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When Land Became Lake

“Under the Lake” is a book published in 2016 about life in the Caney Fork River Valley prior to construction of Center Hill Dam. Pictured above are the book’s authors (from left to right): Judy Taylor Fuson, Carol Denson Williams and Ria Baker.

Seven decades have passed since Center Hill Dam construction

This coming year will mark the 70th anniversary of Center Hill Dam’s completion and subsequent submersion of the Caney Fork River Valley above it.

Undeniably, many modern benefits accompanied the lake impoundment, from hydroelectric power production to flood control to numerous forms of recreation.

So it’s easy — perhaps too easy — to overlook the heart-rending historical reality that for hundreds of families living in the area, the coming of the federal government’s new dam meant doom for their old ways of living. Along with displacement, the rising of Center Hill Lake’s waters came at the price of washing away all but the memories of the only life many former inhabitants had ever known.

When the dam closed off in the fall of 1948, once rich farmland and forests were inundated, thus “completely changing the face of the northern and eastern sections of DeKalb County,” local historian Thomas G. Webb wrote in a “Tennessee County History Series” book published by Memphis State University Press.

Fortunately, three DeKalb County women — Judy Taylor Fuson, Ria Baker and Carol Denson Williams — have endeavored, with assistance from Mr. Webb, to record for posterity the remembrances and manners of life that existed in the valley before it was deluged.

Their 2016 coffee table-style book, “Under the Lake,” is a painstakingly assembled compendium of history, anecdotes, images, maps and family genealogies. It preserves and pays homage to a bygone epoch that gave begrudgingly away to the 20th Century surge of modern resource development.

Construction on Center Hill Dam, 1946

Williams, a retired school teacher of 30 years, said she, Baker and Fuson pored over property maps of the entire lake in an attempt to catalog all the families that owned land and were forced to move. Thousands were dislodged from throughout the region, particularly in the fertile farming areas areas close to the dam, she said.

“DeKalb County population in 1940 was 14,588 yet the following census, in 1950, recorded the county population at 11,680 showing a 2,908 population drop after the dam project was completed,” the authors write in “Under the Lake.”

It’s hard for people today to grasp the scope and process of removing all the people who used to reside amidst the fingers, branches, ravines and coves of what is now a lake in excess of 60 miles long covering nearly 19,000 acres, with more than 400 miles of crooked shoreline.

“That is a massive amount of land,” said Baker, formerly the town mayor of Alexandria. “We’re not talking about just taking a 500 foot strip for an interstate or whatever. And it wasn’t like they were saying, ‘We’re gonna to cut your farm in half and take just so many acres.’ No, it was, ‘We’re going take your whole farm and you’re going to move — we’re going to cover your house up or tear it down, and we don’t care if your grandmother lived there forever’.”

The process of picking up and clearing out was exceptionally difficult for the elderly, who were “really hurt” by the prospect of leaving forever behind family hearth and heritage, she said. Often they never recovered.

“So many people, the older people especially, were just broken,” said Baker. “This was their home, it was their lives. It would probably have happened to anybody in those circumstances, but it was just such a mass of people here. Of course, it also happened everywhere a dam went in.”

Williams said many were in denial about the inevitability of what was happening.

One man reportedly didn’t believe the water was going to submerge all his property, so he “neatly stacked all his belongings up under a bluff overhang.” Baker said. “They finally had to go get him and pull him out — he wasn’t going to leave.”

“A lot of people knew it was coming even before the Second World War, when (government agents) came and started surveying,” said Williams. “But when the war came they had to stop. After the war was over they started full-force. Some people kept saying, ‘Oh no, this is not going to happen.’ In the end, though, it did.”

If you’d like to inquire about ordering a copy of “Under the Lake,” visit the Facebook page maintained by the authors: DeKalb County, TN, Caney Fork River (@nowunderwater).

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Domestic Elk a Doable TN Livestock Option

Great grazing here in the Upper Cumberland country, but good fencing needed

When people think of elk, what probably comes to mind is the American West, and in particular, the Rocky Mountains.

But elk, which are one of the largest native land animals in North America, were in fact historically abundant throughout much of the Eastern United States. Prior to their reintroduction in small enclaves by state and federal wildlife managers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, wild elk hadn’t roamed Tennessee’s woods in great numbers since well before the middle of the 19th Century.

“Early records indicated that elk were abundant in the state prior to being settled by European explorers and colonists,” says the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s informational web page on elk restoration. “As these settlers moved westward the elk population declined.”

“The last historical record of an elk being sighted in Tennessee was in 1865 when one was reported to be killed in Obion County,” according to the agency. There was not “one specific reason” for the depletion of the animals, although “over-exploitation by man” and “habitat destruction” played significant roles in their demise.

Self-sustaining herds of wild elk in Tennessee exist today only in a few remote tracts, like Land Between the Lakes, Smoky Mountain National Park and the North Cumberland Wildlife Management Area in Campbell County.

But even though elk have had a pretty rough couple of centuries in the Southeastern United States, rearing them in captivity on marginal farm and ranch land is both feasible and potentially quite lucrative.

At least two ranchers in Middle Tennessee are currently raising elk, and have been for years.

Dow Armistead runs a small herd of elk — along with sitka and fallow deer — on his property near the Caney Fork River in eastern Smith County, where his family has owned land in the area for generations — “I’d say 100 years or better,” he told the Center Hill Sun.

“I’d love to see more people doing this,” Armistead said of raising elk. “They’re not the easiest things in the world to take care of, but they aren’t the hardest either.”

With a little general knowledge of raising traditional livestock added to a little basic research, anyone can probably figure it out without much difficulty, Armistead said. He’s also happy to talk to people about the basics, and doesn’t mind people pulling off the road to admire his animals along St. Mary’s/Stonewall Club Road just west of the Opossum Road turnoff.

There’s certainly money to be made selling the the animals for genetics, meat and antlers, said Armistead — who works a regular job in commercial construction. But his primary motivating interest is simply in observing their grace and grandeur.

“A lot of times I come here to feed them and end up just sitting or leaning up against the fence and watching them for a while,” Armistead said.

Installing and maintaining the eight-foot-high fencing to keep the animals penned in is the most costly and labor-intensive element of the operation, he noted. Armistead’s farm consists of about 60 acres of hilly forest and scrubland, and the elk meander about on a little more than half of it.

Not Too Tame

Often when they see him, Armistead’s elk will amble down and see what he’s up to — and often there’s a snack in it for them when they do. Armistead supplements their grass diet with an occasional bucket of grain and provides them additional hay in the winter.

Armistead said he doesn’t like them getting affectionate with people, though. Even unintentionally, a several-hundred pound animal can do serious damage to the human body in short order. That’s especially true of a mature bull that’s wearing a massive, dagger-pronged antler rack.

“They can be dangerous if they get too friendly,” said Armistead.

Herb Fritch owns Two Feathers Elk and Bison Ranch in Hickman County, where he runs about 300 elk on 400 acres. Fritch has been raising elk, buffalo and other somewhat unusual livestock since the late 1990s. His operation was formerly near McMinnville, and before that he raised exotic animals near the Caney Fork River along Smith Fork Creek.

The most lucrative aspect of raising elk in the United States is the market in “trophy antler genetics, buying-and-selling semen from the champion bulls,” Fritch said.

But as with Armistead, Fritch said just having the opportunity to regularly behold and appreciate the singular majesty of an elk herd is for him what offers the deepest sense of personal fulfillment — more than the economics of the enterprise.

“I love just looking at these magnificent animals as much as anything,” said Fritch, a retired Nashville health-care industry entrepreneur. But being the largest elk breeder in Tennessee, “at some point you have to sell something somewhere,” he added.

Call of the Wild

Autumn is an especially rewarding time to own elk, which are noted for the eerie, hollow-sounding high-pitched whistle, or “bugling.”

In an effort to trumpet their desirability to available females within earshot, bulls give vent to the otherworldly whine during rutting season. Bugling also serves to warn away male interlopers — or let them know a fight awaits if they plan to stick around.

Elk are in fact quite vocal beyond just their distinct bugling. They’re actually “among the noisiest ungulates, communicating danger quickly and identifying each other by sound,” according to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Newborn calves will bleat out shrill squeals and squalls that are individually recognized by their mothers, and adult males and females alike utter a variety of barks, chirps, mews, pips, grunts and snorts that make up an elaborate lexicon of audible elk talk.

“Elk also use body language. For example, an elk displays dominance by raising its head high,” according to RMEF.

Southern Things to Think About

Keeping domestic elk in the South “does have its challenges,” Fritch said. “They have heavy coats, so they can deal with the cold weather — but the heat can be an issue.”

It’s essential to keep a lot of shade available in their pasture ranges, he said. Armistead said his “really like to roll around in the mud during the warmer months.”

Likewise, parasites can be an issue of greater concern here than in northern climes because winter temperatures often don’t drop low enough for long enough to naturally disrupt the lifecycle of dangerous parasites.

“You really have to pay attention to parasites down here,” Fritch said. “The other issue you have to be aware of is ticks. It can get to the point of having to bring an animal down if you don’t stay on top of it.”

“There is a bit of a learning curve,” he said. “The main two things you have to deal with to get started is the fencing and the handling facilities to work the animals.”

If you have multiple bulls pastured together, bulls will fight during the rut. “That is not good – you can lose animals that way,” he said. So it’s necessary to either separate the bulls or removed their antlers at the end of the summer.

“Beyond that, the rest of it is not too different than keeping dairy cattle,” said Fritch. “There are certain nutritional requirements, but that is not to hard to learn and get a handle on.”

The North American Breeders Association maintains a useful FAQ page for anyone interested in learning more about raising domestic elk.

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Savage Beauty Abides at South Cumberland

Picturesque panoramas easily accessible at Great Stone Door 

With more than 30,000 acres under its auspices, South Cumberland State Park isn’t merly Tennessee’s largest state natural area. It’s also as remote, rugged and optically grand a place as you are likely to find within a day’s drive.

Fortunately for people fortunate enough to find themselves visiting or living near Center Hill Lake, it’s in fact hardly more than a 90-minute hop.

Several State Parks in One

South Cumberland State Park is actually a cluster of scenic getaways. Consisting of 10 different natural-area tracts in Grundy, Franklin, Marion and Sequatchie Counties, it’s more like a small subsystem of state parks than a single large one.

“A popular destination for hikers and campers, nearly 100 miles of trails and 13 primitive campgrounds service the area,” the Friends of the South Cumberland State Park website reports. “In addition to hiking and camping, the park offers opportunities for picnicking, swimming, fishing, caving, visiting historic ruins, rock climbing and rappelling, viewing spectacular rock formations, wildlife and waterfalls.”

It’s a region full of history and natural wonder that many a Middle Tennessee outdoor enthusiast has never properly discovered or adequately explored.

Just a few of the popular destinations are places like Foster Falls, Denny Cove, Grundy State Forest, Grundy Lakes and Sewanee Natural Bridge.

The 12.5-mile Fiery Gizzard Trail features “cascading streams, numerous waterfalls, panoramic overlooks, extremely rocky gorges, gentle slopes and lush woodlands,” thus undoubtedly placing it, in Friends of SCSP’s estimation, among “the most diverse and beautiful in the state.” For that matter, it has been ranked among the best in the United States.

Named, as legend has it, by Davy Crockett after he bit into an overly hot mouthful of victuals while camped in the vicinity, the Fiery Gizzard trailhead is located about three miles from the South Cumberland Visitor Center outside the tourist-friendly mountain hamlet of Monteagle.

Stone-Cold Stunning

Nearest to I-40 and Center Hill Lake, and offering epically expansive rimrock panorama views, is the primally untamed Savage Gulf Natural Area. It consists of a trio of 5-mile-long canyons cut ruthlessly over the aeons into the western edge of Cumberland Plateau. The yawning canyons — or “gulfs,” in the parlance of the gobsmacked Scots-Irish settlers who happened upon the realm — converge together into the Collins River Valley.

In the Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau” installment of  his popular series of outdoor guidebooks, prolific trail-trekker Johnny Molloy describes Savage Gulf’s thousands of wild acres as “an area of waterfalls, bluffs, human history, and all around beauty.”

The July 2000 issue of Backpacker magazine assessed Savage Gulf as “one of the last true wilderness areas left in the South.”

“If you like the rugged beauty of the Smoky Mountains but can do without the legions of car-driving windshield tourists who invade Great Smoky Mountains National Park, head for Savage Gulf Natural Area,” declared a writer for the magazine. He added, “The view from these cliffs rivals any you will find in the Smoky Mountains.”

Located just 20 miles southeast of McMinnville, Savage’s Gulf’s remarkable Great Stone Door is a masterwork of patient geological artistry.

Stone Door is just an hour’s drive from Smithville, or a pleasurably scenic hour and a half from Cookeville. It gets its name from a narrow, deep, steep and traversable crack in the sheer outcrops overlooking a Collins headwater tributary.

Described in the pages of Backpacker magazine as “truly breathtaking,” the Great Stone Door overlook boasts what veteran state park naturalist Randy Hedgepath proclaims is “the best view anywhere in the state of Tennessee.”

Unlike some of the hikes in Savage Gulf, getting to the Stone Door overlook doesn’t necessarily require a heroic demonstration of physical stamina. It’s a fairly flat and mild mile-long stroll from the ranger station parking lot.

The magnificent immensity of the view one encounters immediately upon emerging from the woods-enveloped Stone Door trail onto the wide-open cliff-top overlooks can be a little disorienting. Coming up all at once against so much soaring, multi-directional vastness can literally result in not knowing which way to turn next. Best, though, to avoid swiveling and whirling about uncontrollably, as that could lead to a steep fall in the event one’s equilibrium is compromised by vertigo near a high ledge.

Another impressive canyon-viewing vantage along the trail, though not quite so dizzying, is Laurel Gulf Overlook. At just of a quarter mile from the ranger station, and situated on a wooden deck at the end of a paved walkway, it is comfortably accessible to wheelchairs.

Beyond Laurel Gulf Overlook in the direction of Stone Door, the footpath transforms fetchingly into a tramped-and-trodden mulch of forest-floor soil and fine, boot-milled sandstone.

Hikers possessing of hardy constitutions can descend from the Stone Door into the chasm floor and explore a network of demanding but highly rewarding trails. If unsullied solitude is what you seek, this may be your best option. Although owing to the area’s size and general seclusion, it is not entirely uncommon to find yourself agreeably alone along the rim trails and overlooks, particularly on weekdays.

MTSU professor Carroll Van West, Tennessee’s state historian, has written that the Savage Gulf region “is perhaps the most isolated place in the state.”

“Over one hundred years ago, the rugged landscape of Grundy County attracted entrepreneurs who wanted to exploit the minerals underground and the timber on top, as well as entrepreneurs who wanted a respite from their industrialized towns and cities to breath fresh mountain air and enjoy the plateau’s breathtaking scenery,” West wrote in his “Tennessee’s Historic Landscapes: A Traveler’s Guide,” a 1995 survey of noteworthy Volunteer State settlements, communities and architecture.

Periodic Pruning

Savage Gulf’s 800-feet-deep ravines and shelter some of Tennessee’s most pristine stands of old-growth timber outside of Great Smoky Mountain National Park.

But even though the indigenous hemlock and various native hardwoods are now protected from commercial logging, Mother Nature employs clear-cutting techniques of her own on occasion. Massive rockslides will, from time to time, crumble violently away from the bluff faces. The downhill-hurtling boulders often sheer away considerable swaths of virgin forest before coming to rest far below.

In his 1999 book,“The Historic Cumberland Plateau: An Explorer’s Guide,” Russ Manning described how the precipitous crags are prone to intermittent paroxysms of savage remodeling.

“The Savage Gulf forest is kept relatively young by the unstable walls of the canyon which periodically send an avalanche of boulders tumbling into the gorge, cutting down the trees as efficiently as a giant scythe,” wrote Manning. “Even so, the forest is impressive.”

Ranger Hedgepath said he’s witnessed the cataclysmic results firsthand. One morning he said he was gazing out from a rim overlook when he observed what appeared to be a sizable “gash” in the forest across the canyon. “It looked like a big piece of the mountain had disappeared,” he said.

Certain it hadn’t been there the day before, Hedgepath hiked in to investigate, whereupon he discovered that, indeed, “part of the bluff had broken off and fallen down.

“That’s what caused the big gash. Just one morning, there it was,” Hedgepath said. “It happened during the night, I guess.”

For bluff buffs who love everything about Savage Gulf, the fact that it’s still a work in progress just adds to the mystique and majesty of the place.

“The canyons are getting deeper and wider all the time,” said Hedgepath.

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Roll into Standing Stone for Marble Madness

Standing Stone’s ‘Rolley Hole’ Tournament Celebrating 35th Anniversary

It’s something of a well-worn cliche to label a secluded place of natural beauty a “hidden gem.” But in the case of Standing Stone State Park, the description fits perfectly.

Located deep in the steep rises and ridges of the Highland Rim, the park is set covertly against the Cumberland Plateau amidst a maze of cryptic hills south of Dale Hollow Lake, about 10 miles northwest of Livingston.

Standing Stone is tucked well off and away from paths typically beaten by travelers and tourists exploring the Volunteer State’s numberless destinations for scenic eye-appeal. The 855-acre park in Overton County is also surrounded by more than 8,000 acres of state forest. Its rolling countryside is lavishly adorned with rugged woods and resplendent waterside scenery.

Opportunities for observing thriving wildlife populations — deer, turkey, fox, raccoons, bobcat, waterfowl, hawks, owls and songbirds — are commonplace, often tranquilly intersperse among areas frequented by crowds of human visitors.

“It’s most definitely not a place where you get tired of working,” said Shawn Hughes, a ranger at Standing Stone who grew up in the area. “It’s gorgeous in whatever season you are in, and it always offers something for everyone.”

Wildflower blooms are immense, and Standing Stone offers particularly spellbinding sprays and displays along contemplative timberland footpaths. “On our lake trails, the abundance of the shooting-star wildflowers is one of the highlights,” said Hughes. “And you don’t have to go very far — you might just go down one trail a little ways and see 70 or 80 specimens in bloom.”

Standing Stone’s colors and bold contours draw visitors throughout the year, but it’s late summer that brings about one of the most distinctive attractions for which Standing Stone is known, beyond just the grand landscape. The most highly anticipated happening the park has annually offered for the past three and a half decades is a crown-jewel of a marble tournament.

On Saturday, Standing Stone will celebrate the 35th anniversary of the National Rolley Hole Marbles Championship, one of the the most prominent and history-laden events of its kind in the United States — perhaps even the world.

Many books and articles have been written about the Rolley Hole tournament over the years — and the ageless sport of marble-shooting in general along the Tennessee-Kentucky border. From Sports Illustrated to Southern Living to the Smithsonian Institution, Standing Stone’s Rolley Hole tourney has been spotlighted numerous times over the years on national television news and sports programs. It even made an appearance in Charles M. Schulz’s famed “Peanuts” comic strip.

“The sport of rolley hole requires technical shooting skiffs as well as thoughtful strategy. It shares features in common with golf, pool, and croquet,” wrote renown Tennessee folklorist Robert Fulcher. “A centuries-old phenomenon, numerous variants of rolley hole have been documented worldwide. Shakespeare mentioned the game of Cherry Pit, which involved rolling a marble into a hole.”

Ranger Hughes is the chief organizer for the annual Rolley Hole tournament. Getting to know the game means gaining greater appreciation for regional culture and history, he said.

“The whole marble culture thing is so neat and cool,” said Hughes. “It really is deeper than what it looks at first glance, and the more you are around it and learn about it the greater it is.”

The game “seems super simple but the depth and complexity and strategy is really amazing,” he said.

More than even that, the Rolley Hole Championship and the accompanying festivities throughout the day — live music, food, marble-making, trading and selling — brings together the past and connects it with the future.

“You see a lot of older folks sort of get to step back in time and relive some of their youth,” said Hughes. “Or an older generation teaching a younger generation. Seeing a grandfather with his grandkids, teaching them to play marbles — I don’t know how much better it can get than that.”

In addition to “a day full of marble fun,” the 35th Rolley Hole event will include 7 hours of live bluegrass, blues, and old-time music by bands and artists like Uncle Shuffelo & His Haint Hollow Hootenanny, the Rockdale Ridgerunners, Avery Trace, Lonesome County Line and Kentucky Just Us, Trenton Caruthers, Mike DeFosche, Conner Vlietstra and a special set by Robert Eskew.

Also planned is a tribute to the music of the late Robert “Bud” Garrett, a legendary local blues musician and marble maker.

The festival begins at 8 a.m. and admission is free. For more information about the festival and Standing Stone State Park, visit http://tnstateparks.com/parks/about/standing-stone or call 931-823- 6347.

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Edgar Evins Manager’s Mission: Promote Park’s Appeal

Scenic Center Hill Lake recreation preserve something of an undiscovered treasure

When Kenny Gragg took over the top managerial post at Edgar Evins State Park last winter, it was something of a homecoming for him.

As a kid growing up in Cookeville, Gragg would often visit the 6,000 acre nature preserve and recreation destination overlooking Center Hill Lake on fun-seeking outings with friends or camp-retreats with his church group.

But it wasn’t until after he graduated with a degree in wildlife management from Tennessee Tech and worked at other parks that he said he really came to appreciate what Edgar Evins has to offer.

Kenny Gragg, managing ranger at Edgar Evins State Park

“Edgar Evins is so unique and diverse with flora and fauna. It’s nothing to see all kinds of wildlife just walking a quarter mile down one of our trails,” Gragg said. “Of all the state parks, it has some of the most diverse wildlife in the state. In my entire career I’d never seen a bobcat until I came here.”

He added, “There’s always the possibility that a bear could migrate in and show up, although I haven’t seen one, but I would never rule it out.”

Gragg, who worked as the managing ranger at Tims Ford in Franklin County before taking over the chief administrator slot at Edgar Evins, said he’s a deeply committed advocate of the Tennessee outdoors in general.

“You won’t find a bigger fan of the state of Tennessee than me,” he said. “I worked in Wyoming for a summer and I loved it out there. I even thought it might be great to move there. But when I came back, I fell back in love with Tennessee and now I never want to leave again.”

But Gragg said he was all the same a little stunned when he showed back up at Edgar Evins last winter to start his current job. It was a particularly nice day in February, the sunlight gleaming on the cliffs over the lake. A heartfelt appreciation was stirred in him for the beauty and distinctness the park’s ridges, slopes and crags.

Observation tower overlooking Center Hill Dam at Edgar Evins State Park

“One of the first things I really noticed here after coming back from Tims Ford was the hills,” he said. “It’s hilly at Tims Ford, of course, but not like it’s hilly here. This side of the Cumberland Plateau, the Highland Rim, you really just can’t beat it — I love being back in these hills.”

“Just driving on the backroads around here — like Lancaster Highway down below the dam — I’m not sure where you find a more beautiful stretch of highway in the country than that,” Gragg said.

One of Gragg’s priorities is boosting the “business side” of the government-run park by enticing more people to come to appreciate its appeal. He said he wants to do more to promote the park and “get it on the map.”

“It is amazing how little people know about the park and all that it has to offer,” he said.“You can drive to Smithville and find people who don’t even realize there is a state park over here.”

He believes a key to success in that regard is to “drive up the overnight visitation.”

“To do that we have got to develop more recreational opportunities,” Gragg said.

One of his long-range ambitions is to work with Middle Tennessee and Upper Cumberland mountain biking enthusiasts to design and build riding trails around the park. Designated backcountry biking paths would wonderfully complement the area’s hiking trails and vast capacity for paddling, fishing and boating, he said.

“For visitors to be able to go kayaking one day and then go mountain biking the next would be fantastic,” said Gragg.

For a list of upcoming events at Edgar Evins State Park, go here.

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Something Special About Small-Stream Smallies

Big lakes and large rivers aren’t the only habitat for brawny bronzebacks

Anglers are notoriously tight-lipped about where they go to rip fish lips. And that’s especially true among those serious about stalking skinny waters in search of fat bass.

But one of the great things about Middle Tennessee and the Upper Cumberland is that opportunities abound around here for escaping the mechanized weekend multitudes by sequestering yourself on backwoods bodies of moving water. There’s no shortage of covert creeks, secluded streams and secret side-channels that house hidden lairs holding lunker smallmouths.

Fervent fly fishermen like Sawyer Campbell are, of course, forever in thrall to the thrill of landing a big wily trout on an isolated run of fast-flowing river. Campbell, a Tennessee Tech grad, is Outdoor Experience of Cookeville’s floor manager and in-house fly shop tutor. But when he wants to steer clear of the Caney Fork’s flailing fleets of summer pleasure-floaters — or if an overnight excursion to East Tennessee’s South Holston River isn’t feasible — he likes to trek out to undisclosed stretches of tributaries feeding the Cumberland River in search of the copper-tinted kings of lower-elevation creeks and streams.

“It really doesn’t get much better than this,” Campbell remarks as he admires yet another plump, vermillion-eyed smallie he’s wrestled to submission on his 6-weight fly rod somewhere deep in the Roaring River watershed.

Creek-bass angling in the Upper Cumberland offers opportunities to connect with fish both in numbers and for size. That’s a pretty seductive win-win proposition for any fanatical sport fisherman, says Campbell, who’s always game to gab about fly-angling pursuits with customers browsing in the store. One of his specialty topics is discussing tips and tactics with trout anglers interested in crossing over into the realm of bass-catching.

Always Ready to Rumble

Anybody who’s ever caught a smallmouth will tell you they’re among the fightingest fish, pound for pound, of any inland North American warmer-water species. In moving currents, the initial hookup and subsequent thrashing fracas is especially vigorous.

“If you’ve caught smallmouth on lakes before, then you will understand,” said JG Auman of Mt. Juliet-based Tennessee Moving Waters Guide Service (tnmovingwaters.com). “I’d say these stream fish are on average twice as strong as a reservoir smallmouth.”

Auman and his business partner, Nick Adams, guide almost exclusively in Middle Tennessee on, as their name denotes, moving waters. One of their sought-after talents is putting customers — typically using traditional spinning rods — on secret holes in unfrequented streams that support large smallmouth.

When Auman and Adams head out for a day on the water, they ask clients if they’re looking to catch lots of fish, or just interested in targeting the big ones. If it’s the later, wielding a rod and line with some heft is imperative.

Big Fish Require Bigger Tackle

Battling a bruising five-pound smallmouth in swift current is probably a losing proposition with light gear and tackle, Auman said.

JG Auman of TN Moving Waters

“We do tend to use heavier tackle than what people often associate with stream fishing, because we often try and target trophy fish,” he said. “They will either break the rod off or break off the line when they pull it up under a tree or rock.”

Auman, who also works as an aquatic biologist for the Nashville Zoo, said a creek smallmouth that’s 20 inches long is probably 15-20 years old. “It knows every rock, every tree, every branch in its home,” he said. “And when you hook it, those are the places it’s going. You are not going to be able to stop them if you’re tackle is too light — you just aren’t going to keep them out of the cover. We learned that from experience long ago.”

In 2015 Adams and Auman were featured on Chad Hoover’s popular Youtube channel, KayakBassinTV. Hoover, who also lives in Middle Tennessee, is usually partial to chasing largemouth. But in the episode with the TMW crew, he acknowledged there’s little not to love about paddling for smallmouth on the region’s scenic rivers and creeks.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t done as much (smallmouth fishing) for the show — primarily, because I’m selfish,” Hoover said. “I really like to keep these smallmouth places to myself.”

Destinations Classified 

Auman said he gets a fair number of people calling him up not so much looking to book an outing, but just “fishing for stream names.” But he’s a devoted practitioner of the fisherman’s code of secrecy, especially on the matter of small-stream smallmouth fishing.

Holes that hold big fish will fizzle in a hurry if they get publicized, he said.

Not only doesn’t Moving Waters give out stream names, but some of their highly classified hotspots are designated for tourists only. “If I have clients that are local, I take them to streams that are somewhat known,” he said. “Then I have others that I fish only with out-of-town clients, because I know they aren’t going to tell people or come back later. In this day and age of social media, all it takes is one person to get on a Facebook page that has 5,000 members and start giving out creek names, and it’s ruined.”

All the same, Auman encourages anglers to get out and explore for their own patches of highly productive moving bass waters. Most anybody can be successful if they just scout around and study some maps, he said.

“You want to find streams that flow directly into larger bodies of water — that’s the best way that I tell people to find good smallmouth streams,” he said. “If you can find a stream that is a direct tributary to the Cumberland River or the Caney Fork River, then those are the streams you are going to want to look for. You probably don’t want the streams that just feed into another little stream.”

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Medical Cost-Savings App Available for Free

Healthcare Bluebook seeks to empower patients to shop around, negotiate ‘fair prices’

A Nashville-based company that specializes in researching and comparing medical-care costs and rating quality-of-care outcomes is offering its services for free to Middle Tennessee residents.

“Health care is the one industry in which people make purchases without knowing the cost in advance,” says Jeffrey Rice, CEO of the price-transparency company called Healthcare Bluebook.

Often, even within the same general area, there are “huge differences between hospitals and other health care facilities for the exact same procedure,” said Rice, who is himself a doctor.

That needn’t be the case, he said. Healthcare Bluebook’s mission and function is to advance, in the company website’s words, a “simple, yet powerful idea: create fairness in the healthcare marketplace.”

American consumers obviously know how to shop for good deals on all manner of goods and services, yet when it comes to making health-care choices and obtaining medicines, they often just take what’s given to them without shopping around, said Rice, an editorial board for the American Journal of Medical Quality.

Healthcare Bluebook’s app works by crunching pricing information and service-quality assessments from a wide set of providers in regions around the country.

“We know that most hospitals perform most services, but they are not equally good at everything,” Rice wrote in an op-ed column for The Tennessean back in April. “Bluebook offers consumers information about quality of care that allows them to see hospital outcomes for the specific service they need. We combine this health-care quality information with cost information so that they can get the quality care they need at a price they can afford.”

Cost and quality-rating information is presented to the app’s users in easily understood color-coded grading and ranking schedules, giving patients and their families the ability to locate high-quality, lower-cost alternatives for medical treatment than what they might think are otherwise available.

Healthcare Bluebook also strengthens the patient-as-customer’s ability to successfully negotiate a “fair price” after the fact, if they feel overcharged, or when discussing payment arrangements with a care-provider’s billing department.

“We really like it, and a lot of people in the area really like it to help them get an objective price on medical procedures,” said Bob Gunter, CEO of Premier Diagnostic Imaging in Cookeville and Tennessee chapter president of the national Radiology Business Management Association.

If a medical services provider isn’t willing to negotiate a billing amount that’s in line with what Healthcare Bluebook has determined is the fair price for a procedure or service, “then you should probably go someplace else,” said Gunter.

A 2016 survey by the Kaiser Foundation, a national health policy analysis center, discovered that nearly 70 percent of patients sampled across the country reported substantial difficulty trying to find useful or binding estimates on prices for medical procedures ahead of time. And more than 65 percent who attempted to negotiate a bill-reduction with a care-provider afterward said their efforts failed.

Healthcare Bluebook helps patients deal with both issues, says the company’s marketing director, Greg Stielstra.

“This works for people who are insured as well as uninsured,” he said. “People mistakenly think the problem we must solve is getting everyone insurance so they can pay for overpriced health care. But what we ought to be doing is trying to solve the pricing of health care itself, which you can greatly reduce by making it more transparent.”

The lack of transparency in health-services pricing hasn’t just resulted in people paying more than they think they should. It also causes consumers to believe that market rates for health care services are higher than they actually are.

Health care need not be outlandishly overpriced, or prohibitively expensive, said Stielstra. To the contrary, Healthcare Bluebook shows that affordable options actually exist, and they’re usually not far away, he said.

Healthcare Bluebook has been available for free to Middle Tennessee residents since February. Stielstra said they typically market the premium app services to business owners, who in turn offer it as a free benefit to their employees.

Given that Nashville is “the health care capital of the nation,” said Stielstra, company officials want to see the app as widely available as possible here. They’ve determined that’s best achieved by offering it free to whoever wants it.

As a result, Stielstra hopes Nashville and the surrounding region will become “the most transparent in the nation in terms of price and quality.”

“Transparency is transformative,” he said.

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VIDEO: Condo Fire Aftermath

A fire suspected to have been sparked by lightning-strike early Monday caused extensive damage to Building H at Highland Cove Luxury Condominiums overlooking Center Hill Lake.

Crews had mostly extinguished the flames by 8 a.m.

The fire occurred about four miles south of Center Hill Dam just off Dale Ridge Road, Highway 96.

No one was reported injured in the blaze.

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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.