Little River Canyon, Alabama
On The Fly Freshwater
Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs.
Upon first viewing the Little River Canyon, one is hard pressed to believe it is located in Alabama. After all, isn’t this the Heart of Dixie, the Cotton State, a land of flat farm and woodlands? That latter description definitely does not apply to this northeast Alabama location at the southern edge of the Cumberland Plateau.
Established in 1992 and covering 15,288 acres, the Little River National Preserve now protects this landscape of sandstone ridges, outcroppings and the impressive gorge. Situated along the border of Cherokee and DeKalb Counties, the preserve and its gorge stretch from Fort Payne in the north down to near the river junction with Weiss Lake.
For fly casters, the attraction of the canyon is the Little River. Rising on the highlands of the southern approaches of Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, the stream cuts across northwest Georgia, into Alabama and drops over 45-foot Little River Falls at the head of the gorge. For the next 12 miles it is a whitewater stream in a rugged and primitive landscape, requiring approaches down steep, rocky trails for access to the water, which can be as much as 600 feet below the canyon rim.
Through most of this run the river stretches to a couple of hundred feet wide, offering plenty of room for fly casting. While there are lots of deep runs and pools, it is possible to wade fish in many other places. From spring through early fall, conditions are such that you can leave your waders at home.
Once on the river, what can you expect to catch? The flow holds bream species and in the lower end of the gorge Alabama bass. But the main attraction is the presences of the iconic Coosa redeye bass (Micropterus coosae). This fish fills the niche of king of cool waters just downstream of where trout water ends in the South. It also is a fish that has had an ongoing identity crisis.
An Alabama bass.
For decades the International Game Fish Association, along with Alabama and Georgia fisheries managers, recognized the world-record redeye bass as a fish taken from the Peach State’s Flint River. Then in 1999 that fish and all its relatives were reclassified as a new species, the shoal bass (Micropterus cataractae). At that point the IGFA recognized a fish from the Savannah River drainage of South Carolina as the record setting redeye. Now that fish is considered to be a Bartram’s bass (Micropterus sp.cf. coosae), which is genetically different and already recognized by Georgia fisheries managers as a new species.
Apparently the IGFA simply has given up on the redeye bass, since it no longer lists that fish in its world records. In fact, the largest true Coosa redeye documented was a 2-pound, 12-ounce fish that was a previous Georgia state record taken from the Jacks River. Bottom line is the true Coosa redeye is found only in the Coosa River drainage of Alabama, Georgia and a tiny portion of southeast Tennessee.
A true Coosa redeye bass from the Little River Canyon.
Another confusing factor about these fish is many anglers assume any bass with a red eye is a redeye. I’ve personally caught largemouth shoal, smallmouth and spotted bass that
had red eyes, along with rock bass (a panfish sometimes referred to as a google eye) that also exhibited that trait. Additionally, some redeye bass can have just the slightest glimmer of red in their eye. A red eye is not the defining factor in recognizing a redeye bass.
Here’s the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division’s description of the Coosa redeye bass. “Redeye bass are olive green to bronze with pale bellies, have a series of dark vertical blotches along their sides that usually disappear with age, and have numerous small dark spots below the lateral line that form horizontal rows. The upper jaw does not extend beyond the eyes, the dorsal fin is continuous and not deeply notched, and lateral blotches do not form a horizontal band. Redeye bass differ from all other bass species in that the second dorsal, caudal, and anal fins have brick red coloration on the outer portions with white edges.”
When it comes to catching the redeyes, the places to look are the eddies along edge of moving current, or even out in the current. That is, assuming the flow is not too fast.
Redeyes feed more on insects than any other black bass species. In a few instances I’ve even caught them on attractor dry fly patterns during insect hatches. More often, however, streamers like the Muddler Minnow or Wooly Bugger work, as do popping bugs. Expect most of the fish that take your fly in the Little River Gorge to be 10- to 12-inches, with an occasional one running a couple of inches longer.
Access to the river can be interesting to say the least. There are four trails leading into the gorge from surrounding roads and parking areas. These are the Eberhart, Little Falls and Powell trails, all of which are just 3/4 of a mile long. Little Falls and Powell are rated as Moderate treks, while Eberhart and the much shorter Lower Two-Mile Trail (1/10 mile) are rated Arduous/Steep.
A much easier way in is by walking up into the gorge from its lower end along the Canyon Mouth Trail. This one is flat along the river, beginning in the Canyon Mouth Park and ending one mile in at Johnnies Creek.
Regardless of how you get to the Little River, you will find the gorge and its landscape to be a sensory delight. And, the abundant redeye bass should keep you busy as well.
For more information on the Little River Canyon National Preserve and its trail system click here.