By Suzy Lowry Geno
| Randy Bearden and one of the Rainbow Trout caught at Shel-Clair Farms.
On a vacation to Colorado last year, Ralph Bearden didn’t catch a single trout in one of the many rivers there known as havens for fly-fishermen.
When the family came back home to their 1000 acre Shel-Clair Farms, Randy Bearden and his brother, Wayne, had an idea to try and change their father’s trout fishing luck—with that Christmas surprise turning out to be a potential money-maker for the fifth-generation farmers.
An unnamed spring on the farm keeps the bubbling stream waters cold even in the midst of Alabama’s hottest summer weather. In mid-September when it was 95º outside, Randy says he measured the stream’s water temperature at a cool 54.1º.
They researched, talked to scores of folks, and wondered if it really could be done in the heart of the Deep South. "Most of the folks in Alabama who have trout streams, stock them in the fall and have them ‘fished out’ by the early spring," Randy explains. "They say it just gets too hot in the summer for the trout to survive."
But after talking with several additional experts, Randy and Wayne decided the cold spring was their answer.
||Randy Bearden fly-fishing in a trout stream.
They spent weeks clearing the underbrush away, making the stream and spring area a beautiful getaway, with one solitary massive oak bench along the water’s edge. They carefully stocked it with 300 Rainbow trout in October and set up two automatic feeders which distribute feed four times each day, near the spring and then further downstream.
There’s even a few gold-appearing trout!
"It’s amazing how fast these fish grow," Randy explains while casting his line while wading at the edge of the water. "For every 1.1 pounds of feed, they gain a pound."
One expert later visited the area and noted, "I always said you’d never be able to catch a trout in August in Alabama but you just might be the one to do it."
The brothers also worked carefully to make certain their dad didn’t see the surprise until Christmas, always making sure any cattle/calf pairs he went out to check were in a distant pasture! And yes, he caught a trout on Christmas Eve!
While it’s doubtful the trout will spawn in the Alabama waters, that is still to be seen. "We’ll just keep restocking if they don’t," Randy explains.
Shel-Clair Farm (which got it’s unusual name for its 1,000 acres being located partially in Shelby AND St. Clair Counties) has undergone many other changes in the last couple of years.
Randy and his brother are the fifth generation to farm there. They were dairy farmers until just last year, running one of the last two dairies located in Shelby County.
"It’s sad," Randy says. "In 1955, there were 3,500 dairies in Alabama and that has dwindled to way less than 100 now."
Randy says their decision to close the dairy and switch to Black Angus beef cattle in 2005 was not one made lightly, but one made after a lot of soul-searching because of economics and the two brothers’ ages (in their 50s).
Randy and his wife Carol have four children—daughter Catlin, who’s attending Auburn; son Aaron, who works in Birmingham; daughter Jessica, who graduated Vanderbilt and works in the "political arena" and son Daniel, who’ll be heading to Auburn this fall. (Randy’s wife, Carol, recently graduated from UAB as a Registered Nurse!)
Likewise, Wayne and his wife have four children. But none of the kids foresee a future in agriculture.
"In a way, it’s sad when you think back over five generations and no one to carry on," Randy explains. "But they’re all having happy productive lives."
"My great-great-grandmother was the first with a dairy. She milked cows by hand and sold the milk to her neighbors. Great-grandfather Joe continued and expanded. My grandfather Ned Bearden carried on the tradition. When our parents Ralph and Monta Faye Bearden bought a motor home to travel and retired a few years ago, that left Wayne and me."
"To stay in farming, I think there’s going to have to be a lot of diversification," Randy explains. "We have 100 head of cattle now and are working to grow that to 300."
In addition to the Black Angus and the upcoming trout stream, Randy notes Shel-Clair Farm also boards horses and the family raises "a few hundred acres" of corn and soybeans in row-crop production.
"People must recognize where their food comes from, what part agriculture truly plays in their lives," he stresses, noting with sadness the fact that too many children, even in rural Alabama, know only that food comes from the "grocery store," and know little else about the farmers who grow that produce, raise that beef or milk those cows.
Matthew Kay, manager of St. Clair Farmers Cooperative in Pell City, says everyone is watching to see how the "spring fed creek" works as a trout habitat.
"I’ve known Randy for years as he’s come in for things for the farm, when it was a dairy and as he switched over to beef and now the trout."
Kay continues, "Meeting and working with people like Randy is why I enjoy this business. I enjoy being able to have a full time job related to agriculture but it’s not just that; it’s the people like Randy I associate and deal with here."
As for the trout fishing, Randy sees "growing into" that business as well.
There’s a small cabin already located on the farm that Randy hopes to "fix up" for fishermen who’d like to stay the night to enjoy the peak early-morning fly fishing. And there’s a perfect spot on the hill above the stream for additional rustic cabins to be built in the future.
"That will probably come a little slower as the kids finish Auburn," Randy laughs.
Fly-fishing will be limited to small numbers to maintain the integrity of the area. For more information, call Randy Bearden at 205-965-0264.
Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County.