Fishing and Floating the Cahaba River

Anglers enjoy wading and canoeing to catch fish in the Cahaba River (Photo by Doug Darr)The Cahaba River is special in a state with many unique rivers. The diversity of the Cahaba River"s fish population is greater than any other temperate river its size. Recognized as a unique river in Alabama and one of "Alabama's Ten Natural Wonders," the Cahaba River has received attention from environmentalists throughout the nation. It is the longest free-flowing river in Alabama and has a wide diversity of plants and fishes due to the variety of its physical habitats and ecology. World Wildlife Fund and the Nature Conservancy recognized the Cahaba River as being one of only eight Hotspots of Biodiversity in the world. Flowing through the Birmingham area in the heart of Alabama, the river attracts many canoeists and kayakers. The Cahaba River also offers recreational opportunities in the form of fishing, rafting and bird watching for many outdoor enthusiasts.

One hundred thirty-five fish species are known to occur in the Cahaba River and its tributaries. Several rare fish found in the Cahaba River have been assigned special conservation status. This group includes the Alabama sturgeon, Cahaba shiner, crystal darter, freckled darter, goldline darter, and frecklebelly madtom. In addition to rare fish species, the Cahaba River supports many popular native sportfish species such as largemouth bass and spotted bass, bluegill, longear sunfish, crappie, chain pickerel, and many others. There are two sub-species of spotted bass, and the spotted bass in the Cahaba River are called Alabama spotted bass. Alabama spotted bass grow much larger than their northern cousin does. Channel catfish, flathead catfish, and blue catfish are among the most popular non-game fish caught in the Cahaba River.

Cahaba Lily by Ben Jackson III of BirminghamThe Cahaba River is home to a very diverse and unique community of aquatic snails. Of the 35 snail species known or suspected to occur there, ten occur nowhere else in the world and nine other snails are found only in the Cahaba and Coosa drainages. Since there are no major dams on the Cahaba River, its snail fauna has remained intact compared to those of many other rivers. During recent surveys, 30 species have been identified from the Cahaba River and its tributaries. Reasons for the declines that have been observed in the river are believed to be related to water quality and quantity problems. Water quality problems stem from a variety of point and nonpoint sources. Water quantity issues relate to withdrawals and to the impervious surfaces often found in metropolitan areas. Water runs off quickly from buildings, roads, and parking lots. These surfaces do not allow water to soak into the ground, sending too much down the river during heavy rain events, which destabilizes the river bottom and banks. Too little rainwater percolates into the ground to recharge aquifers.

The Cahaba River system contains 50 known freshwater mussel species. Mussels are now gone from some reaches of the Cahaba River. Other sections of the Cahaba River system hold some very good populations of mussels, including some of the best remaining populations of some rare species.

Until recently, most of the area around the Cahaba River Basin was relatively undeveloped. Growth and expansion of the Birmingham metropolitan area into both Jefferson and Shelby counties have significantly impacted the upper basin. The Cahaba River watershed drains an area of approximately 1,825 square miles in central Alabama and is the primary water source for Birmingham Water Works, which serves a quarter of Alabama’s citizens. Wastewater discharges, siltation (dirt), pesticides and herbicide residues have degraded water quality in this once pristine river. Gage heights and water discharge are amongst the data available from the US Geological Survey. The Alabama Department of Environmental Management recognizes three sections of the Cahaba River as Outstanding Alabama Waters: from the Alabama River upstream to Shelby County Road 52, from the dam near US Hwy 280 to Grant's MIll Road, and from US Highway 11 upstream to the source of the Cahaba River. The Little Cahaba River in Bibb County is also designated an Outstanding Alabama Water.

Fishing the Cahaba RiverThe Cahaba River has been an important source of recreational opportunities for the people of Alabama for many years. It receives the heaviest recreational use of any free-flowing river in the state. Due to its scenic and recreational value, the river has been proposed for designation as a National Wild and Scenic River. These efforts were unsuccessful, but in 2000, a national law was passed to purchase 3,500 acres for a Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge in Bibb County. In 2001, the first money was appropriated and land was purchased from willing sellers. The refuge includes three and a half miles of the Cahaba River. Organizations such as the Alabama Nature Conservancy and the Cahaba River Society continue to promote efforts to protect the Cahaba River in additional ways through various conservation groups and agencies.

The Cahaba River is one of Alabama’s most precious natural resources. The river provides recreation to many anglers, botanists, canoeists, hikers and wildlife watchers. As demands increase for development and water withdrawals in the future, it is up to the people of Alabama to ensure that the Cahaba River is protected for generations to come.

Perry Lake off the Cahaba River
(Photo courtesy of Randy Haddock, Cahaba River Society)

For more information on the Cahaba River, please contact the District III Fisheries Office.