Regarding places to fish, we tend to think that bigger is better. That’s not always true.
When the evening shadows began to creep across the water of the small stream, fish began feeding under the overhanging limbs of a creekside tree. The angler carefully entered the cool water, refreshing him after another hot fall day in Alabama.
Wading within easy casting distance, the angler was able to make a sidearm cast which sent the small lure far back under the limbs and into deep shadow.
As the lure slowly sank, the line twitched and became very tight. Although the fish was not huge—perhaps three pounds—for a small stream and on ultra-light tackle, it was a fish to remember. There’s not much better than a spotted bass caught from a clear, small Alabama stream.
When the fish came to hand, the angler gently removed the hooks, admired the health and beauty of the fish, and then set it free to go back to its life in the small water.
Most anglers love to fish in massive lakes like Guntersville and Wheeler, and broad but deep rivers like the Tennessee and the Coosa. And even in larger bodies of water like Mobile Bay and the open Gulf. However, those of us who spend our time either being on the water or thinking about being there are missing a lot of fun if we don’t spend some time fishing (with the appropriate tackle) on small waters.
Alabama from the saltwater of the Gulf to the Tennessee border up north holds more small creeks and streams than an army of anglers could ever fish. Some of these little flows produce some great fishing at certain times of the year, and some little creeks are good nearly all of the time.
Now, just what do I mean by “small creeks”? I’m talking about freshwater creeks that are really too shallow and narrow to easily boat, except in a canoe or kayak. Look at any good topography map of Alabama. The little blue squiggles indicate creeks—all good fishing sites—that empty into big lakes and rivers.
Up in the northern part of Alabama, the terrain is much steeper and rockier than down in the floodplains, and these hilly lands hold some great small fishing streams. By the way, don’t expect any dedicated small stream angler to give you directions and instructions on how to get to these small gems of water. Most creek anglers find their prize fishing streams by exploring on foot and by looking at maps and Google-Earth and other high-altitude sources.
“The little blue squiggles indicate creeks—all good fishing sites—that empty into big lakes and rivers.”
These small northern Alabama creeks won’t stand a lot of fishing pressure, so anglers who know of a good creek generally won’t share with others.
Josh Tidwell operates Big Wills Outfitters on Big Wills Creek in Northeast Alabama, and he has spent a lot of time fishing small creeks in Alabama. He says, “My favorite part of small creek fishing is the exploration. Most small creeks haven’t been fished by a lot of folks, so you never know what you’ll find.”
However, there are some very good small fishing creeks down in the southernmost parts of Alabama, too. I have found several small freshwater streams that empty into larger flows which then empty into the larger streams of the Mobile Delta.
One of my favorite small southern streams is a nameless little feeder creek that empties into Byrnes Lake in Baldwin county. This little stream requires an angler to paddle a bit, but the fishing is usually worth the trouble. I’ve caught some big bream and crappie in early spring in this little 30-foot-wide stream.
In general, Alabama creek anglers can expect to catch lots of bream at all times of the year, and small creek bass are usually quite willing to come play. One of the big advantages of fishing small creeks is that the fish in small creeks have long ago learned that when a possible food source shows up, the fish must act quickly or the food will be gone with the current. So creek bass in particular tend to strike first and ask questions later. Many small creeks carry some good one- to two-pound channel catfish, too. These little cats are perfect for a fish fry, and they take the same live bait many anglers use for bream.
One of the real advantages of fishing certain small creeks that empty into large lakes like Wheeler, Guntersville, Weiss and Pickwick is that in early spring, massive schools of white bass and hybrid stripers will run up these little creeks for spawning.
They’ll usually go as far upstream as the first real shoal or rapid, and they will pile up there. An angler who gets into a spawning run of big whites and hybrids on a small creek will have stories to tell for a long time.
Bayous—Salty but Small Equals Big Fun
Before I moved to Alabama, I never thought of small water as being salt water. However, in southern Alabama on both sides of Mobile Bay, some wonderful little bayous and creeks hold amazingly good fish. These bayous are not wading water like the small freshwater creeks. Alabama’s small bayous are all mud-bottom and an angler who tries to wade in one will soon find himself stuck in deep, gluey mud and needing some help.
There are a number of small bayous that run into Bon Secour River on the Eastern shore of Mobile Bay. They produce very good results—redfish, speckled trout, flounder, and other coastal saltwater game fish.
One of the best small Bon Secour bayous is about a mile or less above the Aquila’s Seafood launch ramp. This little stream is protected by a flats area full of stumps and old causeway pilings at the mouth of the bayou, but the bayou itself is plenty deep enough for powered-boat fishing at anytime other than dead-low tide.
This little bayou (it doesn’t merit a name on any maps I’ve seen) is only 30 feet across at most, but each bend of the bayou is a good opportunity for an angler to find a school of slot-size reds that would eat a live shrimp or soft-plastic grub.
On the western shore of the Bay, many small bayous enter into either Mississippi Sound or the Bay itself. A buddy showed me a tiny little bayou far up Heron Bay one time, but I could not get back to this place if I tried. It’s a long way from open water. This tiny little bayou was less than 25 feet wide when we stopped motoring up and let the water calm down.
Ten minutes after we’d stopped, the slot-reds started biting in a deeper hole in a bend- perhaps six feet deep. When we left a couple of hours later, the reds and specks were still biting.
Of course, anglers fishing small bayous need to be aware of the tide. Going up a little bayou on a high tide and then trying to return on a fallen tide with low water might produce a longer trip than anticipated. Seriously, bayou anglers should keep an eye on the tide to assure that they can safely get back out of the little waterway.
Alabama has more small, private ponds than we could count, much less fish in, and that’s a shame because small pond fishing can be some of the best fishing. This is especially true for largemouth bass and big bull bream, which can be found anywhere.
On a personal note, my largest bass came from private ponds less than five acres in size. My best bass, a ten pounder, came from a little two-acre pond less than a mile from my house in Baldwin County.
Many anglers drive past ponds that are full of fish, and they never think about asking permission to fish there. A lot of big bass go uncaught because anglers just never take the time to fish in a small pond.
The better small private ponds will have some water weed or shoreline vegetation growth. This helps shade and cool the water and also provides cover for bugs and other small critters to live. In turn, they fall in the pond and become big bass food.
“When a big bass hits, it doesn’t matter what size lake or pond it’s in, the tackle used needs to be up to the task.”
Ponds less than five years of age probably won’t hold many big bass, but they can be full of little one- to two-pound bass—lots of fun to catch on light tackle.
The absolute best kind of small pond is the one that lies well off the road so that no one knows about it. These secret little treasures can hold big bass that never see an angler’s offering, and so are not as likely to turn down a good presentation as a big lake bass that sees every new lure that comes along.
Many smaller private ponds hold some impressive bream, too. It’s a good thing when big bream are caught from a pond and not just a bunch of small ones. A lot of little stunted bream means that there aren’t many big bass in the pond to eat them. Big bream usually means that big bass are present, too.
I love to fish top-water lures in small ponds. When I know big bass are present in a pond, I use appropriate tackle. I haul out my Guntersville level-wind rig with 30-pound line, and I use a big soft-plastic frog or worm. I cast my soft-plastic top-water lure over shoreline vegetation, and I give any bass in the area time to see it.
When a big bass hits, it doesn’t matter what size lake or pond it’s in, the tackle used needs to be up to the task.
Josh Tidwell fishes ponds as well as small creeks. “Each pond is different,” he says. “If you can’t cast from one side to the other, use a small boat like a kayak to access the whole pond, especially the shoreline. In a lot of ponds, the shoreline is the only structure in the whole place. I like to use a soft-plastic frog in small ponds. I throw it up on the bank and hop it into the water. Bass love this.”
General Small Water Suggestions
There are some things that small water anglers can do to maximize their success. First, whether the water being worked is a creek, a bayou, or a pond, BE QUIET! Don’t stomp up to a pond bank, don’t stumble loudly as you wade through a creek toward fishing water, and don’t run full-speed up a little bayou in a boat.
All small water fish are aware of changes around them, and too much noise will put fish down regardless of what kind of water we’re fishing. Walk softly, wade quietly, and move in a boat with a trolling motor; or better yet, paddle to the small water fishing spot. Make casts from as long a distance as possible. And it’s a good idea to wear dark-colored clothing so as to be less visible.
Another helpful suggestion for small water anglers is to gear up right. For small creek fishing, ultralight to lightweight gear is best. Small creek fish weigh less than five pounds usually, so lighter gear makes fishing more fun. And lighter gear allows anglers to use smaller lures, which are usually more productive.
Josh Tidwell says, “My favorite small creek lure is s small dark-colored Beetle-Spin. A Beetle-Spin will catch everything that swims in most small creeks.”
When fishing ponds for big bass, it is best to NOT use very light gear. When going after lunker bass in a small pond, anglers should use gear with at least 15-pound line. Trying to work in the bass of a lifetime on an ultralight spinning rod and reel is probably not going to work.
Finally, when it comes to accessing potential fishing ponds and small creeks, ask permission! Don’t just assume that the landowner won’t mind if you cross private property to reach a fishing spot. Ask the landowner if you can cross, explain that you’re fishing and that you won’t trash his property. More often than not, the landowner will grant permission.