Sports

Matt Dickerson: Fishing Alabama, north to south

MATTHEW DICKERSON, LEFT, his fishing guide Steve, and Deborah Dickerson pose at a pier in southern Alabama recently showing off their catch from Mobile Bay.

Standing on a rocky shore beneath the shadow of a massive dam, I drifted small nymphs in slow-moving water that looked chest deep. A couple fish rose sporadically some distance upriver, mostly against the wooded bank on the far shore. One trout with a scarred back cruised past and disappeared downstream. Nothing showed interest in my fly.
After an hour, Brandon Jackson, my guide from Riverside Fly Shop, moved us downriver, around the next bend and out of sight of the dam. The river was much shallower here, flowing swiftly over riffles and through thigh-deep pools. To me, it looked much fishier. And, indeed, the hits began to come. They were subtle: just a slight dip of my strike indicator floating above the flies. To my embarrassment I missed at least three, lifting the rod to set the hook a moment too late. On the fourth strike, however, I got the rod up and the hook set. A few seconds later I slipped a smallish stocked rainbow trout into the net. No trophy, but it was my first Alabama trout.
I’d spent a couple years exploring southern Appalachian trout streams in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and North Carolina while working with my friend David O’Hara on our book “Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia.” But though the bottom end of the Appalachian range reaches the northeast corner of Alabama before petering out, I’d never fished or even crossed into the Cotton State, the Heart of Dixie. Alabama has no native trout. Its only year-round trout stream is the Sipsey Fork below the big dam on Lewis Smith Lake.
And that’s where I stood with Brandon. It was worth the trip. The stream cuts through the bottom of a deep and thickly wooded valley that enabled the many-armed reservoir known as Lewis Smith Lake. Deer meandered the shoreline, feeding on the abundance of oaks, while armadillos patrolled the open areas by the dam. The lake itself is largely fed by protected headwater streams in the Bankhead National Forest. The upper waters of the national forest are not the trout habitat however, as might be the case in Tennessee, North Carolina, or even Vermont. It’s the dam that makes possible the Sipsey Fork tailwater fishery, pouring out water from the bottom of a lake at temperatures cold enough to sustain trout for many miles downriver.
Though most of the stretch I fished were wadable, with gravel bars too shallow for a boat (at least when I was there), the river below the first bridge where Brandon’s fly shop sits, two miles below the dam, is floatable in a drift boat. Thanks to the effort of a local Trout Unlimited chapter, and of folks like Brandon, it’s a good fishery, and a very pretty one also. The area is largely remote and undeveloped, and except for the dam it feels wild.
For three more hours after that first fish, the hits came pretty steadily. When a few more fish started to rise, I was just about to shift to dry flies when the threatening skies opened up and a steady rain began to fall. The surface action shut down immediately and I stayed with nymphs fishing below the surface. Most of the fish we saw were recently stocked rainbows, the size of a brook trout in the upper portions of my favorite Vermont rivers. But I did hook into one good-sized fish that broke my line. The highlight of the morning was spotting a big holdover trout — at least triple the weight of the stocked fish we’d been seeing — feeding actively in a little knee-deep run behind a boulder. I sight-fished for that one fish at least 30 minutes, and drew two follows before he was on to me and started ignoring the montage of flies Brandon and I drifted past it. The trout won that battle, but gave me another good reason to want to return to a beautiful little river — maybe next time to float the lower stretch.
• • • • • • •
Two mornings later, still in Alabama, I had as different a fishing experience as I could possibly imagine. My wife Deborah and I boarded a boat at the marina in Fort Morgan, near Gulf Shores on the peninsula at the mouth of Mobile Bay. As Captain Perry motored us out into the Bay, we admired a whole squadrons of pelicans perches on old piers, backlit by a gorgeous horizon burning orange and crimson from the rising sun. It made up for similar colors we were missing that weekend on the Vermont hillsides.
A few minutes later, after passing a pair of dolphins leaping and playing in the shallow waters of the bay, we came around the point and out into the open water of the Gulf of Mexico. The boat rose and fell between the peaks and troughs of three-foot swells as we motored out around the point a short distance along beautiful beaches of powdery white sand.
Then Perry started handing out rods. Deborah, though she rarely fishes, accepted the one offered her. Perry cut the engine and started baiting our hooks with live fish he’d caught that morning. He cast them out where he wanted, then handed them back. “You’ll know if one bites,” he said.
And we did. We were fishing for redfish. Our first two hookups were with ocean catfish, not much bigger than the bigger trout I’d seen up on Sipsey Fork. I snapped a quick photo of Deborah’s first catch and then we let it go. When we’d drifted a ways down the shore, Perry — who kept in close contact with another boat to see how they were doing — motored us back closer to the mouth of the bay. “Sometimes it can be slow for a while,” he said, “and then you suddenly get into the fish and you’ll get two hooked on at once.”
Perry was right. Deborah hooked up first: a monster of a redfish that she fought for several minutes before it snapped her line. It was barely off the line before one took my hook. It fought me for several minutes before I was able to bring it (mostly doing so from my seat, to avoid going overboard in the constant rocking from the swells). My fish ran just short of three feet long and 15 pounds — the size and fight of a better-than-average steelhead or a really good striper taken off the New England coast.
I had set the fishing trip up through Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Tourism who connected me with Steve from Intercoastal Safaris. Earlier that morning, after dragging ourselves away from the first few minutes of the beautiful sunrise, viewed out over the beaches from the balcony of our rental at The Beach Club, we’d driven 10 minutes to the marina with the sunrise growing more spectacular with each minute to meet Perry and Steve. For us visitors to the area, the trip would have been worth it just for the scenery: the sunrise, miles of sandy beaches, numerous pelicans posting on their perches and later fishing the same waters as us, and especially the dolphins. But we were also there for fishing. And Deborah soon had a chance for redemption, hooking into another redfish at least as big as mine. This time she managed to bring it to net and into the boat.
We would later motor back into Mobile Bay and fish along the mouth of a marshy tidal river, which gave us another glimpse of the beauty of this place. Before the morning was done, we’d hooked into five redfish between us, with Steve, Deborah and I each successfully bringing one into the boat. We headed back to the marine where Perry fileted them for us as pelicans waited in the water below for the scraps.
And I thought, I could come back here again, too.

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