One of the best ways to bring a family together is through fishing. Spending fun times in a boat or on a bank not only creates lifelong memories, it also introduces kids to the great outdoors and ignites their curiosity about nature.
The Cotton State has numerous state parks and other public areas where families can spend a day, or longer, in pursuit of a variety of species. In fact, many of these areas are excellent for beginners, as they provide good access to catchable fish.
By Eileen Ann Davis
GULF SHORES SURF FISHING
Alabama's most popular summertime vacation destination for families is the sugar white sand beaches of the Gulf. For many, fishing adds an exciting dimension, and fishing in the surf does not require special tackle or gear to be successful.
Of the many species available, shore anglers most often target whiting, which look like a redfish without the spot, and pompano. Both are excellent fighters with the latter being very desirable due it delicious flavor. An average whiting weighs less than a pound and a good size fish weighs 1 1/2 pounds. Pompano average 1 pound and are common up to 2 pounds.
Anglers also catch bluefish, catfish and ladyfish. The latter is a nuisance, but its leaping antics and appearance have earned it the moniker of "Baby Tarpon."
A 7-foot, medium-action spinning rod spooled with 10- or 12-pound-test line is an excellent choice. If targeting bluefish, use a steel leader, otherwise, tie directly to the hook or lure.
Catching fish from the surf is about reading the beach and waves to identify sandbars, troughs and cuts. A deep trough between the beach and the sandbar is an excellent place to fish, provided the sandbar is within casting distance and the beach drops off steeply. Fish move between these edges to feed. However, the most productive area is near a cut in the sandbar where water flows back to the Gulf. Cuts are where fish enter and exit troughs.
The cut at Little Lagoon, which is three miles west of Gulf Shores Parkway and connects Little Lagoon with the Gulf, is an excellent place to fish. Little Lagoon Park is on the east side of the bridge.
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During summer, the best times to fish the surf are from sunrise to 9 a.m. and from 4 p.m. to sunset, using live sand fleas, shrimp and fiddler crabs.
Consider basing at Gulf Shores State Park. In addition to miles of pristine beach, the park has a campground, fishing pier, golf course, hiking trail, cottages and a nature center. They also rent kayaks, paddle boards and bikes.
Along The Way: Of the many things to do near Gulf Shores, there are three don't miss attractions. The USS ALABAMA Battleship Memorial Park features the WW II Battleship USS ALABAMA, the Submarine USS DRUM and over 25 aircraft. At the Pensacola Naval Air Station, the National Naval Aviation Museum contains nearly 375,000 square feet of displays with more than 190 restored aircraft representing Navy, Marine and Coast Guard aviation. Admission is free. Overlooking Mobile Bay on the edge of the peninsula, Fort Morgan played a key role during the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864, as well as three other wars. The site showcases the evolution of seacoast fortifications by the U.S. Army.
LAKE GUNTERSVILLE BLUEGILL
Located at the opposite corner of the state from Gulf Shores is Lake Guntersville on the Tennessee River. It's Alabama's largest lake and has an abundance of grass flats perfect for rearing fish. It also has a forage base for good growth rates. These factors contribute to making Lake Guntersville a top destinations for bluegill.
"Bluegills are always willing to bite, and are perfect when fishing with children," said Phil Ekema, district fisheries biologist. "The fish are easy to catch and will hold their interest."
For those planning to fish from shore, Ekema recommends fishing the lower section of the lake, but adds weeds can limit access.
"The mouth of Brown's Creek and Guntersville State Park at the camping area on Town Creek may be good places to fish from shore," said Ekema. "Additionally, there are many bridges popular with anglers, although they mostly target bass, catfish and crappie. It's possible to catch bluegill, but most of the bridges have riprap along the shore. When scouting for fish, work the inside weed edges and keep moving. If you don't catch a fish within five minutes, move a short distance. If the weeds have not topped out, adjust the float on your line to keep your bait above and out of the weeds."
If fishing from a boat, the biologist recommends the Highway 431 Bridge near the Alred Marina. Other productive areas include Goose Pond and Sebow.
The best time to catch bluegill is during the spawn, which peaks on Lake Guntersville in May. June is also good as sunfish spawn multiple times throughout the summer.
"Nest sites have good substrate," said Ekema, "and weeds to help protect the beds. Weeds grow in some of the gravel areas and it hides them from predators. Look for beds in water 3- to 4-feet deep and fish with crickets."
Whether looking for a resort style retreat or an outdoor adventure, Lake Guntersville Resort State Park is sure to please. Among the park's many offerings are a championship golf course, a beach complex, a fishing center, a nature center, 36 miles of hiking and biking trails, and ziplines.
Along The Way: More than 400,000 people a year visit the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville. The center features an IMAX theater, interactive exhibits, thousands of artifacts and original space vehicles. Families can experience the evolution of space travel and learn about future missions. Another side trip is Cathedral Caverns State Park near Woodville. Tours take about 1.5 hours, with the last tour beginning at 4:00 p.m. If on the last tour, follow it with a short trip to Sauta Cave NWR to observe the emergence of approximately 250,000 bats for their nightly feeding. Admission is free. To reach the refuge from Cathedral Caverns, turn east on U.S. 72 and drive for seven miles.
SIPSEY FORK RAINBOW TROUT
Last June, WFF, through agreements with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Alabama Power, stocked 2,600 pounds of 7- to 15-inch rainbow trout. This is double the normal rate between 1,100 or 1,500 pounds per month; they are doing it again this year.
The Sipsey Fork trout fishery begins at the Lewis Smith Dam where chilly water flowing from its base supports a year-round fishery that continues downstream for more than 40 miles. The greatest concentration of fish occurs within the first five miles. Haffner narrows the best fishing to the stretch above the pump station.
"There is a parking lot next to the pump station," said Jay Haffner, district fisheries biologist. "Park there, walk around the pump station and a half-mile upstream is exceptional habitat. Alabama Power spent more than $250,000 improving the habitat."
Whether fishing with a fly rod rigged with a dry fly or a spincast rod baited with a corn kernel under a bobber, anglers find hatchery raised trout cooperative. The limit is five, but it's possible to catch many more on the right day. Anglers may practice catch and release, but culling trout is prohibited.
When the Powerhouse is generating electricity, water levels in the tailwaters rise as much as 15 feet, and the current is strong. Warning sirens sound when power generations begin so anglers can reach higher ground. When the turbines are still, a minimum flow mimics natural stream conditions, which is perfect for wading.
In addition to the parking lot on C.R. 95, there are seven sets of metal stairs leading from the east bank to the water. The Riverside Fly Shop at the S.R. 69 Bridge has bait, lures and rents boats for floating the Sipsey Fork. The nearest camping is Lake Shore Campground and RV, which is 10 miles to the northwest on Lake Shore Drive.
Along The Way: Birmingham's top attraction is the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum. The museum has a collection of about 600 vintage and modern motorcycles on display. The bikes date from 1902 to present-day production models. The museum also has a large selection of racecars. Located in Cullman, the Ave Maria Grotto (1600 St. Bernard Drive SE) covers four acres and contains miniature representations of more than 125 churches and religious building and shrines. Covering 181,230 acres, the William B. Bankhead National Forest is located north-northwest of Smith Lake, around the town of Double Springs. It is popular for boating, canoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, hunting and swimming.
GENEVA COUNTY CHANNEL CATS
The Geneva County Lake, located 15 miles northwest of Geneva, is intensively managed by on-site managers, and is an excellent place to catch a limit of channel catfish.
Geneva County Lake is actually two lakes covering 33 and 35 acres. While both lakes are stocked with catfish, the lower lake has more and bigger fish. For the past three years, Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries has stocked the larger lower lake with 5,250 cats per year. Anglers can expect to catch fish weighing up to 3 1/2 pounds.
Ken Weathers, district fisheries supervisor, says fishing is good in summer, with peak fishing occurring in June when channel catfish spawn. For fast action, he recommends fishing from the dam and the two, 30-foot piers.
"When we renovated the lake," Weathers said, "we packed the area directly under the piers with structure so anglers can fish the edge of the structure without getting hung. These piers hold a lot of fish."
From a boat, anglers should target downed timber, but be sure to use tackle heavy enough to pull fish straight out of cover to prevent them from wrapping line around limbs.
In summer, Weathers recommends anglers not fish deeper than 6 feet, because as the lakes reach summer temperatures, their waters stratify and deplete oxygen from lower levels.
Bait for channel cats cover a wide range from commercial baits to hotdogs and livebaits of nearly everything from crawfish to nighcrawlers. But in summer, nothing beats shrimp.
The lakes' facilities include a boat ramp, fishing piers, restrooms and a concession with bait, tackle and snacks. To fish, state fishing license requirements apply to anglers age 16 or older. Additionally, a $3.00 daily permit is required for anglers age 12 and older. Boat rentals are available for $5.00. Before planning a trip, call the lake manager 334-684-0361 to confirm the lake is open.
Along The Way: When the kids are ready for something different, the U.S. Army Aviation Museum at Fort Rucker has one of the largest collections of military helicopters in the world. Inside the museum's 70,000 square feet, there are about 50 historic and one-of-a-kind aircraft. The collection includes many examples of early developments in rotary wing technology and the evolution of the helicopter. In Dothan, step back into history and visit Landmark Park on U.S. 431. Designated as Alabama's Official Museum of Agriculture, it recreates Wiregrass culture and history of the 1800s. Also in Dothan, Adventureland Theme Park offers batting cages, bumper boats, go karts, mini golf and a large arcade filled with exciting games.