually within 10 yards of the beach. Beyond that point is a sandbar caused by the flow of the current and waves. Out even further, past the sandbar, are the secondary troughs. This same scenario occurs all along most stretches of beach that have good tidal movement.
As you move along the beach, try to fish the knee-deep water first. Avoid plowing into the surf, so that you don’t spook any schools of fish close to the beach. After you cover the first trough, if possible wade out to the sandbar and fish the next trough.
Learning to read a section of beach can help you get more fish on the stringer. A flat beach with a gradual slope indicates shallow water. On the other hand, a stretch of beach that has a “chopped off” look indicates a deep depression close to shore. By targeting areas with steep beach faces, you can avoid unproductive beach, increasing your chances for success.
If you encounter any irregularity along the beach, spend a little extra time there. Clay bottom can be especially productive for speckled trout.
“If you find the clay, you can make them pay” is a maxim of beach fishing.
Keep a sharp eye open for the presence of baitfish skittering frantically on the surface. This is a sure tip-off of hungry game fish in the area. A school of mullet swimming along with their noses sticking up above the surface is another great sign of fish in the area.
Fishing the backside of barrier islands can also be productive. Look for grassbeds that hold baitfish. Pilings, wrecks or oyster bottom can all be a magnet for specks and reds.
Another place to try on Dauphin Island is adjacent to the public fishing pier. Speckled trout that are attracted to the bait-covered pier lights at night meander along the beach after sunrise. Once again, the emphasis must be put on getting there early. Fishermen are not your competition for space here. It is the sunbathers and swimmers who come out in force after about nine in the morning and crowd the beach.
In Orange Beach there is an ample area of public beach just east of the Perdido Pass Bridge. The area offers classic surf-fishing and also has the option of the Perdido Pass jetties within a moderate walk.
The Orange Beach fishing often includes encounters with toothy bluefish and Spanish mackerel. Be sure to include steel leaders in your belly box or you’re going to lose quite a few lures. Use black leaders if possible. The shiny silver leaders attract strikes that can cut your line right at the swivel.
The beaches at Fort Morgan, to the west of Gulf Shores, also offer wade-fishing access. It is a considerable walk to reach the fishing, but the rewards can be great. Again, expect to encounter bluefish, Spanish mackerel and the occasional ladyfish.
The west end of Dauphin Island is accessible only by boat. Anglers arriving there can jump out to tackle fish in the grassbeds and at the end of the isle. Even though fishing can be done by boat in this area, the stealth factor added by wade-fishing can often make the difference in catching spooky specks.
some potential hazards associated with wade-fishing.
Stingrays are sometimes present in the surf. Your best bet for safety is to shuffle your feet while wading. This scares most of the creatures away with no danger to you.
Sharks can be a problem while wade-fishing. Be sure to have a long stringer to carry your fish with, so that they are away from your body. Should a shark approach you, use your rod to poke the shark in the nose. That should be enough to scare away all but the boldest ones.
Finally, there are those pesky jellyfish. If one stings you, applying meat tenderizer to the contact area can dull the pain of a sting. It is a cheap remedy to a painful problem.
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