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Coastal Reds : On Largemouth Tackle

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Spotted Gold on the Bama Coast
Trout stack up on drops, and redfish are in close this month.
By Don Baldwin
Originally published in the November 2009 issue of AON
Capt. Keith Powell says November is a great time of year to go after seatrout that are stacked up on drops, and the redfish action is also very good.
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Most Alabama anglers know that the Gulf Coast around Orange Beach offers nearshore fishing opportunities to rival just about any place in the country. Excellent trolling and bottom fishing are available very close to the beach, eliminating the long, sometimes grueling rides often experienced in other parts of the country to get to productive fishing grounds .

The Gulf fishing is so hot that a entire, equally productive segment of fishing in the area is often overlooked. Inshore fishing in the rivers and creeks around Mobile Bay and Perdido Bay can be excellent, especially this time of year. There are only a handful of working guides in Orange Beach that focus on the inshore action. We had the pleasure of going out with one of them.

Keith Powell, of Elberta, has been fishing the rivers and bays around Orange Beach for virtually all of his life. He started out at a very young age with his dad, fishing any chance he got. Now he is a well respected guide who knows more about trout and redfish than most.

“This time of year the spotted seatrout start making their way out of the big bays and into the rivers on a fall run,” said Keith.

Keith spends most of his time in the bays and rivers between Dauphine Island on the West and Grand Lagoon on the East. The Intercoastal Waterway is a convenient connecting channel, so he can get to any of his favorite spots easily and without having to leave the inshore waters. Keith runs his guide business out of Zeke’s Marina in Orange Beach but he will often put his 24-foot Kenner Center Console on the trailer to get to spots more quickly.

“I’ll go where I need to get to the fish,” said Keith. “Often it is easier for my clients to meet me at a ramp than to make a long run from the marina. It also gives us more actual fishing time rather than wasting time running long distances in the boat.”

Starting in October, the spotted seatrout begin migrating out of the bays and into the rivers and creeks that run into them. These trout begin to stack up along ledges and drop offs in the mouths of the creeks early in the month and, when you find them, you can catch a lot of fish in a hurry. For beginning anglers, and particularly kids, this can be a lot of fun and provide easy opportunities to catch nice fish.

Keith is a light-tackle enthusiast and prefers to use light spinning gear to go after the trout. He spools the outfits with 8- to 10-lb. test line and sometimes even as light as 6-lb. test. For terminal tackle he uses a live-bait rig consisting of a No. 4 or No. 6 bronze Kahle hook with a split-shot or two about 18 to 24 inches above the hook.

His live bait of choice is shrimp. Artificial grubs can also be productive. Small grubs on 1/8- to 3/8 -oz. jig heads bounced along the bottom work pretty consistently. Bright colors on the soft plastic generally work the best. Keith particularly likes the Berkeley Gulp nuclear chicken color combination.

“One advantage of the artificials is that you can cover a lot more water than with the live bait and locate fish.”

But it is hard to beat a live shrimp for attracting trout.

Whether you fish with jigs or live bait, Keith says that light line is the key.

“Light line is not only harder for the fish to see, it allows the bait to fall and swim more naturally,” said Keith. “The lighter the line, the more strikes you’re likely to get.”

By November the trout will be farther upriver in deep holes next to flats.

“The trout will usually hold overnight in holes from 5 to 10 feet deep,” said Keith. “By mid morning the shallow flats will begin to warm up, particularly if they have a dark muddy bottom, and the fish will move into the warmer shallow water.”

For that reason, Keith generally doesn’t head out at the crack of dawn in the late fall and winter. He usually launches the boat around 8 a.m. This gives time for the water to warm up and the fish to get active.

Keith likes to let the boat drift naturally with the wind and current along the drop-off, and he casts the live baits or jigs right along the edge. He lets the bait fall to different depths and varies the retrieve speed on the jigs until he finds out where the trout are holding. When he gets a couple of strikes, he focuses on the depth where the strike occurred. Live shrimp are fished on a slightly tight line, giving just enough slack to let the shrimp swim freely, but not so much that you will miss the strike.

Some of Keith’s favorite locations include the Fish, Magnolia and Bon Secour rivers and Palmetto and Soldier creeks. But most of the tributaries in the area will produce trout in the fall. The trout are usually between 16 inches and 20 inches in length, but fish more than 20 inches long are not unusual. There is a 14-inch minimum length limit on spotted seatrout in Alabama, and the bag limit is 10 fish per person.

In these same rivers and creeks, redfish are present pretty much year-round. Keith also takes clients out for these hard-fighting fish, and late fall is a great time to catch a few. We fished the Bon Secour River with Keithand caught reds using the same baits and techniques in the same locations he would fish in November. On a redfish trip, Keith starts the day with a cast net. The rivers are full of bait, and the redfish dinner of choice is a fingerling mullet. When he finds a good school, Keith can get all the bait he needs for the day in a cast or two.

“These small mullet are redfish candy,” says Keith. “Mullet are plentiful in the rivers, but a redfish can’t seem to resist one struggling on a hook.”

Unlike seatrout, which usually hang out in deeper water along drop-offs, red fish like to orient to cover. Grassbeds, tree roots or submerged stumps are great redfish hangouts. They use the cover as ambush points to attack bait.

As with the trout, you don’t need to go out early. The action is consistently better during the middle of the day. On most of Keith’s trips in the fall and winter he will fish from mid morning to mid afternoon.

In the shallow water around cover, Keith uses a little higher test line and will often go to a casting reel if the cover is heavy and he needs to take control of the fish quickly.

“Redfish are strong and tend to pull drag,” said Keith. “If you don’t take control, they’ll get you in the cover and break you off before you know it.”

A stout rod and casting reel spooled with 12- to 15-lb. test line will usually do the trick, but Keith also often adds a swivel and fluorocarbon leader when the cover is thick.

“An 18- to 24-inch piece of 20-lb. test fluorocarbon will save a lot of fish,” said Keith. “I like the Yozuri disappearing pink line because of its abrasion resistance and low visibility.”

For live bait, Keith freelines a fingerling mullet or suspends a live shrimp under a popping cork in 2 to 6 feet of water near grass or other cover. He chooses active topwater mullet imitations as artificial baits and works them in the same areas as the live bait. His artificials of choice include the Heddon Super Spook Junior or the Mirror Lure Top Pup. Both are worked across the surface in a “walking-the-dog” side-to-side motion and can cause explosive strikes. In the rivers, reds average from 2 to 6 pounds. There is a slot limit from 16 inches to 26 inches and a three-fish-per-angler bag limit in Alabama. One of the three fish can be larger than the slot, but Keith recommends that you not keep any fish above the slot limit.

“These fish don’t taste as good as the smaller reds, and the larger fish provide good breeding stock,” said Keith.

According to Keith, redfish are very habitual and territorial. When you catch fish, make note of the conditions (time of day, moon phase, water temperature, tide, etc.) If the fish were in that location under those conditions, they will probably be there under those same conditions year after year. Keith keeps careful records of his catches to increase the probability that he can put his clients on fish.

While Keith is a true inshore zealot, he will go out into the Gulf at his clients request. And starting in November he gets quite a few requests. Redfish spend their early lives in the rivers and creeks and, when they reach maturity, they head for the Gulf. These big fish spend much of the year cruising the deep Gulf waters, but in November they head back close to shore. They move in to feed on the thousands of baitfish that head out into the Gulf when the bays and rivers cool. The big bull reds come in close and can be anywhere from 50 yards out from the beach to about 3 miles from shore. Anyway you look at it, that’s close in fishing, and it can be a ball.

At first the big reds are in small groups, and it is best to troll for them. Keith likes big swimming plugs such as the Mann’s Stretch 25 in hot pink. Keith works the waters from Dixie Bar, near Fort Morgan, all the way to Perdido Pass. He trolls two baits at a time on heavy-duty spinning outfits spooled with 15- to 20-lb. test line, at between 800 and 1200 rpms.

“Most often, when one bait gets hit, the other will take off almost immediately,” said Keith.

Once the fight is over, he’ll drop down 1 1/2-oz. jig heads with 9-inch grubs and vertical jig them to entice other fish in the school. Another good technique is to suspend a live croaker on a freeline. When you do, hang on for a vicious hit. These big reds are incredibly strong.

The close-in fishing for big bulls will get better through December and January with the fish grouping in increasingly bigger schools as the baitfish bunch up. Look for balls of bait on your depthfinder near drop-offs in 15 to 25 feet of water. The big reds are bound to be nearby. Working birds are also a good way to locate fish. Once you locate the school, drop down the live bait or jigs and hang on. It won’t take long to get a strike. Since Keith recommends that you release these big fish, it is a good idea to use circle hooks on your live-bait rigs. These hooks almost always hook the fish in the roof of the mouth so the mortality rate on released fish is extremely low.

Whether you chose to go out for the big bulls or work the inshore coves and rivers for trout and reds, there is plenty of great action available around Orange Beach and Gulf Shores this time of year. Keith Powell is an experienced guide and one of his specialties is working the inshore waters for trout and reds. The inshore waters are generally calm, so this is a great way to have a family outing where everyone can be comfortable and have a lot of fun.

Look up Keith on his website at <www.inshorefishingalabama.com>, or give him a call at (251) 367-3464.

If you need overnight accommodations in the area, the Island House Hotel is a very nice facility located right across the street from Zeke’s. All the rooms are beachfront, and there are plenty of restaurants in the area. Their website is <www.islandhousehotel.com>.
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