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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.”

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Room and Board and Upper Cumberland Beauty

Area bed and breakfasts offer great escapes, and not far to get there 

Regardless whether you’re a day tripper, globetrotter or local dweller, the Center Hill Lake region offers several B&B options guaranteed to satisfy an urge for respite from your personal grind.

If rest, recreation and perhaps a bit of romance is what you seek, bed and breakfasts can offer an intimate alternative to traditional hotels or motel, and typically with an additional level of luxury and elegance than a cabin rental.

Strangers who stay in a bed and breakfast often get to know one another over coffee in the morning, forming amiable acquaintances and even long-term friendships with fellow travellers.

Are you looking to take in some leisure and charm with your family or familiar spirit? Enjoy the full spectrum of seasonal scenes, color and pastimes our lovely region has to offer!

Dekalb County

Evins Mill
1535 Evins Mill Rd.
Smithville
(615) 269-3740

Smith County

Granville Bed, Breakfast, and Antiques
6800 Granville Hwy
Granville
(931) 653-4511

Butterfly Hollow Bed and Breakfast
28 Bussell Lane
Gordonsville
(615) 784-8551

White County

Miss Eula Mae’s Bed and Breakfast
127 North Main St
Sparta
(844) 522-5924

Warren County

Falcon Manor Bed and Breakfast at Falcon Rest
2645 Faulkner Springs Rd
McMinnville
(931) 668-4444

Bonnie Blue Inn
2317 Old Smithville Rd
McMinnville
(931) 815-3838

Putnam County

Blackberry Bramble Cottage
1580 Blackburn Fork Rd
Cookeville
(931) 260-5762

Saltbox Inn
537 Hutcheson Rd
Cookeville
(931) 510-6787

The Garden Inn
(931) 839-1400
1400 Bee Rock Rd
Monterey

Wilson County

Watermelon Moon Farm
10575 Trousdale Ferry Pike
Lebanon
(615) 444-2356

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Bass on the Fly Well Worth a Try

Think fly angling is just for trout? Think again.

The classic fly fishing scene that usually comes to people’s mind is a big wily trout slurping up bushy little insect imitations looped onto the surface of a cold rushing stream or chilly mountain lake.

But despite the Caney Fork’s prime reputation as a superior Southern trout fishery, it isn’t particularly known for its dry fly action.

Opportunities for casting topwater bugs to surface-feeding rainbows, browns and brook trout do arise from time to time, mostly in the middle and lower portions of the river. But consistently hooking up with fish of substantial size and numbers likely requires focusing your attention on subsurface presentations deep into the swirling tailwater currents.

So what’s an angler gotta do to pick a big splashing fight on a floating fly around here? The answer: Go bassin’.

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Looking to pick a vicious topwater fly fight in Middle Tennessee? Bass is your best bet.

The Center Hill Lake region is brimming with possibilities for bagging behemoth bass species specimens: largemouth, smallmouth, spots and stripers. And all are prone to savage attacks on the surface under the right circumstances.

Topwater bass action tends to be best when the weather’s warm — not too hot or too cold. As bass move shallower in late summer and early fall they often can’t resist what looks like an easy bite of live nourishment twitching on the surface.

One of the keys to fly fishing for trout is “matching the hatch.” That generally means casting adult insects or aquatic larvae that imitate what fish are zeroed in on at a particular time and place on the water. For persnickety trout, even when they are actively feeding on the surface, that can be tricky, complicated and frustrating.

When bass are in a dining mood, however, they’re usually less discerning.

If you see schools of shad skipping across the surface — or bigger fish splashing or sipping on top — there’s a good chance you can entice a bass in the neighborhood to snap at a simulated baitfish, bug or frog offering.

A floating minnow pattern or buoyant popper of similar color and size to running shad will likely elicit a hardy yank on your line.

But bass don’t limit themselves to aquatic creatures. Tasty-looking terrestrial imitations will put big fish in the boat, too. If their attention is focused upwards, bass are often tempted by anything that convincingly resembles a toothsome taste of protein.

“For all of my warm-water guides, a mouse pattern is always a great topwater pattern for both largemouth and smallmouth,” said Jim Mauries, who runs Fly South in Nashville. “Whether you are fishing a farm pond or larger lake or stream, as long as you have a grassy bank, a mouse is probably going to be really, really good.”

The mouse patterns anglers are tying these days “look like they’re going to crawl off the table,” Mauries said. To an opportunistic predator like a bulky bucketmouth or bronzeback, that means fresh meat.

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James Johnsey’s “Tennessee on the Fly” guide service specializes in hooking anglers of all skill levels up with big and bellicose smallmouth bass on Middle Tennessee and Upper Cumberland rivers, lakes and streams.

Mauries grew up fishing in Colorado, but he’s been guiding trips, selling gear and offering fly casting instruction for 20 years in Tennessee. In addition to beginners, he loves to lure both savvy traditional rod-and-reel fishermen and trout junkies into taking up fly angling for bass.

“The conventional guys a lot of times don’t think you can catch bass with a fly rod — or they don’t think it is an effective tool, which is inaccurate,” said Mauries. “Then you have trout snobs who don’t want to chase bass. To them, a fly rod is just for trout.”

Both groups tend to reevaluate their outlook after wrestling a thrashing warm-water bruiser to capitulation on a fly rod, he said.

James Johnsey is another area guide who moved to Tennessee from out West and now lives to fly fishing for all the Volunteer State’s game fish species.

In addition to stalking big trout and smallmouth, Johnsey is keen on targeting the brutish striped bass that meander up the Caney Fork from the Cumberland River.

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WEARIN’ ‘EM OUT: Subduing a king salmon-sized Caney Fork striper can be “pretty insane on a fly rod,” says fishing guide James Johnsey.

“If you get into one of those wolf packs of stripers, it doesn’t really matter what you are going to throw. If you get it near them, they are going to eat it,” he said. “We were catching them up to 40 pounds last year. That’s pretty insane on a fly rod.”

Like Mauries, Johnsey delights in introducing experienced fisherman to the art of fly angling.

“It’s pretty rewarding for somebody who’s had some success on conventional tackle, and understands how to catch fish, to then catch some on a fly rod,” said Johnsey, who spent two decades guiding in Montana and Wyoming before moving back to Tennessee, where he grew up.

“All of our big freshwater species live here,” said Johnsey, whose Fairview-based business is called Tennessee on the Fly. “In one week, I might fish for three different species. It is nice to break it up like that — it certainly keeps it fun.”

And Tennessee fly fishing is “blowing up” right now, which Johnsey said is largely due to people discovering that there’s more to it than just trout angling.

Mauries concurs. And Tennessee’s species diversity ought to, in the future, make it more of a destination fishery than it has already become, he said.

“I think that if you live in Middle Tennessee — or in Tennessee in general — and you limit yourself to one species of fish, then you’re an idiot,” Mauries said. “There are times of year when you have wonderful topwater bite for largemouth, and unbelievable small stream or big river fishing for smallmouth. There is great trout fishing. There is world-class striper fishing here. There are five different species of carp you can catch — and gar and muskie.”

“The nice thing around here is that throughout the year there is always something you can chase with a fly rod,” he said. “That’s our advantage.”

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Drive-Ins Still Drawing Audiences of All Ages

Outdoor cinemas featured in Watertown, Sparta and Woodbury

Most kids and adults alike would agree that catching a good flick at a drive-in movie theater is a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend a warm summer night.

Drive-in movies are a uniquely American form of entertainment, and few Americans who’ve ever visited one now and again can’t recall having a pretty good time.

Around the Center Hill Lake region we’re in the happy circumstance of having not one, not two but three drive-ins within leisurely driving distance: The Stardust Drive-In Theater in Watertown, the Sparta Drive-In, and Woodbury’s Moonlite Drive-In.

Barry and Dawn Floyd, along with their three boys, run the Stardust Drive-In Theater in Watertown. Their dual-screen double-feature operation, open seven nights a week between Memorial Day and Labor Day, consistently posts the best attendance numbers in all of Middle Tennessee.

Floyd says Stardust, which opened its gates in 2003, maintains success by keeping with the times, not trying wistfully to relive the past.

“We’re not so much about nostalgia here. The ‘57 Chevys and poodle skirts, that ain’t really us,” he said.

The drive-in concept isn’t new, but the cinematic technology on display is state-of-the-art. Stardust is purely a first-run film venue (although they host one “throw-back night” a year), and that’s a big reason why the cars start lining up at the entrance well before sundown.

In 2013, USA Today rated Stardust among the nation’s ten best drive-ins, lauding its “theater-quality viewing.”

“We’re not running out of a 60-year-old building with no air conditioning and that kind of stuff,” said Floyd, noting that digital projectors can cost $100,000 or more. “The majority of our customers drive 30 or 40 miles to get here. So it is really hard to convince people to drive that far to watch a movie they already own at home”

Filmmaker April Wright, who made the 2013 documentary film “Going Attractions: The Definitive Story of the American Drive-In Movie,” said the resurgence in drive-in popularity over the last decade or so is due both to a new generation of parents seeking “simple family activities to do,” and Hollywood studios “putting out movies that are very drive-in friendly and very family friendly.”

“All these animated and superhero films, they play great at a drive-in,” she said.

Floyd said this year’s summer blockbuster, “Finding Dory,” was exactly the kind of movie that works for a drive-in.

“The drive-in movie business is about two things, movies and weather,” said Floyd. “If the movies are good and the weather is good, it can be a perfect storm of everything being fantastic. If one of those two things aren’t right? Well, owning a drive-in is like planning an outdoor wedding: There is no Plan B.”

Pictured at Top: The Floyd family of Watertown has operated the Stardust Drive-In since 2003. Dawn and Barry are shown with the oldest of their three boys, 16-year-old Christopher.

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Vineyard Serves as Sample of Viable Family Farming

Cellar 53 Winery in Brush Creek promotes local agriculture, protects rural landscape

The newest sipping stopover along the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail is a testament to one family’s commitment to farmland preservation and conserving country lifestyle.

Owned and operated by Scott and Rebecca Paschal, with the help of their three boys, Cellar 53 Winery is notched into the western edge of the Highland Rim in Smith County, just south of I-40’s Exit 254 on Alexandria Highway.

Cellar 53 opened to the public as a walk-through vineyard and winery just last year. But it took root more than a decade ago.

In the early 2000s, Scott and Rebecca shared “a dream to keep the family farm.”

Rebecca Paschal and her husband, Scott, put down Cellar 53's roots more than a decade ago.

Rebecca Paschal and her husband, Scott, put down Cellar 53’s roots more than a decade ago.

So they made arrangements to purchase a 100-acre tract that, while it’d been under family ownership for generations, had earlier been platted for future sproutings of suburban-style houses in lieu of raising crops and livestock.

In order to make a profitable long-term reality of their dearly priced dream, they set about sowing the seeds of a wine-growing operation.

Over the ensuing ten years, their vision blossomed into what is today a winsome venue for sipping homegrown vino and lingering about a vintage landscape that exemplifies Middle Tennessee at its bucolic best.

The idyllic parcel that rears the fruiting vines for their assortment of wines does abut up against a cove of contemporary homes. But that’s where the residential development stops.

Beyond the rolling hedges of Cellar 53’s wine grapes rises a wild and sprawling expanse of thickset timber that’s now buffered against exurban homebuilding.

Visitors to Cellar 53 are invited to stroll the grounds or relax in the tasting room or on the patio behind the pole barn that houses a conference room, commercial kitchen and wine-making vats. Typically, Cellar 53 has ten or so wines for oenophiles to sample.

“I make a lot of dry wines,” said Rebecca. She noted that they also grow all the blackberries for their blackberry wine, which tends to be a customer favorite.

The itinerary for touring Cellar 53 is pretty laid back. “You taste wine, you get educated, you walk through and appreciate the vineyards and the agriculture,” explains Rebecca. “And hopefully you buy a bottle and go home and enjoy it.”

To visit Cellar 53 Winer: From Interstate 40, Take Exit 254. Turn South - toward Alexandria. Go approximately 1.5 miles and turn left onto Poplar Drive - there are two stone pillars at front of the drive. Take the first left onto Oak View East. Head to the rear of the residential development - please drive slowly! cellar53winery.com

To visit Cellar 53 Winery: From Interstate 40, Take Exit 254. Turn South – toward Alexandria. Go approximately 1.5 miles and turn left onto Poplar Drive – there are two stone pillars at front of the drive. Take the first left onto Oak View East. Head to the rear of the residential development – please drive slowly! cellar53winery.com

Over time, the Paschals have come to recognize that a key element of their role in the community and the regional economy is in fact instructional, and maybe even inspirational. Their message to locals and tourists alike is that agriculture remains a viable livelihood for people willing both to work hard and think creatively about how to use their land and develop markets for selling locally grown products.

The Paschals believe wine growing has a particularly robust future in the Volunteer State if its full potential is ever uncorked. “Before the Prohibition Era, Tennessee had 19,000 acres of wine grapes,” said Rebecca. “Now we have 900. So we obviously can grow them here.”

The Tennessee Farm Winegrowers Alliance reports that there are currently about 25 wineries in the state.

“During the late 1800s, vineyards were flourishing in Tennessee, mostly in areas that were believed to be unsuitable for other agricultural uses,” according to TFWA. “At the time, it appeared that grape-growing would become one of Tennessee’s most important cash crops. However, Prohibition all but ended this promise in 1919. It is just within the last quarter of the 20th century that grape growing (and winemaking) has seen a remarkable recovery.”

The Upper Cumberland Wine Train includes eight wineries. Visit uppercumberland.org to learn more.

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Go Deep, Move Often to Catch Daytime Summer Bass on Center Hill

Lake serves up sunlight bite later than people think

When Tennessee’s summer rays are smoldering over Center Hill Lake, a lot of sport fisherman turn nocturnal for the season.

But shunning sunshine to focus all your angling efforts after dark can be a big mistake, says Smithville bass pro Josh Tramel.

If you’re willing to fish deep and keep moving, opportunities to catch pugnacious plumpers will arise, especially in morning shade and along late afternoon shadows.

“People don’t realize that Center Hill is great during the day in July, especially with football jigs, big crankbaits and even worms,” Tramel said.

Deep-diving crankbaits, like the Strike King 6XD and Norman DD22, “are good options” to provoke a Dog Day bass attack, he said.dd22

Tramel, a mild-mannered 37-year-old accountant, knows a thing or two about angling on Center Hill Lake. “It’s where I learned to fish, for sure,” he said.

Center Hill is an excellent lake to acquire diverse fishing expertise, he said.

“You have to learn all kinds of different techniques here,” he said. “It is a really good lake to do what I like to call ‘power fish’ – throw jigs, and topwater and spinnerbaits. In the winter it gets really clear and requires a lot of finesse.”

Tramel has been racking up tournament wins and big-money finishes for more than a decade on Middle Tennessee lakes.

He’s developed into one of the premier bass-baggers to beat over the course of his career, especially on Center Hill Lake.

Of his 25 career FLW Top 10 finishes, six have been on Center Hill. This year, he took third at the FLW Bass Fishing League’s Music City Division tourney. Back in April he won the American Bass Anglers Ram Truck Open Series tournament and floated home with $5,000 in his creel.

His schooling on Center Hill has served him well on other lakes, too – in particular, Old Hickory.

Tramel blew fish-fixated minds in April 2014 when he weighed in at an ABA tournament with a whopping sack of five smallmouths tipping scales at nearly 27 pounds. Old Hickory isn’t really known for giving up prodigious numbers of bronzebacks, but on that day Tramel hooked at least a dozen that were keeper-sized.

On Center Hill, Tramel said he tends to target his summertime casts at shallow-to-deep drops and “transition banks.” Also, bluffs and gravel points. “Look for places where you can cast shallow and retrieve out to deep water,” he said.

Keep in mind that bass are prone to loiter around deep brush piles, he said.

“Smallmouth seem to like a shallower-sloped bank,” noted Tramel. “They still hold in deeper water, but farther off the shore.”

Smallmouth also tend to change holding-places more often than spotted bass and largemouth, he said.

As a general rule, “moving around a lot” increases your odds of catching fish, he said. “Center Hill Lake is not a place where you tend to find large schools of fish congregating,” Tramel said.

If you catch two or three nice bass in one spot, the action’s probably going to cool off in short order.

“It’s not that you can’t catch more if you sit there long enough – but it’ll probably turn into a really slow day,” he said.