Fish and Fishing in the Alabama Portion of the Tennessee River
A large volume of relatively clean water creates great fishing as the Tennessee River dips south from the State of Tennessee into Alabama. This southern swing of the Tennessee River into Alabama brings game fish and various animals not found in other Alabama watersheds. Smallmouth bass and sauger are two species of interest to anglers that are not native to the remainder of Alabama. The Tennessee River is known for its big smallmouth bass and blue catfish. Four impoundments slow the water before the Tennessee River flows back north into the State of Tennessee: Guntersville Lake, Wheeler Lake, Wilson Lake and Pickwick Lake. Anglers are able to lock through each dam on the Alabama portion of the Tennessee River.
Lake Guntersville begins in the State of Tennessee at the 81-foot high Nickajack Dam. The Tennessee River runs 75 miles through Guntersville Lake, providing 949 miles of shoreline and 69,100 acres of water surface. Lake Guntersville is one of the most stable Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) reservoirs, fluctuating only two feet between the normal minimum winter pool and the maximum summer pool. Tributaries of the Tennessee River and Lake Guntersville include: Big Coon, Brown, Coon, Crow, Long Island, Mud, North Sauty, South Sauty, Scarham, Short and Town creeks. Guntersville Lake is known for its big largemouth bass, but the lake also has fantastic fishing for bream and large catfish. The state record yellow bass, buffalo, and white crappie came from Guntersville Lake.
Below the 94-foot Guntersville Dam, the Tennessee River is slowed by Wheeler Lake. Water travels the first part of the 60 miles to Wheeler Dam in the old river channel, passing Huntsville and approaching Decatur, Alabama. Sauger, striped bass and white bass make runs upstream during the spring. Major tributaries in this eastern section are the Paint Rock River, Flint River, Cotaco Creek, Piney Creek, Limestone Creek and Flint Creek.
Several species unique to the Tennessee River basin are found in these streams, including the endangered palezone shiner and threatened slackwater darter and snail darter. The endangered spotfin chub may be extirpated from Alabama waters. Formerly found in this area, the harelip sucker and the whiteline topminnow are now considered extinct. The spring pygmy sunfish, though not threatened, is only found in tributaries of Wheeler. The Paint Rock River is a tributary of particular note; this relatively small stream and its tributaries are home to 98 species of fish, one of the most diverse streams in the United States. Paint Rock River is also noted for its diverse mussel and snail populations.
West of US Highway 31 and the railroad tracks, the waters of the Tennessee River spread out. This area is known as Decatur Flats and is popular with bass tournament anglers. Swan, Spring, Round Island, First and Second creeks are small tributaries. Elk River is a major tributary on the western end of Wheeler Lake. Elk River above Wheeler Lake is home to the endangered boulder darter.
Wheeler Lake has not enjoyed the fame of Lake Guntersville, but Wheeler provides excellent fishing for both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass. All of Wheeler provides good fishing for largemouth bass, but Decatur Flats is most famous. Smallmouth bass are most likely to be caught in the lower parts of the main reservoir and the Elk River arm. Like anglers on Lake Guntersville, the local anglers of Wheeler are well aware of the great fishing for bream and catfish. The former world record blue catfish, 111 pounds, came from Wheeler Lake. The lake also has some large crappie. The Alabama state record yellow perch came from Wheeler Lake.
The Wheeler tailwater, below the 72-foot high Wheeler Dam, provides fishing for smallmouth bass that is known nationwide. Many anglers simply drift live shad or golden shiners weighted with a single split shot. Freshwater drum and catfish are also caught frequently. Wilson Lake provides 166 miles of shoreline. Big Nance, Bluewater, Town and Shoal creeks are tributaries of Wilson Lake. Northern tributaries contain some unique nongame fish species including slackwater darter and lollipop darter, a fish limited to Shoal Creek. The Alabama state record smallmouth bass and freshwater drum came from Wilson Lake.
Of the Tennessee River impoundments in Alabama, Wilson Lake is the shortest, 15 miles, and smallest, 15,500 acres. Wilson Dam was constructed from 1918 to 1924 to provide power for two nitrate plants needed to make explosives for World War I. Wilson Dam is 137 feet high and has the largest conventional hydroelectric plant in the TVA power system.
In Pickwick Lake, one of the most popular smallmouth bass fishing areas is from Wilson Dam to the end of Seven-Mile Island. The Tennessee River travels 50 miles from Wilson Dam to Pickwick Dam. In Alabama, Bear Creek and Cypress Creek are important tributaries. These tributaries contain nongame fish species unique to this area including bandfin darter and the crown darter.
Most of Pickwick is in Alabama, but the lower (northwest) end is shared with Mississippi and Tennessee. An Alabama fishing license allows anglers to fish throughout Pickwick Lake. Anglers only holding a Mississippi or Tennessee fishing license are restricted as to where they can fish. Anglers must adhere to the rules and regulations of the state where they are boating.
Pickwick Lake is most famous for its smallmouth bass. Crappie and catfish fishing are excellent. Pickwick Lake, including the Wilson tailwater section, claims four state records. Alabama tried stocking muskellunge in Pickwick, so the state record came from there in 1972. Paddlefish are now protected from harvest and harassment, but a 52-pound, 12-ounce paddlefish was caught in 1982 from Pickwick when harvest was legal. Alabama record silver redhorse and sauger came from the tailwaters of Wilson Dam.
The Tennessee River Basin drains thirteen percent of Alabama and contributes greatly to our aquatic fauna and our sport fishing. The Tennessee River drainage in Alabama has been found to contain 176 species of fish. Two types of fish, the harelip sucker and whitelined topminnow, are presumed extinct, and the endangered spotfin chub may be extirpated from Alabama waters. The Tennessee River offers fishing for species not found in other drainages of Alabama. Some of these fisheries are among the top in the United States, including smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, and blue catfish. Spread over four reservoirs, the Tennessee River in Alabama offers excellent fishing for all anglers.
The Tennessee River and its tributaries are home to one of the most diverse freshwater mussel faunas in the world. A total of 89 species is known from the drainage, including 79 that have been reported from a single location, Muscle Shoals. The great diversity at Muscle Shoals was the result of two major faunal groups meeting in an extensive area of ideal habitat. Before the dams were built, greater Muscle Shoals extended over 50 miles, from above the mouth of Elk River to just downstream of the City of Waterloo. The mussels found in the Muscle Shoals include types found in the upper reaches of the Tennessee River drainage and mussels found in the Ohio River. Unfortunately, many of the species, especially those from the upper reaches, were dependent on flowing water and could not survive once the dams were built. Today the only riverine reach remaining in the vicinity of Muscle Shoals are tailwaters of Wilson Dam. Only 41 mussel species currently inhabit that part of the river, which is still an exceptional fauna compared to most other places. The Tennessee River is also known for its mussel harvest and provides a considerable portion of U.S. annual exports for use in the cultured pearl industry. The harvest is controlled by state regulation and only common species, such as Washboard and Ebonyshell, are taken.
Aquatic snails are also abundant and diverse in the Tennessee River and its tributaries. Seventy species are known or suspected to occur in Alabama reaches of the drainage. Half of those (35 species) occur nowhere outside of the Tennessee River system. Snails seem to have fared better than freshwater mussels with modern changes to habitat, though their ranges are now mostly reduced to tributaries and riverine habitats immediately downstream of dams. Only two Tennessee River snail species are believed to be extinct, though the status of several small species is unknown. Modern legislation, such as the federal Clean Water Act and Endangered Species Act, appear to have been of great benefit to snails and mussels alike. The Tennessee Valley Authority has recently made commitments to improve water quality and quantity downstream of their dams, which will also help improve their habitat. Measures such as these to continue protection of these animals and their habitats will likely help them continue to survive for the foreseeable future.
For more information about the Tennessee River, please contact the District I Fisheries Office.