Rare and Beautiful Jewels in the Heart of Dixie
Story By: J.T. Armstrong
Photos By: C.B. Crumpler
I continue rolling, eventually surpassing the shadows cast by the Birmingham skyline. A short stretch on the interstate then take a left and go through the industrial district then through one of the poorer areas within the metro perimeter. Turn left at the Jet-Pep with the bathrooms connected to the car wash and another few hundred feet and I’m by the creek. I piece together the 5-weight and string my line through the guides, tie on some 5x. Some bugs are coming off so I peruse through my box until I find it. Something small, dark and can float. Not too small, size 14, maybe 12. I can never tell.
I’m not a very good caster, or fisherman, but the majority of my casts fall within the banks, which (in theory) greatly increase my odds. So I fling the fly around, and it sometimes lands in the water. It takes a few drifts until something darts from the shadows and smashes the dry, taking it deep beneath the surface in one vicious exhibition of murderous intent. The line tightens and sings and the rod bends and a few seconds later I lift the quarter-pound exterminator out of the water. Blood red eyes and a fluorescent turquoise gill plate, some of the loudest colors I’ve seen on a fish. And not a trout fish. A bass fish. A redeye bass.
The first time I heard the expression “Bama Brookie”, I was immediately disgusted. Here in the heart of Dixie, when we slap our regional brand on an existing item it usually involves either making it accessible to the illiterate or deep frying it. Maybe both. My observations have shown there is a large overlap between people who are non-readers and people who like fried stuff.
“Bama Brookie”seemed to equivocate a small bass with something that really is special, like the native brook trout that abound in Southern Appalachia. The term brought to mind images of rednecks yanking half pounders out of a pond and considering their experience paramount to those who stalk fish high in the mountains of Tennessee.
I kept this notion until the first time I waded into this creek, the 65 degree current pushing past my knees. I could still see my toes. I ducked beneath overhanging limbs and branches of oak and pine and honeysuckle. I think I tied on some yellow popper or something similar, something that I often use to catch dumb fish. I began to cast and I watched multiple refusals so I began the countless iterations of explorations into the box and downsizing of tippets. 4x then 5x then smaller poppers and crawfish patterns and then a dry and then a dropper. In some final attempt brought on by desperation I tossed a small foam hopper and dropped a stone fly on some tiny strand of tippet. I made a tolerable cast upstream and mended up and then down, a driftless drag, and suddenly I saw the piece of foam jerk underwater and begin fleeing upstream. When I finally pulled him out of the water I found a 4 inch fish hung on my size 8 stonefly. I found some tiny, peacock colored bass who thought he was a trout in some river which thought it belonged in some other state, in some higher elevation. I found something that felt very different than what I expected.
Until recently, only one species has been recognized as the Redeye bass, but biological studies have shown that there are actually species-level variations that result in multiple different species comprising the “Redeye Bass” family. The colors of each species vary from bright blue lateral lines to deep greens, from rich crimson eyes to stark and startling reds. My first encounter was nearly frightening, staring into the hemorrhaging eyes of some small predator that seemed hell bent on escaping my grasp. The colors and beauty only extend so far. Underneath it is a slight reflection of the natives of this state: they can be fooled, repeatedly even, but they are never any less angry about it.
I spent some brief time with a local biologist who tried (God bless his soul) to explain the diet of these fish. This resulted mostly in confusion and nausea on my part, but I managed to extract “hellgrammite” and “some other surface bugs” from the conversation. Basically, these are small, beautifully colored fish that subsist primarily on insects with a propensity for looking up and thriving in cool flowing rivers. Which kinda sounds similar to another highly sought after fish that thrives in cool mountain streams. But these are, you know, in Alabama…
For years I have been jealous of another city located about 200 miles east of where I live and work. There is a large, cold flowing river that runs through it and rainbow and brown trout and shoal bass and striper thrive and are caught regularly. The citizens post pictures of rose-cheeked fish and fish with dark spots surrounded by rings of bright red. And I was always jealous of those anglers and what great opportunity they had. To stop by after a day at the office to see what beautiful creatures they could conjure out of the water by using small flies and small tippets and complicated drifts. But there are days when I sneak out of the office and drive down the interstate, past the Jet-Pep with the bathrooms connected to the car wash, and I stand in the cool waters and toss small patterns to skittish fish who view 4x like it’s rope. And sometimes I catch them and look at their bright blue sides and angry red eyes and I’m not really jealous of anyone.
Story By: J.T. Armstrong
Photos By: C.B. Crumpler
Editor’s Note: This piece was provided courtesy of Revive Fly Fishing Magazine. Please visit http://reviveflyfishing.com for more beautiful photo-essays and stories like this one.
Before your next visit to Turkey Creek Nature Preserve, please be sure you are aware of our Fishing Regulations.
Thank you so much Revive for sharing your piece on Turkey Creek, we hope to see you at the creek again soon!