Fishing the Sipsey Fork (Smith Lake Tailwaters) Alabama's Only Year-Round Trout Fishing
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Tucked below the 300-foot high Smith Lake dam, the Sipsey Fork holds one of Alabama's unique fisheries. Since 1974, rainbow trout have been stocked into the cold waters of the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River, the tailwaters below Smith Lake. Water is drawn from deep below the surface of the lake and used to spin two turbines to generate electricity in the the powerhouse. The clear water discharged into the tailwaters remains below 70 degrees year-round and is capable of supporting a rainbow trout population.
Currently, the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) through agreements with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Alabama Power Company stocks about 3,000 8- to 14-inch rainbow trout every month of the year. A quick release system near the Smith Dam fishing platform on the west side of the Sipsey Fork is used to stock the rainbow trout.
The Sipsey Fork is a “put and take” rainbow trout fishery. Creel and possession limit is 5 fish. No size limit, no closed season, nor trout stamp restrict angling, so long as it is by legal means. Anglers may practice catch and release - if they desire, but culling trout (removing or releasing trout from a cooler, livewell, basket, or stringer) is unlawful on the Sipsey Fork, from the Smith Lake Dam downstream to the confluence with the Mulberry Fork.
Since trout are being stocked near the dam and access is better, most of the trout fishing occurs above the Birmingham Water Works Pump Station (BWWPS). Trout and good habitat are found along the entire 12.5-mile stretch of the Sipsey Fork, until it reaches the Mulberry Fork.
The WFF continues to work closely with the Alabama Power Company (APC) and Trout Unlimited to enhance in-stream fish habitat on the Sipsey Fork and improve angler access, for the benefit of all anglers. In early 2011, an elaborate combination of rock points, boulders mid-channel and in-stream woody structure were anchored in the Sipsey Fork immediately upstream of the BWWPS. Anglers immediately began accessing the features, via a newly-constructed rock ramp. Twenty-four fish attraction devices were placed in the Sipsey Fork between the BWWPS and the Highway 69 Bridge in the summer of 2011.
A year-round minimum flow has been established in the tailwaters that will mimic more “natural” stream conditions, enhance water quality, lower summertime water temperatures, and ultimately improve trout survival.
When electricity is being generated in the Powerhouse, water levels in the tailwaters rises rapidly, as much as 12'-15' vertically, and water velocities become dangerously swift. Warning sirens notify the public when power generation begins. However, anglers must be cognizant of the changing fishing conditions and quickly get out of the stream and up the stream bank, as the water level rises. Following a water release, it takes several hours for water levels to return to a normal flow that is safe for anglers and that provides a more productive fishing environment.
Alabama's Trout Fishery
Cullman County Road 95 runs parallel to and east of the Sipsey Fork. Anglers can park at several “pull-off” areas along County Road 95 and access the stream. Trails leading from the “pull-off” areas to the water’s edge are present, but the banks are steep and anglers must exercise caution. A large parking area is located adjacent to the Birmingham Water Works Pumping Station.
An APC fishing platform is located downstream of the dam and powerhouse on the west side of the Sipsey Fork. The stream's edge is accessible from the east side, Cullman County side. The first 1000’ of the tailwaters is very channel-like and too deep to wade. Downstream, the Sipsey Fork is 75’-100’ wide and looks like many trout streams in the southern Appalachians. The next half mile of stream to the Birmingham Water Works Pump Station (BWWPS) contains riffles, runs, and pools and is wadable when electricity is not being generated. For the next 1.8 miles of stream downstream of the BWWPS to the Hwy 69 Bridge, anglers can fish from the bank or wade, but the center of the channel is 5’-9’ deep. Anglers must walk around the Pump Station to access the eastern bank of the Sipsey Fork, upstream of the BWWPS.
Downstream of the Hwy 69 Bridge, the Sipsey Fork can only be fished from a boat. A private boat ramp is located just downstream of the Hwy 69 bridge. Only unmotorized boats and kayaks may launch and a fee is collected at the nearby Riverside Fly Shop. If you plan to float and fish the Sipsey Fork downstream to the next takeout point, a public boat ramp is located off of Hwy 22 in Sipsey (at the confluence of the Sipsey and Mulberry Forks), anglers should plan on spending 6-10 hours on the water.
Light tackle (2-6 lb. test line) is all you need to catch rainbow trout. Spinners, small spoons, salmon eggs, corn, or Power Baits are the “go to” baits. Fly fishing is quite popular. Fly anglers wield long, light rods, 5-weight or less. During the summer and fall, terrestrial insects (e.g. grasshoppers, crickets, beetles and ants) are abundant. Midges are present year-round. Mayflies and caddis flies are present on the Sipsey Fork, but the hatching of these aquatic insects can be somewhat sporadic due to water releases.
Some stocked trout survive a year or more in the Sipsey Fork; 18-inch fish weighing a couple of pounds are caught every year. The diets of rainbows are dominated by aquatic insects. An occasional threadfin shad is consumed by larger “holdover” fish. Since water temperatures range from the 40s in the winter and the 60s in the summer, anglers wishing to wade ought to bring a pair of insulated hip boots or chest waders. Most fly anglers choose to wade.
Remember, as hydroelectricity is generated and water is released from the Powerhouse (on a demand basis) water levels rise rapidly and take some time to “fall” following generation. Prior to traveling to the Sipsey Fork to fish, know the generation schedule. Generation schedules are available call 1-800-LAKES-11; but the schedules are subject to change without notice.
Stream frontage on either side of the Sipsey Fork upstream of the Hwy 69 Bridge to the Smith Lake Dam is owned by the Alabama Power Company and anglers can access the stream from APC land. Much of the land bordering the Sipsey Fork downstream of the Hwy 69 Bridge is privately owned. Anglers must obtain permission from the land owner prior to walking or wading to and along the stream bank or in the water.
From I-65, take exit 299 and drive west towards Jasper for 16 miles on Alabama Highway 69. In front of Riverside Fly Shop (before you crossover the Sipsey Fork bridge), turn north onto Cullman Co. Rd. 95. Travel 2 miles to the parking area beside the Birmingham Water Works Pumping Station. To fish the Alabama Power Company fishing platform at the dam, cross the Hwy 69 Bridge west of the fly shop and turn right onto Smith Lake Dam Road. Travel 2 miles and turn right again onto Power House Road. Follow the steep, winding road a half mile to the dam.