Consider ditching your old plans next time you want to fish.
The heat index was 106 degrees last week when three Fairhope residents decided to go fishing in Mobile Bay. The three amigos spent roughly $150 on gas, snacks and tackle only to catch squat. Considering their expenses, it wasn’t exactly a deal.
And with the aforementioned temperatures and gas prices both being high as a cat’s back, fisherman who fancy the open seas might have to consider another alternative, if they want to save some coin and Aloe Vera application time.
“Everybody I’ve talked with that are going out in boats and stuff, they ain’t having no luck,” an old timer said, while clutching a fishing rod and puffing on a Pall Mall. “They all say, ‘Man, I only caught two fish and spent $100 on gas.’ I figure it’s cheaper to come down here whenever I can and get some fishing in instead of fooling with all of that.”
From where he’s seated the fisherman can see a gas station to his far right and bull dozers and other heavy machinery to his left. The sound of passing cars comes from the structure just above his head and directly in front of him is the peaceful sound of running water. He took a long drag from his smoke again, the ash being a good two-inches long, and made a precision cast right between two concrete pillars.
“I tell you what, when it’s hot like this, I always like to find me some shade,” the man said. “Try and stay outta that heat.”
Exact names and locations don’t exist in this world of fishing, mainly due to the fear of overcrowding and the possibility of others catching all of the fish. Our subject for this story asked us to honor that tradition, so we did. It’s not like he’s telling us about military secrets. He’s just schooling us on the phenomenon of “ditch fishing.”
The fishing holes in this story can’t be reached riding on a 40-foot center console Regulator, nor do they have fancy names like Dixie Bar or Klondike Reef. No, these locations can only be accessed by foot and have a much less glamorous name — ditches.
City of Mobile Engineer Nick Amberger clarified that some of these “ditches” were once small creeks or brooks and have been uniformed and shaped into channels in order to handle runoff from surrounding neighborhoods and other structures such as parking lots. But they snake all over Mobile, so obvious they’ve almost become unseen as we speed by. And often we also don’t notice the people standing there, poles-in-hand, fishing in what most of us would just think of as nothing more than a ditch.
Before houses existed around Village Green Drive, the old timer recalled the area being nothing but a big clay-hole.
“We use to go fishin’ back in those creeks off that hole,” he said, taking a sip from a jug of water he had pulled from his cooler. “Before any of these houses or anything were here. Been doing it all my life.”
“These canals have been altered, becoming sort of man-made ditches, in order to help with runoff,” Amberger said. “But they still serve their purpose as creeks also.”
A section of Three Mile Creek runs behind McCoy Outdoors, located on Springhill Avenue. This particular section of the creek has been altered, as Amberger explained, and is now known by locals as one of Mobile’s go-to spots. It’s a ditch that’s become known for producing some pretty respectable-sized fish.
Three years ago a bass weighing a little less than 7 pounds was caught behind the outdoor store. A year later someone landed a pound-and-a-half Tilapia from the ditch, according to Wesley Parks, an employee at McCoy.
“People started fishing in the ditch a lot more after these two catches,” Parks said. “Often times people will park in our parking lot, come in to buy some bait and head to the ditch to go fishing.”
Wesley said people have come into the store to show off other fish, including bream and catfish.
“I believe it,” the old timer said when Lagniappe asked if he had heard of the fish caught behind McCoy’s. “They in there, alright. I tell you what.”
Dr. John Freeman, Department Chair of Biology at the University of South Alabama, told Lagniappe that finding fish in these ditches isn’t out of the ordinary.
“A lot of these canals are connected to larger bodies of water,” Freeman explained. “Seeing freshwater fish, such as bass, make their way into smaller canals like these ditches from larger bodies of water like Dog River isn’t unusual. Anywhere with freshwater is natural for them.”
Clearly visible below the water’s surface were three large fish, not far off in the looks category from the enormous koi seen in decorative ponds at Asian restaurants. The large fish seemed less than interested in the green artificial lure the old timer reeled past them.
“Them carp right there,” the old timer explained. “They ain’t gonna hit this artificial here. Need some dough or corn on the hook if you wanna catch ’em. But they’re full of bones. Not really good eatin’.”
With precision, he cast his lure two inches from a pile of weeds on the other side of the tributary. He set his pole down and pulled another cigarette from his pocket and fired it up. That’d be the last time he touched the tobacco product until it was spent.
“I had a nephew who’d put a 5-gallon bucket in his yard to practice his casting,” he said, picking up his rod. “You gotta be real accurate when you’re bass fishing.”
As good as this old timer was, he admitted he was no match for his idle, Bill Dance.
“Ain’t nobody as good as Bill Dance,” he laughingly said. “That’s my boy. Sometimes I get mad when I see him catch a big ol’ bass and then releases it. I’m like, ‘man, somebody better push him in the water too.’ People out here dying to catch one like that.”
The sun had taken its high-and-mighty place at 12 o’clock and the old timer still hadn’t caught anything. He said he arrived sometime early in the morning, around sevenish. Luckily there was a bridge running over this section of ditch, preventing sunburn.
“The best times for fishin’ is early in the mornin’ or later in the evenin’,” he said. “But this heat don’t make for good fishin’. Fish even lookin’ for shade.”
While he casted and reeled for what seemed like hours, the old timer told stories and gave life lessons. He talked about Mobile’s glory days, 25-cent gas and how many $7-dollar lures he’d lost in this ditch.
He also explained what fishing was really about.
“I come down here to think,” he said. “It takes my mind off a whole lotta things. Having a peace of mind is more important than the fish. Fishing isn’t really about what you catch.”
It was a little after 1p.m. when the old timer looked down at his watch and decided it was time to call it a day, and began to disassemble his fishing rod.
“I got some reels I know I’ve had for over 25 years,” he said while breaking down his7-foot Shakespeare rod into three separate pieces and neatly bundling them together using only two rubber bands. “Had this one about two years now. Take care of something and it’ll last you a long time, I tell you what.”
Once he had gathered everything, the philosophical Mobile version of Bill Dance exited from under an overpass, making his way up a steep hill at a snail’s pace. He loaded the empty cooler into the back of his car and carefully situated his fishing equipment like a mother would a small child.
But he left no doubt he’d be back to fish this ditch again.
The original title of this story, as published in Lagniappe:Bass masters take to Mobile’s ditches like Bill Dance . It originally appeared in the June 14, 2011, print edition.