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New Statewide ‘Trout Management Plan’ in Draft Form

Anglers’ suggestions for improving fisheries welcome

The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency is updating and revising the state’s comprehensive trout-management plan.

As part of the process, the agency is seeking public comments on a new draft blueprint that’s available for inspection on the department’s website.

The deadline for submitting commentary, criticisms and suggestions for agency officials to take under advisement is Aug. 4.

Authored by “a committee of TWRA’s coldwater fisheries specialists” and edited by trout biologist Jim Habera and statewide streams coordinator Brandon Simcox, the trout plan includes sections discussing the history and present-day health of the prized gamefish populations in Tennessee.

Beyond the high, free-flowing mountain streams of the Appalachians — the natural range of the state’s only native species, the eastern brook trout — Tennessee wasn’t home to wild-spawning trout prior to the last hundred years.

However, as a result of the numerous river-impoundment projects undertaken throughout the Tennessee Valley region, as well as an advancing understanding of trout-rearing and habitat-management techniques, the Volunteer State now contains a diverse selection of highly productive trout waters, both year-round and seasonal.

Some rivers, like the Caney Fork, Elk, South Holston and Watauga, consistently lure anglers from across the country and around the world seeking spectacular trout fishing against backdrops of magnificent scenery.

Hatchery stocking is typically relied upon for the maintenance of productive Tennessee trout fisheries. But some waters have, over time, become “naturalized through stocking,” and the fish now reproduce at sustainable or even above-optimal levels, as is the case with brown trout on the South Holston.

Biggest brook trout ever recorded in Tennessee caught below Center Hill Dam on April 1, 2016.

In spring of 2016, the Caney Fork produced a new state-record northern brook trout. The 4-pound, 12-ounce fish was reared at Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery. When caught on a live baitfish by Sasa Krezic of Nashville, the burly brookie measured just over 20 inches and tipped the scales at nearly a pound more than Tennessee’s previous record-setter, which was netted in 1973 on the Hiwassee River and weighed 3 pounds, 14 ounces.

The three primary trout species stocked in Tennessee streams and lakes are brown, rainbow and brook. Lake trout are also released in a few select waters.

“Rainbow trout are the most abundant and widely distributed wild trout in Tennessee,” according to the TWRA plan. “Although native to Pacific drainages of the western us, rainbow trout became naturalized in many suitable Tennessee streams through the intensive stocking efforts that defined trout management during much of the twentieth century.”

Brown trout, traditionally native to Europe and Asia, are particularly suited to many Tennessee tailwaters and have thrived as a result of stocking.

“While not as widely distributed as rainbow or brook trout, brown trout can live longer (up to 12 years) and may attain larger sizes up to (25 inches or more),” the plan states. “They typically occur with rainbow trout, but are the predominant wild trout species in a few streams.”

The trout plan outlines goals, strategies, action items and public outreach objectives designed to guide TWRA’s management efforts over the coming years.

The net intention of the Trout Management Plan, as described in the 55-page document’s foreword, is to “provide guidance for the management of Tennessee’s trout fisheries given the current status of wild trout resources and hatchery trout production, as well as changing trout angler preferences and attitudes and new resource management issues.”

The basic mission of the TWRA trout program is to “provide a variety of quality trout angling opportunities that are compatible with Tennessee’s other aquatic species.”

The last time state fisheries officials updated their overall trout-management strategy was in 2006.

“There is no legal mandate or anything like that for us to do this, but we just feel there is value in looking a little further out for such a broad, high-scale planning effort,” said TWRA’s chief of state fisheries, Frank Fiss.

Although it isn’t necessarily written to address particular concerns related to specific water bodies, the statewide plan does speak to issues often on the minds of anglers who frequent trout-holding hot spots and honey holes.

Under “management goals” are sections that address habitat-protection initiatives and minimizing threats from introduced species and disease, as well as discussions on improving and, where appropriate, expanding angling opportunities.

The idea of “biosecurity” is a fundamental concern in the new plan, said Fiss.

Preventing new pathogens and invasive, destructive organisms from entering the state “has really come to the forefront,” said Fiss, a principal author of the 2006 trout plan.

“We were aware (ten years ago) of whirling disease and some of the other things that can be problematic, but at the time they were not as threatening to Tennessee as they are now,” Fiss said. “In just the last five years there’s been a heightened awareness among our staff. North Carolina had some issue with whirling disease, and we are constantly battling Asian carp and other invasive species, so we are just hyper-aware of problems that come with introduced species and pathogens. I would say that’s a new level of focus for us.”

The plan notes that TWRA and federal hatcheries that serve the region are committed to releasing only disease-free fish into the wild. The plan reiterates that trout-stocking in streams by private landowners remains illegal, unless done with TWRA’s assent.

Also discussed at length in the 2017 trout plan is how TWRA can better optimize the use of hatcheries to produce bigger and more abundant fish.

“Anglers obviously prefer to catch larger trout, thus TWRA should strive to stock fish that are at least 10 inches long,” the report says. Consistently hooking up with smallish hatchery trout “can detract from an angler’s fishing experience.”

Moreover, targeting particular streams for stocking even larger fish — like those grown to 14 inches or longer before release in the wild — could enhance angler satisfaction even more. “Catch rates may be reduced, but many anglers would prefer the opportunity to catch larger fish,” the plan’s authors suggest.

The trout plan also includes a section on expanding angling opportunities for people with physical disabilities, as well as youngsters.

“TWRA sponsors or hosts dozens of kids fishing day events across Tennessee,” the plan states. “Several are held at coldwater hatcheries (including Dale Hollow) or other locations where trout can be provided. They often provide kids with the opportunity to catch their first trout.”

Each of the management goals includes descriptions of objectives and problems that tend to confront execution of strategies.

For example, one of TWRA’s management goals is to “maintain a variety of trout fisheries.” The overarching aim, according to the plan, is balancing “a diverse public’s many different skill levels and definitions of quality.”

But a natural problem that invariably arises is “management that optimizes opportunities or satisfaction for one group may exclude or diminish satisfaction for other groups.”

Fiss said it’s helpful — especially when addressing points of contention or controversy among anglers and other stakeholders with respect to individual waters — to have a comprehensive stewardship-plan cataloging all the various aspects of trout management across Tennessee.

Numerous citizen groups and individuals are “very passionate when it comes to trout,” said Fiss. The management plan is “where people can get information so they kind of know where we are coming from,” he said.

Maintaining and improving public outreach is one strategy for attempting to address potentially discordant priorities among trout enthusiasts. The plan prescribes regular public opinion-seeking so as to hopefully “make sure TWRA’s management and trout angler preferences align as much as possible.”

The plan also provides a useful reference when dealing with federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which partners with the state on fish-stocking efforts, he said. About half the trout released in Tennessee come from federal hatcheries, and state-run hatcheries also receives federal funding, said Fiss.

According to the plan, trout production increased by 10 percent at TWRA hatcheries over the past ten years, mostly as a result of facility improvements at Erwin, Flintville and Buffalo Springs. However, agency trout managers believe that an additional 40,000 pounds of fish a year, beyond the 275,000 pounds that state-run hatcheries are currently rearing, would further enhance Tennessee’s angling outlook.

In the long run, that probably means bringing another hatchery on line. “TWRA would like to build a new facility, but this would cost about $18 million and — assuming funding becomes available — require several years to complete,” wrote the plan’s authors.

In a subsection on Tennessee’s tailwaters where trout are stocked, like below Center Hill Dam, the plan says that in past decades many rivers “were limited by poor water quality and inadequate flows.” That, in turn, compromised “trout growth and survival,” thus necessitating “higher stocking rates” just to “maintain angler catch rates.” A river’s production capacity for “quality-sized fish” is diminished by inadequate or oxygen-deficient water.

The plan commends federal dam operators for their willingness to pay closer attention to water flows and support building infrastructure improvements with an eye toward enhancing trout habitat.

“Installation of weirs and oxygen injection systems, establishment of minimum flows, and other efforts by TVA have greatly improved water quality below many of its dams particularly South Holston, Cherokee, and Norris,” the plan says. “Operational at Center Hill Dam by the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) have also greatly improved water quality on the Caney Fork, although further improvements there and at Dale Hollow (Obed River) would help improve these fisheries.”

To provide comments on the draft version of the Tennessee Trout Management Plan, email agency staff at TWRA.TroutComments@tn.gov, or write to the TWRA Fisheries Division, P.O. Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204.