A Morning on Sipsey Fork: Alabama’s Year-Round Trout Stream

Matthew Dickerson.  Excerpted from “From Trout to Redfish: Fishing Alabama, North to South”, first published in the Addison Independent, October, 2019.

Standing on a rocky shore beneath the shadow of a massive dam, I drifted small nymphs in slow-moving water that looked chest deep. A couple fish rose sporadically some distance upriver, mostly against the wooded bank on the far shore. One trout with a scarred back cruised past and disappeared downstream. Nothing showed interest in my fly.

After an hour, Brandon Jackson, my guide from Riverside Fly Shop, moved us downriver, around the next bend and out of sight of the dam. The river was much shallower here, flowing swiftly over riffles and through thigh-deep pools. To me, it looked much fishier. And, indeed, the hits began to come. They were subtle: just a slight dip of my strike indicator floating above the flies.  To my embarrassment I missed at least three, lifting the rod to set the hook a moment too late. On the fourth strike, however, I got the rod up and the hook set. A few seconds later I slipped a smallish stocked rainbow trout into the net. No trophy, but it was my first Alabama trout.

I’d spent a couple years exploring southern Appalachian trout streams in Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, and North Carolina while working with my friend David O’Hara on our book Downstream: Reflections on Brook Trout, Fly Fishing, and the Waters of Appalachia. But though the bottom end of the Appalachian range reaches the northeast corner of Alabama before petering out, I’d never fished or even crossed into the Cotton State, the Heart of Dixie. Alabama has no native trout. It’s only year-round trout stream is the Sipsey Fork below the big dam on Lewis Smith Lake.

And that’s where I stood with Brandon. It was worth the trip. The stream cuts through the bottom of a deep and thickly wooded valley that enabled the many-armed reservoir known as Lewis Smith Lake. Deer meandered the shoreline, feeding on the abundance of oaks, while armadillos patrol the open areas by the dam. The lake itself is largely fed by protected headwater streams in the Bankhead National Forest. The upper waters of the national forest are not the trout habitat however, as might be the case in Tennessee, North Carolina, or even Vermont. It’s the dam that makes possible the Sipsey Fork tailwater fishery, pouring out water from the bottom of a lake at temperatures cold enough to sustain trout for many miles downriver.

Though most of the stretch I fished were wadable, with gravel bars too shallow for a boat (at least when I was there), the river below the first bridge where Brandon’s fly shop sits, two miles below the dam, is  floatable in a drift boat. Thanks to the effort of a local Trout Unlimited chapter, and of folks like Brandon, it’s a good fishery, and a very pretty one also. The area is largely remote and undeveloped, and except for the dam it feels wild.

For three more hours after that first fish, the hits came pretty steadily. When a few more fish started to rise, I was just about to shift to dry flies when the threatening skies opened up and a steady rain began to fall. The surface action shut down immediately and I stayed with nymphs fishing below the surface. Most of the fish we saw were recently stocked rainbows, the size of a brook trout in the upper portions of my favorite Vermont rivers. But I did hook into one good-sized fish that broke my line. The highlight of the morning was spotting a big holdover trout—at least triple the weight of the stocked fish we’d been seeing—feeding actively in a little knee deep run behind a boulder. I sight-fished for that one fish at least thirty minutes, and drew two follows before he was on to me and started ignoring the montage of flies Brandon and I drifted past it. The trout won that battle, but gave me another good reason to want to return to a beautiful little river—maybe next time to float the lower stretch.

For more on this trip to Alabama, see http://www.troutdownstream.net/2019/12/15/alabama-redfish-out-of-gulf-shores-and-fort-morga/.

To plan a trip to the Sipsey Fork, call the Riverside Fly Shop at (256) 287-9582 .