By DAVID RAINER, Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
The Alabama State Public Fishing Lakes (PFLs) program is adapting to better serve the citizens of the state who depend on these lakes for recreational angling opportunities.
The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division manages 23 PFLs in 20 counties throughout the state to serve areas without easy access to the numerous larger lakes, rivers and reservoirs.
The WFF-run lakes range in size from 13 to 184 acres for a total of 1,912 surface acres. Each lake is intensively managed to provide sustainable, quality fishing for numerous species, including largemouth bass, bluegill and redear sunfish (shellcracker). Catchable-size channel catfish are stocked in each lake during the winter. Many lakes have opportunities to catch crappie, and a few are stocked with hybrid striped bass.
During the COVID pandemic, Alabamians were flocking to the PFLs as a way to get outside when other activities were limited. That bump has now dissipated to usage lower than pre-Covid, and WFF is trying to boost the use of the PFLs.
“We’re making changes to draw people back to our lakes,” said Jonathan Brown, WFF’s Public Fishing Lakes Manager. “We’re changing some management plans. Hopefully that will keep people coming. We have a lot of lakes in transition right now. Normally we have about one lake we are renovating every year or year and a half. Right now, we’re the busiest we’ve been in a long time.
“We’re changing the model of how some of our PFLs are run. We’re looking at several lake renovations in the next couple of years that will provide great fishing opportunities. The way they were run when they were first started in the 1950s is just not working the same for a lot of our lakes. We’re changing the management model and how we manage the fish populations.”
Additional outdoor recreational opportunities are being developed at several of the state fishing lakes. The Pike County Lake in Troy and the Walker County Lake in Jasper both have archery parks at the lakes as well as walking trails.
“I love the partnerships with local communities at our state lakes and the added recreational benefits that are being added,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “The use of these lakes is so important to the quality of life in these areas. The more people we can get out to the lakes to fish, boat, hike, practice archery or enjoy just being outdoors at the lake the better it is for the health and well-being of the community residents.”
One of the challenges recently is finding lake managers who are willing to make a significant commitment to the property. Lake managers are not state employees and operate the lakes as contractors for the state. Their income is derived from the sale of fishing permits and concession sales from the bait shop. When managers leave, WFF has had difficulty finding replacements.
Chris Greene, WFF’s Chief of Fisheries, said the Department is looking at new approaches to keep the PFLs open.
“We’re having a difficult time finding lake managers,” Greene said. “Do we look for partnerships with local governments? Do we keep the lakes open with no manager on site? We’re looking at different approaches because we’re being forced into it.
“In society as a whole, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people for certain positions in the workforce. I think that’s what we’re dealing with. It takes a special type of person to run these lakes. You want somebody who interacts well with the public and has a good work ethic. You want somebody with the skills to repair things around the lake property. You have to find somebody who doesn’t mind being confined to working long hours at a lake environment. It takes a special kind of person to be open to that, who enjoys that, enjoys serving customers at the lake. Those people are becoming harder and harder to find.
“And we’ve had to close a few of our lakes because of infrastructure issues. Some of these lakes are beyond the useful life of the standpipes or drain tower or whatever it may be. It’s not what we want to do, but repairs have to be made. We’ve probably got more lakes right now that are closed than we’ve ever had because of those two problems – finding a lake manager and/or infrastructure repair. The budget only goes so far.”