A smorgasbord of fish abound in the tailrace waters below hydro-electric dams.
Along the rivers of the Cotton State, hydroelectric dams constrain the water’s flow. These dams also create large lakes for recreation, including fishing. While many anglers scour the upper reservoir areas for fish, some of the best fishing is right below the dam.
Some anglers have discovered the fishing opportunities available in the immediate vicinity of the dams. Power generation companies provide fishing platforms and areas below dams where anglers can fish safely. The platforms have railings and are located close to the action, but keep anglers out of danger from the rushing waters when turbines are churning.
When to go
The fishing platforms are generally open anytime anglers want to fish. Lights are around the dam and near the platforms. The best time to fish for any species is when the water is moving through the dam. Generation schedules can be obtained from TVA and Alabama Power, but they are subject to change without notice.
“Fishing is better when there are three turbines running,” advises Mark Horton of Weaver, Ala. “The water is moving pretty good then and that gets the fish active.”
Horton is a regular fisherman below Neely Henry Dam on the Coosa River near Ohatchee. He and his brother Jimmy Horton and Uncle Luther Horton fish a couple of times a week on average. The angling trio also fishes with Kenneth Ballard Sr. This group of anglers have been wetting their lines below the dam for the past couple of years.
The group enjoys fishing together in the shadows of the dam. They help each other getting bait, tying on hooks and bringing in the fish. Depending on the water level, there is about a 15- to 20- feet gap from the water’s surface to the fishing platform. And some assistance may be needed when reeling in the big one.
“I fish for anything that bites my bait,” comments Tony Clark of Anniston, Ala. “I fish whenever I can in my free time. I just enjoy being outside and watching others fish.”
Clark says he has been coming to the dam the past few years. He has caught a couple of catfish in the three- to four-pound range, but he said he saw some caught upwards to 40 pounds. Clark sometimes fishes into the night and usually has some catfish filets for breakfast.
“I like all of my fish fried,” Clark comments. “That’s the only way I’ll eat them.”
Bait and Tackle for Fishing Around the Dam
Catfish are the primary species caught below the dam. But stripe, drum and some regular bass also fill in the gaps. Ballard says they sometimes catch a gar. The average catfish size will be around two to four pounds, which is good eating size. But occasionally a big one will show up on the scene.
“The average catfish size will be around two to four pounds, which is good eating size. But occasionally a big one will show up on the scene.”
“We use shad for bait most of the time,” mentions Horton. “I use a small net to scoop them up near a wing wall.”
Some anglers will use a cast net to catch the shad for bait. With the current through the dam the shad will usually congregate along the walls and rock edges. The baitfish can be transferred to a bucket or cooler for fishing. Most anglers use a whole shad on their hook, but others will cut the bait in half. A good length for shad is around three to five inches.
“Some days they want a whole shad and the next day only a part,” Horton explains. “You have to try different sizes of bait to see what the catfish want.”
Other baits will also work for catfish, stripe and other species. Some anglers use fresh chicken liver, red worms and other types of live bait. Artificial lures such as jigs, spinners and soft-plastic grubs will also produce some fish.
“I generally use chicken livers,” says Clark. “I take a pair of scissors and cut out the good part away from the fat on the liver.”
Clark says this liver technique helps the bait stay on the hook better. He said it takes a little work to get it right, but it does make a difference in catching catfish.
Any fish hooked below the dam are strong fighters and can pull fairly hard in the swift current. Medium-heavy to heavy tackle is a plus in bringing in the larger fish. All of the Hortons use at least 20-pound test line on their reels when fishing below the dam.
“We use a 2-0 circle hook for most of our catfishing,” Horton says. “This size is large enough for the big fish but also will hook up on the smaller fish.”
For catfish, anglers have to get their bait down on the bottom and in the strong current. This is not always easy. Mark recommends a two- to three-ounce lead weight tied to the end of the line. About 18 inches about the weight, he ties on a swivel to hold the hook. The swivel keeps the line from twisting up in the fast-moving water.
Horton says to cast out as far as you can into the current. Once the weight is on the bottom, he says hold a tight line and watch for the fish to hit. The catfish will sometimes barely bump the bait and don’t have it in their mouth. Horton says to wait for a pretty hard hit before setting the hook.
There is no special permit required to fish on the platform below dams. A valid state fishing license is required. A word of caution; it is wise for anglers not to fish on the rocks along the shoreline below any dam. Turbines can come online and the water level can rise rapidly in a matter of seconds.
Boating Below a Dam
Many anglers will use a boat to fish below a hydroelectric dam. While a boat can provide more opportunities to get in a position to catch fish, extreme caution is required. Personal flotation devices such as life jackets are required to be worn at all times when within 800 feet of a dam or lock.
Anchoring below a dam is another area that requires detailed attention. When water is discharged from the dam, the water level immediately downstream can rise rapidly. Short anchor ropes can pull a boat under if the anchor cannot be freed.
“We use a long anchor rope off the bow,” mentions Cameron Smith of Anniston, Ala. “The longer rope gives us plenty of time to get to the anchor when the water starts to rise.”
Some boaters will use a large float on the rope with a quick release for the boat. They can come back later and retrieve the anchor. Keep other gear strapped down in the boat if not in use when fishing downstream form a dam.
Fishing below a hydroelectric dam is a different experience and a lot of fun. On a hot summer day, fishing in the shadows of the massive concrete structure can be exciting and provide a silver lining.