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David Rainer: State public fishing lakes are community staples

Alabama is blessed with an abundance of lakes, reservoirs and waterways for residents and visitors to enjoy for fishing, boating, birdwatching and many other outdoor activities. However, several pockets exist in the state that are not close or convenient for residents to get to the water.

That lack of access for subsistence fishing, especially in our rural counties, led to the creation of the Alabama State Public Fishing Lakes (PFLs) program in the 1940s and ’50s to serve those people who needed these lakes for recreational opportunities and as a source to provide healthy protein for their families.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division manages 23 PFLs in 20 counties throughout the state in those areas where easy access doesn’t exist to the numerous larger lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

Madison County Lake offers fishing for rainbow trout during the winter months.

The WFF-operated lakes range in size from 13 to 184 acres for a total of 1,912 surface acres and provide numerous recreational opportunities.

“The State Fishing Lakes Program was created after the Great Depression and World War II to provide places where people could fish and provide food for their families, as well as enjoy the pleasures of sitting on a lake bank enjoying the outdoors with family and friends,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “The PFLs have been very popular over the years for fishing, but now we are seeing great interest in expanding the recreational opportunities at these facilities.

“Walking trails, archery parks, birdwatching platforms, paddling opportunities and small meeting facilities are being added through partnerships with cities, counties and local foundations. This has been great and really expands the use of these locations!  However, many of the lakes are in need of some love and care after being in service for many decades. We are working to replace water control structures, fishing piers, boat ramps and performing dam maintenance on several lakes over the next three years. We are working with the legislature and the Governor’s Office to help with some of this vitally important work.”

Several of the PFLs were built more than 75 years ago, which means numerous older lakes are overdue for needed maintenance.

“A lot of these lakes were built in the late ’40s and ’50s and ’60s,” said Matt Marshall, Assistant Chief of the WFF Fisheries Section. “The latest one, Escambia County Lake, was built in the ’80s. The earliest ones were built with wooden drain structures with a 25-year lifespan. So, we’re 70-plus years out. We’ve done what we can, but it’s very expensive. There are 23 different lakes around the state, and it would be beneficial if those lakes are around for another 75 years.”

The Alabama Public Fishing Lakes hold events like this Cast for Kids day at Walker County Lake.

Marshall said partnerships have been formed with local municipalities to get some additional work done at several lakes.

“We’re partnering with the City of Troy at Pike County Lake on a concession building and a multiroom facility,” he said. “We’ve partnered with Ozark at Dale County Lake and Elba and Coffee County at Coffee County Lake to run those lakes. Hamilton has shown interest in helping operate Marion County Lake, which is currently closed.”

Marion County Lake, Marshall said, needs significant work to be reopened.

“There are trees that are 40 to 50 years old on the dam at Marion County Lake,” he said. “In the 1960s, they raised the lake level by 3 feet and submerged the drain tower. There’s also a sediment pond with corrugated pipe that probably also has a 25-year lifespan. All that needed to be inspected.”

The lakes are 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.

Marshall said the PFLs provide crucial recreational opportunities in those rural communities, where it is difficult to travel to one of Alabama’s larger lakes, reservoirs and rivers.

“Many of the counties where the lakes are may not have as many people, but they serve an important purpose,” said Marshall. “If not the only source, the lake is one of the few sources of public water. They are important to the people who use them, and they are not just important for fishing. People come to the lakes to picnic, walk or birdwatch and other things.

“Right now, the anglers, through the license sales and Sport Fish Restoration funds, are the ones that are providing the money for repairing the dams and other work. But the benefit is beyond just those anglers. The lakes are benefiting the entire communities.”

Marshall said the PFLs typically see more than 100,000 anglers annually, not to mention those folks who visit the lakes for other activities. He said the number of walkers at DeKalb County Lake probably triples the number of anglers.

Avid bass angler Tracy Neely shows off a lunker he caught and released at Madison County Lake.

WFF’s Jonathan Brown, who became PFL Program Manager in 2020, said the county lakes are staples in the communities.

“Whenever we have to close a lake for maintenance or transition of lake managers, we get calls from the public, and we are reminded of the importance of these natural resources,” Brown said. “Many of these people rely on the lakes to put consistent food on the table. Many of these lakes have people who are there fishing every day. A lot of these communities don’t have places to find these natural resources outside of private ponds. These lakes are very vital to these rural communities.”

Numerous lakes have additional outdoor recreational opportunities. The Pike County Lake in Troy, Dale County Lake near Ozark, and the Walker County Lake in Jasper have archery parks at the lakes as well as walking trails. Walker County Lake also has a birdwatching tower. At Barbour County Lake, the Fisheries Section is working with the Wildlife Section to enhance both the fishing and waterfowl hunting habitat in the future.

“We have birdwatchers at all the lakes,” Marshall said. “We have plenty of shade trees, so people who live or are working nearby will come and have lunch or a picnic. There’s a small campground at DeKalb.

“People will come out and shoot high school and engagement photos. We’ve had weddings at some of our lakes. The true benefits exceed just the anglers. It’s a good public resource for everybody.”

Brown said that six PFLs are currently closed for a variety of reasons, from renovations that include dam work, draining and restocking to a lack of a lake manager, who is a private contractor. However, WFF is trying a new strategy by opening select PFLs without lake managers.

“We just opened Monroe County Public Fishing Lake without a manager on-site,” Brown said. “At the Washington and Fayette PFLs, we adopted the same method as Monroe. We might continue that in the future. All the anglers who want to use those lakes can go to the probate office in the county or a license vendor or www.outdooralabama.com and purchase a daily or annual permit for those lakes. They will still have the same hours of operation.”

Visit www.outdooralabama.com/where-fish-alabama/alabama-public-fishing-lakes-pfls for more information and an interactive map of the locations of the lakes. Go to www.outdooralabama.com/public-fishing-lakes/pfl-rules-and-regulations for lake regulations.

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