Diamonds come from special places, like Alabama’s redeye bass.
There is nothing wrong with largemouth bass. They fight hard, they get really big, and they can be found almost anywhere in Alabama’s freshwater streams. Spotted bass, the same, except maybe they fight even harder than largemouth.
Smallmouth bass are special fish. They are not common in Alabama but where they are found, they can be found in good numbers in big waters. These bass are all fine fish and worthy of pursuing.
However, for those anglers who like to prospect for something different and valuable, like looking for mines of special jewels, there’s only one target—Alabama’s redeye bass.
These small bass live in hidden, remote places, and they don’t get as big as the other varieties of bass in Alabama.
But for those anglers who enjoy experiencing the place almost as much as the result of catching fish, the redeye is the jewel of Alabama’s bass fishing life.
What Are Redeyes?
If we were to catch a redeye bass without knowing what we had, we might be a little confused. Redeyes are obviously bass, but they are obviously not largemouth bass, or spotted bass.
They look quite a lot like smallmouth bass, but there are some visual differences between redeyes and smallmouth.
Both redeyes and smallmouth have a basic brown or olive green coloration, but their coloration and pattern can vary quite a bit depending on light and water conditions.
Of course, redeye bass have red eyes, but several other species of bass can also have red eyes, so this field mark is not totally accurate in identifying redeye bass.
One reliable field mark to help identify redeyes is in the color of their fins. Redeyes tend to have white or clear margins around their tail fins, whereas smallmouth and other bass don’t.
In addition, redeyes—especially the male fish in spawning season—have very attractive turquoise blue streaks on the sides of their heads. No other bass in Alabama has this colorful decoration.
Fully grown redeye bass are small. A redeye bass that weighs a pound is a very good fish. Alabama’s state record is just a bit over three pounds. Redeyes grow slowly and mature slowly, so each mature fish should be treated with care and released to help promote the populations of these little battlers in Alabama’s small streams.
Finally, redeye bass are very aggressive and hard-fighting little fish. It might be a good thing that redeyes don’t get too large. Otherwise, it might be unsafe to wade or swim in redeye creeks and streams.
Jay Eubanks is an experienced fly fisherman from Birmingham, and a redeye fan. “I believe they fight harder than any other bass species I’ve caught,” he says. “A ten-inch fish will often feel like a fifteen-inch bass of another variety. They can be more trout-like at times.”
Where Can We Find Them?
The reason that the redeye bass of Alabama is not so well-known is because it just doesn’t live where the other bass species live, so most anglers who fish from bass boats and other craft in large rivers and lakes will never come in contact with them.
An angler fishing in Lake Wheeler or Guntersville might catch largemouth, spotted, and even smallmouth bass in a single day’s fishing. Their habitat is in the big lakes.
Redeyes, though, will not be found in the lakes.
Redeyes are creek fish. Not only do they not live in lakes or ponds, they don’t find big rivers to their liking much, either.
So where do redeyes live? This is one of the best things about Alabama’s little fish jewel. Redeyes live in the small, clear, fast-running creek above the fall line in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in northeast Alabama.
Some of the most beautiful water in Alabama, like Little River way down at the bottom of its canyon, is prime redeye territory.
Fishing for redeye bass means a fishing trip will involve either wading or floating in a kayak or canoe or other very small craft. Also, most devoted redeye anglers are not very forthcoming about divulging their favorite redeye streams.
Redeye creeks are small, and they can’t take a lot of fishing pressure. That’s why redeye chasers aren’t willing to very often provide specific put-in or take-out locations.
Anglers who want to join the ranks of redeye anglers can get a good map (the Delorme Atlas is a good one) and look for blue squiggly lines which enter into the Coosa or Tallapoosa Rivers. These little creeks just might hold redeyes and be worth a scouting trip.
Some places cater to creek fishing for redeyes. Big Will’s Outfitters in Attala, Ala., is such a place. Big Wills Creek runs for about 85 miles to its junction with Lake Neely-Henry in Gadsden, Alabama.
This stream is a good place to experience some first-rate redeye bass fishing while enjoying a fine float trip. To properly fish the Big Wills from put-in to take-out point will take a full day; to just float it through takes two to three hours.
Big Wills Creek has a good population of redeyes, and Josh Tidwell who operates Big Wills Outfitters is a devoted redeye angler. Josh gives us some good advice about where to fish once we reach a potential redeye stream.
”Redeyes can be found anywhere in a stream,” he says. “However, they do relate to structure, especially rock. My favorite areas to focus on for redeye bass are rocks in or very near current.”
Jay Eubanks agrees. “Like other river bass, they can be caught in many of the likely locations—near rocks or logs, in plunge pools, behind rocks that break current, near banks, and in swift turns. The deep pools, a floating bug, and some patience are really the key.”
How Can We Catch Them?
This is the easiest part of the whole redeye fishing equation. Redeyes live in small streams, so they don’t see a lot of food opportunities.
Life in small streams means they must take every possible food morsel which comes by in the current. So, expect redeyes to be very aggressive feeders.
The primary food source for redeyes is crawfish. Any lure or fly that looks remotely like a mud-bug will attract the attention of redeyes.
Owing to the small size of redeye bass, anglers will need to scale down their equipment. There’s no need to haul around a big, heavy rod and reel made for largemouth bass when wading or floating a redeye creek.
Ultralight spinning gear utilizing six pound or slightly heavier line is good. Short little four- or five-weight fly rods are good for fly rod anglers. But be warned; there will not be much room for backcasts on most redeye bass creeks.
For fly rod anglers, the redeye is a perfect fish.
Jay Eubanks, who writes for Examiner.com as the Memphis Fly Fish Examiner, says, “We use a lot of poppers, especially Booglebugs in blue, white and yellow. We use mostly size six poppers, but have caught them on larger size four and smaller size eight, too. Below the surface, I’ve caught them on Wooly Buggers and a damsel fly nymph of my own design.
“I honestly think surface fishing is the way to go, and the actual fly may be less important than the technique. The trick is to just let the fly sit. We’ve caught more fish just waiting for the fish to come up from the bottom of deeper pools than probably any other technique.”
“I consider redeye bass to the best fly rod fish in Alabama,” Josh Tidwell adds. “They are found in beautiful flowing streams with clean water. They take flies readily and with passion. They run and jump with abandon. If a man can spend a day catching redeye bass on a two- to four-weight fly rod with a popping bug and not consider it time well spent, his priorities are way off kilter.”
For those of us who don’t use fly rods, lightweight spinning gear is extremely effective on creek redeye bass.
“I like to use the Booyah Pond Magic Spinner Baits,” says Josh Tidwell. “These lures are sized just right for creek fishing. They are small enough to not be shocking to the fish, yet are large enough to attract the bigger bass while discouraging the dinks and panfish. For plastics, I like a crawfish imitation on a shaky head jig. My favorite is the Netbait Baby Pacacraw. I use PopRs and Tiny Torpedoes for top-water, and a Rebel Craw crankbait will round out your redeye tackle box.”
Do Some Redeye Prospecting
Although redeyes can be caught nearly year-round (flood conditions from heavy rains make creek fishing difficult and even dangerous), there is a best time to fish for these little creek jewels.
One of the most refreshing and renewing experiences in the whole world is to step into a clear, cool hill creek during the heat of summer and then spend a few hours wading and fishing and letting the cool waters of the creek wash away the troubles and headaches of the day.
Summertime is the best time of the year to go redeye fishing. The redeyes are used to looking for food falling into the creek, and they respond eagerly to anglers’ offerings, and top-water flies and lures provide some explosive strikes from these aggressive little battlers.
Precious jewels don’t have to be large to be very valuable, and redeye bass don’t have to be large to provide a lot of fun and excitement.
It sounds to me like a redeye fishing expedition is a good idea for a lot of reasons.
This article originally appeared in the print edition of Great Days Outdoors magazine in June 2013. For more great hunting and fishing content for the deep South, subscribe to Great Days Outdoors print and digital editions or click the image to download this issue.