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David Rainer: Angling to improve public fishing lakes

The Alabama State Public Fishing Lakes (PFLs) program is adapting to better serve the citizens of the state who depend on these lakes for recreational angling opportunities.

The Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ (ADCNR) Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries (WFF) Division manages 23 PFLs in 20 counties throughout the state to serve areas without easy access to the numerous larger lakes, rivers and reservoirs.

Washington County Public Fishing Lake obviously holds a nice population of big bass. (ADCNR/Contributed)

The WFF-run lakes range in size from 13 to 184 acres for a total of 1,912 surface acres. Each lake is intensively 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.

During the COVID pandemic, Alabamians were flocking to the PFLs as a way to get outside when other activities were limited. That bump has now dissipated to usage lower than pre-COVID, and WFF is trying to boost the use of the PFLs.

“We’re making changes to draw people back to our lakes,” said Jonathan Brown, WFF’s Public Fishing Lakes Manager. “We’re changing some management plans. Hopefully that will keep people coming. We have a lot of lakes in transition right now. Normally we have about one lake we are renovating every year or year and a half. Right now, we’re the busiest we’ve been in a long time.

“We’re changing the model of how some of our PFLs are run. We’re looking at several lake renovations in the next couple of years that will provide great fishing opportunities. The way they were run when they were first started in the 1950s is just not working the same for a lot of our lakes. We’re changing the management model and how we manage the fish populations.”

Ben Purcell shows off another big bass caught at Washington County PFL. (ADCNR/Contributed)

Additional outdoor recreational opportunities are being developed at several of the state fishing lakes. The Pike County Lake in Troy and the Walker County Lake in Jasper both have archery parks at the lakes as well as walking trails.

“I love the partnerships with local communities at our state lakes and the added recreational benefits that are being added,” said Conservation Commissioner Chris Blankenship. “The use of these lakes is so important to the quality of life in these areas. The more people we can get out to the lakes to fish, boat, hike, practice archery or enjoy just being outdoors at the lake the better it is for the health and well-being of the community residents.”

One of the challenges recently is finding lake managers who are willing to make a significant commitment to the property. Lake managers are not state employees and operate the lakes as contractors for the state. Their income is derived from the sale of fishing permits and concession sales from the bait shop. When managers leave, WFF has had difficulty finding replacements.

Chris Greene, WFF’s chief of Fisheries, said the department is looking at new approaches to keep the PFLs open.

“We’re having a difficult time finding lake managers,” Greene said. “Do we look for partnerships with local governments? Do we keep the lakes open with no manager on site? We’re looking at different approaches because we’re being forced into it.

“In society as a whole, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find people for certain positions in the workforce. I think that’s what we’re dealing with. It takes a special type of person to run these lakes. You want somebody who interacts well with the public and has a good work ethic. You want somebody with the skills to repair things around the lake property. You have to find somebody who doesn’t mind being confined to working long hours at a lake environment. It takes a special kind of person to be open to that, who enjoys that, enjoys serving customers at the lake. Those people are becoming harder and harder to find.

“And we’ve had to close a few of our lakes because of infrastructure issues. Some of these lakes are beyond the useful life of the standpipes or drain tower or whatever it may be. It’s not what we want to do, but repairs have to be made. We’ve probably got more lakes right now that are closed than we’ve ever had because of those two problems – finding a lake manager and/or infrastructure repair. The budget only goes so far.”

Greene said access to the PFLs is important to those with limited resources and limited mobility.

“The lakes are located in more rural areas where fishing opportunities were limited,” he said. “These lakes were put there for those folks who had been driving two or three hours to find a good place to fish. The PFLs were put in those counties to serve those constituents.

“And the fishing is good. It’s business as usual at the lakes that are open, and we’re hoping to get the ones offline open as soon as possible.”

Brown said WFF is working toward finalizing plans on some of these lakes. Barbour County Lake is drained right now because of infrastructure issues. Chambers County Lake has been drained and restocked. Brown hopes that lake will be reopen in the spring of next year. Escambia County Lake, once known for its 10-pound-plus bass, has an unbalanced fish population and is in need of attention.

New managers have been hired at Lee County Lake, Walker County Lake, Dallas County Lake and Geneva County Lake. Brown hopes those lakes will be open in the next few weeks. WFF is looking for a new manager for Clay County Lake.

Brown said the diversity in lake sizes and habitat qualities gives anglers a wide variety of fishing opportunities, and he couldn’t say which lake is favored over another.

“It depends on what the public likes to fish for,” Brown said. “Each lake has its own unique perks. You can go to one lake and catch more bluegills than others. If you’re looking for double-digit bass, every year they’re pulling big bass out of DeKalb County Lake, which had an 11-pounder caught there recently. We renovated Washington County Lake a couple of years ago, and there’s some good bass fishing there.

“But I wouldn’t say one stands out in all areas over another. People who like to catch bream will like one lake over another one, and the same goes for bass, catfish or crappie.”

WFF does stock two fish-out ponds at two lakes, Madison and Walker, for a different species – rainbow trout. Unfortunately, trout were not stocked this year at Walker because of a lack of a manager, but the trout fishing at Madison has been extremely popular this year.

“Our PFLs offer great opportunities to catch a variety of different fish species,” Brown said. “In the near future, after we renovate our PFLs, anglers will have a higher quality fishing experience for several years. That’s our plan.”

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.

David Rainer is an award-winning writer who has covered Alabama’s great outdoors for 25 years. The former outdoors editor at the Mobile Press-Register, he writes for Outdoor Alabama, the website of the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.

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