Cahaba River Home Waters

On The Fly Freshwater

By Claude Preston

Photos by Rob Rogers

August 2020

As a born and bred Georgia boy, living in Birmingham has not been all that bad, outside of the occasional Auburn and Alabama fan.  I grew up fishing the Flint River in Southwest Georgia; it is a long beautiful-free flowing river that offers some incredible pursuits for fly-fishing.  For the last 18 years, I have called Birmingham home and the Cahaba River has been my adopted “home water”.  It reminds me in a lot of ways of the Flint River that I used to call home.  Like the Flint it offers multiple species of bass to target, and a variety of different habitats. 

The Cahaba River is Alabama’s longest stretch of free-flowing river and boasts one of the highest levels of bio-diversity, not only in North America, but also on the entire planet.  The Cahaba watershed is home to over 130 native fish species – compare that to the Columbia River watershed in the Pacific Northwest with around 35 native species, or the Colorado River watershed with 25 native species – and you can see what a treasure this river is.  

The Cahaba River is over 194 miles long and drains an area of over 1,870 square miles. According to the Cahaba River Society, the river drains urban and rural areas, farms, and forest beginning northeast of Birmingham in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and flows through the coastal plain until it reaches the Alabama River southwest of Selma. Offering some amazing views, a float down the Cahaba can take you through farmlands, alongside high rocky bluffs, and some unseen and overlooked scenic country.  If you time it in May or June you might even catch a glimpse of the Cahaba Lilies.

Float trips on the river in May or June often are against a backdrop of Cahaba lilies in bloom.

The Cahaba River is home to three bass species that make for great fly-rod fodder.  I like to target the Alabama bass and the Cahaba redeye. First off, you have the Alabama bass, formerly known as a sub-species of spotted bass up until 2008 when they were declared a separate species. These fish are great fighters and are the alpha predator of their haunts.  When floating the Cahaba River, I like to target these with a 6-weight and a variety of different flies, such as hollow flies, big poppers, and Kent Edmonds’ famous Stealth Bombers.  These fish can be found in deeper pools, tight to the bank in a current break, or at any ambush point they can find.

The author with an Alabama bass from the Cahaba River.

Of the two bass species that I am drawn to, the Cahaba redeye is my favorite. These fish are small in stature, but make up for it with their ferocity; with a trophy fish being 13 inches or so.  They are pound for pound the hardest fighting bass species.  Redeye bass are beautiful creatures as well, usually having a blue-ish tint around the lower jaw and the caudal fin is edged in white, a useful identifying trait.  They don’t seem to have the distinguishing lateral line like that of an Alabama bass or largemouth.

Presently the fisheries management community still lists these fish as part of the Coosa redeye family (Micropterus coosae), but genetic research has shown them to be what is likely to be named an official new species in the near future. In fact, Alabama managers already recognize the species differentiation as Micropterus cahabae.

A feisty Cahaba redeye bass.

Redeye bass readily take small poppers during the warmer months and will usually launch themselves into the air after inhaling the fly.  In the cooler months you can target them with small crayfish patterns or Wooly Buggers.  I find it best to target these guys with 3- and 4-weight fly rods.  Often you can find these fish in the rocks and more so in the tributaries that drain into the Cahaba.

The Cahaba River is a state treasure, and it offers some great fishing.  There are several great access points for both launching a canoe or wading.  Many of these access points can be found within in 10 minutes of the Birmingham metro area.  Next time you find yourself over in the Birmingham area, bring a fly rod and handful of poppers, find one of the many access points and stay a while. I have!

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