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Delta bass offer unique fishing opportunity

 

By DAVID RAINER

When it comes to bass fishing in the magnificent and diverse watershed known as the Mobile-Tensaw Delta, Wayne Miller, fishing guide and proprietor of Fish’n Fever Tackle in Saraland, insists it can be the most rewarding experience one day and the most frustrating the next.

 

“One day it makes you feel like Bill Dance,” Miller said of the legendary angler. “The next day you feel like Homer Simpson.”

 

 

 

 

After a full day on the water recently, I only have one word to utter.

 

 

 

 

“D’oh!!!”

 

Not even my favorite springtime lure, a plastic lizard, could convince those fickle bass into any consistent action. We didn’t go empty-handed, but it would be a stretch to say we had a handful.

And, like Miller said, only one day can make the difference. Miller and his son, Andrew, fished a fruit jar tournament the afternoon before we went out and finished in second place and had the runner-up for lunker.

“We caught between 20 and 25 keepers in three hours,” Miller said. “Today, we can’t buy a fish. But that’s what you get when you’re fishing for tidal bass.”

Bass in the Mobile Delta are indeed a rare breed. Fisheries biologists are discovering with each new research project how the Delta bass compare to other black bass species.

“It’s not a typical largemouth bass population,” said Nick Nichols with the Fisheries Section of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries. “We have new and intensive research work going on right now with Auburn University. We’ve known these fish were different from northern largemouth.”

Older genetic studies were rudimentary at best and did not reveal a great deal of difference in the species. However, Auburn is using methods that are much more sophisticated.

“What we had folks at Auburn do was use new techniques to look at the nuclear genetics of the fish, the DNA itself,” Nichols said. “ In the early screening mode, looking at the Delta bass and comparing them to largemouths of other populations, it’s obvious the Delta bass have a unique makeup. It’s apparent that population has gone through a genetic bottleneck to adapt to that habitat.”

That coastal environment makes for an interesting fishery with a dynamic like no other in the state. The habitat is so different, efforts to stock Florida strain fish into the Delta were fruitless.

“Those fish are at the edge of habitat preferences,” Nichols said. “There’s a whole host of variables that those fish are exposed to that bass in other parts of the state never see. There are different predators they have to deal with. Plus, you’ve got the environmental factors like tidal flow, saltwater. There’s a whole suite of forage animals – crabs and shrimp, as well as fish forage that thrive in estuarine environments.

“One way of describing Delta bass is they live fast and die young. We’re trying to pin down why that’s the case. That may be the price they pay to adapt to that habitat. You don’t see many trophy fish. It has to live long enough to reach trophy size and you don’t see any old fish in the Delta. It’s rare to get into the lunker category. What you see is lots of healthy, robust fish that tend to be in very good condition. While they’re living, they’re doing well.”

Thank goodness, that adaptation means there are, as a rule, more Bill Dance days than Homer Simpson outings, which sometimes just can’t be explained.

“We had an identical tide and the predominant winds were the same,” Miller said. “My son and I were able to go out the day before and catch about 25 fish in three hours. Today we fished all day and struggled to put together any decent fish.

The tidal flow was the same. The water temperature was the same. The water clarity was the same. It was just one of those days where you scratch your head and wonder what happened. The fish just weren’t aggressive for whatever reason.”

However, an understanding of how the fish relate to the conditions is crucial to success.

“Some people say you shouldn’t go unless you have an outgoing tide,” Miller said. “You’ll hear people fishing on an incoming tide. Obviously, tidal movement affects the fish and their behavior. There’s no doubt you catch more fish during periods of tidal movement. However, in the spring, you’ve got fish moving, staging to bed. You’ve got males and females in relatively shallow water. So even on neap tides, there are other reasons the fish will be aggressive and hit. It’s not as important this time of year as it is later, especially when you get into the higher air and water temperatures.”

Of course, wind direction can change the effect of the tides tremendously. A stiff south wind can hold up a falling tide for hours, while a north wind after a cold front can blow all the water out. The Delta also has to deal with the ravages of hurricanes and Hurricane Ivan and Hurricane Katrina provided a double whammy.

“I love to fish the grass on the lower end of the Delta, primarily Gravine Island south to the Causeway,” Miller said. “However, due to the saltwater inundation the last couple of years from hurricanes, the bays and creeks have very little grass. For a year like this, I’ll focus most of my fishing in the middle and upper Delta.

“For the middle Delta I love to target the backs of the creeks and lakes that have a lot of cypress trees and laydowns. Typically, the fish like to get around this type cover to spawn. It’s a very productive pattern when the fish pull up on the flats with a lot of timber on them.”

Miller’s primary bait, once the water warms up in the 60s, is a plastic lizard. But because of the abundance of cover in shallow water, shallow-running crankbaits and spinnerbaits can be very productive, especially right now.

For those who prefer to catch a few big fish, Miller has some advice.

“I tell people on guide trips that if you want to catch a 10-pound fish, this isn’t the place to come,” he said. “A six-pound fish on the Delta is a large fish. That’s not to say we don’t have eight-, nine-, 10-pound fish, because occasionally there are a few caught, especially this time of year. You just don’t see a tremendous population of fish in excess of five pounds.


“I have a lot of respect for the fish that survive here. They’re forced to not only deal with the pressures of a river system, but also the brackish water, saltwater intrusion and competition from the saltwater species like redfish and speckled trout. It’s a pretty hostile environment.”
 

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