You’re not supposed to fall in love with the first place you visit on a fishing trip. And you’re especially not supposed to fall in love with a kitschy chain joint, but when the stack of fried green tomatoes appears on the table, you roll with it and you go with your heart.
Such is the case with Lulu’s, a Gulf Shores, Ala., staple for both tourists and locals alike. Owned by Lucy Buffett (yup, Jimmy’s little sister), it’s “on the way to the beach,” so of course, it’s the first place we stopped. And yes, blame my not-so-closeted Parrothead for the unscheduled detour. This one’s on me.
And, truthfully, I’ll happily own it. Yeah, you come for the Gulf Coast staples like the half-and-half po’boy (half fried shrimp, half fried oysters), and maybe you stick around a bit too long enjoying the bar’s potent margaritas.
And while the Alabama Gulf Coast may not be on the radar as a prime-time fly-fishing destination, the combination of gentle surf, clear water and some fairly fishy backwater bays make it a prime destination for beach goers who also like to fly fish. And eat. And drink.
So pack that 8-weight rod for your next beach vacation. And your appetite. And maybe practice up a bit before you get there — some liver calisthenics, if you will. This easy-to-get-to slice of Alabama salt is just the ticket for anyone who lives in a place where there’s still a chance for snow in the forecast, and good drinks go great with white-sand beaches and sand-and-grass redfish flats.
And the local drink of choice? It’s called the Bushwhacker, and I had my first one, courtesy of my friend Kay Maghan, at DeSoto’s Seafood Kitchen, a must-stop dinner destination for fresh-from-the-salt fare. But the Bushwhacker? Well, as they say, you gotta have one.
But for veteran drinkers who understand that sugary, milk- or cream-based drinks conspire with your innards to craft epic hangovers alongside some lively indigestion, you really should stop at one. It’s a blend of rums and vanilla ice cream — a big-boy shake with a kick. At DeSoto’s, you can get your Bushwhacker in standard form … or you can go big, with a “topper” of Bacardi 151 or peanut butter whiskey.
Good luck with that.
Come spring, when the gentle Gulf of Mexico breakers lick the white sand beaches of both Gulf Shores and Orange Beach (these two beach towns share the same barrier island) and the water warms up into the 60s and 70s, productive fly fishing can be found both on the “outside” — the Gulf of Mexico—and on the inside, in the protected bays like Wolf Bay, Bay la Launch and Bayou Saint John. The inside bays are great for sight-fishing to cruising and tailing redfish, sheepshead and black drum. The beach fishing, in the first “trough” can offer stellar fly casting for everything from redfish, spotted sea trout, whiting to ladyfish and Spanish mackerel as the waters warm up.
On our second morning in Orange Beach, I got up at the crack of dawn and wandered the beach on foot, fly rod in hand. Sadly, we arrived in tandem with a cold front, and I was told that we were on the beach for the coldest days of the year. Such is my luck, but “cold” is relative. It might have only been in the 40s while I walked the beach — and I actually sight-casted to two cruising reds not 10 feet off the sand — but at home in Idaho, snow was falling and temperatures hovered near zero. I’ll take an Orange Beach cold front any day.
After the fishless barefoot walk on the beach, I got back to our high-rise Phoenix Orange Beach condo just as the rest of the gang was headed out for breakfast at The Brick and Spoon, where the crab cake Benny went down perfectly with a build-your-own Bloody Mary.
From there, the girls wanted to shop, which worked out great for me. I accompanied Easton Colvin, a former bull rider and now a Gulf Shores/Orange Beach tour guide, to a walk-in access on Little Lagoon, a protected back bay that gets an influx of saltwater from the Gulf through a tiny cut in the island as well as a solid inflow of fresh water from Shelby Lakes. On “normal” days, Colvin said, the area fishes well from shore for cruising redfish, trout, drum and sheepshead — and the wading is heavenly, with a solid sand bottom and some great identifiable structure. This day though… yeah, that damn cold front.
We gave it a hell of shot, though, and walked a couple of miles, all the while hoping for fish to pop up in the shallows. Finally, Colvin gave in.
“How about the best Philly cheesesteak in Alabama?” he asked.
“You want me to eat a Philly … in Gulf Shores?”
He nodded. “I promise,” he said. “You won’t be disappointed.”
So off we went to The Sloop, a hole-in-the-wall locals joint with enough TVs on the walls to get our daily fill of March Madness.
Colvin was kind of sheepish about this place, and noted more than once that I didn’t need to write about it or promote it or anything … it really is a locals hangout, he explained. And he’s right. It is.
But he was right about something else, too. The Philly, ordered “with Whiz,” of course, was excellent. Coupled with fries and a couple of ice-cold beers, it was a nice break from the seafood-for-every meal diet track I’d been on for a couple of days. To the owners of The Sloop … any out-of-towners who wander in and pollute the locals bar with their matching-belt-and-shoes, condo-commando look … It's my fault. But that sandwich? Nicely done.
That evening, we got the gang together and took in the “keep the wives happy” sunset cruise, which was perfectly lovely — Bayou Saint Johns’ resident dolphins showed up on the chilly evening and our BYOB beverages tasted great as the catamaran coasted through the cut between Orange Beach and Perdido Key.
And then, as if I hadn’t stuffed my face with enough great food and drink over the course of the fishing day, it was time for dinner at the famed Flora-Bama Yacht Club, part of the larger Flora-Bama entertainment complex that straddles the Alabama-Florida line.
Inexplicably, I was hungry. And it was a good thing. Greek shrimp nachos got us started and damned if we didn’t go big with the Gulf seafood trio — fried shrimp, oysters and fish — washed down with a potent Cuba Libré. And then two more Cuba Librés, just for good measure.
Then, we wandered just across the street to perhaps the liveliest bar scene on the Gulf Coast — the actual Flora-Bama. Boasting three (yes, three) distinct bars within the same complex, and four different live bands playing in various venues just a few hundred feet apart, the Flora-Bama is a testament to modern acoustics management.
We wandered through the Bama Dome at the top of The Big Earl Show — Colvin warned me that Big Earl is a local favorite and everybody along the coast has seen his butt cheeks at one time or another. Earl kept his clothes on as we passed through, but he did admonish his many fans: “If you don’t like George Strait,” he said in a definitive Alabama drawl, “then you’re a piece of shit!” And the crowd goes wild.
Yessir. That’s the Flora-Bama. We settled on the “main room” bar and listened to some pretty great classic rock courtesy of the Scott Koehn Project. And yes, we each had one Bushwhacker — the Flora-Bama version amounts to a pretty stiff drink, but since I was already on the rum kick, I figured why not? I ordered another Bushwhacker. And then, of course, the next Bushwhacker seemed like a really great idea. You know how this story goes.
As the old Caribbean troubadour is fond of saying, “there’s a thin line between Saturday night, and Sunday morning.”
And Sunday morning dawned clear and cold, and I had a fly fishing date lined up with Capt. Sam Glass of Flyway Charters. And that damn Bushwhacker, well, it totally ambushed me.
Honestly, if we hadn’t set this date a week before, and if Sunday wasn’t my last day at the beach, I think both of us would have probably just called it. It froze the night before, so we probably looked like we were dressed for a Great Lakes walleye outing, and, honestly, fishing was tough. Throw in that self-inflicted hangover, and it was exactly what I deserved. But, as the sun got higher in the sky, Glass gave me some shots, and, finally, it all came together with a nice 8-pound redfish.
Colvin, new at fly fishing, took the platform and, while the fish continued to move across the flats, he couldn’t quite get the casting trigonometry to work just right. So, instead, we motored over to OSO, a great little bayside dive for a blackened fish burrito and cold craft beer. It felt good to get in out of the cold for a bit and the meal hit the spot.
And then, as quick as it started, it was almost over. My gang of beach-going friends enjoyed one last great Gulf Coast meal at Voyagers, a classy hangout tucked inside the swank Perdido Beach Resort, before we had to pack our bags. Go hungry. Don’t look at the prices. Order the Gulf fish ceviche to start. And another Cuba Libré, please.
No, coastal Alabama probably isn’t the best place along the Gulf Coast to go and chase flats fish (summer is busy and boat traffic is heavy, Glass said, so the great flats we fished that cold Sunday morning are largely inaccessible), but there are fish there, and the spring and fall shoulder seasons can be quite productive. Rather than buy into the crazy-season rush that makes the Bayou Saint John’s redfish act a lot more like Bahamian bonefish, think of it as a well-kept secret if you can manage to time the weather and that damned Bushwhacker hangover just right.
You’re going to the beach anyway, right? You might as well bring your fly rod. I know, on my next visit — and yes, I’ll definitely go back — I’ll throw some flies into the salt and have Glass show me some of the farther-flung fishy hangouts on the inside (and he promised I’d be pleasantly surprised with some of the blue-water fly fishing that not many others know about).
And I’ll bring my appetite and coach up the liver. Because in Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, it really isn’t just about the fishing.