If your idea of a grand outdoor adventure is catching fish after fish and then having a fish fry, April, May and June are your months in Alabama.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.
The warming waters this time of year trigger the panfish spawn. First redears or shellcrackers bed in April followed by bluegills in May. Both spawns can continue into June. Shellcrackers and bluegills — collectively known as bream — are plentiful, easy to catch and will just plain put a smile on your face.
Biologists from the Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries say shellcrackers begin spawning when the surface water temperature reaches about 75 degrees. That usually happens in April, perhaps a little earlier if it has been a warm spring. Bluegills like it a little warmer still, when the surface temperature hits about 80 degrees sometime in May. Bluegills are said to spawn all summer long, but the first spawn in May offers the best fishing since the beds are right on the bank, in shallow water that is easily accessible.
Finding them can be as simple as easing down the bank casting to fishy-looking spots and then anchoring once you start catching fish.
Bluegill fishing can be good all day long, but the late afternoon hours are often the best, an advantage for anglers who prefer not to get up during pre-dawn hours.
Shellcrackers tend to get a little larger than bluegills and are preferred by many anglers. They’re generally not as abundant. It’s not uncommon to catch both redears and bluegills on the same bream outing.
There are plenty of places to fish for bream throughout the Cotton State. In North Alabama, the Tennessee River — particularly Guntersville Lake — has been well documented as an outstanding bluegill and shellcracker fishery.
But some much smaller waters are open to the public that are also real gems when it comes to panfishing. They’re the state public fishing lakes scattered across North Alabama.
The state fishing lakes are intensely managed by the Alabama DWFF for optimal fishing opportunity. Most are set in highly scenic locations and have amenities such as bait shops, fishing access piers and picnic areas right on-site.
They’re wonderful places to spend an afternoon fishing with the family. And since they are managed for fishing opportunity, your chances of having a great outing with lots of fish may actually be better than they are on the big reservoirs.
These are not catch-and-release lakes. The DWFF Fisheries Section wants you to keep what you catch and take it home with you. It helps their overall management plan.
Here are six lakes in North Alabama you may want to consider checking out this spring for shellcrackers and bluegills.
MADISON COUNTY LAKE
Madison County Lake covers 105 acres near Gurley, 11 miles east of Huntsville. The lake is typically open six days a week, closed on Wednesday, during the spring fishing season.
“Madison County is a good lake for bream,” said Phil Ekema, a state fisheries biologist who works in northwest Alabama.
“We see some especially large shellcrackers coming out of this lake. We see numbers of bluegills, and sizes when it comes to shellcrackers.”
Old-time North Alabama anglers suggest fishing with worms if you’re targeting shellcrackers and crickets if you’re after bluegills.
Ekema said he’s heard that too.
“Red wigglers,” he said, “are what they sell at Madison County Lake and that’s what a lot of shellcracker anglers use. But shellcrackers will bite crickets too.”
The fishing pier at Madison County Lake is a good place to try for bluegills. But you can trailer your own boat there or rent a boat and try trolling the shorelines and coves. Only electric motors are allowed on the lake.
“It’s a nice, quiet location for fishing,” Ekema said.
Jack Turner, the supervisor for all the state lakes, has data on just what is being caught at the various lakes.
“The bluegill fishing is pretty good there, but the shellcracker is even better,” he said in describing Madison County Lake.
“Last year, anglers caught about 6,000 bluegills at Madison County Lake and 2,400 shellcrackers,” he continued. “The shellcrackers averaged about 1/2 pound apiece, while the bluegills were 0.4 of a pound.
While most bluegill anglers use a floater or cork, Turner emphasized the many of the very serious shellcracker anglers do better tight-lining baits right on the bottom.
“People catch bluegills on artificial baits, but shellcracker fishing is primarily a live bait sport,” he added.
DEKALB COUNTY LAKE
DeKalb County Lake is a 120-acre pond near Sylvania on Sand Mountain. It’s open six days a week and closed on Wednesdays.
“DeKalb is a pretty decent bluegill lake,” said Mike Holley, a state fisheries biologist in northeast Alabama. “Worms and crickets both work. One may be better than the other on any given day. It’s best to talk to the manager and see what’s been going on or even try both baits.”
Jack Turner said anglers caught 6,200 bluegills at DeKalb County Lake last year, with the fish averaging about 0.6 of a pound each.
The shellcrackers averaged 1/2 pound or better, but were not as numerous as the bluegills, he said.
Holley said all the state lakes are intensely managed and that includes fertilizing to maximize natural food.
“The whole idea is to create more forage,” he said. “These lakes are great little places to fish, but they don’t seem as popular now as they were in the past. Recent catch records indicate the fishing is as good now as it ever was, maybe better.”
In addition to the normal amenities such as a bait
shop and pier, DeKalb County Lake offers camping with hookups for $10 a night.
FAYETTE & MARION COUNTY LAKES
Fayette County Lake is a 60-acre pond near Fayette in northwest Alabama. It’s open seven days a week during the spring fishing season.
Marion County Lake covers 37 acres near Guin. It’s open six days a week, but closed Wednesdays during the spring.
These two lakes are discussed together because fishery biologist Phil Ekema said they fish very similarly.
“They’re both a little bass crowded,” Ekema said. “When you have more predators in a lake, you don’t have as many bluegills, but the ones you produce are some really nice ones.”
Anglers have a chance to catch some big bream at these lakes. Bream fishing is popular at the two lakes and they give up bluegills in the 2/3- to 3/4-pound range.
State Lake Supervisor Jack Turner said Marion County lake produced about 1,900 bluegills last year and about 200 redears.
While those shellcrackers were not as numerous as the bluegills, they averaged 3/4 of a pound apiece, so it’s a place for good-sized shellcrackers.
“It’s a little smaller than the others we’ve talked about,” he said. “Access is very good, and it’s a good place for a beginning fisherman to spend some time.”
LAMAR COUNTY LAKE
Lamar County Lake is a 68-acre pond near Vernon close to Sulligent. It is typically open six days a week during the spring fishing season. It closes on Tuesdays.
“We’re proud of Lamar,” said Supervisor Jack Turner, “It’s a great bluegill fishery.”
Some 8,000 bluegills were caught here last year. It led all the other lakes in North Alabama in terms of bluegills per angler.
“They don’t do a lot on shellcrackers, but they have a lot of bluegills,” Turner said. “The fish have good size too, averaging about a half a pound apiece.”
It’s one of the least pressured lakes of the state system too, Turner added, and that may be another reason why it is so good.
WALKER COUNTY LAKE
Walker County Lake spreads across 163 acres near Jasper. It’s open six days a week and closed on Wednesdays during the spring months.
Turner said the bluegill fishing is pretty good.
“About 6,800 bluegills were caught here last year,” he said. “That’s comparable to Madison and DeKalb County lakes, but Walker is a lot bigger than either of those.”
Biologist Phil Ekema said Walker is known as a better bass lake than for bluegills.
The bluegills caught here aren’t as large as they are in some other lakes, with the average fish going about 1/3 of a pound.
STATE LAKE FEES
Fishing in the state lakes isn’t free, but it’s not terribly expensive either. A huge plus is that most state fishing lakes have piers, bank access, boat rentals and bait shops right on-site. You can buy drinks and snacks and some even sell rods and reels, so you can theoretically show up with nothing and end up fishing.
At a bare minimum, fishing in a state lake will cost you $3. That’s the cost of a daily permit to fish in one of the lakes.
You almost must have either a state fishing license or a Wildlife Heritage License.
May and June are without a doubt the best times of the year to be on the water fishing for big bluegills and shellcrackers. With so much attention on the Tennessee River in North Alabama, these smaller lakes offer an overlooked opportunity as places to catch a mess of bream in 2010.
An added bonus of fishing the state lakes is that the bream fishing can actually turn on a little quicker here than it can on the big water. Since the lakes are smaller, they warm more quickly and reach the 75- to 80-degree temperature needed for spawning before the Tennessee River.
That’s one more reason this might need to be the spring for you to check out the public lakes.