State Lakes For Summer Cats

Alabama's 23 state-owned public fishing lakes offer a lot of water for Bama anglers in the summer. But which provide the best catfishing? Here's a closer look. (August 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

The dog days of summer are upon us, and that sets one to thinking about cats -- catfish, that is! Not much beats a mess of crispy fried catfish, and Alabama's state-owned public fishing lakes are the perfect places for wrangling up a bunch of them. So grab your fishing pole, call your fishing buddy and set out to explore some of these better fishing holes in the Yellowhammer State.

Whether you're fishing with a buddy or taking the kids out for an angling adventure, Alabama's public fishing lakes are great destinations. The Division of Wildlife and Fisheries of Alabama's Department of Conservation and Natural Resources owns and operates 23 public fishing lakes in 20 counties located all over the state. Ranging in size from 13 to 184 acres, these lakes offer something for just about every angling desire.

The State Fishing Lakes Program was started in 1940 as a vehicle for providing high-quality fishing at an affordable price, especially in areas of the state that lacked adequate natural waters for anglers. With leisure time in short supply these days, the state lakes provide convenient, easy access as well as outstanding fishing opportunities.

According to Jack Turner, the state lakes coordinator for the DWFF, most of the lakes are pretty heavily used, depending on their location. As expected, the closer the lakes lie to a major population center, the more visits they receive.

"We expect 150,000 to 250,000 visitors per year for the lake system statewide," Turner said. "The most heavily used lakes support 15,000 to 20,000 anglers per year, but some only see 3,000 to 4,000. It just depends on where they are located geographically." Annual weather patterns also play a role in determining visitation and how good the fishing is in a given year.

When the system was created, all of the lakes were stocked with largemouth bass, bluegills, redear sunfish ("shellcrackers") and channel catfish. Over the years, populations of white and black crappie have also become established in many lakes, and anglers may also encounter rainbow trout in some of the northern lakes.

While most anglers who visit the state fishing lakes are targeting bass and bluegills, some really good catfish lakes are also available. "Catfish are considered a supplement in most lakes, but in some of these lakes it's a pretty big supplement," Turner remarked.

Channel catfish are the staple of the catfish action in the state lakes system. Sometimes referred to as "willow," "speckled" and "sand" cats, the species is slender and long, with a deeply forked caudal fin and a protruding upper jaw. Adult fish have gray backs that grade to light yellow or greenish yellow along the sides to white on the bottom; juvenile fish generally have light gray backs and silver sides. Both adult and juvenile fish may have scattered dark spots across their bodies, but these are often absent on fully mature channel cats. The typical adult fish runs between 15 and 24 inches. The state-record channel catfish was a 40-pounder taken by Donald R. Cox in 1967 in Inland Lake on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River system.

Channel catfish prefer deeper water. They eat just about anything, their preferred wild foods including aquatic insect larvae, crayfish, mollusks and small fish.

Catfish are stocked into the state lakes each year beginning around Thanksgiving and wrapping up in late January or early February. Most of the stockers run between a half-pound and three-quarters of a pound. According to the State Public Fishing Lakes brochure, catfish in the system commonly grow to 1 to 2 pounds. However, the average size of the catfish that comes out of the lake has a lot to do with the lake that you're fishing.

"At some lakes, the annual average would be 3 pounds, but at other lakes the average would be half of that," Turner acknowledged. "It depends on the lake you're fishing and the conditions in the lake."

Regardless of where the lakes are located, each is intensively managed by the DWFF. All of the public fishing lakes offer concessions that range from fishing tackle to live and artificial baits to food, drinks and other refreshments. All lakes also have public restrooms. Fishing piers and boat ramps have been constructed at each of the lakes, and boat rentals are available at many locations.

A few rules must be followed at all the ponds. All anglers aged 16 or older must have an Alabama fishing license and pay a $2 daily permit fee. Anglers under the age of 12 don't need a license or a permit, but they must be in the company of an adult. The adult doesn't necessarily have to fish, though, as Turner pointed out. "A mom can take a 10- or 11-year-old out to the lake, and they may want to buy some bait or a snack, but even if mom isn't fishing, the child can fish for free."

Boat rentals cost $3; it costs $2 to launch your own boat.

The lakes are open from Feb. 1 through the end of November each year. Most lakes are closed in December and January, though some are open on the weekends and a few stay open year around.

"We do allow the lake manager to close one day a week," Turner noted. "I would advise any angler who wishes to visit a lake they're not familiar with to call ahead of time and make sure they don't arrive on a closed day."

When you call, be sure to talk to the lake manager and get the low down on what is biting, too. "They're happy to talk to anglers and give them some inside information," Turner said.

The daily creel, possession and size limits for all fish species are posted at each lake; in addition, anglers may only fish during daylight hours, and may use only hook and line. All fish taken from the lake must be counted and weighed. Swimming and wading are not allowed.

If you're looking for a good lake to catch some catfish at, here are a few that come highly recommended. Chances are good that one or more will be near your home.

In the northernmost reaches of the state, Marion County Lake is probably the best all-around catfish water, according to Turner. The 37-acre lake is in Guin in the northwest part of the state. The lake produces large numbers of fish every year.

"Though Marion's catfish are a little smaller than most other lakes, they are usually just the right size for the dinner table,"

Turner offered.

Other good bets in northern Alabama are Walker County Lake and Fayette County Lake. Walker County Lake is a 160-acre impoundment three miles southeast of Jasper on U.S. Highway. 78. This area features a picnic pavilion and offers good fishing for bream and crappie as well. The 65 acres of Fayette County Lake are also a good bet for reeling some catfish.

If you live in central Alabama, you're in luck, as Dallas County Lake is one of the best catfish lakes in the state, producing both high numbers of catfish, and large ones at that. Turner reported that in 2006, the average-sized catfish coming out of 100-acre Dallas County Lake was 3 1/2 pounds -- the largest average size of any of Alabama's public fishing lakes. This lake can be reached from Selma via State Route 41 South.

One of Alabama's more unusual public fishing waters, Clay County Lake is actually a system of three separate lakes connected in stairstep sequence. The three ponds, in Delta on SR 47, encompass 74 acres altogether. According to Turner, Middle Clay is the best of the three lakes to try for catfish.

For those who live in Alabama's southern districts, Monroe County Lake is the best bet for catfish. This 94-acre lake lies five miles west of Beatrice. The area has a picnic pavilion for those wishing to get out of the sun for a bit. In addition to catfish, Monroe County Lake supports an excellent bream fishery.

Barbour County Lake covers 75 acres north of Clayton. Last year it had an excellent average size for channel cats -- more than 2 pounds each. Also, 45-acre Pike County Lake in Troy is a good place to fish for cats.

Sometimes referred to as "J. Emmett Wood Lake." 84-acre Washington County Lake in Millry was restocked and reopened for fishing in 2006, Turner reported. He expects this lake to be a good catfish and bream producer in 2007. In addition to the usual facilities, Washington County Lake has a picnic pavilion and self-contained campsites that make it an excellent family fishing destination.

If big cats are your targets, then Dallas County Lake, with its 3 1/2-pound average fish in 2006, is another good bet. The 184-acre Escambia County Lake in Wing yielded the second-largest average catfish size last year at 3.1 pounds, making it another great southern Alabama destination. Other ponds that produced a good average were 183-acre Chambers County Lake in Lafayette and 53-acre Crenshaw County Lake in Luverne. Each of these lakes yielded catfish that averaged over 2 pounds apiece.

Since channel cats don't tend to get very big, whatever tackle you have in the closet is probably going to be just fine, Turner said. Most channel catfish in the state fishing lakes run 2 to 4 pounds, with a smattering of 7- to 8-pound fish. "You're not likely to encounter a catfish that will tear your tackle up," he offered. "A Zebco 33 will be just fine with at least 10-pound-test line, but 20- to 30-pound-test will work better."

A lucky angler may occasionally encounter a blue catfish or flathead in the lakes. These species can run up to 40 pounds, but generally you don't have to worry about encountering one of them, Turner noted.

Channel cats are not picky eaters, but the smellier the bait the better your chances of catching fish. Bait choices for catfish range far and wide with cheese, chicken, doughballs, hot dogs, red worms, cut bait, blood baits and liver being among the more popular choices.

One of the great things about the state fishing lakes is that they all offer good bank and pier access. Automated fish feeders are present at all of the piers in the lake system, so fishing right off the pier is generally a good bet. In addition, most of the lakes have good cover, which is the catfish's preferred habitat. Anglers who fish from the banks are also likely to be successful: Just bring your lawn chair, your picnic and your bait bucket, and you're set to go.

Anglers who bring or rent boats should find a sunken treetop, anchor almost right over it, and then drop a line right into the branches, Turner recommended. "You'll need heavy line," he cautioned, "because if you get a bite, you're going to have to wrench him out of there." Many boat fishermen use a weedless setup for this heavy cover.

The state lake system in general and those lakes' catfish in particular are perfect for a family fishing outing with the children. "Generous patience" is Turner's best recommendation for what to bring for families fishing with kids.

"Whenever you talk about fishing with kids, you need to talk about patience," he emphasized. "Our lakes are good spots to take kids. They're open, they're clean and there are places for them to run and let off some steam.

"Our fishing piers are very amenable to fishing with kids. It puts anglers in close proximity to a concentration of fish."

Casting a line or two from the bank is also a good choice for kids, because it gives them room to move around. If the fish aren't biting, they can wander around, catch a lizard and generally act like kids.

The fun part of fishing for kids is, of course, catching fish! Turner recommended throwing out one pole for bluegills and another baited for catfish. Kids like to see the bobber go under and have a fish on the line, no matter what size or species it is.

"Most kids aren't going to be happy sitting for two or three hours to catch two fish," Turner said. "They want to go fishing and catch eight or 10 bluegill and one good catfish."

Catfish can put up quite a fight, and catching one bigger fish is really an event for most kids.

Once kids reach the age of 10 or 12 (especially if they've spent some time fishing), go ahead and concentrate on catching larger cats. Until then, just focus on catching fish -- the more the better.

After nearly 60 years of continuous operation, the state fishing lakes are still a great destination for beginners, families and experienced anglers alike. The DWFF offers an excellent brochure that gives details on each of the lakes, including directions to the facility, the lake manager's phone number and special features of each area. You can request one of these brochures or other information by calling (334) 242-3471.

All of this information is also available on the DCNR Web site at www.outdooralabama.com. From there, click on the Fishing link, then click on the State Fishing Lakes link to access a wealth of information on the lake system.

As noted above, be sure to call ahead before embarking on your trip to ensure that the lake's open, and to find out what's biting. Other than that, it's time to load up the truck and check out some of Alabama's best catfishing spots!

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