Sipsey could be top-notch trout river

Published 9:12 pm Thursday, March 18, 2010

Trout fishing on the Sipsey Fork below Lewis Smith Dam continued to take center stage at the latest Alabama Conservation Advisory Board meeting in Gadsden, although the board did not take any action on the conflict between user groups. The board did vote to approve the use of telescopic sights on crossbows.

The Sipsey Fork is the only known cold-water stream in the state capable of maintaining a rainbow trout fishery throughout the year with seven stockings. Traditionally, the 12-mile span of the Black Warrior River has been open to all trout anglers whether fly-fishing, artificial-bait purists or natural bait anglers who take trout for the table.

The artificial-bait groups have asked the advisory board at both 2010 meetings to set aside a 2-mile stretch of the Sipsey Fork as a catch-and-release, artificial bait-only section. The group contends that improvements to the Lewis Smith Dam by Alabama Power that ensures a minimal flow and increases dissolved oxygen would allow the Sipsey Fork to become a top-notch trout fishery.

Dr. George Fant of Gadsden said his passion for fly fishing has taken him to many trout streams and rivers during his 50-year angling career.

“I’ve fished from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” said Fant, who named many of the trout streams he had fished. “The thing all of these other rivers have in common is single-hook, artificial-lure, catch-and-release, fly-fishing only. When you go to a stream and try to catch a 6-inch rainbow trout, it’s kind of like going to a pasture with a bucket of corn to try to catch a cow. They’re going to come to you. But if you leave that fish in the water for a year, something really wonderful happens. That fish becomes a wild fish. It becomes exciting and fun to catch.”

Brandon Jackson, president of the Sipsey Tailrace chapter of Trout Unlimited, said studies in other states show that if an area is not restricted to catch-and-release, the trout disappear quickly.

“What we hope to do and hope to accomplish is create a best fishery,” Jackson said. “And that isn’t for one group in opposition to another group. It is simply to provide a better opportunity for all those who want to fish. Talking about mortality, we have included (in documents presented to the board) studies from Texas and Tennessee that showed the reason they were having trouble keeping fish in certain areas wasn’t due to (natural) mortality. It was due to fishing pressure. I think the Tennessee study showed that more than 90-something percent of the trout were being taken out immediately after stocking.

“We want to create a quality zone to allow an opportunity for those fish to be protected – an opportunity for those fish to stay, to grow and to provide fun and opportunities. Bait fishermen would be able to utilize the areas below the quality zone or above the quality zone to catch those same fish. We’re asking for an isolated area to protect and preserve this very limited resource.”

Stan Cook, Chief of Fisheries with the Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division, said the survival rate of the stocked trout is estimated at about 50 percent in the first month after stocking and mortality is considerably higher than if a wild strain of trout inhabited the Sipsey Fork.

“The mortality for the first year is extremely high,” Cook said of the stocked fish.

Mike Key of Walker County said he petitioned the Walker County Commission to draft a letter in support of the current regulations, which do not provide for a protected zone. A letter from the commission to that effect was presented to the board.

“I’m here to represent the people who don’t have the opportunity to go out-of-state or long distances to go trout fishing,” Key said. “The major area utilized by the rainbow trout is that first two miles. Some do go down, but most are lost as a goose. The majority of the people in our area and Alabama believe we have a first-class trout fishery. But we do not want a high-class trout fishery.”

Board member Grady Hartzog, an avid fly fisherman, volunteered to visit Sipsey Fork and offer a report at the next board meeting, set for May 15 at Lakepoint Resort in Eufaula.

Several anglers expressed a desire to add brown trout to the stocking efforts in the Sipsey Fork. However, Cook said the addition of brown trout would be of special concern. He said WFFD could not support the stocking of brown trout until studies could be done to determine the impact on the native fisheries.

“The question we have to answer – what kind of environmental impact would the stocking have?” Cook said. “When looking at the Sipsey Fork, we’re not too worried about the Sipsey Fork habitat because it has been changed. It’s not the warm-water stream it once was. But if (brown trout) were able to move down and establish a home range in the Mulberry Fork that would be a concern.

“On the other side, the source (for stocking) is a concern. We don’t have a cold-water hatchery, so we couldn’t raise these fish ourselves. We would be dependent on other hatcheries, whether public or private, to provide the fish. They are fairly limited in the Southeast. There would be an expense and that would be an issue, as well. We’re not saying no, but we need more study before we can render an opinion.”

One angler, Shannon McCurley, expressed concern about a fishery other than Sipsey Fork. He said he has been fly fishing Little River Canyon for 15 years and is concerned about the publicity and resulting increased fishing pressure on the limited resource.

“I’ve noticed the increased fishing pressure and the decline in the fishery itself,” McCurley said. “The only thing keeping Little River from declining drastically is the geographic design. Basically, it’s hike in and hike out. But each year the number of anglers increases. I see a lot more people on the stream and I see a lot more people taking fish out of the canyon. The quality of the fishing is declining every year.

“I would like for the board to consider checking into putting special size and creel limits on Little River. A suggestion would be two bass over 12 inches and 10 bream. A competent angler with a 50-bream limit can decimate a section of stream and it takes a couple of years before it bounces back.”

In other action, at the request of Don Knight of the Dog Deer Hunters of Alabama, Hartzog asked that Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries strengthen the language in the annual Hunting and Fishing Digest that spells out that killing a dog could lead to serious criminal charges.