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Creek Fishing The Bama Dog Days
Just because a creek is small doesnít mean it canít hold fish. Sometimes they can even hold big fish!
 
By Andrew Maxwell
Originally published in the July 2018 issue of AON
 
The author fishes a ledge in a narrow, shallow creek. The summer months make a great time to wade a cool creek in search of bass and bream.
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Once again we have returned to the dog days of summer. The temperatures are high, and so is the humidity, but we aren’t going to let that stop us from enjoying the great outdoors. With weather like this, what better way to spend the day than knee deep in a cool, shaded creek with an ultralight in hand?

Creek fishing is an often overlooked or forgotten summer pastime across the South. Even the smallest creeks have potential for some serious days of fun fishing. I’ve been wading creeks with an ultralight rod for a number of years, and I have to say that is my favorite way to fish for bass. The fish aren’t always big, but fights on the ultralight are fun, and the fish seem to always be eager to bite.

Not many people fish small creeks, therefore many of these fish have never seen a lure. On a good day, it seems like every hole in the creek has a bass or two in it that is eager to eat whatever you put in front of it.

Where To Fish

We will start out by addressing the giant elephant in the room, which is trying to figure out which streams can be legally fished.

This is a sticky subject for pretty much every state in the country. If a stream is deemed a “navigable” waterway in Alabama, then it is considered public land, and you have free reign to fish, wade, canoe and even camp on gravel bars in the stream bed. This issue gets complicated when you try to define what a navigable waterway is.

Every state has different laws regarding navigable waterways, so if you have a question about a particular stream I would highly suggest consulting your local DCNR law enforcement office before partaking on any fishing adventures on the waterway.

The best advice I can give in this article for navigability comes from two sources, Cornell Law School and Wehby v. Turpin: 1998 (an Alabama supreme court case). Both resources reference commerce as a test for navigability.

Wehby v. Turpin states “Those rivers must be regarded as public navigable rivers in law which are navigable in fact. And they are navigable in fact when they are used, or are susceptible of being used, in their ordinary condition, as highways for commerce, over which trade and travel are or may be conducted in the customary modes of trade and travel on water.”

That basically means that if a stream was used, or could be used for commerce (transporting goods), then it is deemed navigable. The Cahaba River in central Alabama was used for commerce in the 1800s; therefore, it is deemed a navigable waterway for its entire length. As a rule of thumb, I’ve heard that a good test of a navigable waterway is if you can float a canoe down it, it is in fact navigable. This is not always true, so like I said before, check with your local game warden, and he or she will be able to answer all your questions much more accurately than this article can.

Restricting yourself to only wading streams in state parks, WMAs, national forests or other public lands is a good way to avoid any trouble with landowners. On public land the question of navigability no longer matters because as a United States citizen, you are the landowner!



Where Are The Fish?

Lots of people will walk up to a small stream and think, “That stream is too small to hold fish bigger than a minnow.” I was the same way until I started fishing the small creeks on my local WMA. It wasn’t until I started wading the creeks, many of which are only 10 feet wide and knee deep, that I realized that not only did these creeks hold fish, but they held lots of fish. I think you would be surprised how big the fish can get in these small streams.

I recall one time fishing Mud Creek in Bibb County, and I caught 26 bass in roughly an hour and a half of fishing. Most of these bass were redeyes, which rarely grow to 2 pounds, but they are a lot of fun on an ultralight rod. As you might expect, the bigger the creek you are in, the bigger fish you can expect to catch. An exception to this is if you are fishing near the mouth of your creek where it connects to a larger body of water. I once caught a 3 1/2-lb. spotted bass on a very small creek near where it joined a larger river. Wading in areas like this often results in a concentration of unpressured fish, provides cool water to keep you comfortable and offers the added bonus of a big fish.

If you know where to fish on a creek, you, too, can have incredible days on the water. Just like with any other type of fishing, the structure in a creek will have a high concentration of fish. Logs, shoals, deep pools, ledges and even pylons from an old bridge will be prime spots to find a concentration of fish.

When I was in high school, I desperately wanted to learn how to trap. While trapping isn’t rocket science, there is a steep learning curve. I was once told that when trying to pick the perfect location for a trap I should set on the first thing that catches my eye in an area. We will use mink trapping as an example here since they spend lots of time in creeks. Go to the stretch of creek that you want to place a trap, hold your eyes closed for a few seconds and open them. Whatever feature on the stream caught your eye first will also catch the eye of any traveling mink, and they will naturally gravitate to it, so it’s a good place to place a trap.

Creek fishing is exactly the same. Whatever structure in the creek catches your eye first is the anomaly and will naturally attract fish.

One of the most reliable spots is the bottom of shoals. Often times a deep pool of water will meet with a drop-off that leads to another pool of water. There are usually eddies within the shoals or off to the side at the bottom. These are simply areas where the water swirls next to the main current. Predatory fish, including bass and bream, will wait at the top and bottom of shoals, or within the eddies, waiting to ambush small baitfish being led by the current.

The fast, turbulent water at the bottom of the shoals is the perfect place to catch a dazed and confused baitfish that was swept down the shoals. Bass lay and wait under rocks or logs up against (but not in) the main channel. They have to act quick in areas like this so their prey isn’t quickly swept past their window of opportunity. The strikes in spots like this are often fast and aggressive. Many times I have thrown a topwater Spook into one of these eddies on the bottom of some fast-moving shoals to have it be eaten by a bass as soon as it lands in the water.

Another great feature to pay attention to in creeks is the presence of ledges. These ledges are particularly good in areas without many rocks or logjams. Ledges are an edge, something different and a great spot for a bass to lie in wait, so naturally they are great places to get a lure into. Ledges can be tricky depending on what kind of bait you’re using and where you’re casting from. The fish are usually sitting just above the bottom, facing upstream, so my favorite way to fish these ledges is to throw my lure upstream right along the edge, and then retrieve it just off the edge of the ledge. This is the exact scenario that the bass is looking for, a totally unsuspecting, or wounded, baitfish coming right toward him.

Look for holes as you wade down the creek. Holes are simply a pool of water that is deeper than the average depth of the creek. Often you’ll find holes in bends of the creek, or where another creek joins the one you’re in. These holes are great spots to find larger fish in your creek. The fish usually wait suspended just above the streambed facing upstream.

Another very important tip when creek fishing is to not be moving your feet while working your lure back toward you. The fish you typically catch in creeks like this are bream, spotted bass and redeye bass. All three of those fish typically overtake your bait, meaning they trail it and eat it from behind rather than the side or front. This means that when the fish is trailing your bait, it is swimming right toward you. If you are moving your feet or legs around while standing in the creek, there is a good chance the fish will see you and spook.



Tackle

Ultralight creek fishing is a simple activity. No need for high-tech fish finders or expensive boats. All you need is an ultralight rod and reel with some 4- to 6-lb. test monofilament and a few lures.

The structure in the creek you’re fishing has more to do with what lures you should use than anything else. Alabama, and the Southeast as a whole, has a huge diversity in creeks. Within a one-hour drive from my apartment, I can fish slow, moving, muddy water, shallow, sandy creeks, or even fast-moving, boulder-filled creeks. The habitat or structure of a creek determines what species can live there, and how much life it can support. The structure of a creek also helps determine what baits would work the best.

I recently started fishing a brand new creek. Not knowing what to expect, I brought several different lures, a crawfish-shaped crankbait, a green-and-white topwater Spook and a silver-and-blue minnow crankbait.

Upon stepping into the creek, I saw that it was mostly clay, sand and gravel. There wasn’t a whole lot of big rocks or logjams like I’ve gotten used to in my other productive spots. I also noticed that there was an abundance of small baitfish hanging around the ledges that the clay formed as it dropped off into the main channel. The lack of cover in the creek told me that there probably weren’t many crawfish around, so I elected to go with my other two lures since they better imitated the main food source of the predatory fish in this creek. Both the topwater lure and shiny crankbait caught fish. Every creek is unique in what you may find there, and although it can be hard to draw parallels from one body of water to the next, here are some general rules of thumb I like to go by.

If I’m in a clear creek with lots of good-sized rocks in it, my first choice is always a Rebel crawfish crankbait. The crankbaits shaking motion and deflection off the rocky bottom of the creek are almost always irresistible to predatory fish lying in wait. Although this bait works well in many areas, it does not work everywhere. I use this bait where I find good crawfish habitat. In my neck of the woods, that means rocky creeks with plenty of places for the crawfish to hide. As I mentioned above with the example of the sandy creek, if I’m in a body of water that has very few rocks bigger than a baseball, I won’t use a crawfish simply because there aren’t many of them around. The more baseball to basketball sized rocks there are in a creek, the better the crawfish crankbait works.  

I suggest you go to your local tackle shop and buy a few different lures of all different shapes, sizes, styles and colors. Try each of them out in your favorite stream. Narrow down which features the fish in your area are most attracted to, and adjust your tackle to what the fish want, not what you want. In my area I have learned that the fish often bite white spinnerbaits, crawfish-shaped crankbaits and clear, topwater Spooks. I have found these three baits to be so reliable that most of the time I only carry those and nothing else.

Editor’s Note: Andrew Maxwell is the owner and co-host of the Southern Outdoorsmen Podcast, and a State Captain for the Southeastern Chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. He grew up hunting and fishing in central Alabama, mostly on Public Lands. He now hunts public lands exclusively for any game species Alabama has to offer. He can be reached at aloutdoors8@gmail.com.
 
 
 
 
 
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