Bayou Blowout

A Delta Paradise Harboring a World of Possibilities

John Felsher April 17, 2014

About 40 miles west of Pensacola, anglers can find exceptional fishing for almost every species that inhabits the northern Gulf Coast. Largely surrounded by marshes, Mobile Bay covers 413 square miles and measures about 31 miles long by 24 miles at its maximum width. Several rivers create the fourth largest estuary in the United States and second only to the Mississippi for river delta systems. These marshy rivers feed a rich and diverse habitat that produces impressive catches of speckled trout, redfish, flounder, black drum, sheepshead and a multitude of other highly desirable species.

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Photo: istockphoto.com/pelicankate

North of the bay, the Mobile-Tensaw Delta spreads across 250,000 acres of bayous, creeks, lakes, swamps and marshes. In 1974, Congress declared the Delta a National Natural Landmark. North of Mobile, the Alabama River and the Tombigbee River merge to form the Mobile River. The Tensaw River breaks off from the Mobile River and flows southeast into the northern stretches of Mobile Bay. The river system further subdivides into the Spanish, Apalachee and Blakely Rivers. Several smaller streams, including the Dog, Deer and Fowl Rivers enter the bay from the west. The Fish River and Bon Secour River flow into eastern Mobile Bay.

Because of the rivers flowing into it, much of the upper bay is brackish. Along many shorelines anglers catch largemouth bass, redfish, speckled trout and tripletail in the same place.

“Mobile Bay offers a wide variety of fishing opportunities from inshore to offshore,” said Lynn Pridgen of Captain Lynn’s Inshore Adventures in Mobile. “Because of the rivers flowing into it, much of the upper bay is brackish. Along many shorelines anglers catch largemouth bass, redfish, speckled trout and tripletail in the same place.”

At the southern end of the estuary the Fort Morgan Peninsula thrusts into the bay from the east. Dauphin Island and the southwestern Alabama mainland form the western shoreline. Between these points of land the bay opens into the Gulf of Mexico. Through the pass, the Mobile Ship Channel connects The Port of Mobile to the Gulf.

“The delta system has some 20- to 30-foot depths,” explained Bobby Abruscato of A-Team Fishing Adventures in Mobile. “However, the bay averages 12- to 14-feet deep with the exception of the shipping channel, which is dredged to maintain a 50-foot depth.”

With deep water, the rivers and shipping channel usually hold quality fish from early December through March when fish typically drop into the depths in search of comfortable conditions. As air temperatures rise in the early afternoon, trout and redfish stage over drop-offs and channel edges looking for forage.

In late winter and early spring, huge sheepshead averaging five to six pounds enter the bay from the Gulf to spawn. “Anglers can load up on sheepshead along docks and around the gas rigs in the southern portion of the bay,” advised George Harrison with Harrison Inshore Charters & Guide Service. “Sheepshead routinely feed on barnacles, shrimp or crabs clinging to objects. To attract the bucktooth bait stealers, locals scrape barnacles off pilings with shovels. With their keen senses, the sheepshead smell the crushed crustaceans and come looking for an easy meal,” added Harrison.

Marshes crisscrossed by rivers and bayous on the southwest side of Mobile Bay near Bayou La Batre hold speckled trout in the spring and redfish all year. As the water warms in March, trout transition from the rivers into the small bays bordering these marshes. The brackish nursery grounds provide perfect habitat for a variety of baitfish and game fish species. Each spring, flounder also move in from the deeper Gulf waters where they feed in the same marshes.

“In March and April, I fish the bays near Bayou La Batre for trout and redfish,” Abruscato advised. “These include Grand Bay, Heron Bay, Dauphin Island Bay and Porterville Bay. When the water temperature reaches 75 degrees I target trout around the deeper structures in Mobile Bay, including the gas rigs, wrecks and reefs.”

At the southern end of Mobile Bay, the Dixie Bar area typically holds huge bull reds all year long, but peaks from March through early May and again in late summer through fall. This sandbar comes off the Fort Morgan Peninsula and runs parallel to the ship channel near the mouth of the bay. This is a great place to tempt bull reds with live mullet or fresh chunks.

During the summer, many anglers fish Mobile Bay for speckled trout. While doing so, they might also catch Spanish mackerel in the 3- to 6-pound range, bluefish, white or sand trout and whiting. In the morning most guys start off fishing the grass flats with topwater plugs before transitioning to the reefs with jigheads tipped with plastic trailers as noon approaches. “Watching big fish blow up on a topwater is the ultimate rush. I’ve caught trout up to 8 pounds on topwater. Bait is the key. Look for areas that hold an abundance of 6-inch mullet in water no deeper than you are tall,” added Harrison.

Created in 1979 with dredge spoil from the ship channel, Gaillard Island covers 1,300 acres approximately three miles east of the Theodore Industrial Park Complex. During the summer the waters off the island hold big numbers of trout, flounder, redfish, jack crevalle, black drum and more. You’ll also see lots of guys fishing the nearby reefs and flats where they regularly encounter a variety of action as well.

“Seriously, Mobile Bay is hard to beat for numbers and variety of fish,” Harrison recommended. “The lower end of the bay houses a wide variety of structure from oyster reefs and sand flats to distinct drop-offs. The Theodore Canal is well known for producing big trout. The Dauphin Island Bridge and the shoals near Dauphin Island also hold plenty of fish. And of course, Mississippi Sound, the body of water that forms part of the Gulf of Mexico between the Louisiana state line and Dauphin Island, averages 12- to 20-feet and houses several wrecks and other weathered structures that create perfect habitat for many fish species.”

“About 85 percent of my fishing for big speckled trout is in Mississippi Sound,” advised Captain Yano Serra with Speck Tackle Lure Guide Service in Dauphin Island. “Sometimes I ride around with the side-scan sonar looking for structure. I find sunken shrimp boats, old pipelines, rockpiles, debris blown off Dauphin Island by hurricanes and other structures that most people don’t even know are there.”

During the summer, light tackle anglers fish slip corks with live shrimp in water 12- to 20-feet deep around these structures. With a slip cork, anglers set the cork to the depth they want to fish. The cork keeps the live shrimp suspended off the bottom and above entangling structure, but still in the strike zone. To tempt giant trout, bull redfish, sharks, Spanish mackerel and other hungry predators, locals in the know prefer free lining live croaker, menhaden, mullet or other baitfish.

Another option is to run the traps for tripletail in the summer and early fall. Crabbers use cork buoys to mark their traps, and tripletail hover near these buoys to sun themselves. Anglers cruise past the traps looking for the brown fish. When they spot one, they toss a live shrimp, piece of crab or other succulent morsel on a free line or under a popping cork. Tripletail also hit a variety of small artificial lures and make particularly tempting targets for fly fishermen.

In the fall when things start to cool down, fish head back to the deeper rivers. As temperatures continue to drop, shrimp leave the marshes and migrate toward the open Gulf. Nothing kicks off a multi-species feeding frenzy like a shrimp migration. Here, diving birds point the way to the action where anglers encounter feeding largemouth bass, striped bass, redfish and trout. Beneath the melee, flounder, black drum, sheepshead, catfish and other species pick off the wounded and slurp scraps off the bottom.

During a shrimp run, soft plastic shrimp imitations rigged under popping corks are the way to go. When an angler pops the cork, the shrimp flashes to the surface like a crustacean fleeing to escape a predator. Game fish hear the commotion and pop of the cork and race in for the kill.

All in all, few fisheries offer such variety as Mobile Bay. Just about any day of the year inshore anglers can put a variety of species on ice while taking advantage of some of the most exciting light tackle action found anywhere in the entire Gulf. Within easy reach for Florida anglers looking for a change of pace, Mobile Bay is a must visit this coming spring.

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