Road Trip – Athens, Alabama – Big Catfish Country
Southern hospitality and trophy catfish too.
When I am revisiting one of my favorite states, Alabama, it is hard to believe it can get any better but it always does. My reason for visiting is most often related to catfishing, but my desire to return includes the character of the people and all the things that were left unseen and undone in North Alabama.
Athens is located in Limestone County in the rolling foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The southern border is the Tennessee River and the northern border is the State of Tennessee. I have to admit, it’s the Tennessee River that is the biggest attraction for me, but Karen enjoyed the town square and the antebellum homes as part of our visit.
On the fishing side, I enjoy going because of the big fish. When I stayed in Athens it was for the Fishlife National Championship of Catfishing. The tournament was being held on beautiful Wheeler Lake. The lake is known for its big trophy catfish so it is a frequent destination for tournaments. In fact, my own personal best 83-pound blue cat came from Wheeler while fishing with Cad Daly and Chris Parker. Every week that goes by produces another personal best catfish for someone else. It’s a very regular occurrence. Wheeler Lake is that good!
In this particular tournament, first place went to Mike Mitchell from Russellville, AL and Rick Sexton from Helenwood, TN. They used precision anchoring techniques to weigh 305.79 pounds in two days of fishing. Their bag included the Big Fish of the tournament at 80.04 pounds.
Keep in mind that the weight is based on 5 fish each day for a total of 10. Based on state law only 4 of the 10 can be more than 34-inches long. Yet, under those restrictions, the first-place weight averaged more than 30 pounds for each catfish. Ten catfish that weighed more than 300 pounds. How awesome.
This tournament and others like it continue to show why recreational catfish anglers like to visit Wheeler Lake. It is a big fish destination and very likely to produce someone’s next personal best catfish if they give it a chance.
Other than Fishing, What?
Road trips require lodging, food, fuel, and other attractions for the non-anglers in the party. Athens, AL provided numerous choices for all those things.
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express & Suites, Athens. The rooms were clean and comfortable and the location was convenient to Wheeler Lake. We were about 20 minutes from the First Creek Boat Ramp where the tournament would take place. We were less than that from Rogersville, AL where the captains meeting would be.
I particularly like the great free breakfast and the strong Wi-Fi at the hotel. The reason I like breakfast is obvious, it was good. The reason I like the Wi-Fi is that having the ability to continue my work and stay in touch with everyone is paramount when I travel. I was able to do three Facebook Live Feeds to report on the tournament without interruption or buffering.
In one instance I was looking for a location near a window on a rainy morning. I wanted viewers to see what the weather was doing as I reported on tournament morning. An employee observed me and asked if he could help. I told him what I was looking for and within a few minutes he had directed me to a second-floor location with a window and set up a table and chair for me to use in the broadcast. That’s service with a smile.
In another side story, I was visiting with Shelia, the “breakfast lady,” and discovered that her dad was fishing the tournament. It really is a small world.
And then there was the second shift desk clerk. It turns out she does a lot more than just check you in and be sure you have everything you need.
“The night clerk on the front desk (Shawna), knows all things Athens,” advised Andrea Turner, Athens Limestone County Tourism. “She can inform you of everything you want to know. If you like to experience that ‘local” feel while visiting Athens, she is definitely your girl.”
With opportunities in the town square and all the chain restaurants in the area associated with the intersection of I-65 and Hwy 72, there is no lack of places to eat. I happen to like Ruby Tuesday’s salad bar and there is one immediately as you leave the Holiday Inn Express. And any fast food option you desire is close by. Don’t forget, a discussion with the people you meet will help you locate those local, out of the way spots that are often the best places of all.
Depending on when you visit, there are tons of things to do in Athens and the surrounding countryside. The best way to line them up is to browse visitathensal.com. Once on the site just click on the “Things to Do” tab and choose from available happenings and attractions. There are other links on the site to restaurants, lodging, and even an event calendar.
The first visit we made and enjoyed was the UG White Mercantile store in downtown Athens. For nearly a century this store has served as the anchor for the downtown area. It is a blend of the old and the new. In year’s past, businessmen, cotton farmers, mill workers, and the general population found just about anything they needed at UG White.
Just imagine an inventory of horse-drawn plows, iron skillets, pocket knives, candy in the bulk, bolts of linen, and everything in between. You can still get many of those things today, plus an array of more modern products. With a reputation for fair prices and outstanding customer service, there is something for everyone at UG White.
As usual, there is never enough time to see the many local attractions in a town like Athens. We had time for one more visit and we chose the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives. Located in downtown Athens, the museum is housed in the 100-year old L & M Freight Depot which was once the departure point for shipping cotton by rail.
Visitors are greeted at the door by an experienced volunteer and given a brief introduction to the facility and how it is laid out. Then visitors are allowed to spend as much time as they want to browse through the various military eras.
What you will find is an outstanding exhibit of military memorabilia that has been donated by families whose relatives date back as far as the Civil War and forward through time to Afghanistan. You will see everything from weapons and uniforms to posters and photos. A tour through the museum is both educational and entertaining as emotional reminders of what the great patriots of previous wars endured to keep us free.
An active tourism presence in the hotels and other locations around Athens provides great street maps and attraction brochures to guide you to those things that interest you the most. A visit to the Athens-Limestone Visitors Center Facebook page will keep you up to date on day-to-day activities, so be sure to like and follow.
Just like each of my previous trips to North Alabama I left with a desire to return. Not just for the fishing which is usually my reason for going, but for the people, and their friendliness. I am happy to say that I already have a return visit on my calendar. See y’all soon.