Randy Bearden of Vincent says it was one of those summer romances, the kind where you’re hooked from the start.”I had a mid-life crisis,” the 51-year-old Bearden recently explained with a grin. “I had to get a girlfriend, buy a Harley or build a trout pond. I thought I could come out cheaper with the trout pond.”And that’s why, just months after discovering the joy of fly fishing on an RV trip to Colorado with his father and sons, Bearden found himself standing in his very own pasture next to a spring brimming with rainbow trout.Rainbow trout in Alabama?It’s not as unusual as you might think. You can find them in the tail waters of the Sipsey River in northwestern Alabama, in the Elk River near the Tennessee-Alabama border, in a Madison County Lake near Huntsville and a few other places where the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources regularly stocks them.”There have been a number of folks who have raised trout,” said Doug Darr, DCNR’s aquatic education coordinator. “Several years ago there was somebody up around Fort Payne who raised trout year round. And I think there was someone up around Lookout Mountain, but it’s a lot of work for little return.”Try telling that to Bearden, who sees his quarter-acre trout pond as nothing but sheer pleasure, a pristine little corner of heaven where the water is clear and cold, the fish are always biting and relaxation is only a side-arm cast away.It’s just what he had in mind when Bearden, a member of the board of directors of the Shelby County Farmers Federation, returned from Colorado — his first real vacation since 2005 when he converted Shel-Clair Farms from a dairy operation to a 100-head beef and row crop operation.”We were belly deep in the coolest water we’ve ever been in, having the time of our lives,” said Bearden. “When you are standing in water this deep, with snow-melt mountain water running around you and you’ve got one son on one side and one on the other fishing for trout, nothing can beat that. We had the time of our lives.”Bearden’s 70-year-old father, Ralph, enjoyed it so much that it gave Randy an idea — he’d give dear ol’ Dad a trout pond for Christmas. Returning home, Randy began researching the idea on the Internet. Before long, he knew just what he wanted: He would dam up that shady little brook he loved as a child, and stock it with rainbow trout.”It was a total secret from Day One,” said Randy. “Dad didn’t know anything about it — we had to be a little sneaky.”He knew the water in the brook was always cold and usually clear. But when he told Southeastern Pond Management what he had in mind, the company was doubtful it would be cold and clear enough year-round for trout.In early September, on a day when the thermometer reached 96 degrees, the company sent out a representative to check the water temperature. When the first reading said ‘54.1 degrees,’ the man thought his thermometer was broken. Retesting it with another thermometer, it read ‘54.2 degrees.'”When I told him that my goal is to raise trout year-round, he said, ‘If you catch a trout in Alabama in August, you’ll be the first to ever do it,” said Randy. “Then he smiled and said, ‘Randy, you just might be the first person to ever do it.'”By Christmas, the pond was stocked with 350 pounds of rainbow trout. “It was January before Dad was able to fish it,” Randy said. “He said it wasn’t fair, that it’s almost like fishing in a fish bowl because you’ve got ’em confined and you can see them so well. But the problem is, when you can see them, they can see you too.”While the fish are always biting, they’re not always so easy to hold onto. Within just minutes, Randy had caught — and lost — four fish, along with a good number of his favorite flies.”These are the most aggressive fish I’ve ever caught,” he said. “From the moment they hit the hook to the moment you unhook them, they don’t give up. When you’re trying to land one, it’ll jump two or three feet out of the water sometimes. They don’t mind showing you how much energy they have when you have them on your line.”One thing the trout won’t do, however, is spawn. For that to happen, Randy says, you need three things: cold water, clear water and tumbling water. “If they’d spawn, I wouldn’t have to buy them all the time,” he says.He paid $6 a pound for the fish, joking that he “used to stand by that bridge when I first got them and watch them swim under it.”
“I’d say, ‘There goes a 2-pounder! There goes a 4-pounder! There goes a 6-pounder.’ After I got the bill on them, I’d say, ‘There goes $12! There goes $24!'”Even so, he’s confident enough that he plans to open up the pond this month to the public, who’ll pay for either catch-and-release or catch-and-eat fishing. “Since I’m in beef production I probably shouldn’t compare them to a good steak,” Randy said. “But yeah, I’ve had steaks that didn’t taste this good.”For more information about trout fishing at Shel-Clair Farms, contact Bearden at (205) 965-0264.