Boating, Fishing and Fish in the Coosa River and Its Impoundments
The Coosa River watershed begins in Tennessee and Georgia before entering Alabama at Weiss Lake. The water is naturally fertile and receives additional nutrients from various forms of land use within the watershed. Only a small portion of the Coosa River flows freely. Six Alabama Power Company dams impounds the waters of the Coosa River before it meets the Tallapoosa River to form the Alabama River: Weiss Lake, Neely Henry Lake, Logan Martin Lake, Lay Lake, Mitchell Lake and Lake Jordan. NOAA has guage heights. Alabama Power Company provides information 24-hours each day on scheduled water releases and lake levels by Internet or dialing 1-800-LAKES-11.
The watershed of the Coosa River occupies five different physiographic regions. The headwaters of the Coosa River are formed in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Cumberland Plateau. A third of the basin is in the Valley and Ridge, and another third is in the Piedmont. A small portion of the lower Coosa River flows in the Coastal Plain before meeting the Tallapoosa River to form the Alabama River. The high diversity of the geology is matched by the high diversity of endemic aquatic animals: fishes, mussels, snails and crayfishes.
Headwaters and Weiss Lake
Before beginning its 255 mile journey through Alabama, the Coosa River is formed in Georgia with the merging of the Oostanaula and Etowah rivers. At Rome, Georgia, the river slows to form Weiss Lake. This is the upper end of the Alabama Scenic River Trail, a paddle and powerboat trail that ends at Fort Morgan on the Gulf of Mexico.
Weiss Lake is fertile and shallow, making it very productive for fish. Major tributaries include the Chattooga River and Little River. The 30,200-acre Weiss Lake is almost entirely within Cherokee County, Alabama; and local businesses cater to sportsmen. Known as the “Crappie Fishing Capital of the World,” fishing for largemouth bass and striped bass in Lake Weiss is also outstanding.
Between Lake Weiss and Neely Henry
Water from Lake Weiss flows either into the Diversion Canal or into Dead River. The Diversion Canal moves water to the hydroelectric generator. In the past, almost all the water was used for generating electricity, leaving little water in the old Coosa River channel, hence the name Dead River. Alabama Power Company with its new project operations application has agreed to provide environmental flows in Dead River. The flows should restore portions of the Coosa River to riverine habitat. A riverine section continues from the convergence of the Diversion Canal and Dead River to Neely Henry Lake. The Terrapin Creek is a major tributary in this area.
Neely Henry Lake is the next lake downstream of Weiss Lake. Gadsden is the major city in the area, and the area is close to I-59. Terrapin, Big Canoe, Big Wills and Little Wills creeks are major tributaries.
Because Lake Weiss has produced such good fishing for so long, the 11,235-acre Neely Henry Lake is often overlooked. Though largemouth bass fishing is excellent, the spotted bass fishing is even better. Also known as Alabama spotted bass, spotted bass native to the Mobile basin are different than spotted bass in other drainages. These spotted bass are much longer than northern spotted bass are, and they grow to a larger size. Locally renowned for its crappie fishing, Neely Henry Lake is starting to receive recognition for its striped bass fishing as well.
Logan Martin Lake
The waters below Neely Henry Dam stay within the old river channel, but the water level and flow is controlled by power generation at Logan Martin Dam. Logan Martin Reservoir is 48.5 miles long and contains 15,263 acres. Lake Logan Martin is very popular because of its location on I-20 between Birmingham and Atlanta and because of its good Alabama spotted bass and largemouth bass fishing.
Striped bass, white bass, and their hybrid are also caught in Logan Martin Lake. During March and April, many of these fish are caught as they congregate near Neely Henry Dam. During the summer, striped bass feed in the main river channel during power generation and hold in spring fed creeks and springs during non-generation periods.
Loren Warren caught this 20-pound spring striper from the tailrace of Neely Henry (Logan Martin Lake) with a live shad.
Logan Martin Dam spills water into the upper end of Lay Lake, which is essentially a flooded channel north of Beeswax Creek. Other tributaries, including Paint, Peckerwood and Waxahatchee creeks, feed into the 12,000-acre reservoir.
The tailwater fishery below Logan Martin Dam is excellent habitat for hybrid striped bass, striped bass and catfish. This tailwater area is also popular with anglers who enjoy fishing for largemouth bass and Alabama spotted bass when shad are running along the banks. Though Lay Lake is best known for its Alabama spotted bass and largemouth bass fishing; crappie, bream and catfish are also popular.
Water from Lay Lake spills directly into Lake Mitchell. The Lay Dam tailwater area at the upper end of Lake Mitchell is a popular recreational area to many anglers and includes ample bank fishing access. Even though Mitchell Lake is located just off I-65, lakes closer to Birmingham and Montgomery tend to receive more fishing pressure. Also, Lake Mitchell is smaller, 5,850 acres with 147 miles of shoreline. Hatchet Creek is a major tributary.
Like other Coosa River lakes, Lake Mitchell is very fertile and supports high densities of sport fish and forage species. Alabama spotted bass, largemouth bass, bluegill, redear sunfish, crappie and catfish are all popular sport fish in Lake Mitchell.
Lake Mitchell discharges directly into Jordan Lake. The whole lake is very popular, but the tailwaters of Mitchell are especially popular with boat and bank anglers. Lake Jordan’s 6,800 acres and 188 miles of shoreline are 25 miles from Montgomery. Alabama spotted bass and largemouth bass fishing may be equally popular in this lake that has good fishing for crappie, bream, catfish, and hybrid striped bass.
Jordan Lake produces lots of big spots, though not too many are as big as this 5.3 pound spotted bass caught by Damon Abernethy on December 4, 2005.
Bouldin Canal and Lower Coosa River
Like Weiss Lake, Jordan Lake has a bypass channel. It is called Bouldin Canal and discharges directly into the Alabama River. Alabama Power Company also discharges a minimum of 2,000 cubic feet per second of water from Jordan Dam, but more water is released in the spring for spawning, recreational use, and flood control. The Coosa River below Jordan Dam may be the best large spotted bass river fishery in the nation. Access to the area is difficult because of shoals like Moccasin Gap, The Pipeline, and Corn Creek, although some anglers use jet boats to get into the area. Other anglers launch canoes and kayaks at the primitive Alabama Power Company launch on the east side of the dam. Bank anglers may use the new wheelchair accessible bank access on the east side of Jordan Dam. Anglers should check the generation schedule with Alabama Power Company, 1-800-LAKES-11.
The aquatic fauna in the Coosa River basin has been changed with the addition of the six large impoundments. Because of the shells that snails and mussels leave behind, scientists know that many snail and mussel species lived in the Coosa River basin, but some of these snail and mussel species are now extinct. A number of unique aquatic fauna still live in the area. The basin contains 147 fish species, including a number that are unique to the Coosa River basin: pygmy sculpin, holiday darter, Coosa darter, coldwater darter, Etowah Darter (only Georgia), Cherokee darter (only Georgia), trispot darter, amber darter (Georgia only) and Conasauga logperch (Georgia only).
The Coosa River and its tributaries are home to one of the most diverse and unique aquatic snail communities in the entire world. In all, 91 species are known from the system and 82 of those occur nowhere else. Unfortunately, one of the worst extinction events of modern times occurred when the Coosa River was dammed. It is believed that 34 of these unique species went extinct as their habitat was changed from a free-flowing river to a series of reservoirs. The species that survive today are mostly in streams that flow into the Coosa River, but a few survive in riverine reaches downstream of some of the dams, such as Logan Martin and Jordan.
A diverse community of freshwater mussels can also be found in the Coosa River drainage, where a total of 53 species has been reported. There are 11 species of mussels that are found nowhere else but the Coosa River and its tributaries. Mussels fared no better with impoundment of the river and six of the species that once occurred in this river are now extinct and five of them were those that were only known from the Coosa. Fortunately, conservation measures are underway to protect rare species within the river and commitments from Alabama Power Company to improve water quality downstream of the dams offer hope for continued survival of the mussels and snails of this river.
Local citizens need to work together to manage remaining habitat for the benefit of these species and all native aquatic species in the Coosa River basin. The Alabama Clean Water Partnership is working to assure water quality in the basin, but it will take the work of all of the watershed’s citizens.
The Coosa River runs through several districts of the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division. If you have questions, please contact Doug Darr.