Trout in the Heart of Dixie
On The Fly Freshwater
Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs.
Located in the northwest portion of the Alabama near the town of Jasper, the Sipsey Fork of the Black Warrior River (usually referred to simply as the Sipsey River) is the state’s only tailwater trout fishery. The tailwater begins at the base of the 300-foot-high dam at 21,200-acre Lewis Smith Lake and flows in a southeasterly direction for 12 1/2 miles before dumping into the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River. Along this course the river forms the border between Cullman and Walker Counties. The dam and powerhouse at the lake are operated by the Alabama Power Company.
The Sipsey Fork begins as a warm-water flow. When it exits Lewis Smith Lake it is a 75- to 100-foot-wide river, carrying waters from the bottom of the reservoir that are well within the year-round temperature range needed by trout.
The first rainbows were stocked in the river back in the early 1960s, but the fishing was lackluster then. Any carryover of fish from year to year appeared to be minimal. That changed in 1974 when regular stockings of rainbow trout began in earnest and some management of the water began to be introduced.
From the dam downstream to the Birmingham Water Authority pumping station on the eastern shore, the river is very shallow, crystal clear, and extremely cold during low-water periods. This roughly 1/2-mile stretch is quite popular with anglers.
Today the tailwaters of the Sipsey are stocked with 35,000 to 36,000 catchable-sized rainbow trout annually. These fish come from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, since Alabama’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has no trout-hatching or rearing facilities. The releases of fish take place at the foot of Smith Lake dam on the third Thursday of each month in increments of 1,000 to 1,100 each.
In 1999, the Alabama Power Company did a tracking study by implanting radio transmitters in a limited number of released rainbows. Most that avoided anglers were found to move slowly downstream, eventually reaching the lower half of the tailwater. A few fish have been caught in the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior, above where it is joined by the Sipsey, and rainbows have even been reported on rare occasions as far downstream as the Tuscaloosa area on the Black Warrior River. Still, the trout are most common in the Sipsey from about 6 miles downstream from the dam. Nearly all of the fish here are recent stockers of 8 to 14 inches, but a rare holdover fish can be found in the downstream areas that will go 20 inches.
The most dependable source of insect life for the trout continues to be the midge hatches that are common year-round on the deeper downstream areas of the river. When fishing these hatches, matching the size of the insects with very tiny flies seems to be more important than color on most days. In warmer months, you may get some action on terrestrial pattern ants and grasshoppers.
Nearer the dam, bead- or bullet-head Woolly Bugger patterns are reported to work well, with black or olive the favorite colors. Also, a variety of nymphs dead-drifted are good, with the Zebra Midge often recommended.
The access to the tailwater below Lewis Smith Lake upstream of the Birmingham Water Authority facility is on the east shore. Cullman County 95 is a paved road that runs north along this side of the stream from AL 69 to the pump station.
All of this water up to the tailrace – roughly 1,000 feet downstream of the dam – is shallow enough for allow wading, but this is also the area of greatest concern during releases; the water level rises quickly. Listen for the warning siren when fishing here.
Access to the water upstream of the pump station is provided by seven metal walkways and staircases. Additionally, Trout Unlimited has worked with the Alabama Power Company to place 24 rock or wood fish attractors in the river from the dam down to the AL 69 bridge.
Downstream of the pump station to AL 69 there are a number of pullouts on CR 95 with trails leading to the water. Wading is possible during non-generations in this area, but be aware the channel drops off to 5 to 9 feet.
For boating access to the lower portion of the Sipsey tailwater, the Riverside Fly Shop maintains a private, pay-to-launch access for canoes and kayaks. This site is just downstream of the AL 69 bridge. The next access is at a public boat ramp off County Road 22 on the east side of the river to the northeast of the community of Sipsey. This is just above the point where the Sipsey joins the Mulberry Fork. A canoe or kayak float from AL 69 to this ramp takes 10 hours.
The Alabama Power Company provides a toll-free number that gives the tentative release schedules for all of its dams in the state, including the one at Smith Lake. One unique feature of the recordings is that they generally cover a three-day period, rather than the single-day information given for many tailwaters in the region. The number to call is 1-800-525-3711.