About the tailrace
Located in northwest Alabama near the city of Jasper, the Sipsey Fork tailrace is Alabama’s only year-round cold-water trout fishery. The tailrace begins at the cold discharge of Smith Dam (operated by Alabama Power) and flows southeast for approximately 12 miles before converging with the warming waters of the Mulberry Fork of the Black Warrior River.
While the Sipsey Fork might begin north of Smith Lake as a warm-water flow in the Sipsey Wilderness of the Bankhead National Forest, once the tailrace begins the river’s temperature has dropped considerably due to Smith Lake’s impressive 260-foot depth at the dam. This temperature drop is what makes the tailrace section so favorable for rainbow trout, and so the state of Alabama has been stocking rainbows here since 1974. According to Outdoor Alabama, “the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division (WFF) through agreements with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Alabama Power Company stocks about 3,000 8- to 14-inch rainbow trout every month of the year.”* Currently, only rainbow trout are stocked.
While many fly-fishers will practice catch-and-release, the Sipsey Fork is a put-and-take trout fishery with a creel limit of 5 fish. There is no size limit or closed season.
What is a tailrace?
A tailrace—or tailwater, as it’s also called—is the section of a river produced by the outflow of a hydroelectric dam. When a river is dammed for power generation it produces a reservoir on the upstream side of the dam and a tailrace on the downstream side of the dam. Becasue the dam’s intake draws from the cold bottom of the reservoir, the generation outflow is considerably colder in the tailrace section of the river than in the upstream section that feeds the reservoir. This is why dammed warm-water rivers throughout the South are able to support cold-water trout in their tailrace sections.
Much more can be said about the nature of tailraces. Tailwater Trout in the South, by Jimmy Jacobs, is an excellent resource for understanding and fishing tailwaters in the southeastern United States. Below is an excerpt from the book’s introduction that expands on this relationship between tailwaters and trout:
Tailwater streams provide some of the most outstanding trout fishing opportunities in the South. There are several reasons why these rivers have proven so productive for cold-water anglers. The first has to do with water temperatures.
The reservoirs created by the dams are often deep, ranging from as little as 60 to 80 feet in depth to as many as several hundred. The water released through the turbines of the powerhouses is drawn from near the bottom of the lakes and is quite cold. This fact explains the very existence of trout in most of the tailwater streams in the South. They were at best marginal trout water before the dams; more often, they were turbid, warm-water flows.
Below the dams, though, not only is the temperature ideal for trout (between 45 and 60 degrees), but the water is of a constant temperature year-round. This means that the fish are not only present but they are also enjoying a 12-month growing period, regardless of the air temperatures of the region. Growth rates of 1/2 inch a month are common, and in some rivers they have been documented at more than 1 inch a month! Such phenomenal growth produces large fish in a hurry. Thus, these tailwaters have a well-earned reputation for yielding large fish as well as large numbers of trout.
Two other facets of these water releases are the dissolved oxygen and the nutrients that the flow carries out of the lakes and into the river downstream. Both are conducive to aquatic weeds, insects, and crustaceans. As a result, the rivers produce great quantities of food for trout downstream of the areas swept clean by the surging water. In some cases, stunned baitfish sucked through the turbines add to the food base near the tailrace. This large supply of biomass is the reason that tailwater fisheries are able to support enormous numbers of fish while producing some truly impressive lunker trout at the same time.
Because of the many hydrological and man-made elements of a dammed watercourse, tailrace phraseology can often be subjective, and even a little confusing. For instance, “Sipsey tailrace,” “Smith Lake tailwaters,” and “Smith Dam tailrace” all refer to the same body of water, the cold-water section of the Sipsey Fork that begins at the dam’s outflow and continues until water temperatures rise back into “warm-water” conditions.
Plan a trip
Wading is probably the preferred method of fishing the Sipsey Fork tailrace. A good pair of waders will come in handy year-round, even during the summer since the water temperature will remain cold. Wet-wading during the height of summer is sometimes a good option too as the cold water provides a little relief from the heat, but don’t be surprised if the water is colder than you bargained for. Whether you wade wet or dry, bring a sturdy pair of wading boots, or wading shoes, that will help you keep a firm grip on the slopes, trails, and rocks. Once you arrive, you’ll find several well-marked and well-maintained access points along Cullman County Road 95, which runs parallel to the tailrace, along the east bank. There are pull-off areas along the road and trails down to the stream. Additionally, there is a parking area and a fishing platform at the Pump Station.
Wherever you fish along the tailrace, be aware of the Smith Lake Generating Schedule. All of the access points can be dangerous once the generators are pumping water into the Sipsey, so use caution by checking the schedule ahead of time and taking note of riverbank signage. Outdoor Alabama makes this warning very clear: “When electricity is being generated in the Powerhouse, water levels in the tailwaters rise rapidly, as much as 12′-15′ vertically, and water velocities become dangerously swift. Warning sirens notify the public when power generation begins. However, anglers must be cognizant of the changing fishing conditions and quickly get out of the stream and up the stream bank as the water level rises.”*
Downstream of the Hwy 69 bridge, the Sipsey Fork is only accessible by boat. The Riverside Fly Shop on Hwy 69 permits access to a private boat launch for a small fee (unmotorized boats only). A public boat launch is located off the Hwy 22 bridge, where the Sipsey Fork meets the Mulberry Fork.
The Riverside Fly Shop offers guided trips (wading and floating) in the tailrace. They also have any tackle, gear, supplies, and advice you might need for your fishing trip.
Finally, however you fish the Sipsey Fork, be sure to purchase an Alabama Fishing License. This small cost helps support the state’s stocking program.
How to get there
The following links all provide directions to the Pump Station on Cullman County Road 95. The times are approximates.