Though Neal Shipman's "Eat More Possum" T-shirt is a put-on, his country-boy grin is legit. For years, the captain of the Free State Lady riverboat has greeted visitors to Lewis Smith Lake in northern Alabama with his Southern hospitality and comical get-up. He plays along with the stereotype, but in reality the locals today aren't the yokels that tourists sometimes expect.
What decades ago was a vast network of backwoods waterfalls and creeks replete with spotted bass has given way to a sprawling, jagged reservoir stocked with stripers and lined with new housing developments. Smith Lake has even gone Hollywood, with Patrick Swayze recently buying a place on the water.
"We're seeing a turnaround in an area that's been pretty dormant for over 100 years," Shipman says.
The most popular gateway to Smith Lake isn't through Shipman's outpost in the Bankhead National Forest in the northwestern corner, though; it's the east side of the lake, just off Interstate 65. The Ryan Creek branch there spills out into as wide a section as you'll find along the snaking 500-mile shoreline. With campgrounds, swimming areas, a calm spot for water skiing and wakeboarding, a water slide, and a good early-season striper run off Goat Island, the scene can get a little crazy.
Three things keep the peace: marine patrols, the dry county and Smith Lake Fishing Resort owner Jeff Harrison. "Don't come down on our fishing dock drinking," says his wife, Ja Williams, "because my husband is 6-foot-4 and over 300 pounds."
It's easier to steer clear of that kind of trouble in the quieter spots among the bluffs and hills. The upper part of the Clear Creek branch, about 15 miles northwest of the Lewis Smith Dam, blossoms with wildflowers and rhododendrons in spring. Boaters can try drop-shotting for spotted bass off points around wooded cover from February through early April. The deep, clear water requires that sort of technique, letting bait stay in the strike zone long enough for a hit.
If you aren't pulling in anything, tap into the Southern hospitality at the numerous marinas for advice. Or just troll for a Swayze sighting.
First Impression: Alabama Power created a lake that, from the air, looks like three massive lightning bolts striking the dam.
Something You Have to Do: Join the hunt for the lake's super striper, rumored to be between 50 and 70 pounds.
Trivial: Two world-record spotted bass have come out of Dismal Creek.
Trailering Here: The east side is just a few miles off Interstate 65. Getting to the west side can be trickier.
Launch Advice: The ramps at Smith Lake Park in Cullman County offer the most convenient access for first-time visitors.
Local Flavor: It's rare to find a restaurant on the water, but Looney's Tavern is just off it, with its "Hill Country" buffet of chicken and dumplings, cornbread and buttermilk.
Bedding Down: The Smith Lake Fishing Resort (smithlakemarina.com) rents apartments and provides a covered, lighted dock for catching crappie.
Distance from Birmingham: 50 miles
Best Contact: alabamastriperfishing.com
A boat is the only thing not included with this 3-year-old, four-bedroom, four-bath house on a protected cove in Smith Lake. The $369,000 property comes with a two-stall, east-facing aluminum boathouse, complete with lift and room for PWCs. See it at smithlake4u.com.