Alabama's Angling Vacations

by Anthony Campbell.

School will be out soon and the summer holidays upon us. It's time to plan your vacation, and these destinations can add some angling to that family getaway!

Summertime means fishing and it also means family vacations. There's no reason an angler can't combine the two, especially if he visits the places we profile here.

These are destinations with both activities for the family and superb fishing for anyone who wants to wet a hook.

JUNE

Guntersville Lake

Guntersville Lake has a well-deserved national reputation as a largemouth bass hotspot, but May and June are also top fishing months here for bluegill and shellcracker.

The lake produces abundant catches of both, with plentiful fish and some nice sized ones. It's an excellent way to break youngsters into angling too, as the action is almost non-stop.

Dan Catchings, the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources fisheries biologist for northeast Alabama, said it's true that the bream fishing is outstanding.

"The fishing for bluegill and shellcrackers on Guntersville Lake is generally better than what we have on the Coosa and Tallapoosa and even the Alabama River," he said.

It's not just that the fish are more abundant. They really do get bigger on Guntersville, Catchings added.

Bluegill and shellcracker in the state's other river systems tend to top out at around 6 inches or so. But 7- and 8-inch bluegill and even bigger are fairly common on Guntersville.

The lake's grass -- hydrilla and milfoil -- is the reason for this, just as they're the reason the bass fishing is so strong. Grass covers tens of thousands of acres on the 69,100-acre impoundment of the Tennessee River.

"The grass is one difference in regards to the bream fishery," Catchings agreed. "A lot of snails and other invertebrates live in the grass. Redear sunfish or shellcrackers love snails. The higher invertebrate populations also promote the growth of the bluegills."

The grass also provides places for young bluegill and shellcrackers to evade predators and grow to larger than average size.

Overall fertility of the lake also plays a role. Guntersville is said to be a highly fertile lake, with more nutrients than the average waterway.

"Fertility is key in the difference in the growth rates," Catchings said. "Good fertility promotes the lower-level organisms such as the invertebrates that in turn feed the bluegill. If your fertility is higher, it promotes better growth for the all the fish living there."

In the spring, the bluegill and shellcrackers go to the banks to spawn. The best way to find the fish is to use a boat and troll the banks, probing hard-bottom areas with crickets and worms to find the fish. But there are also numerous parks and even a fishing pier where land-bound anglers can have success on bluegills.

Anglers in the know on Guntersville Lake say live crickets are best if you're targeting bluegill and worms work better for shellcracker.

In recent years, a new artificial bait -- the Keystone Minnow -- has emerged as a hot producer. Some anglers fish just the little rubber minnow under a cork. Others tip it with a cricket to give the bluegill a dual offering. The plus in that regard is that you're still in the game if a fish steals your cricket, as they often will do.

A hand-sized bream is a feisty fighter. Use ultralight spinning or spincasting gear for these fish and you double your pleasure.

A good source for fishing information is Waterfront Grocery located on State Route 79 North at the midway point of the reservoir. The folks at the store are happy to supply the latest information on what the fish are doing. The store stocks a wide variety of fishing tackle and supplies, as well as gas and groceries. The phone number is (256) 682-6060.

The newly renovated lodge at Guntersville Lake State Park is a great place to stay. Their telephone number is (256) 571-5440.

The Fishing Center at Town Creek in Guntersville Lake State Park is another good source of fishing information. In addition to carrying fishing supplies, the center rents pontoon boats and johnboats. It also handles rentals for nearby Town Creek Campground. The phone number is (256) 582-8358.

Two great vacation attractions you want to visit during your stay in North Alabama are Cathedral Caverns State Park near Grant and about 20 minutes from Guntersville, and the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, a 45-minute drive from the lake.

Cathedral Caverns is a cool 60 degrees year-round, making it a perfect escape on a sweltering summer afternoon. The cave has several world record features such as the largest cave opening and the largest stalagmite.

Admission is $12 for adults, $6 for children and includes a guided tour of the cave. You want to take comfortable walking shoes and a jacket.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville features a number of artifacts from the country's space program and is a favorite of children. There are lots of hands-on activities, such as a cockpit simulator that are appealing to both kids and adults.

Admission is $20 for adults and $15 for children. Ticket upgrades to include a movie at the adjoining IMAX theater are also available.

JULY

Alabama's Gulf Coast

Nothing says summer quite like a trip to the seashore and Orange Beach and Gulf Shores on the coast of Alabama have just about everything a beach-going family could want. There are great condos and hotels, outstanding restaurants and even nearby outlet shopping.

Also Gulf State Park in Gulf Shores offers the longest fishing pier on the entire Gulf of Mexico at 1,540 feet.

The pier provides a great way for an angler on a budget to put a little salt into his fishing. You can take a stout bass rod from home, or the Wal-Mart in Gulf Shores often has great deals on heavy spinning gear. We bought rods and reels there for less than $20 apiece on our last trip. They also have terminal tackle, such as hooks, leaders and sinkers for less than you pay if you buy all your gear at the pier.

Hurricane Ivan destroyed the old pier in 2004, with the new one just opening in 2009. This structure has lots of features not available on the old pier, such as a concession area, indoor tackle shop and restrooms at the pier's midpoint.

A daily pier permit is $8. A saltwater pier license good for the whole year costs $10. Bait costs you a few bucks more.

The folks working the bait shop know what is biting and can advise you on the best baits to try. Information flows pretty freely on the pier.

Fish you may encounter in July include Spanish mackerel, redfish, black drum, speckled trout, flounder, bluefish, whiting and catfish.

If you're a freshwater angler who rarely fishes saltwater, you may catch something you don't recognize. Don't hesitate to ask one of the veteran anglers on the pier. They are happy to identify your catch. If you're throwing back what you catch, they just might want it for themselves for supper.

Something is almost always biting on the pier and it's just a fun place to visit and wet a line. There are lots of tourists and if you start catching fish, particularly if they're any size, you soon become a "rock star" to them.

It happened to my brother Mitch on our last trip to the pier shortly, after it had reopened. He started catching black drum after black drum and they were good ones.

Every time Mitch would catch a fish, a crowd of about 20 to 30 people would gather around. He became something of a pier celebrity for a while.

He had to improvise to land the fish. The black drum were in the 5- to 6-pound range. It was a long way from the deck of the pier to the water below.

To avoid breaking his line, each time he hooked a fish, he handed the rod to me and then grabbed the line to hauled the it up hand-over-hand.

A boy of 11 or 12 was fishing beside us. After about the third one Mitch threw back, the boy asked if he could have the fish. He and his dad were fishing for some to eat. Mitch started giving them to him and the boy was tickled.

The pier is open for fishing 24 hours a day 7 days a week. The concession stand and store's hours aren't quite that long. The phone number is (251) 967-3474.

Attractions at the beach are almost too numerous to mention. The amusement parks with go-carts and the like are always a hit with children. The Naval Air Museum and home of the Blue Angels flight team is a short drive away in Pensacola.

I always make it a point to try to find the best seafood gumbo in town when I'm in Gulf Shores. The restaurant I always try to visit at least once or twice is the Original Oyster House. They've got lots of specialties and I try something different each time.

AUGUST

Metro Birmingham

Lay Lake is located near Birmingham and has hosted the Bassmaster Classic fishing tournament an incredible four times -- in 1996, 2002, 2007 and 2010. This reservoir on the Coosa River is a great spotted bass fishery and Birmingham has lots of things for families to do on vacation.

At 12,000 acres, Lay is not a huge impoundment. The DCNR biologists call it a "high quality" fishery with abundant largemouth and spots up to 19 inches.

The spotted bass are what the lake is really known for and anglers wanting to catch them should stick to the riverine portion of the reservoir. Summer action on Lay Lake usually involves ledge fishing.

Winning patterns in past summer Classics on Lay Lake included working spinnerbaits around cover and crankbaits on underwater structure. Good places to try based on past on those tournaments are Bulley Creek, Blue Springs Creek, Kelly Branch, Paint Creek and the main-river ledges.

Birmingham has all sorts of attractions for families, but two winners for both adults and children are the Birmingham Zoo and the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.

Admission to the Birmingham Zoo is $12 for adults and $7 for children. There are lots of fun sections of the zoo, but two you don't want to miss are "Alabama Wilds" and the new "Trails of Africa" that just opened this year.

Also, be sure to ride the Zoo's "Red Diamond Express" train, a longtime feature you might remember from your own childhood.

The Alabama Sports Hall of Fame showcases great athletes from the state. Admission is $5 for adults, $3 for students or $14 for families.

In addition to the likes of Bear Bryant and Shug Jordan, there are some outdoorsmen in the hall. Most notable is Howard Hill, considered by many to be the greatest archer to ever live.

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