List of Common Wheeler Lake Fish Species [Updated]
Situated on the Tennessee River in northern Alabama, Wheeler Lake is Alabama’s second largest lake, formed in the wake of Wheeler Dam. Due to the close proximity of Lake Guntersville, the waters are rich in oxygen and thus are abundant with life, although the presence of this neighboring lake means that Wheeler Lake is often overlooked.
It is, however, still a popular destination for fishing and water sports. The Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge also makes it a fantastic site for wildlife watching. However, external factors may threaten these uses of the lake: land use changes in the surrounding areas have been suggested to impact on water quality, and the installation of hydroelectric dams may interfere with the movement of fish and their responses to lures.
List of Fish Species in Wheeler Lake
1) Blue catfish (Ictalurus furcatus)
The blue catfish is the largest catfish species in the USA, reported to reach lengths of 165 cm (65 in). Being a popular game and table fish, it is regarded as being of great economic and recreational value in many regions. This species is demersal, preferring deep, open water with sandy or gravelly substrates. The blue catfish is an omnivorous species and consumes a variety of animals such as aquatic vertebrates, clams, and fishes.
In Wheeler Lake, blue catfish lay their eggs in nests built underneath debris, such as fallen logs. The juvenile fish are almost transparent, transitioning to silver-white as they mature – this has earned them the nickname ‘white cat’ in many areas. The color deepens to a blue-grey as the fish age.
In July 2022, an extremely rare leucistic blue catfish was caught on the Tennessee River. Although the site on which this incredible fish was found is significantly further upstream than Wheeler Lake, there is every chance that similar specimens exist elsewhere!
2) Largemouth bass (Micropterus salmoides)
One of the many types of black bass, the largemouth bass is a benthopelagic species that commonly reaches approximately 40 cm (16 in), although there are reports of individuals attaining lengths of 97 cm (38 in). These fish prefer clear water with muddy or sandy substrates and vegetated banks. The diet of the largemouth bass changes as they mature: juveniles consume crustaceans, insects, and small fishes, whereas adults consume crayfish and frogs as well as fishes. Largemouth bass are known to be opportunistic cannibals, with juveniles showing the highest prevalence of cannibalism. It has been theorized that this is due to juvenile largemouth bass living at high population densities.
Largemouth bass are considered a keystone species due to the control they exert over the food web – removal of these species can have a severe impact on the ecosystem. As well as being top predators, largemouth bass are prey to birds including herons and kingfishers.
3) Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Found at depths between one and seven meters, the smallmouth bass is benthopelagic and can reach lengths of over 60 cm (24 in), however it is more commonly found at lengths of just 8 cm (3 in). This species prefers a rocky or gravelly substrate with clear water. Similar to the largemouth bass, the smallmouth bass’ diet varies depending on its age: young fish consume plankton and immature insects, while adults consume a greater variety of prey including crayfish, fish, and insects. The smallmouth bass also provides a food source for larger fish species and turtles, of which there are several species in Wheeler Lake.
Populations of smallmouth bass in Wheeler Lake are minimal; they have previously been stocked there, however more recent reports suggest that they are ‘difficult and costly to produce’, implying that they should no longer be supplied to the reservoir. Thus, they are infrequently caught, and usually, this is only a result of fishing for other species.
4) Striped bass (Morone saxatilis)
The striped bass is an anadromous species; thus, it is tolerant of both saltwater and freshwater environments. Although commonly caught at lengths of around 120 cm (47 in), it has been recorded to reach 200 cm (79 in), and can live for up to thirty years.
Adult striped bass are fierce predators, consuming many different fish species and crustaceans. Juveniles tackle smaller prey such as shrimp, and the larvae feed on zooplankton. Interestingly, a study has shown that striped bass consume a greater proportion of insects in the spring.
Striped bass is one of Wheeler Lake’s most abundant sport fish, thus, it features heavily in the many fishing tournaments that take place there. While they are found throughout the lake for most of the year, in the spring they head towards the Guntersville Dam for spawning, making this an ideal fishing spot.
5) White bass (Morone chrysops)
White bass are benthopelagic, although they are rarely found at depths below 14 m (46 feet). They are smaller than other species of bass, attaining maximum lengths of 45 cm (18 in), although they are more commonly found to be about 30 cm (12 in).
Juvenile white bass consume invertebrates such as copepods and midge larvae, whereas adults consume smaller fish species. Studies into the ecology of white bass discovered that winter and early spring were particularly strenuous times, resulting in slowed growth. Growth was also found to be decreased in lakes that contained just gizzard shad, as opposed to gizzard and threadfin shad; Wheeler Lake is home to both species, providing great benefits to the striped bass.
Similarly, photoperiods were found to significantly affect the growth of white bass; the spring photoperiod was found to be associated with accelerating growth, whereas the autumn photoperiod triggered a decline in growth rates.
6) Spotted bass (Micropterus punctulatus)
The spotted bass is relatively small, with a maximum length of around 63 cm (25 in), however, it is still a popular game fish. This species’ name is due to the distinctive series of spots along the lateral line, which are not seen in other types of bass – this is different from melanosis, a genetic condition that causes large black spots to appear on bass after extensive exposure to the sun.
The preferred habitat of spotted bass is one with warm, clear water with vegetation or woody debris. They tend to be less prevalent in areas with steep drop-offs; in Wheeler Lake spotted bass are more commonly found in the creeks feeding into the lake. This species feeds on crayfish, darters, and catfish, although when these are scarce, they will predate insects. It has been noted that spotted bass are most active during the day, which is potentially linked to the greater abundance of insects being available at this time.
Spotted bass reach sexual maturity at around 2 – 3 years of age. The male constructs a nest in a sheltered area and then remains to fan and defend the eggs until they hatch. Males then guard the fry for up to four weeks – this level of parental care is somewhat unusual in fish.
7) Channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
The channel catfish is found at depths of less than 15 m (49 feet). With reported maximum lengths of over 130 cm (51 in), it is a prized game fish – although it is more commonly discovered at lengths of approximately 60 cm (24 in). This fish prefers sandy or rocky substrates, with clear, well-oxygenated water, where they feed on crustaceans, fish, aquatic insects, and occasionally mammals.
Channel catfish are prevalent in Wheeler Lake due to them being regularly stocked. The individuals caught show a tendency to reach a good size, suggesting that this habitat is ideal for them. Their populations are monitored, and further stocking is carried out when deemed necessary.
8) Black crappie (Pomoxis nigromaculatus)
Black crappies are commonly around 30 cm (12 in) in length, although they may reach nearly 50 cm (20 in) in some cases. This species prefers a muddy or sandy substrate, with clear water and vegetation to hide amongst. They tend to school and feed on crustaceans, insect larvae, and fish, usually near the surface of the water in the early hours of the morning.
Wheeler Lake provides plenty of excellent fishing spots for crappie; Mallard Creek and Limestone Creek are especially popular locations in the months of March, April, and May. Black crappies are highly palatable and offer many nutritional benefits too, such as their high levels of protein and omega-3 fatty acids.
Black crappies reproduce at an extraordinary rate, which can lead to overcrowding in some lakes and ponds. The male creates a nest and guards it, while the females may visit numerous different nests. The proliferation of black crappie has become such a concern in some areas that research is being carried out to identify ways of controlling populations, such as controlling the sex of crappie stocked in certain lakes.
9) White crappie (Pomoxis annularis)
Similar to black crappies, white crappies are typically found at lengths of 25 cm (10 in), although longer-lived individuals may attain lengths of over 50 cm (20 in). They have a preference for turbid water, with muddy or sandy substrates. Adult white crappies predate on other fish species such as shad, while juveniles subsist on a diet of microcrustaceans and insects.
In contrast to black crappies, white crappies forage along the bottom of the lake and typically feed during daylight hours. The lack of overlap of their niches means that competition between black and white crappies is reduced, however, their relative abundance is reported to vary according to how still or turbid the water is.
White crappies lay their eggs on submerged vegetation; removal of vegetation has been shown to be associated with a decline in white crappie populations. Low temperatures before and after spawning have also been found to inhibit the growth and strength of juvenile fish.
10) Bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus)
The bluegill is a species of sunfish that has a distinctive blue sheen to its scales. With a maximum length of just over 40 cm (16 in), it is not a particularly large fish and is often used to feed farmed bass.
A crepuscular species, the bluegill prefers densely vegetated areas, where it consumes snails, crayfish, insects, and worms. Juvenile bluegill consume zooplankton. Interestingly, a study found that the foraging style of bluegill varied according to the length of their pectoral fins, with longer pectoral fins being correlated with slower foraging in vegetated areas, while shorter pectoral fins were associated with swifter foraging in more open water.
Bluegill are heavily predated on by largemouth bass. Juvenile bluegill migrate into open water as they mature, so smaller individuals may often be hidden amongst vegetation. while slightly larger juveniles venturing further out tend to be targeted. This causes an ecological trade-off between accelerating growth by accessing food in the open water versus an increased risk of predation.
11) Redear sunfish (Lepomis microlophus)
Similar to the bluegill, redear sunfish do not reach any great size, with a maximum length of approximately 43 cm (17 in), however, they are still popular game fish and are reported to be delicious when cooked.
This species has a preference for muddy or sandy substrate with dense vegetation, where it feeds on mollusks. This dietary preference means that redear sunfish are often used for the biological control of snails, some species of which carry the disease schistosomiasis. This disease presents a threat to human health, and while more common in South America, it is cause for increasing concern over canine health in North America.
12) Sauger (Sander canadensis)
Saugers are large fish, capable of reaching lengths of 76 cm (30 in), although more commonly around 35 cm (14 in). They prefer sandy or gravelly substrates and tend to be found infrequently in lakes; although once common around Wheeler Dam, they are now considered hard to catch. The causes for this decline are varied, with overfishing and habitat loss being the predominant factors.
This species feeds on gizzard shad, shiners, channel catfish, and freshwater drum, consuming about 1% of their body weight each day. Gizzard shad are the most popular choice, and the sauger’s consumption increases in the winter months to match the abundance of their prey. This increased intake is associated with accelerated growth in the sauger.
13) Gizzard shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)
Although more commonly found at lengths of 35 cm (14 in), the gizzard shad can attain lengths of up to 57 cm (22 in). This species has a preference for open water, where it filter-feeds on zooplankton and phytoplankton.
The gizzard shad is considered a keystone species, due to the great ecological impact it has on the lakes it inhabits. As well as providing a food source for larger fish species, gizzard shad excrete soluble compounds of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous, which are essential for much of life in the lake.
Gizzard shad are quite sensitive to changes in water temperature; a sudden drop in temperature may increase mortality rates over winter. Likewise, rising temperatures due to climate change are resulting in a northward range expansion.
14) Threadfin shad (Dorosoma petenense)
The threadfin shad is a fairly small fish, with a maximum length of just 30 cm (12 in), but individuals are more commonly found at lengths of 10 cm (4 in). This species tends to school, and groups gather around smooth-sided surfaces – such as Wheeler Dam. Threadfin shad are filter feeders, consuming zooplankton as well as copepods and fish fry.
Similar to the gizzard shad, threadfin shad are highly sensitive to changes in temperature, with one study reporting that they become disorientated when subjected to temperatures lower than 9 degrees Celsius (48 degrees Fahrenheit).
Records show that threadfin shad have previously been stocked in Wheeler Lake to provide prey for larger fish species. However, it has been suggested that the introduction of threadfin shad may have repercussions for the survival of other species, such as juvenile bluegill, who rely on similar food sources but spawn later (thus arriving once these food sources have already been depleted by the threadfin shad).