By DAVID RAINER
Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The rainbow trout are biting in north Alabama. What’d you say? There are no rainbow trout in Alabama because there’s no water cold enough for rainbow trout, right?
Wrong. There is one spot in Alabama that can support rainbow trout – the Lewis Smith Dam tailrace, where water from the bottom of the clear-water lake remains in the 60s during the summer heat.
Although rainbow trout can live in that stretch of water below the dam known as the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River, it isn’t sufficient to support a spawning population of trout. Therefore, the tailrace must be stocked on a regular basis.
Such a stocking took place last week when 1,800 rainbow trout were released in the tailrace at Alabama Power Company’s Lewis Smith Dam, which was a perfect site for an update on the enhancements that have been made to benefit those who pursue the tailrace trout.
Jason Carlee, Environmental Affairs Supervisor with Alabama Power, said the Smith Dam, which is about 300 feet tall and 2,200 feet long, was completed in 1961.
“It didn’t take long to realize there was the potential for a cold-water fishery right here in the tailrace,” Carlee said. “Fish (rainbow trout) were stocked in the lake in the late 1960s, but the fishing success was not there. So they began looking at the tailrace. They began stocking trout in the tailrace around 1974. It’s been stocked since that time.”
n 2005, Alabama Power applied for a renewal of its hydroelectric license. During that licensing process, public input was accepted, and one of the top subjects was how to improve public access and the trout fishery in the tailrace, Carlee said. After input from the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Alabama Power and other stakeholder groups, a plan to make those improvements was finalized.
“The plan was developed to improve access to the tailrace, provide habitat enhancements to improve the fishery and the fishing in the tailrace, and it also developed a minimum flow system in the tailrace that would provide a 50-cubic-feet-per-second flow at all times,” Carlee said.
Metal staircases and walkways were erected to create much better access to the tailrace. The staircases are distributed from just below the dam to just north of the Highway 69 Bridge. One of those access points is a barrier-free location to accommodate those with physical disabilities.
“Before the access points were installed in 2010, really the only way to get to the tailrace was through narrow, muddy footpaths,” Carlee said. “It was really difficult to get into and out of the tailrace. Now there are seven sets of steel staircases that have been anchored into the bedrock.”
Chris Metcalf of Coastal Hydrology out of Florida was hired to design and implement habitat improvements to the tailrace.
“They redesigned over 2,000 feet of river channel,” Carlee said. “They installed log banks and boulders to provide refuge for the trout. They also installed other woody debris and rock crevices. There are a few areas that Chris refers to as ‘lunker holes’ where he undercut banks as much as 6 to 8 feet. This provides excellent habitat for fish during generation. They can get in those areas and get out of the full flow.”
Carlee said the third aspect of the improvements involved a minimum flow from the dam during times when hydroelectric generation was not needed.
“This allows the fish to stay in their preferred habitat even when the units aren’t generating,” he said. “There are valves installed in each of those units to bring air into the flow to ensure ample water quality for those fish to grow.”
That minimum flow has improved the experience for the tailrace anglers, according to Brandon Jackson of the Riverside Fly Shop, located just a few miles from the dam.
“Before the minimum flow, there would be times when all we would have were pools of water,” Jackson said. “Now, there is a flow all the time. This brings the food to the fish instead of the fish having to roam around in search of food. It’s improved the fishing significantly. Instead of just a pool here and there, we have whole runs where you can expect to find fish now.”
Jay Haffner, fisheries biologist with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF), said the only other area east of the Mississippi River at Smith Dam’s latitude that offers trout fishing is the tailrace at Lake Lanier in Georgia.
“We’ve got a lot to showcase,” Haffner said. “Today we’re showcasing an extraordinarily unique resource in the Deep South where you can take family and friends and catch trout on the warmest day of the year.”
Haffner said that anybody who ventures into the tailrace waters will soon discover just how cold it can be for people who do not wear insulated waders. However, that cold water is exactly what rainbow trout need to survive and thrive.
“With (Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries’) many partners – Alabama Power, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery – we stock this stretch of river every month of the year,” Haffner said. “We stock about 35,000 trout annually.”
Haffner said since 2011 Alabama Power has provided $26,000 annually for the restocking efforts as part of the licensing agreement. Trout are purchased from Westover Farms in Missouri for five stockings, while Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery provides the bulk of the fish for stocking, about 25,000 “catchable size” trout. Funding also comes from the Sport Fish Restoration Act, which collects excise taxes on fishing equipment.
Haffner and summer intern Kimberly Hurt started a data collection program this summer to interview anglers in the Smith Dam tailrace. Although the data has not been finalized, Haffner said some preliminary information is available.
One out of every four trout that is stocked winds up in an angler’s creel, gets harvested by an angler,” Haffner said. “Anglers are an interesting lot of people. I’ve been studying fish and fishermen for more than 30 years. To some people, a successful fishing trip is catching your limit of fish, whether that’s five trout in the tailrace or 10 bass on the lake. Now there are a lot of people in the world who have far more stressful jobs than studying fish. For those people, they just want to get out of the office for 3.75 hours a day to fish for trout and not have to drive over 200 miles to do it.
“Many of these fish are being caught and released, primarily by anglers who are using flies.”
Haffner said Hurt’s preliminary data from 160 angler interviews indicates about 60 percent of the tailrace anglers are using fly tackle, while the remainder are using some type of bait. About 25 percent of the tailrace anglers are from the local areas of Walker and Cullman counties. So, three of every four anglers are driving to fish the tailrace. And they’re driving more than 70 miles. Haffner also said anglers who hire guides typically catch twice as many trout as those who fly-fish unguided. Hurt’s data also showed an average of 16 anglers on the 2.5-mile stretch of river below the dam per day during the week and 21 anglers per day on the weekend.
“This is a unique opportunity to provide diversity in the fishery,” Haffner said. “Can we provide every species of trout that all anglers in Alabama want to catch? No. We’re trying to make this the best rainbow trout fishery that we can right now.”
PHOTOS: (By David Rainer) About 1,800 rainbow trout, including this 1.5-pounder, were recently stocked in the tailrace below Lewis Smith Dam near Jasper. The trout were sent down a plastic pipe and into the tailrace. Alabama Power Company has enhanced the stretch of tailrace just below the dam in terms of fish habitat and angler access. Metal staircases and walkways were erected in strategic spots below the dam, where guides like Brandon Jackson of Riverside Fly Shop can help anglers experience the only trout fishery in Alabama.