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Alabama Trout On The Sipsey Fork
Wintertime on this small stretch of river below Smith Lake Dam means less traffic and some real fine fishing for rainbows.
 
By Greg McCain
Originally published in the January 2018 issue of AON
 
The 14-mile stretch of river below the Smith Lake Dam provides Alabama anglers a trout fishing option. The chutes between boulders are good feeding areas for trout.
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In a state replete with fishing opportunities, a unique adventure awaits Alabama anglers in the Lewis Smith Lake Dam tailrace.

Billed as the only year-round trout fishery in the state, that area just below Smith Lake Dam features excellent fishing for stocked rainbows. Those experienced in catching these trout suggest that January is as good a month as any to sample the fishing.

“Depending on the weather, the fishing can be very good in January, but it can be good just about any other month, as well,” said Brandon Jackson, who owns the Riverside Fly Shop on Highway 69 between Jasper and Cullman and guides for trout along the 14-mile-long fishery.

I spent an early December morning touring the area with Randy Jackson, Brandon’s father. Randy, who helps run Riverside Fly Shop and also guides on occasion, served as an encyclopedia of knowledge about the tailrace and the trout that inhabit it. As we donned insulated waders at the fly shop and drove the access road that runs along the east bank of the tailrace, Randy offered a running commentary on all things trout fishing, especially those that pertain to fishing the Smith Lake Dam tailrace.

We encountered perhaps a dozen vehicles along the route, several with out-of-state tags from as far away as Utah. Randy said the numbers were lower than normal, a “slow day” for fishing the tailrace.

“This is actually the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River,” Randy said. “It runs roughly 14 miles to its confluence with the Mulberry Fork near (the community of) Sipsey. All of it is fishable along the 11-mile stretch (below Highway 69). It’s a beautiful float with untouched, pristine wilderness with no public access and no houses.

“We have trout stocked here 12 months of the year. There is really no bad month to fish because the water temperature is a steady 48-51 degrees pulled from the bottom of Smith Lake.”

Randy further clarified that the area is labeled a cold-water fishery, water too cold for native fish to survive long-term. Years ago—sometime in the 70s—stocked rainbows filled the void, and fishermen have enjoyed trout fishing there since that time. Improvements in access and in water quality in recent years have only enhanced the fishing.

The monthly stockings, a combined effort of the DCNR and Alabama Power, come from the Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery in Tennessee and from private sources in North Carolina.

Randy said the trout that come from Dale Hollow average 9 to 12 inches. In alternating months, slightly bigger rainbows up to 16 inches arrive from North Carolina. Depending on the size of the trout, roughly 1,000 to 3,000 fish are stocked each month.

At least some of the fish survive from month to month and year to year. Randy said the biggest rainbow caught on a trip this year weighed just heavier than 8 pounds.

“Most of them are going to be in that 10 to 12, maybe 14-inch size,” he said.

We finally stopped at the uppermost parking area on the access road, which stretches from Highway 69 to the base of the dam and offers seven access points, six of which include metal steps that provide an easy route to the river bank and to good fishing among the scattered boulders, chunk rocks and submerged logs.

Randy and I encountered a difficult bite as we cast a variety of nymph patterns for a couple of hours. Randy pointed out the likely spots for feeding trout, the seams between bigger rocks at the heads of pools and the resting spots in the deeper water just downstream.

Neither location produced for us nor for the dozen or so other anglers who fished along that stretch of the tailrace. We later fished from the private boat launch area near the fly shop, again with no success.

“I think the lake has finished turning over, and it’s made the fishing tough the last couple of days,” Randy said. “You can tell because there is a slight stain to the water, a result of all the different things that come out of the lake when it turns over. There is usually a transition when we move from the fall to the winter. It will take it a week or two to stabilize and for the fishing to improve.”

Brandon said the potential for dry-fly action highlights the fishing in January. While the larger hatches of bigger flies like caddis and mayflies occur later in the year, midges make regular appearances this month, and fish can be caught on small (No. 18 to No. 22) midge imitators.

“Typically, we see a lot of midge-type flies, so we’re looking at smaller flies,” Brandon said. “We can have some really great hatches. It can be a great time, depending on the weather, to look for some dry-fly action with midge flies.

“The cold water, mixed with the warmer air, makes for some great midge hatches.”

Both Brandon and Randy suggested a 4-weight rod of 8 1/2 or 9 feet with a floating line, a 9-foot 5X  leader, and a similar-sized fluorocarbon tippet for a good all-around combination for fly fishing the tailrace. In addition to the dry-fly possibilities, nymphs that duplicate sow bugs and scuds, both tiny invertebrates that inhabit most tailwaters, are also good, as are blood worm imitators.

“You’re looking for good seams, good flowing water, and setting up a pretty good ways away because when they are feeding in those places, they are really spooky,” Brandon said. “Set up where you can make a good cast; about 30 to 40 feet is plenty. Cast upstream and lay it down as softly as possible, and let it drift through the current.”

Brandon favors cloudy days because of the spooky nature of the trout.

“The overcast skies in the winter are really nice,” he said. “It keeps you covered, hidden from the fish a little better. We have crystal-clear water and not a whole lot of depth. If it’s a sunny day, they pick up on the movement from the bank more easily than during an overcast day.”

Brandon said the idea that pen-raised fish are easy to catch is a common misconception. He said, in fact, stocked fish may be even more difficult to catch at times than native fish in a remote mountain stream.

“I think the misconception is that native fish are supposedly harder to catch and stocked fish are super easy,” he said. “I think a lot of times that can be flip-flopped.

“If you go up to a mountain stream for native brookies, it is usually in an area where the stream is 2 to 4 feet wide and there is very little food source. Put a decent looking fly out, and they have got to eat it because they don’t know when the next meal will come by. With native fish, it can be easy at times. With stocked fish, especially in a tailrace, their learning curve is steep. They learn quick. They get a lot of pressure in a smaller area.

“The other thing is we have a lot of food, a lot of sow bugs, a lot of scuds, a lot of blood worms, a lot of midges and periodic hatches of caddis and mayflies. They’ve got a lot of food. They see a lot of fishermen and a lot of flies. The can be more selective than even native fish at times.”

While Randy and Brandon use fly-fishing tackle exclusively, other anglers opt for light spinning gear, throwing a variety of in-line spinners, small spoons and prepared baits like PowerBait Trout Nibbles. The trout like the spinners in the gaudiest of colors. The Trout Nibbles, designed to imitate salmon eggs, also come in a rainbow of colors and are fished with a No. 10 or smaller hook embedded in them.

An ultra-light or light-action combo with 2- to 6-lb. fluorocarbon line serves wells with the small lures and baits fished in the clear waters.

In addition to the wade fishing in the 3-mile stretch just below the dam, fishermen can also float the lower stretches of the Sipsey Fork. A private boat ramp (no gas-powered motors allowed) is available beside the Riverside Fly Shop. The ramp is open to the public but only when the fly shop is open. There is a take-out spot downstream in the Sipsey community. No other access is available along that stretch of the stream.

“You have your choice; you can wade or you can float,” Randy said. “One is not necessarily better than the other.”

Added Brandon, “Once upon a time, you were trading quantity for quality on a float trip. I’m not sure that’s the case anymore. The quality is about the same whether you wade or float.

“A drift boat trip is a unique, relaxing experience. It requires a little different type of fishing at times than the wading. You still run into some really good fish downstream.”

At the Riverside Fly Shop, a visitor can rent just about anything needed to fish, ranging from a fly rod to a drift boat. Contact them at www.riversidefly shop.com, message them on Facebook, or call (256) 287-9582. In addition to Brandon and Randy, Randy’s wife, Mary Carole, also guides, as well.

“We start guiding on Jan. 2 and quit on Dec. 31,” Randy said. “All you have to do is show up with a fishing license. We’ll supply everything else.”

Brandon said a trip in the winter months offers several advantages, not the least of which is the potential for more fish to be available.

“As long as Christmas doesn’t affect the stocking schedule, we should have good numbers of trout this month,” he said. “All months are pretty good, but we don’t see as many anglers in the winter. The fish that are stocked have the potential to stay longer than say in the summer.”

Brandon said a trip with Riverside guides offers more than just a photo opp and a few trout in the creel.

“Expect a lot of instruction,” he said. “I didn’t like it when I went with a guide, and all I had was a picture of a fish.

“We try to provide an educational experience, tell them not only how to do things but also try to help them understand why they are doing things. So I would say there is a focus on instruction and education on our trips.”

Trout fishing isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when the topic of Alabama fishing comes up in conversation. However, at least in one isolated enclave in the state, fishing for rainbows is a viable option just about any day of the year. Try a wading trip in the tailrace just below the dam or drift the entire length of the Sipsey Fork. The cold waters there can offer some hot action.
 
 
 
 
 
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