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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.)

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New State Natural Area Opening in April

Window Cliffs area offers yet another scenic attraction to region

Outdoor enthusiasts will soon have another remarkable Upper Cumberland landform to behold and appreciate.

Located in Putnam County — southwest of Cookeville and a bit north-northwest of Burgess Falls — the newly designated Window Cliffs State Natural Area is scheduled to open to the public Friday, April 7.

The trailhead address is 8400 Old Cane Creek Rd., Baxter.

The 275-acre haven of Highland Rim splendor promises yet another splendid hiking getaway for a region already brimming with robust outdoor recreation opportunities.

“It is a spectacular area in terms of scenery,” said state naturalist Randy Hedgepath, who leads tours and directs nature-education programs on public lands around Tennessee.

“You have a bluff that separates the upstream and downstream parts of the creek there,” Hedgepath said. “The bluff has eroded from both sides causing an opening to develop — hence the name ‘Window Cliffs.’ It is also a beautiful area of native forests. The stream that runs through the area and the rock formations are really pretty.”

The eight-mile trail at Window Cliffs — which crosses Cane Creek a number of times within the area’s boundaries — will supply visitors with ample opportunity for birdwatching, flower-gazing, woods wandering, animal observing and vista viewing.

The gemstone of the natural area of course is the age-hewn limestone pinnacle hemmed in by an oxbow bend along Cane Creek, which empties into Center Hill Lake a couple miles downstream.

“At the narrowest point, the cliff is only about 50 yards wide at the base with the clifftops just a few feet wide,” according to a survey-description by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks and natural areas. “However, the stream distance separating the two cliff-faces is about 0.8 mile. The narrow cliffs have resulted from erosion and natural bridges or ‘windows’ appear within them.”

The area will compliment Burgess Falls in superb fashion, said state park manager Bill Summers. Like Burgess Falls, Window Cliffs will be a day-use area only.

Whereas the foot trail above Burgess Falls is relatively easy and short, the trek from trailhead to the Window Cliffs is a “fairly strenuous” four miles each way, said Summers.

“You start the hike on the Highland Rim, then descend into the Central Basin, then back up onto the Highland Rim,” he said. “We are rating it strenuous because of the elevation change and the nine creek crossings.”

“There’s a steep ascent toward the top of the Window Cliffs,” he added.

Summers does not doubt that the area will draw crowds, though — both because of the landscape and “a rare botanical area along the cliffs and on top of the cliffs,” he said.

The area is special for “the uniqueness of the scenery and rarity of the plant species,” said Summers, who has headed ranger operations at Burgess Falls State Park since 2004.

Plans have been in the works for the state to acquire the area for many years, but didn’t come to fruition until the last three years, with the help of the Land Trust of Tennessee, he said.

Summers noted that visitors to the area won’t be allowed to climb the distinctive rock formations due both to safety and conservation concerns. “The window cliffs are limestone, and the limestone is very fragile. Just by touching it it falls apart,” he said. “The trail doesn’t go through the windows because the rock will fall apart and the trail would become very unstable.”

A grand opening ceremony for the Window Cliffs State Natural Area is tentatively scheduled for April 7.

Emily Parish, who works for the nonprofit Land Trust, describes the limestone crags and window-arch as “a one-of-a-kind thing.”

“As you’re hiking along it almost feels like they appear out of nowhere,” she said. “It is a nice surprise when you get to the end when you see those cliffs. It will just be a really pretty place for people to visit.”

Parish said the Land Trust is just recently putting the finishing touches on the property purchases to complete the area. She noted that locals have been visiting the cliffs for years, despite it being private property.

“A lot of people have been going there for a long time, perhaps not legally,” she said. “But now they will be able to go see it without trespassing.”

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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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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

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(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.”