Big bull reds start their own brawl on Alabama Dixey Bar.
It was obvious to the anglers that they were not in small water anymore. As soon as their boat rounded the point at Fort Morgan on Alabama’s Gulf Coast at the mouth of Mobile Bay (as many consider the Alabama Dixey Bar), the waters of the Gulf stretched far past the line of sight, and the water just kept on going. Even though the Gulf went on for a long way, it only took a short run to put the anglers where they wanted to be.
As the boat drifted on the outgoing tide, the anglers cast heavy rigs with big live baits and set their rods in holders. They let their baits drift, content to let the world drift by. Big gas rigs dotted the horizon. Large tankers and cargo ships made their way up the channel toward Mobile. Charter boats headed toward the Gulf. It was a quiet time…for a little while.
Without warning, one of the heavy rods bent over dangerously and the reel’s clicker made a short click-click sound. It was followed by a high, sharp squeal as something very strong decided to take the angler’s bait and be somewhere else. At that moment, the other angler’s rod played a second verse of the same song. For ten minutes, the world was not such a peaceful place as the anglers were moved from end to end of their boat and over and under each other while the strong fish they had hooked set the tone of the day.
Two big, copper-colored bull reds came to boatside where they were photographed, removed from the hooks, and released—all done with a great deal of respect. As a matter of fact, these two massive bull reds were the first of many bull reds these anglers caught on this warm, early fall day.
Where Are They? Why Are They There?
There’s a place just west of the point of Fort Morgan on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay called the Dixey Bar. This is a large, irregularly shaped structure. It’s perhaps the best place in the world for anglers to catch large numbers of really big redfish. The Dixey Bar is a massive body of compacted sand that rises between Fort Morgan and Fort Gaines on the opposite sides of the pass which opens Mobile Bay to the Gulf.
Redfish find the Alabama Dixey Bar to be an ideal location to find good things to eat, so the big reds collect here in massive schools every fall. The Alabama Dixey Bar shows up very clearly on fish-finder screens. The water will be 20- to 30-feet deep (even deeper in the dredged ship channel), and then the bottom will start a quick rise to ten feet or even less. That’s the edge of the bar, the place where big reds will be holding.
“Redfish find the Alabama Dixey Bar to be an ideal location to find good things to eat, so the big reds collect here in massive schools every fall.”
Dr. Bob Shipp, Chairman of the Marine Science Department at University of South Alabama, says, “The big redfish are on the bar to feed. They are looking for crabs and other fish. In early September, they’re getting ready to spawn. They will form huge aggregations of many hundreds of fish anywhere from 60 feet deep water out to 120 feet of water.”
These fish will complete their spawning activities and then return to the Alabama Dixey Bar to feed up and recover from their spawning.
What makes the Alabama Dixey Bar so attractive to the big reds (they can be found here year-round but they mass in large schools in fall) is that the bottom rises sharply from deeper water, which causes the outgoing and incoming tides to speed up and compress. This compression doesn’t just apply to the water. It also applies to the smaller fish, crabs and shrimp that ride along with the tides.
Big reds can work the rising bottom of the Alabama Dixey Bar and find lots of food without much effort.
It always helps to be able to gain information from an expert. When it comes to catching big redfish on the Dixey Bar, a guide who has fished there for many years and who knows a great deal about the bull reds is Captain Yano Serra. “I’ve fished for bull reds on the Alabama Dixey Bar for so many years, I’m confident I’ll catch fish when I go there,” Captain Yano says. “I look for ridges and ditches on the bar caused by the tides and currents. The rips of the tide make these ditches and ridges, and you can see the rips on the surface of the water. When I fish a spot I’ve had good luck at before, I will go upcurrent and drift back toward the spot. If I catch fish three drifts in a row, I’ll anchor. At these good spots, we can catch 20 to 30 bull reds at times.”
Captain Yano adds, “I like the tide to be running as hard as possible, and I like the tide to be going out—a falling tide.”
A very convenient advantage of fishing the Alabama Dixey Bar for big bull reds is that there are very good launch ramps on both sides of the pass. Anglers can launch at the Fort Morgan ramps on the eastern shore or at the Billy Goat Hole ramps near Fort Gaines on Dauphin Island. Both ramps will put anglers on the Dixey Bar in ten minutes or less.
How Do We Catch Them?
When the bull reds are congregated on the edges of the Alabama Dixey Bar in fall, they are eager to bite once we locate them. A large live bait drifted across the bar and over the edge into easy reach of the reds won’t be ignored.
Anglers can use either conventional rigs or heavy-duty spinning rigs for the fall bull reds. Whatever kind of rig is most comfortable for the angler will work. “I use Penn GT320 or 330 reels or Shimano TLDs,” Captain Yano says. “These reels will hold 300 to 400 yards of line, and I like a medium-fast seven foot rod; the same rod I use for king mackerel fishing.”
A good way to rig for the big bull reds on Alabama Dixey Bar is to make up a heavy-duty Carolina rig. Start with 40 lb main line and use a high quality swivel to connect to 30 lb leader; about two and half feet is plenty. Start with a 3 oz sliding egg weight above the swivel. Depending on the strength of the tide movement, more weight may be needed to get the live bait to the bottom where the bull reds lurk. A circle hook of respectable size—similar to that used for red snapper fishing—will complete the rig.
For bait, croakers, silver trout, mullet—anything that is alive or fresh dead, except catfish—will work when the bull reds are actively feeding. Anglers should cast upcurrent of where the reds are holding and let the current take the bait to the fish. When a big bull red hits, there will be absolutely no doubt about it, so hang on!
A point that needs to be made here is that anglers need to exercise good judgment when selecting equipment to catch the big bull reds. It’s possible to hook and catch some big redfish on very light tackle. The angler just needs to be prepared for a very long, very strenuous battle.
“A point that needs to be made here is that anglers need to exercise good judgment when selecting equipment to catch the big bull reds.”
The problem with trying to catch bull reds on very light tackle is that the fish will be fighting hard for a long time, and the fish gets exhausted from the fight. A very tired fish may not be able to recover from the fight, and it may die. Even if the big red is able to swim away after a long fight, it may not be able to escape the notice of a shark. Some very big sharks call the Dixey Bar home, and they don’t mind taking a big redfish that is too tired to escape.
Above all, we have to remember that these big bull redfish are the breeding stock for our redfish population, and killing one of these big fish by catching it on very light tackle is a terrible waste. It’s much better for the fish and the angler to use properly-sized equipment that will allow a short, tough struggle, and then a quick release so the redfish is in good shape to survive.
What Do We Do With Them?
Alabama allows anglers to keep one oversize redfish as part of their daily limit. The problem with this is that the big old bull redfish are just not very good to eat. Their meat is stringy, and they tend to have parasites in the flesh. A five-pound redfish is prime eating, but a 30 pounder is not very good.
We’ve already noted that these big reds are the future of Alabama’s redfish stocks, so keeping one for food is a waste.
For anglers who want a trophy from their catch, it’s much better to take exact measurements of the fish, shoot some full-length pictures of the redfish, and then have a taxidermist outsource a fiberglass replica of the redfish for a wall mount.
These replica mounts—airbrushed to perfection—are gorgeous. And they look exactly like the fish that was caught. By doing this, the angler gets a trophy to brag about, and the fish stays on the Dixey Bar where it can continue to produce more generations of great redfish.
Dr Bob Shipp says, “Bull reds are really tough fish. There’s no need to do anything special with them when they are caught.”
Anglers who want to release their big Dixey Bar reds should be able to lower the fish into the water, make sure it’s breathing, and then let it kick off and go its own way— back to the chow line at Alabama’s famous Dixey Bar.
Information on specific fish and help in identifying fish can be very important for anglers in Alabama’s coastal waters. The best guide to identifying fish is Dr. Bob Shipp’s book, Guide to Fishes of the Gulf of Mexico. This 250-page guide covers just about any fish anglers or beach-goers are likely to encounter. Full photos and illustrations make identifying fish easy and accurate. The book can be ordered at BobShipp.com. The price is around $30.00, including shipping and handling, and the book is well worth the cost.
Important Contact Numbers:
Captain Yano Serra
Inshore Charter Service