The Alabama State Park system officially began nearly 80 years ago when the Alabama Legislature passed the Department of Conservation Act in March 1939. The act created the Department of Conservation, which contains the Alabama State Parks Division. Today, the state operates 21 parks totaling about 48,000 acres of diverse habitat ranging from coastal beaches to mountainous forests.
"We encourage sportsmen to use these parks for their outdoors adventures as they visit areas across the state," remarked Greg Lein, director of the Alabama State Parks Division. "Some parks are particularly well suited for specific types of hunting or fishing adventures or combinations. Many parks offer hunter specials in the fall and winter. We're thrilled that we can provide these other opportunities for sportsmen to use the parks as base camps for nearby outdoors activities."
Many parks exist in remote, wilderness locations where visitors can escape from modern life for a time. Almost all parks provide excellent hiking, and wildlife or bird viewing opportunities. Some parks even allow limited hunting, but all can serve as temporary homes for outdoors enthusiasts participating in various adventures. However, a few really stand out to benefit sportsmen all year long.
JOE WHEELER STATE PARK
Joe Wheeler State Park covers 2,550 acres of mostly pine-covered rolling hills on Wheeler Lake near Rogersville. The full-service park marina can accommodate boats up to 50-feet long. A small part of the park — Wheeler Dam Village — sits across the lake, where can rent lakeside cabins and launch boats.
Part of the Tennessee River system, Wheeler Lake covers 69,700 acres. The second largest lake in Alabama stretches 60 miles along the river. Anglers can catch many different fish species, including largemouth, spotted and smallmouth bass, striped bass, bream, crappie and catfish.
"Wheeler Lake produces a lot of quality largemouth and smallmouth bass," advised Davis Whitten, bass guide and tournament angler (256-702-5417) from Muscle Shoals. "My favorite place to fish is right around the park. Many tournaments run out of the park and release fish in the marina area."
The park sits adjacent to Wheeler Dam. Just across the dam, anglers can also fish Wilson Lake. Wilson once held the world record for smallmouth and still holds the Alabama state record with a 10.5-pounder caught in the tailrace. On the other side of Wilson, Pickwick Lake at Muscle Shoals consistently ranks among the best lakes in the nation for smallmouth and largemouth bass.
While any of these lakes can produce good catches of bass, crappie and other fish, the Tennessee River has a well-earned reputation for holding monster catfish, with some blues exceeding 100 pounds. The lakes also produce big flatheads.
"I've had days on Pickwick, near the Wilson Dam, when I've caught more than 100 catfish," said Brian Barton, catfish guide (www.brianbartonoutdoors.com). "I know some 80- and 90-pounders came out of Wheeler Lake."
Many people hunt ducks on Wheeler Lake, and guests can venture to Swan Creek WMA, an 8,870-acre property in Limestone County known for waterfowl hunting. Sportsmen could also reach Warrior, Freedom Hills or Lauderdale WMAs after a reasonable drive.
The Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge near Decatur covers about 35,000 acres along the Tennessee River near Decatur. It offers managed hunts on about 18,000 acres. Sportsmen may hunt small game, quail, deer and feral hogs by permit.
4401 McLean Drive, - Rogersville, AL 35652 - 1-800-544-JOEW or 256-247-5461
Main Lodge: 75 rooms, $78-$167 a night
Elk River Group Lodge: 13 bedrooms, $1,960 per week
Cabins and Cottages: 10 2-3 bedroom lakeside cottages, $206-$249 a night
Fisherman's Cabin: $88 a night
Wheeler Dam Village: 32 Cabins 2-4 bedrooms, $87-$206 a night
Campground Units: 116 improved and primitive sites, $25-$29 a night improved; $13.50-$16.50 primitive
Onsite amenities: Restaurant, marina, boat launch, golf course and pro shop, disc golf course, beach, boat rentals, kayak and paddle board rentals, trails, grills
Nearby amenities: Close to Florence, Muscle Shoals, Tuscumbia and Decatur; Frank Lloyd Wright Rosenbaum House, Alabama Music Hall of Fame, The Helen Keller House, Blue and Gray Museum. U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville
CHEAHA STATE PARK
Cheaha, from the Creek Indian word "chaha," means "high point" and Cheaha Mountain lives up to that billing. The highest point in Alabama climbs 2,407 feet above sea level. Now that mountain makes up part of Cheaha State Park.
The Civilian Conservation Corps built the park in 1933. In 1939, Cheaha became the first official state park in the system and remains the oldest continuously administrated park in Alabama. Today, the park offers many opportunities for adventures. However, many people use the park as a base camp for hunting in the fall and winter.
The Talladega National Forest completely surrounds the park, covering 392,567 acres at the southern edge of the Appalachian Mountains. Adjacent to the park, the 7,400-acre Cheaha Wilderness preserves a natural area near Rebecca Mountain. Not far away, Dugger Mountain Wilderness preserves 7,245 acres surrounding the second highest peak in Alabama.
"The forest has some pretty good deer hunting," commented Tim Shannon. "The forest has a lot of big longleaf pines, but also has some hardwoods. That country is pretty rugged with many big rocks and steep slopes, but it also has some pretty big bucks."
Part of the Talladega National Forest, Hollins WMA covers 28,802 acres of Clay and Talladega counties south of the park. Immediately north of the park, the Choccolocco WMA covers 56,838 acres of mountainous terrain in Cleburne County near Heflin. Both areas can provide good deer, turkey and small game hunting.
Land managers did some work to restore native longleaf pines to open space in the forests where deer browse can grow. The state, in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service, also did some work to restore bobwhite quail populations and enhance quail habitat in this part of Alabama.
"Choccolocco has some focused management for game species," Lein said. "They do a lot of burning and opening the forest for greater habitat diversity."
While Cheaha State Park is not famous for its fishing opportunities, some people fish Lake Cheaha, a six-acre pond hand-dug by Civilian Conservation Corps workers in the 1930s. The state stocked the lake with largemouth bass and bluegills.
In the national forest, anglers fish the 17-acre Lake Chinnabee. Just outside the down of Delta, anglers can also fish the three Clay County Public Fishing Lakes, which contain largemouth bass, bluegills, redear sunfish, channel catfish and crappie.
19644 Hwy 281, - Delta, AL 36258 - 1-800-610-5801 or 256-488-5111
Hotel: 30 rooms, $72-$106 a night
Bald Rock Group Lodge: 12 bedrooms, $935-$2,200 per night
Stone Cabins: 16, two to four bedrooms, $110-$159 a night
Chalets: Five, two bedrooms, $133-$157 a night
Campground Units: 72 improved sites, $27.50-$29.70 a night; 25 semi-improved sites, $17.60 a night; primitive and group primitive camping for $15.40
Onsite Amenities: Restaurant, observation tower, pavilion, swimming pool, gem mine, museums, playground, trails, wedding chapel, rappelling and rock climbing
Nearby Amenities: White Oak Vineyards, The Anniston Museum of Natural History
GULF STATE PARK
No Alabama park comes close to producing a bigger variety of species or larger fish than Gulf State Park. As the name implies, the park occupies 6,150 acres of coastline, including 3.5 miles of beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
"Gulf State Park is our most popular facility," Lein said. "About 40 percent of our annual visitation takes place there."
Many anglers fish the beaches for pompano and other species, but for people without boats, nothing beats walking out on the 1,540-foot pier jutting into the gulf. Visitors can rent rods and reels from the tackle shop or buy bait, refreshments, snacks and more. The pier also offers a restaurant, fish cleaning stations, restroom facilities, benches and other amenities.
At the end of the pier, the water drops to about 30 feet. Here, anglers often catch many different fish species, depending upon the season. Closer to the beach, people can catch nearshore or inshore species.
"People catch just about every type of saltwater fish in Alabama waters off the Gulf State Park Pier," explained David Thornton, a regular pier angler. "The pier gives anglers without access to boats good opportunities to catch really big fish like king mackerel, jack crevalle, cobia and tarpon, but they can also catch many inshore species. Occasionally, someone even hooks a sailfish."
Anglers who prefer bass, crappie, bream or catfish should consider fishing one of three interconnected park lakes. The natural spring-fed lakes produce bass in the 5- to 8-pound range and some catfish topping 10 pounds. Park personnel placed numerous fish attractors in the lakes to create structure. Anglers might also catch redfish and other salty species in the lakes, probably deposited by storm surges.
"In those lakes, people can catch saltwater and freshwater fish at the same time on the same baits," Lein said.
Lake Shelby, the largest lake on the park, occupies 592 acres. Connected by canals to Lake Shelby, Middle Lake covers 193 acres and Little Lake spreads across 39 acres. The lakes average about 4 feet deep, but some holes in Lake Shelby drop to about 18 feet. Anglers may launch boats or kayaks into the lakes or rent canoes from the park.
While the park pier and lakes provide excellent and diverse fishing opportunities, people can also fish the nearby Gulf of Mexico, Mobile Bay and its associated waters or the Perdido Pass area. Perdido Pass connects Perdido Bay to the Gulf near Orange Beach. The Intracoastal Waterway connects Mobile Bay to Perdido Bay.
Hunters could visit two WMAs in the Mobile-Tensaw Delta on the northern edge of Mobile Bay. The two areas combine for nearly 100,000 acres of public hunting for deer, ducks, squirrels, hogs and turkey. To the east, the Perdido WMA covers another 17,337 acres of Baldwin County.
20115 State Highway 135, - Gulf Shores, AL 36542 - 251-948-7275
Cabins and Cottages: 31, 1-3 bedrooms, $107-$305 a night
Campground Units: Park Outpost (three tents already set up with 4 cots) $50 a night; 496 improved campsites, $37-$52 a night; 11 primitive campsites, $18-$20 a night
Onsite Amenities: Saltwater fishing pier, swimming pool, golf course and grill, nature center, tennis and horseshoe courts, beaches, pavilion, hiking and biking trails, picnic shelters, dog pond
Nearby Amenities: Situated between Gulf Shores and Orange Beach with all the accompanying facilities and recreational activities of beach resort communities