Alabama’s Redeye Bass
by Chris Lynch
As a kid, I never really did much fishing. It was not a family pastime of ours. My first exposure to fly fishing was at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico when I was 16, and I absolutely loved it. Why I didn’t further pursue it in the next 15 years, is anybody’s guess.
When I moved to Montgomery, Alabama (I’m active duty United States Air Force), a new coworker of mine was a fly fishing nut. I started hanging out with him, and the fire was lit. While reading up on everything I also discovered tenkara… So, against his suggestions, I got a simple tenkara setup (Daiwa Kiyose) along with a “western” fly fishing outfit (Echo 4-weight).
Fast forward three years; I’m fishing almost exclusively tenkara, although I still have a (different) 4-weight rod and reel setup for when I feel the itch.
Alabama is NOT what you think of when somebody mentions tenkara. It just is not. Most anglers here have no clue what it is, what it means, or why you would use it. Most non-anglers are even more confused by it. In my local fly fishing circles, I’m “the tenkara guy,” and the source of a lot of ribbing, but I have managed to convert a few over in the process.
So, what do I target down here in the Deep South, when I don’t have trout?
To further specialize in my tiny niche of tenkara in Alabama, my favorite species to pursue are the little-known group of bass that are native to the Mobile basin, known simply as “redeyes.” In 2013, redeyes in Alabama were split from the single Micropterus coosae species into four separate but unique species based on their respective watersheds and slight morphological differences: Micropterus coosae (Coosa River), Micropterus cahabae (Cahaba River), Micropterus tallapoosae (Tallapoosa River), and finally the Micropterus warriorensis (Warrior River). There is also the Micropterus chattahoochae in the, you guessed it, ‘Hooch, but it’s essentially extirpated from any flows within Alabama, and found exclusively in Georgia now.
These bass are small (8 to 12-inch average adult length), need clean, flowing water, and are very spunky, eagerly attacking topwater flies such as dries, poppers, and bugs, or even streamers. They also are mostly found in beautiful places, not unlike trout. This has given them the popular name of “Bama Brookies,” for the obvious similarities they share with everybody’s favorite native Eastern trout (char!).
My first time on a redeye stream (in the Coosa drainage, near Mount Cheaha, Alabama’s highest point), I landed several, and started a bad addiction. These fish are so much fun to chase and catch! That was in summer of 2016, and I’ve since caught all four Mobile basin species, and intend to do it again this summer.
My usual tackle for redeyes has evolved as I’ve gotten more specialized with them as my favorite fish to target. I’ve found a softer, full flex rod with sufficient length, is my preferred method. Rods like the Daiwa Seiryu-X 45, Nissin Royal Stage or Pro-Spec in 6:4, or a longer Air Stage (390) work very well. Realistically, most redeye streams in Alabama are open enough to allow casting a longer rod like these, but there are some tributaries where a shorter one comes in handy.
Redeyes eat a lot of the same kind of things that trout do; crawfish, insect larvae, and smaller fish. In the early spring or fall, when water temperatures are still a little on the low side, you will get most of your bites sub-surface with nymphs or streamers. In those conditions I have had good success with large (size 6-10) nymphs and kebari, like Chris Stewart’s “Keeper Kebari.” This is about where the traditional tenkara aspect of chasing redeyes ends for me though… so you may want to put on your blinders if you aren’t ready for some blasphemy!
In the hotter months, which are typically April to October in Alabama, the most fun way to catch a redeye is on the top. Whether this is dries, poppers, hoppers… it’s all about big (and often) yellow flies. Redeyes eat a ton of terrestrials, so I’ve had great days where I had a giant foam hopper on all day and it just got destroyed. However, they still act like trout in that if you miss a hookset, you might as well give up on that run, as they’ll be spooked out. These are not dumb sunfish, you still need to be on your game! One of the most popular, if not the most religiously-celebrated, flies for redeye is the Booglebug, a popper made right here in Birmingham, Alabama. People like to say you can use any color you want for redeyes, as long as it’s yellow. This has been pretty accurate from my experience.
A good buddy of mine, Matt Lewis, recently published a book, (THE book, by the way), about these guys, “Fly Fishing for Redeye Bass,” and it is the best single source of information if you have any desire to learn more about them or attempt to catch one for yourself. Matt has helped to organize a Redeye Bass Slam challenge where you can either target the four Mobile basin species, or go after all of the recognized species in the South, which comes out to seven if you count the Altamaha and Bartram’s.
A lot of what Matt is trying to do is bring attention to these awesome and unique fish, which have quite specific habitat requirements and can bring a lot of fun to anglers. Currently, Alabama has some of the most relaxed environmental protection laws in the country, while hosting some of the most diverse and rich habitat. Fortunately, we have some very active riverkeeper organizations here in the state who are working very hard to raise awareness about these issues, and fight against the many abuses of our resources.
So, while Alabama is definitely more closely associated with college football than fixed line fly fishing, the various species of energetic redeye bass you’ll find within the Yellowhammer State will definitely provide enough southern hospitality to make your tenkara rod feel right at home.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2018 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
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