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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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TN State Parks Have an Official Beer

PRESS RELEASE from the Brewers Association of Small and Independent Craft Brewers, July 19, 2017:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (July 19, 2017)Tennessee Brew Works has partnered with the Tennessee State Parks by creating a new Tennessee State Parks Beer, “State Park Blonde Ale,” with a portion of sales benefiting the mission of Tennessee State Parks.

The Tennessee State Parks and Tennessee Brew Works teams met almost two years ago. Sharing ideas over a common bond of craft beer with aims to better our land and community, they quickly became friends. Since then, they have been actively discussing projects and possible ways for the two organizations to optimize their synergies.

“Together we have found a way to make delicious Tennessee Brew Works craft beer and support Tennessee State Parks with our State Park Blonde Ale. We proudly support the mission of Beer StylesTennessee State Parks as they preserve and protect our natural resources,” said Christian Spears, founder and owner, Tennessee Brew Works.

Fans of Tennessee Brew Works will recognize the beer’s distinctive label artwork, created by Nashville native Bryce McCloud. The State Park Blonde Ale features the image of State Naturalist, Randy Hedgepath. Randy has served the park service for more than 30 years, working as a Ranger Naturalist at South Cumberland and Radnor Lake State Parks. He was appointed State Naturalist by the Tennessee State Parks in 2007. As a former National Park Service Interpretive Specialist, Randy is also one of the most sought after interpretive specialists in the southeastern United States.

Tennessee Brew Work’s State Park Blonde Ale is light, crisp American blonde session ale with subtle floral notes, created with high quality grains and hops. The new beer will be distributed throughout Tennessee and served on draft and in bottles at the Tennessee Brew Works Taproom, 809 Ewing Avenue in downtown Nashville and the Tennessee Brew Works kiosk at the Nashville International Airport.

“Tennessee Brew Works and Tennessee State Parks have combined our mutual appreciation for local craft brew, spectacular landscapes and the great stories of our state. Utilizing Tennessee Brew Works craft beer sales for the benefit of our Tennessee State Parks system is a perfect pairing.

A portion of the sales of the State Park Blonde Ale will be provided to the Tennessee State Parks Conservancy, our non-profit partner, and used to support efforts to preserve and protect our state’s natural and cultural assets. We look forward to the release of the State Park Blonde Ale statewide this month,” said Brock Hill, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Deputy Commissioner.

About Tennessee State Parks

From its beginning in 1937, Tennessee State Parks were established to protect and preserve the unique natural, cultural and historic resources of Tennessee. The public interest has also been served by a variety of benefits for citizens and communities produced by our state park system, promoting stronger communities and healthier citizens across the state through diverse resource-based recreation while conserving the natural environment for today and tomorrow – preserving authentic Tennessee places and spaces for future generations to enjoy. There are 56 Tennessee State Parks to explore.

About Tennessee Brew Works

Tennessee Brew Works was born from a love for craft beer. A startup which began over a home-brew session, they ultimately celebrated their first professional brew in August 2013. Tennessee Brew Works is 100% owned and operated by folks in Tennessee. They are guided by their motto: “We work hard to create high quality craft beer that makes Tennessee proud. Our culture places importance on family, friends, and community, and we hope you’ll be a part of it.”

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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.

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Life Crests on the Upper Cumberland

After climbing world’s highest mountain, local man gains appreciation for TN

For his 70th birthday last year, Tim “Bubba” Garrett of Buffalo Valley wanted to do something unique, in keeping with a tradition he’s developed over the years.

So the retired businessman and software engineer decided to climb Mt. Everest, the highest mountain on planet Earth.

He didn’t go all the way to the top. Just to the base camp, and then, for the heck of it, another thousand feet or so beyond that.

Mind you, that’s no small feat. It takes at least eight days just to trek up to the base camp, which is about 17,000 feet above sea level. That’s more than three thousand feet higher than anywhere in the continental United States, and nearly 11,000 feet above Tennessee’s highest point, Clingmans Dome. Climbers often spend several days at the base camp acclimating to the altitude before ascending Everest’s highest ridges.

Tim “Bubba” Garrett holds a photo of the Mt. Everest base camp in Southern Asia that he hiked to last fall for his 70th birthday.

Being determined as he was that Mt. Everest “wasn’t going to be the hill I died on,” Bubba said he took serious medical and training measures beforehand to prepare for the physically taxing journey.

He said avalanches are always a concern, and bad weather, but altitude sickness tends to be “the real killer.”

“People die going to base camp, because of the altitude,” he said. “There’s just no way to prepare for the altitude. It’s brutal. Just about everybody gets altitude sickness.”

In order to avoid the additional risk of food poisoning, he lived almost solely on energy bars the entire time he was on the mountain.

Bubba said October and November tend to be drier and warmer in the day, but it still gets cold after dark. “When night comes, you better have that down jacket on, cause the bottom falls out of it,” he said.

Past a certain point, “there’s nothing but rock,” Bubba said. So the accompanying yaks provide an essential source of warmth in the camp huts. “The only heat you got is burning the yak dung,” he said.

But while the yaks may be indispensable as pack-animals and fuel-providers, they aren’t particularly friendly, said Bubba. “One of the really dangerous things up there is, if you get near a drop-off, those yaks will push you off,” he said. “They tell you to watch out for the yaks. They’re mean and they’re big.”

Bubba’s camera became a yak-casualty after one of the brutes stepped on his bag.

As for day-to-day nourishment, Bubba said he lived on pretty much solely on energy bars the whole time because the last thing he wanted on top of everything else was a case of food poisoning.

His time on Mt. Everest lasted just shy of three weeks. “I arrived at base camp November the 15th, and my seventieth birthday was on the 16th,” he said. Bubba described the homeward expedition off the mountain as “starting the descent of my life.”

Nowadays Bubba has embarked upon his newest adventure: raising Tennessee fainting goats. It’s something he’s wanted to do since childhood. He’s getting assistance from his good friend, Billye Foster, a professor at Tennessee Tech’s School of Agriculture.

“She told me that ‘Raising Goats for Dummies’ was going to be too advanced for me, so she made me my own book,” Bubba said.

Bubba plans to hire out the goats for free to clear overgrown rural cemeteries around the region. Although he said that if the property owners can afford it, he’ll encourage them to make a donation to a charity that serves farmers in Africa that Professor Foster works.

Through all his travels and adventures and novel undertakings over the years — Professor Foster says Bubba is the type of person who “changes directions easily” — Bubba says he’s come to truly appreciate an old adage that says, “Happiness isn’t getting what you want, but wanting what you got.”

“People spend a lot of time saying, If only I had this or if only I had that,” said Bubba. “Well, I’ve traveled all over the world and I have never found a better place to be than right here.”

 

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Demand for Pest-Free Firewood Heating Up

Parks and campgrounds urging heat-treatment certification

Federal and state natural resource agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation want to expand availability of government-certified firewood at public campgrounds.

Public lands managers are looking to put a damper on fires made from wood that hasn’t undergone heat treatment beforehand. For that reason, hauling unapproved firewood into a state park or federal recreation area might become a thing of the past in the not-too-distant future.

Their aim is to impede the spread of tree-threatening non-native creepy-crawlies, like the emerald ash borer and longhorned beetles, both indigenous to Asia, as well as the gypsy moth and gold spotted oak borer, which are unwelcome guests to Tennessee from, respectively, Europe and the southwestern United States.

“All these things have been introduced — that’s why we call them invasive,” said Greg Aydelotte, who administers plant protection and quarantine procedures for the USDA.

Aydelotte was one of several forest-health specialists who delivered presentations in Cookeville this spring during a seminar on the certification process. The goal of the May 25 conference, attended by about 50 people, was to cultivate interest in the certification program among would-be Upper Cumberland wood-products entrepreneurs.

“Emerald ash borer tends to be the one that we handle in most situations involving firewood,” Aydelotte said. “People will bring firewood from long distances.”

For that reason, campgrounds are often suspected as a point of entry when invasive pests spread into areas that were previously free of them.

According to a TDEC information sheet on the state’s “Don’t Move Firewood” campaign, “Native trees have defenses against insects and diseases that they’ve been living with for millions of years. Likewise, native predators eat native insects, keeping their numbers in check. Non-native insects and diseases have no predators in their new homes and the trees have no natural defenses against them. Because these foreign bugs don’t have anything stopping them, they reproduce rapidly, killing thousands of trees in their wake.”

All Tennessee State Parks now adhere to a certified-firewood-only “policy” — although it’s not actually a state law, according to TDEC spokeswoman Kim Schofinski.

State park managers also don’t want people bringing untreated wood in from the surrounding vicinity. TDEC officials believe areas near Tennessee state parks may in some cases already have infestations of invasive forests pests, even if they’re as yet undetected.

“We encourage campground and cabin guests to follow this policy in the effort to stem the spread of invasive pests that damage our forests,” Schofinski wrote in an email to Center Hill Sun. “This is a joint education effort with the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s Division of Forestry and the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. National Parks also have firewood policies in place.”

Campers are still allowed to make fires using “dead material on the ground” or “downed wood collected inside the park, near the campsite.” However, in many circumstances such fuel is scarce near high-use camping areas, or gathering it may in fact be prohibited in some places.

Park and campground managers are encouraging private vendors to fill the void by selling more certified heat-treated wood that’s “clearly marked with a state/federal seal.”

Obtaining a government seal of approval — and with it, an official online listing by the Tennessee Department of Agriculture as a certified-firewood seller — requires signing a compliance agreement and acquiring a firewood-heating system, which in turn must undergo periodic inspection by regulators.

To ensure the firewood is heated to at least 140 degrees for 60 minutes, as required for the certification, temperature probes are inserted into individual sticks of firewood throughout the kiln.

“We’re looking for the center to reach those temperatures,” said Heather Slayton, a forest health and sustainability expert for the state Division of Forestry who has been delivering presentations around Tennessee on the firewood-certification program. “The probes are put randomly throughout your kiln, and every single one of the probes have to pass the certification.”

Slayton said there are a number of “turnkey” kilns available on the market, but homemade rigs and systems work just fine, too. Woodland property owners, farmers, loggers and anybody else that might have access to a steady supply of fuel-timber is encouraged to get into the firewood-selling game.

Constructing a homemade kiln-heating mechanism is perfectly acceptable. “We’re not certifying the kiln design,” said Slayton. “Build it how ever you want to build it.”

The central requirement is that certification regulators verify that it’s heating the wood sufficiently, and for the appropriate period of time, to terminate all unwanted bugs and their larva, she said.

According to the USDA, heat treatment procedures may employ steam, hot water, kilns or any other method that raises the center of the wood to 140 degrees for a full hour.

“It doesn’t have to be high-tech,” said Slayton. “But you do have to be able to monitor your temperatures and write them down. If you’re going to build your own, you need to make sure you think about how the thermodynamics work.”

If the kiln isn’t insulated properly or doesn’t allow for appropriate air circulation to disperse the heat, it may fail when put to the test by the certifying agents. “You’ve got to hit those temperature thresholds,” said Slayton.

Retail sellers of certified firewood include big-box stores like Lowes, Home Depot, Gander Mountain, Academy Sports, as well as numerous other smaller vendors like grocery stores and gas stations, she said.

While the number of certified firewood-drying kilns in Tennessee is still relatively small, Slayton said she’s “working extremely hard to raise that number so folks can buy Tennessee-produced certified firewood as opposed to out of state producers.”

If you’d like to get more information about the procedures for certification, contact Ms. Slayton at heather.slayton@tn.gov.

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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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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.)