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I don’t get out much to fish anymore, but I found some time Sunday to do just that.  I loaded everything up late Saturday with plans to make the long drive to catch some redfish the next morning.  When I woke up and checked the weather it was evident that inshore fishing wasn’t an option.  The entire Gulf was covered in rain.  Everything inland looked alright though, at least for the time being, so I had to come up with plan B fast.  I decided to head down the road a bit and check out a lake in the Maurepas swamp that I’d heard good things about.  I had no idea how much time I’d have before rain chased me off or if I’d even have any success, but I had to get out.

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I arrived at the launch shortly after sunrise and was out on the water as fast as I could possibly load my boat.  I was happy to see the black water was fairly clean and the lake seemed to have a healthy amount of submerged vegetation.  I didn’t use the flex drive of the Cruise FD much today because of the grass and I couldn’t help but think on trips like this how much I missed the Kilroy.  I started out throwing a hollow body weedless topwater frog and was treated to a couple of quick hits from largemouth bass.  I connected on my second one and hoped that the trend would continue.

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As I worked the shoreline and nearshore grass I had a few more slashing hits on the frog that were more likely from gar than bass.  In time I came to a spot where the lake narrowed and a couple tributaries dumped in.  It was a beautiful spot with an obviously healthy swamp.  The water was visibly moving in the bayous as it drained into the lake.

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IMG_6461Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)

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I rounded a bend in the bayou and heard a tremendous toilet bowl flush that made the hair on my neck stand up with excitement.  After scanning the area I was able to pinpoint the location of the activity and made a cast with the frog beyond the spot so I could run it through the area.  On my second cast I got an eat and as soon I was hooked up the fish took to the air and I could see that I had a choupique on the line.  After a nice fight and the fish getting caught in a wad of grass I was able to boat the dinosaur.  A lot of people call these things trash fish, but you know what they say about one man’s trash?  If I’m catch and release fishing I’ll take a fight from a choupique all day long.

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After the battle with the choupique, and replacing my frog, I headed back toward the lake and continued fishing topwater.  The bite began to wane so I switched things up and went to the fly rod.  I began working a popper-dropper around the trees and stumps that weren’t covered up in duckweed and soon began catching fish again.  The stumpknocker were active that morning and repeatedly hit an electric blue Boogle bug that they couldn’t possibly fit in their mouth.  Every once in a while they’d see the dropper and I’d be quick enough to set the hook.

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I continued fishing the fly rod and had a couple surprises.  The first one was a fish that I thought was going to be a big bull bluegill on hookset.  The popper slowly began to sink so I gave a little hookset and then I felt a lot more resistance than normal and the popper began going sideways.  After a nice fight with my glass 4wt double over at times I landed a bass – and a wad of grass.

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The second was a spotted gar that came after the popper and when I set the hook on the eat my popper came out and my dropper tagged him under the chin.  Not the conventional way to catch them on the fly, but it sure was easier to handle than a rope fly.

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I continued to fish the fly rod and explore the bayous that drained into the lake.  I caught a few more stumpknocker before the rain began to fall.  It was a little after noon when it began to fall hard enough that I decided enough was enough and pedaled my way back to the launch.  For being a last minute backup option the Maurepas swamp sure was a good one.  It was a beautiful place to explore and home to a good variety of hungry fish – I’m sure I’ll be back.

 

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We were after hours guests at Brierfield Ironworks Park and the on-site hosts were very accommodating.  As I understood their instruction, any place we saw fit was available for primitive camping, though there were some designated spots with picnic tables and fire pits.  We picked a spot, recommended by the host, up on a hill overlooking the rest of the park as it had some suitable trees to hang our hammocks.  It was the warmest night of the trip, but not too warm to where it was tough to sleep.  In fact I got great sleep that night and I needed it.  The camping spot was away from everyone else so there were no dogs to growl at me and there weren’t any whip-poor-wills going berserk – it was the best camping spot we had all trip.  We also stayed dry, the rain moved quickly through the area and didn’t linger.  We looked forward to a blue bird morning fishing for Cahaba bass.  A huge bonus to staying in a State Park was that we were actually able to shower that morning.  A hot shower after a couple of days of living in your own filth does wonders.  We left the park re-energized and ready to cap off our slam.

We had a short drive to fish a tributary of the Cahaba River right where it dumps in to the main river, giving us the option to fish either.  We are small water guys so fishing the tributary was more appealing than fishing the shoals of the Cahaba.  If we had an entire day we would have done both, however it was Sunday and we still needed to drive home, so we really only had a half day to devote to fishing.

After traversing a long, bumpy gravel road we were at our destination and began making our trek upstream.  We split ways after stepping in the water with Blake fishing downstream of me as I began working my way upstream.  It wasn’t long before I heard him holler that he had caught his Cahaba bass.

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After a long day of feeling the pressure the day before I’m sure it was a big relief for Blake to knock out his slam early and put that pressure back on me.  I wasn’t too worried as it was early and his fish ate aggressively.  I fished on and actually missed chances at two separate redeye in places by pulling the fly out of their mouth.  Meanwhile Blake pulled out a redeye behind me, after that I switched from my hopper-dropper to a subsurface fly.  Soon enough I was catching fish.

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They just weren’t the target species.  The bluegills were feisty that day.  We had very little luck on topwater this entire trip, which goes against everything I read about redeye.  The trusty woolly bugger was catching fish though.  I finally fooled a bass, but to be honest I couldn’t tell if it was entirely redeye or if it was a hybrid.  I went through the slam protocol as if it were a Cahaba bass, but I still felt like I needed to catch another one, just to make sure.

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This creek had no shortage of good-looking water and we fished every fishy looking part.  Much like on other creeks they weren’t holding in the mid-water trout-type holding areas, we had much better luck catching them in slower water, so we worked the pools and any other slow water pretty hard.

We ran into a stand of Cahaba lilies on this tributary.  They are similar to the spider lilies that grow in ditches on the side of the road here in Louisiana, but the Cahaba lilies have a much more specialized habitat, living only in shoals in the middle of rivers above the Fall Line in Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina.  They bloom around late May, early June so we were a little early for their peak, but it was pretty cool to at least catch a few blooming.

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IMG_5460Cahaba lily (Hymenocallis coronaria)

We weren’t exactly lighting the world on fire catching fish.  It was slow, not as slow as the day before, but still slow.  Things did start to pick up as it got hotter out.  I finally caught another redeye, it was a baby, and then I caught another baby.  There’s no size requirement for this slam so I was fine with the micro fish.  I was now confident that the slam was in hand.  Blake would catch another one as well and it had to be bigger.

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We got to a big pool and decided that this was it, it was past noon at this point and we still had a six-hour drive ahead of us so after the pool we would turn around and hike out.  It was the right call as we both managed to catch decent sized Alabama bass from the pool.  I always like to end a trip with a good fish and this was a pretty sweet way to do it with us both catching nice fish in the last hole.

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After a walk through the woods we made it back to the vehicle and chowed down on some sandwiches before hitting the road.  It’s funny how nonchalant we are when we finish trips like this.  There is a sense of accomplishment in putting together a successful trip, but we’re not hoot-n-holler kind of guys, so we just smile and keep fishing.  It was a great trip, we fished a ton of awesome water, caught a bunch of fish, and had a good time hanging out with each other.  Now it’s time to start putting in the work to plan for Georgia.  The Altamaha, Bartram’s, and Chattahoochee bass are all we have left to finish our 7 species redeye slam and I can’t wait to do it.

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A much better night’s sleep was had on night two.  I could have done without the dog in the adjacent site that growled at me every time I moved, but at least it didn’t make noise through the night, or break free from its leash and try to murder me as I slept peacefully in my hammock – that may have crossed my mind at some point.  Luckily the dog was well-behaved, just protective I guess.

Much like the day before, that morning we ate breakfast, packed up, then headed down the road to the river.  This time, though, there was a lot more people in the parking lot where we were planning to fish.  They weren’t fishermen though, it looked like a group of Boy Scouts was getting ready to go on a hiking trip into the Bankhead National Forest.  A short ways up the trail we encountered some boys swimming, which was a little unfortunate because their swimming hole looked like a great place to fish.  We fished a bit downstream of them before walking around where their group was camping in the middle of the trail.  I don’t know why one would pick the middle of the trail, or at the base of a waterfall, like we saw another group doing, as a good place to camp, but what do I know I was just here to fly fish.  Speaking of fishing, Blake managed to catch an Alabama bass in that first spot we tried before we moved on.  After the early fish I was feeling optimistic.

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We went around the boys and continued to fish.  This river was much sandier than the two we fished previously, it actually reminded me a little of the rivers back home, though it didn’t have massive sand bars like you see on rivers south of the Fall Line.  Like the rivers back home it required quite a bit of wading between fishable water.  It definitely had a different feel than the other redeye streams we fished.  We went from stacked shoals on day 1 to high gradient for day 2, now we were on a fairly low gradient stream with lots of sand – we were definitely seeing a good variety of the water Alabama has to offer.  Despite the differences it was just as beautiful as the others, with some of the clearest water I’ve seen in a river, but we found out pretty quickly that it was also a tough place to fish.

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We covered a lot of territory without a bite and I was getting pretty nervous about catching a Warrior bass here.  I was within site of where I planned on turning around and heading back to the truck, but I got lucky and caught one as I floated a woolly bugger near some woody debris on the bank, it came out from a deep spot and nailed my fly.  I had my Warrior bass in hand and there was a little hope for this stream after all, so we kept fishing.

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We gave ourselves a little extra time on the water to see if Blake could land a Warrior bass.  If we didn’t have any luck soon it was onto Plan B.  I wanted so badly for this stream to work out for both of us, but it wasn’t in the cards.  I’m not sure if redeye bass numbers here are low or if the fishing was just tough, either way, we needed to get Blake a Warrior bass before dark and we weren’t having luck here so it was time to make the move.

One of the reasons I wanted to fish here was actually for the hike out.  The trail that runs along the river is one of the best in Alabama, every feeder stream that flows into the river has to go over a massive riverside bluff, so there are numerous waterfalls you pass along your hike.  It’s a really cool place to visit, whether you’re hiking or fishing, one of the prettiest in the state.

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We had been watching the weather all morning and as we hiked out the skies finally opened up.  I couldn’t help but think of how much harder it would be to catch a redeye if Plan B was high and muddy.  Our only hope was that whatever rain that came down would be brief, not only did Blake still need a Warrior bass today, but we still had to catch Cahaba bass tomorrow.

We hit the road toward our next destination, which was a little closer to Birmingham and drove through some serious weather.  It was the kind of storm that makes you put on your flashers when you drive and that’s something I never do.  Zero visibility would not be an overstatement.  We drove far enough east to get to our next creek that we had driven ahead of the line of storms, but that just meant we’d get it again soon.  Blake was out of the truck as soon as we parked, he was a man on a mission.  The dry spell didn’t last long however as the skies opened up again.

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Things weren’t looking good, but luckily the rain, although heavy, was short lived.  He hadan hour, maybe an hour and a half, before we had to be off the water – we were actually in a park that closed at 5:30pm, so the clock was ticking.

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Much like the last stream the fishing was tough.  I did spook a couple of fish that looked like redeye bass near the bank, so we at least knew they were in here, but things were looking bleak. We were down to our last 20 minutes when it finally happened.  He caught a fish and it was a Warrior bass.

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Who would have thought catching an 8″ fish could be so exciting!  What a relief that was, we had already talked about having to swing back through here when we were en route to Georgia for the second half of the slam, but thankfully we wouldn’t need to do that.  It was a tough day of fishing period.  I only caught one, thankfully it was a Warrior bass, Blake only caught two fish, we got seriously lucky.

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We got out of there shortly after that fish and headed south toward the Cahaba watershed, which held Cahaba bass, our final species needed for a Mobile Basin slam.  We found some primitive camping available at Brierfield Ironworks State Park.  We showed up after hours, but that didn’t seem to be a problem, there was plenty of primitive camping available.

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The first night in a hammock is always tough.  I’ve said that in the past and on this trip it was no different.  The hammock is comfortable and it beats sleeping on the ground, but it takes a bit of adjustment coming from a king bed.  Throw in an overzealous whip-poor-will, who was vocal for nearly the entire night, and sleep for me on night one was sporadic at best.

We were up at dawn, ate some breakfast, got packed up, and rolled out of the campground to make our way a few miles up the road to Cheaha Mountain and visit the highest point in the state.

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It was tough to get an unobstructed view of the surrounding area at the top of the tower, there was lots of communication and radio equipment up there.  A better view was had at the restaurant deck a little further down the mountain.  It’s neat what a little bit of elevation can do though.  At 2,400 feet the trees were still leafing out, whereas nearly everything just 1,000 foot down in elevation was pretty much done and making that transition out of Spring.

We came down off the mountain after checking out the view and headed down the road a way to where we planned to fish that morning for Coosa bass in the Talladega National Forest.  I had been told this was as close as I was going to get to a bonafide southern Appalachian blue line trout stream in Alabama and it held our target species so I figured it was worth a visit.

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It didn’t take long for me to get on the board with my second redeye species of the trip, the Coosa bass.  I let Blake play through after that and took time to explore my surroundings.

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It’s always a good idea to stop what you’re doing and take it all in sometimes, it’s amazing how much more you notice when you’re a little more observant.  I found loads of crawfish in the little feeder creeks and a handful of snakes like the one above, which made me a little more cautious while I was doing a bunch of rock hopping knowing they were out and about.

It took a little longer than expected, but Blake got on board with a Coosa bass of his own.  It was about this time that the creek picked up some elevation, entered into a bit of a canyon, and took on a whole new character.

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It was a beautiful stretch of water to wade.  We caught a few more Coosa bass through that section, but I knew it was time to turn around and hike out once I caught a chub in a big pool below a falls, especially when that was the only action we saw in that pool.  It was pretty good timing too because the locals were just making it up the trail to their swimming hole as we were heading out.

We left the creek and headed into nearby Anniston and Cheaha Brewing Company and met up with our friend Mark Miller for lunch and a flight.  No fishing trip is complete without a brewery stop and Cheaha fit the bill.  The food was good and the beer was acceptable.

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We left full and happy and drove through Birmingham en route to the Bankhead National Forest.  For Day 3 we’d target the Warrior bass on a creek that I fished a few times when I lived in Madison, the only place where I’d previously caught redeye before.  It was a much more memorable place for its beautiful scenery than anything else, it seemed only appropriate to head that way.

Blake and I completed the Mobile Basin redeye bass slam a couple weekends back, catching the 4 native redeye bass of Alabama – the Tallapoosa, Coosa, Warrior, and Cahaba.  It was an awesome road trip through the state where we fished and camped on all sides of Birmingham.  The trip was every bit as fun as the cutthroat slam trip we took in Utah last fall.  A bit of backstory for anyone interested:

Earlier this year my buddy Matt published a book about fly fishing for redeye bass.  It was a good read about a fish that a lot of people down south overlook – the redeye bass.   The book brought back memories of the fishing I did when I lived in Northern Alabama for a year after college.  Admittedly though I never caught many redeye bass as I lived in the Tennessee River watershed.  Fishing dominated my life then and has been a passion of mine ever since.  The book profiled the redeye bass and the work that’s being done to define the species into seven further distinctions.  A redeye bass trip was moved higher up the idea list for me after reading the book, but then in March, it was moved to the top as Matt and a few other folks got together and came up with the idea for a redeye slam, and y’all know I just love a slam trip.  So after details of the Redeye Bass Slam 2018 were released I went ahead and began planning to complete the 4 species Mobile Basin redeye slam in Alabama and then finish the full 7 species redeye slam with a trip to Georgia at a later date.

Of course any time I’m planning a fishing trip I ask Blake if he wants in and usually it doesn’t take a whole lot of convincing to get him aboard.  After that it’s just picking a date to go and then we hope for the best.  We settled on early May to at least complete the Alabama portion of the slam as we’d be hammock camping and anyone from the south knows the further you get into summer the more unbearable it is to be outside, let alone try to sleep.

 

One thing that the redeye book lacks is any kind of range map of where you may find the fish, so embedded above is a map I created of the watersheds where redeye bass live in Alabama.  One thing to note is that redeye bass aren’t found below the Fall Line so don’t waste too much time on water below an imaginary line that runs from Tuscaloosa – Montgomery – Columbus.  I included the range of the Chattahoochee bass as well since it slips into the state.  I don’t know that they are found in any streams in Alabama.  We will target Chattahoochee bass in Georgia later this summer.  In order to try and catch the 4 different Mobile Basin redeye species in a 4-day trip we set out before dawn on Thursday and drove 6.5 hours to where we’d fish that afternoon for our first redeye species, the Tallapoosa bass.

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We fished a tributary to the Tallapoosa River that was loaded with shoals and grass with lots of shallow and deep water throughout – great river bass habitat.  We’re small water guys and even though this was a tributary it initially felt like big water.  Neither of us has ever fished shoals like this, so it was a new experience for both of us.  The water really didn’t feel that big once we started fishing and it didn’t take long to get into fish.  In fact the first set of shoals we fished were the most productive.  Blake got on the board first with a decent Alabama bass.

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Soon after I caught my first Tallapoosa bass, who took a buggy olive stonefly imitation I was hanging off the back of a hopper pattern.

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I followed that up with another Tallapoosa bass, this one though was loaded with iridescent blues, it was a beautiful specimen, no doubt the prettiest fish of the day for me.

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Blake soon caught a Tallapoosa bass of his own and the pressure of getting that first fish of the slam was off for both of us.

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After that it didn’t take long for Blake to upgrade his Alabama bass.  His dropper rig was hammered in some slower water toward the bank where a tree provided the perfect cover.  The big Alabama bass would be the largest fish of the trip that was caught and if you’ve been following the blog the past few years that’s just par for the course for “Big Fish Blake”.

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The action slowed down after the big fish, Blake and I did manage to pull out a few more redeye before the day was done, including one by Blake that pushed the 12″ mark.  At least that’s what we estimated it to be, we measured it against the rod, but truth be told I’m not sure we ever went back and measured the rod.  Either way, it was a fine fish.

IMG_5285Mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia)

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After things went flat we got off the water and hit the road toward our first campsite.  We had an hour drive ahead of us to the Talladega National Forest where we’d camp in the shadow of the tallest point in Alabama, Cheaha Mountain.  Ribeye and beers that we bought at Filet & Vine in Montgomery were calling to us from the Orion cooler in the back of my truck.  We were in such a rush to get fishing that afternoon that we neglected to make or pick up lunch, so hunger was almost an afterthought at this point.

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I’m happy to report we were able to successfully set up camp and get a fire going before dark and before long we were tearing into some seriously good steaks.  Big thanks to Josh Rhodes who met us at the campsite with more beers, butter, and for helping collect wood for the fire.  Day 1 was a success and we had another big day planned for Day 2 where we had the Coosa bass in our sights and then a trip up to the Bankhead National Forest to camp.