Nature’s Path: Hooked On Weiss Lake

Photo by Greg McCary

Photo by Greg McCary

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A decades-old fisherman’s paradise is luring visitors and new residents with its many recreational offerings and simple lifestyle.

by RANDY GRIDER

Perhaps it’s a sunrise casting a myriad of colors impossible to describe over its placid surface. Or maybe it’s a view of happy kids frolicking along the shoreline – delightfully splashing water without a care in the world. And then again, it could be watching a fisherman expertly setting the hook on a crappie that will be batter-fried and shared with friends and family before the sun has time to set.

Traversing the twisting roads around Weiss Lake, it seems like the spirits of Ansel Adams and Norman Rockwell have taken up refuge here to present the perfect Kodak or Americana moment at every turn. As if on cue, as I type this from a shallow pull-off where the lake offers an isolated pier backdropped by a small island, an egret alights, adding even greater depth to the scene.

As the lake widens, two teenagers zip by on personal watercrafts, reminding me of my own carefree summer days of youthful innocence. A day on the lake is synonymous with relaxation – an escape from stresses of the normal daily routine.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]With 447 miles of shoreline, Alabama’s Weiss Lake is a multi-faceted oasis set in the middle of prime farming land that blends scenic beauty, outdoor recreation and simple living. Its 30,000-plus-acre reservoir is flanked by Lookout Mountain to the west and other Appalachian foothills to the southeast. It’s fed by three main waterways – the Coosa, Chattooga and Little rivers – as well as waters from other tributaries, including Yellow Creek with its spectacular, lake-entering waterfall.

“Weiss Lake is a place people can come and enjoy and make lifelong memories,” says Thereasa Hulgan, executive director of the Cherokee County Chamber of Commerce.

For decades, Weiss Lake has been known across the Southeast as the Crappie Capital of the World. Each spring, thousands of fisherman flock to the lake to try to catch their daily limits of the popular game fish or to take part in the one-day Crappie USA trail tournament and the three-monthlong Weiss Lake Crappie Rodeo, in which anglers hope to catch tagged crappie for cash and prizes – totaling about $40,000. (Weiss Lake draws more out-of-state fishermen from Kentucky than any other state, thanks in part to heavy marketing Cherokee County officials conduct each year at a Louisville boat expo.)

It was the tagged crappie that first lured me to Weiss Lake in the mid-1980s. Though I lived only 35 minutes away growing up, I primarily fished in the Tennessee River and Lake Guntersville. When organizers launched the “Crappie-thon,” I found myself dragging an old, co-owned, 14-foot  aluminum boat across Lookout Mountain in hopes of a large cash prize.

While neither I nor my fishing buddy Kenny Bell caught a tagged crappie, we soon discovered something else about the lake. When the crappie season slowed with rising temperatures and humidity, the many shallow-water sloughs were great for bass fishing. For years, Weiss Lake’s bass fishing has been  overshadowed by that of Lake Guntersville, which lies less than an hour to the west. But that is changing.

“It’s been kind of a secret about our bass for years,” Hulgan says. “Crappie is important, but so are our bass and catfish. We are not a one-fish lake.”

Leesburg Mayor Edward Mackey has been working with the chamber, the Weiss Lake Improvement Association and community leaders to bring attention to Wiess Lake’s “other” game fish. He hopes improvements to the multi-purpose Leesburg Landing will make Weiss Lake a regular stop on the Alabama Bass Trail Tournament starting in 2015.

“We are working to get a new parking lot built to accommodate 200 boats and add two more boat launches,” Mackey says. Leesburg Landing currently includes a large, new pavilion for weigh-ins, an RV park and primitive campground, bath houses with showers, a nature trail and paved walking track.
While many anglers have been coming to Weiss Lake for years and know all the fishing hotspots, first-time visitors to the lake can increase their chances of catching their limits of whatever fish they want to tackle by hiring an expert.

“We have a lot of great fishing guides here to help put visitors on the fish,” Hulgan says. “We’ve probably got at least 20 guides – many of whom grew up fishing this lake. A guide can be a great help to fishermen who come from, let’s say Cincinnati, and don’t know the lake and really want to get the most of their trip.”

Of course, fishing isn’t the only recreation the lake offers. Weiss Lake is a water-lover’s dream with swimming, pleasure boating, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, paddle boarding … you name it. Don’t want to drag a boat to the lake? Most types of watercrafts are available for rent, making it easier for the novice to enjoy the lake.

“Pontoon boats are very popular on the lake,” Hulgan says. “Many people just want to get out, relax and ride around the lake. The backwaters are also great for canoeing and kayaking.”

Weiss Lake is one of several lakes built and operated by Alabama Power Company. Though years in the making, Alabama Power officially broke ground on the lake in 1958 with the first of seven hydroelectric projects on the Coosa River. Electricity production began in 1961.

Building the lake was a massive undertaking as its reservoir encompassed many small communities and prime bottomland farming areas. Land had to be acquired and cemeteries relocated or raised. Several islands were formed within the lake’s boundaries – and some are still used today for agriculture.
Weiss Dam is a concrete and earthen gravity dam, 126 feet high, named after Fernand C. Weiss, a former chief engineer of Alabama Power.

Weiss Lake banks on its small-town charm – actually three small towns – Leesburg, Centre and Cedar Bluff. While there are the usual fast-food offerings in Centre, mom-and-pop establishments still rule the area in both the restaurant and lodging categories. You can find a smattering of barbecue, hamburger and pizza joints, a steakhouse or two and meat-and-three country fare – nothing too fancy, but good food served with a heaping side of Southern hospitality. If you want upscale dining, you’ll need to drive to Gadsden or Rome – both less than an hour away.

Lodging is slightly more diverse. Visitors seeking more than a motel can opt for The Secret Bed and Breakfast – just outside Leesburg proper on the bluff of Lookout Mountain – or the lake’s crown jewel of family recreation – Chesnut Bay Resort. Condos, cabins and lake houses also are available for rent.

But many people choose to stay in the locally owned hotels scattered around the lake. They are a throwback to the once-popular roadside motels that dotted this country’s landscape before the bigger chains came to dominate the lodging industry. “It amazes me the number of people who want that experience,” Hulgan says. “It does kind of take you back in time.” (There is only one chain hotel in the immediate area).

And then there are the campgrounds and RV parks of all shapes and sizes. In fact, there are approximately 15,000 campsites around the lake. Most are micro-communities with many regulars who return several times a year – year after year. I personally have visited several campgrounds, including one run by Chesnut Bay Resort, Driftwood Campground, Bay Springs Motel and Campground and Weiss Lake Lodge (where we took in a game of miniature golf). One great thing about the lake is people staying on the water always seem relaxed and, well, neighborly, even to a stranger.

Each year, 100,000 people visit Weiss Lake (Hulgan assures me this is a conservative estimate because keeping count is difficult with so many entry points to the lake), and the state of Alabama estimates the tourism impact on Cherokee County at $87 million.

In addition to attracting tourists, Weiss Lake is also seeing an increase in the number of people from across the country who are making a permanent move to the area – especially retirees. “I think one reason we are such a draw for retirees is our location between Atlanta, Birmingham (Ala.) and Chattanooga (Tenn.),” Hulgan says. “We say we are the ‘Centre’ of the ABC Triangle. We are only an hour and a half from any of those metro areas. And, most important, we have the lake and the mountains. It’s perfect.”

 

sailRome Sailing Club
Each summer, visitors and sailors flock to the area for the Weiss Lake Regatta under the direction of the Rome Sailing Club, which has called Weiss Lake home since 1985.The two-day invitational regatta takes place in August and is one of several events sponsored by the Rome Sailing Club, which was originally organized in Rome, Ga., in 1955. Other social activates include the annual Commodores Ball, Fish Fry, Steak Cook Out and the Low-Country Boil.

With three races a year – spring, summer and fall – the sailing club is hosting the Regional Championships in 2014. theromesailingclub.com

 

IF YOU GO

Enjoy the lake by renting a boat or personal watercraft: See bayspringsmarina.comlittlerivermarinaandlodge.com, leesburgal.com (Leesburg Landing) and chesnutbayresort.com.

Get the most from your fishing trip by hiring a guide: See marinas and weisslakefishingguides.com, pattrammellfishing.com, fishbama.com and weisslakecrappieguides.com.

Lodging: See Visitors> Accommodations at cherokee-chamber.org.

 THE TOWNS

Cedar Bluff
Cedar Bluff was founded in 1832 on the site of a former Native American village. It played an integral part in the Civil War as Union Gen. Tecumseh Sherman camped some of his 60,000 troops here (as well as in Leesburg) prior to the March to the Sea.
The town, which has a population of approximately 1,800 full-time residents, offers great lake access for fishermen and boaters as well as several places to shop and eat.

It also offers lakeside condominiums and other recent residential developments. One of Cedar Bluff’s most treasured events is Liberty Day, which is held the Saturday before the Fourth of July and includes a spectacular firework show that lights up the lake. cedarbluff-al.org

Centre
This town is in the geographic center of Cherokee County, hence the name, with Old English flair. Founded in 1840, it serves as the county seat and largest town on Weiss Lake with a population of about 3,500 residents. It’s quaint downtown area offers boutique and antique shopping as well as a must-visit history museum.

Among the most popular eateries are Tony’s Steak Barn, Bar-B-Que Place & More, Real Pit Bar-B-Que, Lanny’s Diner and the Gridiron – a sports bar/restaurant for those who want to catch the end of the game or grab a brew.

Centre is also home to the 411 Twin Drive-In, which offers two features for one price and is a great way to show the kids how movies were watched before Netflix – and before the walk-in theater. Don’t forget the popcorn! cityofcentre.com

Leesburg
Leesburg has been a community since the mid-1830s and officially incorporated in 1958. With a mix of industry, small businesses and lakeside living, it’s a fairly busy hub. Leesburg’s main intersection – U.S. Highway 411 and Alabama Highway 68 – creates easy access to Gadsden, Ala., and Interstate 59.

The town has 800 residents and boasts two of the lake area’s most unique lodging opportunities; Chesnut Bay Resort and The Secret Bed and Breakfast are just minutes from the town center. It also backs up to Lookout Mountain, which gives Leesburg some impressive nearby scenic wonders, including Yellow Creek Falls and Little River Mouth Park. leesburgal.com

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