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VIDEO: Fly Tips for Catching Big Bass in Small Creeks

Hamilton “Ham” Wallace, a fly fishing specialist for Cumberland Transit outfitters in Nashville, offers pointers for hooking up with sizable bass in smaller streams and creeks in Middle Tennessee.

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Forecast: Center Hill Fishing Frenzy Starting in 2018

Everyone eagerly anticipating completion of dam work

Anybody who’s spent any serious time fishing on Center Hill Lake before and after the reservoir was lowered for work on the dam will likely tell you the bite isn’t what it used to be.

A standard gripe among seasoned crappie stalkers and unabashed bass bums is that years of diminished lake levels has dampened prospects for consistently landing boast-worthy gamefish. Reason being, there’s relatively little submerged wood and plant cover anymore to attract and provide refuge for fish and their prey.

Center Hill’s “monster walleye” may become more commonplace once dam work is complete and the lake level gets elevated next year. This is L. M. Davis of Nashville holding a 9-pounder he landed back in October 1953. (Photo via Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Despite the difficulty fishermen may have experienced honing in on reliable Center Hill hookup holes, the government’s full-time fish-watchers maintain that adequate numbers of the scaly subsurface lake-dwellers are down there, even if they’re hard to find.

After perceiving a decline following the initial lake draw-down nearly a decade ago, various TWRA methods for gauging attendance in fish-schools show they’v bounced back, said Mike Jolley, regional biologist for the department.

“The most recent surveys show that things are coming back to where they were at the start of the dam project,” Jolley told Center Hill Sun. “We have not seen a big downward trend.”

He added, though, that “fish populations do, even when there is not a lot going on, kind of come and go” as a result of natural survival and spawning fluctuations.

Primed to Thrive

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the nearly $400 million dam repair projects that have been going on for all these years are slated for completion in 2018.

That means that by next summer — hopefully — lake levels are expected to be maintained at up to ten feet higher than what standard summer pools have been of late, according to Army Corps projections. That in turn means anglers can maybe start reaping some silver-lining rewards to a long stretch of consistently mediocre fish-catching potential on Center Hill.

The drawdown over the last several years “has allowed time for trees and other vegetation to grow in the backs of pretty much all the creeks,” said the Army Corps Center Hill biologist, Gary Bruce. “There are now some pretty large trees that are going to be excellent habitat when the water does come back up.”

Often, lakes are at their most productive, fishing-wise, soon after they are created. Dale Hollow, for example, was impounded in 1943. In 1955 a local angler there landed what remains to this day a world record smallmouth, weighing an ounce shy of 12 pounds and measuring 27 inches long.

“Generally, when you build a new lake, you get this surge of nutrients, very good spawns, and everything just proliferates for the first four or five years of a new impoundment,” Benjy Kinman, a retired Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted in a short documentary about the record Dale Hollow bass.

Anglers and aquatic-species scientists alike are hopeful Center Hill Lake is now poised for something akin to a re-boot that may even usher in a repeat of the golden angling years of the 1950s, the decade after the dam was completed.

“There were a lot of big fish caught in Center Hill right after impoundment, some big bass and monster walleye,” said Bruce.

Jolley, who has worked around Cumberland Plateau regional lakes for more than 20 years, said TWRA has been stocking Center Hill the last couple years with an eye toward further bolstering a brighter future.

“Center Hill is probably one of the very few lakes in the whole state that gets any smallmouth bass,” he said. “Those were put in with the idea of possibly trying to enhance the abundance of smallmouth. So when the lake does come up, there will be an adult class of fish that can really take advantage of the habitat and really boost their productivity.”

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Windows of Recreation Opportunities

Officials hope new state natural area will attract more tourist dollars to region

The Window Cliffs Natural Area in Putnam County is now open for the business of public recreation.

State park officials, local politicians, conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts gathered for a commencement celebration and an inaugural round of guided hikes at the 275-acre scenic refuge on April 7.

The opening of the area was also scheduled to highlight and coincided with this year’s State Natural Areas Spring Celebration Week, which is used to raise public awareness about Tennessee’s 85 state-owned natural areas.

The state’s Natural Areas Program “seeks to include adequate representation of all natural communities that make up Tennessee’s natural landscape, and provide long-term protection for Tennessee’s rare, threatened and endangered plant and animal life,” according to the Department of Environment and Conservation.

“I can really think of no way to better honor this week than the opening of Window Cliffs State Natural Area,” Roger McCoy, director of TDEC’s Division of Natural Areas, told the crowd of 100 or so people gathered for the kickoff event. “This is a big deal.”

The area’s plant diversity and craggy beauty are sure to entice visitors to Window Cliffs, said McCoy. “We’ve got mature forests, the free-flowing Cane Creek, and an amazing geologic formation that really is like no other in the state.”

The Window Cliffs trailhead is located about seven miles south of Exit 280 on I-40, at 8400 Old Cane Creek Rd in Baxter. It’s also just a couple miles from Burgess Falls State Park. The Window Cliffs trail includes a total of 20 bridgeless stream crossings and some pretty steep climbs, so don’t expect to have dry feet or fresh legs by the end of the day.

Bill Summers, head ranger at Burgess Falls State Park and Window Cliffs State natural Area

“Burgess Falls offers a relative short, scenic hike, and Window Cliffs is a little bit more of a challenging hike, which will be more rewarding to some visitors,” said Bill Summers, the chief state park ranger in charge of both areas. “I truly believe that both will compliment each other in what they offer to the public, and what they protect for future generations.”

Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for the Tennessee Bureau of Parks, said Gov. Bill Haslam has sought to place a “special focus on rural economic development,” and the opening of Window Cliffs is aligned with that priority.

Like with the opening of Cummins Falls State Park north of Exit 280, the Haslam administration’s parks and recreation planners believe taking a “businesslike approach” to designating and promoting exciting new outdoor-activity destinations will enhance local economies.

“A lot of communities, particularly here in the Upper Cumberland, are still struggling in some ways,” said Hill. “What Tennessee state parks can bring to that is what is called ‘place-based economic development.’ When we have beautiful landscapes like we do here in the Upper Cumberland, we have been able to identify places that will add a lot in terms of value to local economic development with tourism and job growth, as well as an opportunity for healthy lifestyles.”

This is the 46th year of Tennessee’s Natural Areas Program,” and the 80th year of the state park system.

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Deep in the Heart of TN: TX Longhorns

Of the hundreds of cattle breeds raised on farms and ranchlands throughout the United States, few are more striking and recognizable than Texas Longhorns.

Longhorns have earned distinction not just for their ability to survive and thrive in arid, barren and otherwise inhospitable wilderness environments, but as a cultural and historical symbol of the Great American West itself.

They’ve been described as the “original bovine” in North America.

Today, longhorns represent just a fraction of the total number of cattle raised in America — especially outside Texas — estimated at less than one percent of the total population as a whole. The Fort Worth-based Texas Longhorn Breeders Association of America reports about 80 registered commercial longhorn ranches are operating in Tennessee.

Even though their relative population is small, Texas Longhorns maintain a sturdy niche market, both for breeders and direct-to-market meat growers, said Roger Townsend, president of the Tennessee Valley Texas Longhorns Association.

Unlike cattle stocks that predominate today, “no one set out to develop Texas Longhorn cattle as a breed,” according to an informational webpage set up by a professor and longhorn conservationists at the University of Texas. “Instead, they evolved in North America from descendants of cattle brought into the Americas by the Spanish in the late 1400s and early 1500s.” Early herds roamed wild for centuries, and “underwent intense natural selection.” Descendants of the original stocks developed robust disease resistance, enabling them to flourish in harsh range conditions. With their prodigious, spike-tipped headgear, worn by bulls and cows alike, they could formidably defend themselves and their young against predator threats.

Owing to their natural evolution, Texas Longhorns today are capable of ingesting a much wider array of plants than other cattle.

“A lot of people compare them to bison or even goats,” said Townsend, who runs about 250 head of purebred Texas Longhorns on his ranch in Giles County. “They will graze and forage and go out in the woods and eat vines and things that other breeds nowadays won’t.”

Most all today’s cattle varieties have been bred “for one particular thing, be it for beef or milk,” he said.

Preeminent congenital trait among longhorns are endurance, stress tolerance and vitality, but were engineered by the hand of nature, not man.

“Longhorns are a beef-type cow, but because they are rangier and leaner, the meat is low fat and low cholesterol,” Townsend added. “It is very similar to eating bison.”

Meat from longhorns “is very profitable and definitely sells,” he noted.

Steer By Silver Point

If you’ve ever found yourself moseying along Highway 141 just west of the little hamlet called Silver Point, you may have observe a stately herd of the regal beasts grazing along a rolling parcel of highland pasture.

Randall Fedon, with his wife, Rosemary, has run a herd of purebred Texas Longhorns on their R&R Ranch property there for more than a decade.

Fedon, who lived as a child in Arizona, said he’s always loved the majestic look of longhorns, and both he and his wife “came from farm people.” When they bought land in Putnam County more than a decade ago, they knew they wanted to run cattle on it.

Texas Longhorns, said Fedon, fit the bill.

“We just like to let them roam out there, like they did in the West,” he said.

Despite their imposing appearance and reputation for stubborn perseverance in hardscrabble domains, Texas Longhorns typically display a placid temperament and exhibit docile behavior.

“They are really easy,” Fedon said of caring for his herd. “You can pet them and everything, as long as they are not mating. Then you need to watch out.”

No Bull, Longhorns Aren’t Dull

Texas Longhorns possess unusually sharp minds between their colossal horns. They’re among the most intelligent of cattle breeds.

“Longhorns are very inquisitive,” said Townsend. “If you go out and sit in the field on my ranch, it will be no time before you are surrounded by 20 calves. If you sit still, they’ll come up and start nudging you. If you have a cap on, they’ll nudge it off your head and start licking on you. It’s just how they are. They’re nosy and inquisitive.”

Townsend warns those who buy calves from him to raise for beef that they’ll nudge their way into your heart if you’re not careful.

“I tell people not to take a calf home and let their wife or kids make it into a pet, because if that happens it’ll never make it to the freezer,” he said. “I’ve then had those same people come back later saying that’s exactly what happened, the family wouldn’t let it be killed. They’ll grow on you, for sure. People love them.”

Visitors to the area and passersby along Highway 141 are welcome to use the R & R Ranch pull-out area on the north side of the road to view and photograph the longhorns over the fence, as long as they’re respectful of the property and animals.

Another pullout is located along Buffalo Valley Road, about a half mile past the Silver Point Baptist Church at the bottom of the hill. The R & R Ranch is a little under a mile and a half west of I-40’s Exit 273

“They are really neat. They’re a different kind of breed than you see much around here, that’s for sure,” said James Jones, a resident on the R & R Ranch who helps the Fedons look after the cattle. “You wouldn’t believe how many people stop and take pictures. Sometimes, people will stop right on the road and I’m like, Oh gosh, that ain’t good!”

To contact the Tennessee Valley Texas Longhorns Association, email Roger Townsend at tnman37_38478@yahoo.com. His number is 931-309-9480.

Visit the Texas Longhorns Breeders Association of America at tlbaa.org.

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Take a Walk on the Wildflower Side

TN state naturalist visiting Edgar Evins and Rock Island for public hikes

Looking to amplify your sense of Upper Cumberland feral floral appreciation? Then take note of a couple guided walks through the Eastern Highland Rim woods coming up this weekend.

On Saturday, Tennessee State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath will lead an interpretive wildflower hike at Edgar Evins State Park. On Sunday, he’ll do another at Rock Island State Park. Both events are free.

A lifelong Tennessean and three-decade veteran of the state park system, Hedgepath is expert at explaining the fascinating finer details of plants and wildlife and special features on Volunteer State public lands, from Mountain City to Memphis.

State Naturalist Randy Hedgepath

Hedgepath, a graduate of UT-Martin, worked for a number of years at South Cumberland State Park and Radnor Lake State Park. Based now in Montgomery Bell State Park, he travels the state putting on educational programs and guided hikes. Hedgepath is “one of the most sought after interpretive specialists in the southeastern United States,” according to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

“Wildflowers will be starting, although it may be a little early for some species,” Hedgepath said of the upcoming Edgar Evins and Rock Island treks. “But there will certainly be things to look at.”

At Evins State Park, Hedgepath will lead participants on an eight-mile tromp around the Merritt Ridge trail overlooking Center Hill’s emerald depths. He anticipates trout lilies and trilliums will have commenced painting the Highland Rim’s rolling slopes with spring color.

Worth mentioning is that merely to access the 5.5-mile Merritt Ridge Loop requires an initial mile-and-a-half investment on the Millennium Trail. “The walk is a little bit lengthy,” Hedgepath said. “Of course, if someone wants a shorter walk they can accompany us for a shorter distance and then turn back.”

At Rock Island, Hedgepath is planning an amiable 1.5-mile amble along the Downstream Trail to Blue Hole. The trail hugs the gushing Caney Fork just before it slackens into the Center Hill pool.

Twin Falls at Rock Island State Park

In addition to the dazzling spectacle of 80-foot Twin Falls across the river, Rock Island’s Downstream trail soaks up a lot of sunshine that warms the soil and beckons forth blooms. It therefore proffers the region’s best bet for glimpsing early-bird bursts of vernal hues.

“Wildflowers are always earlier on that trail than any other that I know of,” said Hedgepath. “The trail is truly beautiful. Hopefully there will be some trilliums and spring beauties and other early wildflowers out that day.”

If you’re interested in signing up for one of Hedgepath’s walks — or inquiring about other park activities — contact Rock Island State Park directly at (931) 686-2471, or Edgar Evins State Park at (931) 858-2115. Email Randy Hedgepath at randy.hedgepath@tn.gov.

Most all of Tennessee’s 56 state parks are hosting free guided hikes on March 18 “to celebrate the coming of spring and the bounty of recreation opportunities state parks offer,” according to a TDEC press release. The parks have information pages and event calendars at tnstateparks.com.

“For 80 years our state park system has created outdoor adventures and recreational opportunities for all Tennesseans,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner of parks and conservation. “We are always excited to highlight our state’s beauty and special stories.”

For a full list of all planned hikes for March 18, go here.

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Plan for Privatizing Fall Creek Falls Hotel Held Up

TDEC adding ‘amendment’ to ongoing RFP; Attorney general says process legal

Officials in the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam have postponed the deadline for private companies to submit proposals for operating a new $22 million hotel at Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The state Department of Environment and Conservation, which supervises state parks and natural areas in Tennessee, is planning to amend the “Request for Proposals” process that it launched last year, according to Eric Ward, a spokesman for the agency.

Prior to the delay announcement, March 2 was the scheduled deadline for companies to submit first-phase operational proposals for running the future restaurant and lodging facility, which would remain owned by the state.

The construction funding for the project has already been approved by the Tennessee General Assembly. The new facility is expected to replace the existing inn, built in the early 1970s, on the banks of scenic Fall Creek Lake.

Ward said “content revisions to the RFP” are currently in the works by TDEC planners.

In an emailed response to inquiries by Center Hill Sun, Ward said that because the companies bidding are engaged in a “competitive procurement process,” the specific nature of the changes will remain under wraps until their formal public release.

“The amended language will be available soon,” Ward wrote on Thursday.

Originally, the state was scheduled to finalize an agreement by July 1. The “concessionaire” firm that wins the contract would also take over management of the state park golf course in addition to the new inn facilities, expected to be completed in 2020.

A statement issued in January from TDEC asserted that the ultimate goal of the hospitality-service privatization initiative is to “more effectively steward taxpayer dollars by better protecting the park’s assets.”

The department also predicts an economic bounce to surrounding communities as a result.

The 26,000-acre park straddles Van Buren and Bledsoe Counties, both of which are considered “economically distressed” by the state and federal government. The same is true of White County to the north and parts of Warren County to the west.

TDEC officials say the existing hotel tends to run occupancy rates below 40 percent. The average hotel occupancy-rate nationally was 65.5 percent in 2016, according to industry estimates used by the Tennessee Hospitality and Tourism Association. In the Southeastern United States, the average was 61.4 percent and in Tennessee it was 64.5 percent.

“Increased occupancy and visitation with a new Inn will provide increased tax revenues for the local government and reliable employment for local citizens once the rebuild is complete,” according to the TDEC statement from earlier this year.

Unhappy Union Employees

The plan isn’t without its critics. Government employees at the hotel and restaurant worry they won’t enjoy the same benefits and job protections under a company intent on turning a profit.

Randy Stamps, executive director of of the Tennessee State Employees Association, would rather see the existing inn renovated and repaired and remain operated by public-payroll workers.

“Or, if poor structural conditions require we demolish and rebuild the inn, we should run it with state employees for a few years to raise occupancy rates and then reassess the value of a new inn running at its peak,” Stamps wrote in a January op-ed for The Tennessean.

An effort in 2015 by the Haslam administration to entice an outside company to run the inn failed to draw any interest because of the facility’s poor condition.

One bureaucratic peculiarity involving the project didn’t go unnoticed by opponents of a private company running the hotel.

Up until last week, the Haslam administration was seeking to approve plans for designing and constructing the new hotel itself, outside the customary review-and-oversight processes for publicly owned structures. Typically, that is supervised by the State Building Commission.

However, the administration has now apparently agreed to seek consent of some form for the new hotel design from the commission.

The Building Commission is made up of high-ranking officials from various arms of state government — including the speaker of the House, the secretary of state, the comptroller, the treasurer, the Department of Finance commissioner and the governor himself.

Senate Speaker Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who also serves on the Building Commission in his capacity as lieutenant governor, told reporters at the Capitol last week the RFP holdup is “somewhere between a bump in the road and a roadblock.”

“It’s not a roadblock, but it’s not as insignificant as a bump in the road,” according to McNally.

The Tennessee attorney general’s office has released an opinion declaring that, provided the State Building Commission agrees to the terms, the state may “enter into agreements concerning state-owned or state-controlled lands and facilities, such as the proposed RFP and Concession Contract for the operation of Fall Creek Falls State Park.”

(Editor’s Note: This story was updated March 7.)

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York Loves His Crappie Job

Customers biting on Carthage angler’s hand-tied fishing jigs

If you happen unannounced by Darryl York’s little backyard workshop just west of Carthage, don’t be surprised if you encounter a “Gone Fishing” sign.

York, who turns 50 this spring, doesn’t just dream about going fishing a lot. He lives that dream a majority of the time.

“I’m doing something a lot that I’ve always loved to do a lot. I’m out fishing probably 200 days a year,” York told Center Hill Sun on a clear-skied midwinter afternoon that in fact found him docked at his jig-tying table rather than trolling a submerged brush pile.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that if I say I want to go crappie fishing, then I can go crappie fishing,” explained York, adding that not having a wife has probably aided his lifestyle. “And if I’m going crappie fishing, I catch crappie. Just thinking about catching crappie gives me goosebumps.”

Darryl York ties crappie jigs to order for fishermen around the country. He runs his York Bait Company and guide service from his home just outside Carthage. Visit his website at yorkbaitcompany.com.

York has stalked the scrappy slabs all over the southeastern United States, from up in Kentucky across Middle and West Tennessee down into Mississippi on over to Georgia and back up through Tennessee, again and again.

Make no mistake about it: “We live right in the heart of fishing country,” said York.

“Carthage is within 60 miles of eight lakes,” he said. “And I like being able to fish all of them.”

His favorite is Center Hill. “That’s where I learned to fish for crappie,” he said.

York recalls when state fishery managers first started stocking the feisty blacknose strain of crappie in Center Hill Lake in the mid-1990s.

“I fished there every day,” he said. “And a lot of nights, too.”

Those were the good ol’ days, before the work on Center Hill Dam commenced. “I just don’t have confidence to fish Center Hill as regularly now as I used to. Not until they get that water back up and keep it there,” he said.

York credits his love of fishing and skill for locating and landing big crappie to local fishing luminary Carroll Wilburn, an angling ace on all the local waters. “He fishes every day and he’s taught me everything I know,” York said.

And York has parlayed his shrewd on-the-water schooling into becoming a savvy guide and enterprising fishing-lure designer. For about eight years he’s run the York Bait Company out of his home. He specializes in churning out vibrant handmade jigs, spinners and plugs for anglers tracking the tastiest warm-water sport fish species — crappie, sauger and walleye.

York assembles the baits to order through his website, yorkbaitcompany.com. On the site, you’ll find a rainbow of hues and gamut of sizes for all fishing conditions and water types.

It took some time for the business to start paying off. But as a result of word of mouth, the internet and a commitment to craftsmanship and customer service, things are working out, he said.

“Business has been coming around pretty good,” said York, who has expertise as a plumber and electrician in case absolutely nothing’s biting.

Over the years, he’s developed a dexterous proficiency for putting orders together as quick as he gets them. “I can probably tie about two dozen jigs in an hour, one color,” York said. “If you start adding multiple colors, it takes a little longer.”

Like most adept anglers, York will tell you that a key to reliably hooking up with an underwater tug is confidence in what you’re tossing. That’s because confidence is also key to fishing with concentration. If a fisherman doesn’t like the bait, it won’t likely get fished in appetizing fashion, he said.

“Color is for the fisherman,” he said. “All color really does is make the object look bigger or smaller in the water. They can’t see color, per se.”

Brighter colors for darker, murkier water — more natural colors for clearer water — that’s York’s approach.

“But I wouldn’t be scared to close my eyes and pick a color and fish it,” he said. “In the springtime when they are beginning to spawn, that’s the best time. That’s when everyone’s an expert.”

To that end, York expresses supreme confidence in his jigs — especially when warming late-winter and early-spring water temperatures start luring crappie into the shallows.

“If you’re casting these jigs and you aren’t’ catching them, then the fish aren’t there,” he said.

Interested in ordering some hand-crafted baits, booking an outing or just talking crappie tactics with a regional guru? Drop Darryl York a line online, or give him a call at 615-732-2109.

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Wine Country, White County

Northfield Vineyards specializes in linking people with fruit of the land

Sustaining a profitable farm-based business requires an ability to move with the times and think outside the box.

Realizing a rural property’s full value and working potential may mean using it to produce something new and unique. Or it may entail rediscovering something that’s been there all along.

For Mark Ray and his sister, Marty Luna, who own and operate Northfield Vineyards in White County, it was a good bit of both.

They’ve built their 30 acres of highland farmland, located a couple miles east of Burgess Falls, into a flourishing destination for visitors to come taste Tennessee country wines and sample some rural flavor and scenery away from the hum of population hubs.

In addition to their tasting-room and a Pick Tennessee store that’s open to the public daily, Northfield operates an event hall that caters to family-focused events like reunions, weddings, baby showers and birthday parties. It is also an ideal location for business conferences, organizational retreats or other kinds of group meet-ups in which the participants will appreciate pastoral charm and bucolic views.

Everything about Northfield says “country” – the surrounding hayfields, the rustic barns, the old tractors, wagons and vintage fuel pumps and especially the resident draft mules, Burt and Rube (short for Reuben), who serve as the winery’s readily identifiable mascots.

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Mark Ray, Marty Luna and Belinda Elsberry of Northfield Vineyards serve up down-home hospitality at White County’s highland country winery.

Northfield is a great country escape both for tourists passing through or for local inhabitants looking to get out and enjoy some sweeping views while sipping an assortment of down-home vino flavors.

Northfield tends to specialize in fruit wines. “Sweet, but not syrupy,” is how Ray describes them.

“A lot of these country wines are the ones that get people out, because they like something different,” he said.

Especially popular is the mild and mellow rhubarb wine. “Everybody seems to like it,” said Ray.

Another crowd-pleaser is a cranberry wine that’s very popular around the holidays. “We sell the world of it this time of year,” he said. “People put mulling spices in it and warm it up. And you can mix ginger ale in it and it really makes a good spritzer.”

With the grape wines, Ray’s preference is to avoid going overboard on the oak tones. He doesn’t like it “when you can’t taste the grapes.”

Reuben’s Red, named after the mule, is more in the vein of a traditional hearty table wine. Ray noted that Burt doesn’t have a namesake wine yet. “But he will — we’ll do something for him later on,” he said.

But of all the wines Northfield bottles, the the biggest source of pride to Ray is the Mule Shoe Muscadine, which won a silver medal at the Wines of the South competition in Knoxville this year.

“Muscadine is a Southern thing,” he said. “We’re at the far northern end of muscadines range. You get up into Kentucky and they freeze out — and they even freeze out here sometimes if we get a real hard winter.”

It was especially gratifying, because muscadines were his first foray into winemaking years ago and resulted in a tub of undrinkably foul hooch. “That batch was awful. I poured it out, it was so bad,” Ray recalls. “But it got me interested.”

If you’d like to see for yourself just how far Ray’s handcrafted, award-winning Northfield wines have come after years of trial and error and tasting and tweaking, Northfield is open Monday through Saturday, 10am to 6pm, and Sunday, 1pm to 5pm. Look them up online at northfieldvineyards.com or Facebook, or give them a call at 931-761-9463.

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Edgar Evins Interpretive Center Offers Glimpse Into Area’s Past

Facility also includes ‘hands-on’ nature room

The state park near the dam on Center Hill Lake is probably known primarily to most who visit as an outdoor recreational destination, a jumping off point for boating, camping, fishing and hiking.

But a visit to Edgar Evins State Park also now includes a fascinating historical and educational component in the form of a mini-museum.

Park officials this year opened an interpretive center in an old employee residence along the main park road.

Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins State Park, shows off a chunk of chestnut wood that's on display at the interpretive center.

Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins State Park, shows off a chunk of chestnut wood that’s on display at the interpretive center.

“A lot of people who come to the park just end up climbing the observation tower and then leave,” said Brad Halfacre, a ranger at Edgar Evins. “This is a way to draw them in and spend some more time in the park.”

The interpretive center contains several displays of historical photos depicting area families and notable people, as well as scenes of life in the Caney Fork Valley before the dam was completed nearly 70 years ago.

“The steep hills and valleys comprising Edgar Evins State Park have undergone little change since European-American settlement around 200 years ago,” reads one display. “The impoundment of Center Hill Lake in 1948, however, covered the meandering Caney Fork River and its floodplain, inundating a number of DeKalb County communities that occupied the valley and several tributaries.”

The building, which also houses a small conference room that park officials plan to rent to visiting groups in the future, includes lifelike exhibits of mounted species of fish and wildlife native to the park, including bobcat, bears, birds and snakes.

Snake skins collected from Edgar Evins State Park on display at the interpretive center.

Snake skins collected from Edgar Evins State Park on display at the interpretive center.

A “touch-and-feel” portion of the center allows visitors to handle and inspect rocks, nests, shells, animal bones, furs, skins and other natural artifacts collected from the park.

Also housed in the center are two live snakes in aquariums — a black rat snake named Martha and a 13-year-old albino king snake named Pearl. Halfacre said plans are in the works to establish an aviary on the grounds that could provide a home to crippled birds that would otherwise die in the wild.

The center is typically open during the day until 4 p.m. For more information call 931-858-2446.

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River of Rainbows

It’s been a golden year for trout on the Caney Fork

It may seem somewhat counterintuitive, but long periods of low rainfall actually tend to improve fishing in cold tailwater rivers like the Caney Fork.

So one silver lining in the relative lack of stormclouds since July has been an abundance of rainbows under Center Hill Dam.

The dry spell has spelled hot trout fishing.

Limiting-out has been the norm rather than the exception for baitcasting bank fishermen, river regulars are reporting. Fly-angling guides describe the past few months as the best the Caney has produced in years.

“It’s been lights out, fishing exceptionally well,” said James Johnsey, owner of the guide service “Tennessee on the Fly.” There were stretches in mid-to-late summer that were nothing short of “magical,” both in terms of numbers and size of fish netted, he said.

The same has been true for brown trout as well.

And, of course, statewide headlines were made on April 1 when a fisherman from Nashville pulled a 4 pound 12 ounce brook trout from the Center Hill Dam spillway, thus smashing the 43 year-old Tennessee record by almost a full pound.

Blessing in the Skies

Trout tend to benefit from regular, predictable water flows. If river levels fluctuate too much or currents run too heavy for long periods of time, fish mortality rates start to rise, especially for rainbow trout, said Frank Fiss, TWRA’s chief of fisheries.

“Higher flows cut down on fish survival,” he said.

Recently stocked rainbows are particularly susceptible to the added rigors of life in the fast water — although he noted that brown trout actually tend to do OK “independent of the flows.”

In a river swollen from prolonged precipitation and torrential dam discharge, rainbows have to “exert more energy just to survive,” said Fiss.

Turbulent, vigor-sapping currents make it harder for young fish to feed at a time when they need more nutrients just to maintain strength, let alone add growth.

Slack water sanctuaries behind boulders and stumps that provide “velocity refuge” become scarcer, Fiss said. And when trout do locate a safe harbor, the bugs, midges, crawdads and smaller fish that sustain them are harder to find and eat.

When flows are lower and currents mild, rainbows can take up more secure residence close to prime feeding zones. From there they can more successfully target prey. Not surprisingly, drier winters typically mean more, and bigger, holdover stocked rainbows the following spring, said Fiss.

“It’s been a good year, both for river access and numbers of fish caught,” said Fiss. “We’ve been seeing good growth on the fish this year — in large part because of those steady flows.”

Big Redsides

If you’ve had the pleasure of landing a feisty Caney Fork rainbow in the last few months, you may have noticed the fish’s natural colors seemed particularly brilliant.

That wasn’t just your exhilarated imagination.

Usually, the Caney Fork gets its stocks of trout from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s hatchery at Dale Hollow Dam. This summer, though, East Tennessee drought conditions become so serious that Tellico Trout Hatchery in Monroe County was forced to rid itself of nearly all the rainbows it was rearing, as water intake flows plummeted and water temperatures began rising to lethal levels.

The TWRA-run Tellico hatchery made an emergency swap arrangement with USFW to truck its rainbows to tailwater fisheries like the Caney Fork, Elk River and Watauga River.

The rainbows from Tellico released in the Caney Fork this summer display exceedingly florid hues of pink and rose flaring down their cheeks and sides — a dazzling compliment to their deep green dapples and mottled silver flanks.

That’s owing to special food the trout at Tellico are fed, said hatchery manager Travis Scott. It contains an added pigment called astaxanthin, which is naturally occurring in organisms fish eat in the wild.

“When they get it in their diet, it’s better not just for their color, but for the overall health of the fish,” he said.

Brian Hickson, who manages the USFW Warm Springs National Fish Health Center in Georgia, said astaxanthin is among a group of organic pigments known as carotenoids.

Carotenoids are commonly used in aquaculture operations to enhance natural fish colors, particularly the flesh and skin of trout and salmon, Hickson said.

“It is the same thing that shrimp have. So sometimes they will put more shrimp or krill in the feed to give the fish’s flesh a more orange color,” he said.

Hickson added, “It’s not like a ‘Dye Number 7’ or something — it is a natural compound. They can synthesize it, but everybody is moving toward natural products” as a result of public demand.

Dale Hollow Fish Hatchery’s director of operations, Andrew Currie, said carotenoid-enhanced fish food has been used at his facility in the past, although not for a while.

“We have it available to us, but it costs extra so we haven’t been doing it,” he said.

Currie said there’s also the option of adding it to the school of trout’s menu just prior to a run of fish being released in the wild — rather than for all the 18-or-so months they’re being reared in captivity.

“There is no sense coloring up a two-inch fingerling over a year away from stocking,” he said.

“We’ve used it in the past years ago, but we really didn’t get much feedback from the public, and since it added to the per-pound cost of feed, we quit doing it,” Currie added. “But if there’s a lot of positive sentiment from the anglers, it is definitely something we can go back to using.”