Rolling on the River at Joe Wheeler State Park
By DAVID RAINER
Nestled atop a bend on First Creek just a short walk or boat ride from Wheeler Lake, the Joe Wheeler State Park and Resort Lodge give those who have chosen a life aquatic ample opportunities to pursue their passion.
Only minutes from Decatur, near Rogersville, Joe Wheeler gives visitors a choice of avenues to visit the park – vehicle or vessel. Whatever the mode of transportation, Joe Wheeler offers the gamut of recreational opportunities.
Park Superintendent Tim Haney thinks Joe Wheeler has a special attraction for those who love the water.
“Probably the biggest attraction is the Tennessee River itself,” Haney said. “Wheeler Lake is 82 miles long, so you’ve got room to do just about anything you want. People bring their jet-skis, ski boats and fishing boats. It’s real popular with sail boats because once you come out of the mouth of the creek, the river is a mile-and-a-half wide.
“Part of the park is right on the main Tennessee River. You can basically leave here and go anywhere in the world. We have a large marina area. We have 244 slips, plus our transit slips. We built a new, large covered dock with 70-foot slips. They have sewer pump-outs right there and power. We have a waiting list of about 100 people for the new covered dock. It was a good thing for the park, economically, and a good place for people to dock their boats.”
Coming up in October, the park will host the Great Loop Rendezvous for those who spend a great deal of time on the water.
“We’ll have from 80 to 100 yachts that will rendezvous here and then go on a great loop, around the Great Lakes and then through the Gulf and come back here,” Haney said. “Or they’ll go through the canal in Florida and back up and come back into the Great Lakes. Some of them stay with us for a week, and some will stay for a month and enjoy the fall colors.
“Because we have 64 transit slips, we can accommodate a lot of boats. The slips are in front of the hotel. They have cable television and the swimming pool and restaurant are right there. They can step out of their boats and get whatever they need right here at Wheeler.”
Wheeler also boasts world-class fishing for several species. The lake is renowned for its bass, both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass, not to mention the outstanding catfishing. Alabama’s state record blue catfish of 111 pounds came from Wheeler. The Big Cat Quest recently held its championship on Wheeler and it took a final-round catch of five fish at 139.30 pounds to win.
“The guys in the tournament really know how to catch the big catfish,” Haney said. “But, even the weekend anglers are subject to catching a 70- or 80-pound catfish. Or, if you just want to catch some catfish to eat, you’re subject to catch a lot of catfish.”
The peak time for smallmouth fishing is in October, according to Haney.
“They catch a lot of smallmouth below the dam on live bait, and there are a lot of fish in the main lake that are schooling around the shad,” he said. “They’re a little easier to catch than the rest of the year. The best for the big fish, I’d say, is in March before the spawn. You stand a better chance to catch that 6-pound-plus smallmouth then. I’ve seen them up to 8-13 caught out of the lake here. There aren’t many places in the world where you can catch a smallmouth like that.
“As for largemouths, you probably won’t catch as many big fish as you would in Guntersville, but there are just tons of fish in this lake. If you want to bring a kid to catch bass, there are just numbers of fish in this lake.”
Of course, you don’t have to be a diehard angler to enjoy the fishing at Wheeler. A leisurely day of fishing off the bank awaits those who opt not to use a boat. The park marina sells bait and shore anglers can catch bass, bream and catfish. For those a little more adventurous, the portion of the park on the south side of the river offers fishing access below the dam where striped bass, hybrid bass and catfish are plentiful.
The park also offers rental boats – pontoon boats, fishing boats and pedal boats. An 18-hole golf course within walking distance of the lodge, hiking and biking trails and tennis courts are available for those who prefer activities away from the water. Plenty of camping sites, improved and primitive, are available.
There are 75 hotel rooms associated with the lodge, which underwent a major renovation in 1999 and are now being updated. Six of those rooms are junior suites with kitchenettes and two are the large suites, one with two queen beds and a living room and the other with a king-size bed.
The latest additions to the park are 10 luxury cottages adjacent to the lodge. Several are three bedroom-three bath, some are three bedroom-two bath and two are two bedroom-one bath.
“The cottages have been super popular,” Haney said. “Occupancy has been really high and people really enjoy them. With the three bedroom-three bath, everybody has their own bathroom. The two that are two bedroom-one bath is has a more intimate setting, with a more honeymoon cabin feel. They have a sleeping loft with a private bedroom downstairs. They have a fireplace that can be seen from the living room or the bedroom, a see-through fireplace. All of them have wood-burning fireplaces, so they are popular in the wintertime, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. We encourage people who want to get a little stir crazy in the winter to come out and enjoy the cottages or we have some cabins with fireplaces on the south side of the river.
“When we built the cottages we wanted to get across to the architect that we wanted them to look like your lake house, not your typical cabin. We wanted them to be different, and each one is uniquely different with local art work. They’re just plush accommodations. It’s rustic, but modern. You’ve got a big-screen TV, but you can also get away from those distractions by enjoying the full porch where you can see the creek and enjoy the scenery in a tranquil setting.”
For those who are operating on a tight budget, the park also has 27 cabins located on the south side of the river.
“If you want something economical for the family for the weekends, we’ve got the cabins on the south side,” Haney said. “We have them that sleep up to 15, some that sleep eight. And, we’ve got a group lodge on Elk River that sleeps 30.
“But if you want something plush, something like you would rent in the Smokies or at the beach, then we have the cottages.”
Visit www.alapark.com/JoeWheeler/ for more information.
PHOTOS: (By Billy Pope) The new lakeside cottages at Joe Wheeler State Park offer plush accommodations in a tranquil setting. Cottages are available in different sizes from three bedroom-three bath to two bedroom-one bath.