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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

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.

striperfishing

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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A Taste of Cumberland Wine Country

DelMonaco Winery and Vineyard in Baxter tempts tourists to toast regional agriculture

Over the last decade, growth in Tennessee agriculture tourism, or “agritourism,” has emerged as a promising, profitable trend for many families relying in whole or part on farm income for their livelihood.

A 2013 University of Tennessee economic survey estimated that farm-based businesses that cater to tourist harvested $34.4 million statewide, and another $54.2 million was generated in local economies as a “multiplier effect” of spending by visitors.delmonacomap

Volunteer State “wine tourism” has particularly flourished.

The number of Tennessee vino-making venues has more than doubled over the last eight years. In 2008, there were about 30 wineries in the state. Today there are about 65, according to the state Department of Agriculture.

“Wine, grapes, grape products and allied industries create employment and new market opportunities in rural communities,” a 2014 study commissioned by the department asserted. “In areas that previously had diminishing farming of tobacco, cotton, and other crops, the planting of grapevines and the creation of wineries is now offering new life. Grape farming is providing employment as is the establishment of new wineries, shops and restaurants springing up in the footprint of these rural communities.”

Barbara DelMonaco, who owns DelMonaco Winery and Vineyard in Putnam County, has witnessed firsthand the industry’s burgeoning potential to prosper since she and her husband, David, planted their first vines 14 years ago.

“Tennessee still has a long way to go to reach its full potential,” she said.

But DelMonaco Winery is doing its best to help Upper Cumberland’s wine industry blossom and develop.

Situated just a few miles off I-40 — an easy detour for travelers thirsting to put interstate traffic in the rearview mirror — DelMonaco is one of seven wineries that make up tasting stations along the Upper Cumberland Wine Trail.

DelMonaco also happens to have taken root right by a working set of railroad tracks. So it periodically serves as the destination depot for a vintage excursion train departing from the Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville. The 10-hour round-trip rides are hugely popular, typically selling out weeks or even months in advance.

A Sip Starts in the Soil

Diane Parks, a winemaker at DelMonaco, takes full advantage of the teachable moments when rail riders from the Music City detrain at the vineyard. It’s a great opportunity to enlighten folks living outside the countryside about the time, talent and tolerance for trial-and-error necessary to coax a crop of grapes out of the ground and into the wine-imbiber’s glass.winetrain

First and foremost, winemaking is an agricultural endeavor, Parks explains.

“A winery is nothing without grapes. The life’s blood of most wineries are its grapes,” she said. “You can make a crappy wine out of really good grapes, but you can’t make a really good wine out of crappy grapes. You really have to manage your vineyard well in order to have good quality grapes — and, in turn, to make good quality wine.”

Tammy Algood, a viticulture marketing specialist for the state, has been studying and helping promote Volunteer State varietals for the better part of 30 years.

It’s gratifying to see the wine industry benefiting from Tennessee’s booming tourism economy, said Algood, precisely because it is “inherently tied to the land.” Tasting-destination wineries represent “a beautiful marriage between the tourist industry and the Tennessee wine and grape industry,” she said

“Grape-growing is farming. And it is beautiful farming,” she said. “This industry is enhancing the visual appeal of Tennessee. If you are going to have a great wine, it started on the vine.”

And often wineries are drawing visitors’ and their vacation-spending into areas both that particularly need it — and might not otherwise enjoy a reputation as a tourist draw, Algood said.

“The topography of the land is very important for grape growing. Unlike a manufacturing facility that can pick up their operations and move to a different county or a different state seeking out tax incentives or a different kind of labor force, an agriculture operation like a vineyard is connected to the land and the local rural economy,” she said.

“You are not typically going to see vineyards in the middle of large cities. You are going to see them where they have land to spread out,” said Algood.

While Tennessee is trailing neighboring states like Missouri, Georgia and Virginia in total number of wineries, wines from here are regularly judged favorably against the best at national and international festivals, she said.

“Each winemaker puts his or her own spin on a particular product,” said Algood. “Tourists that come to Tennessee, particularly from more northern areas, are surprised and pleased to learn that we grow different grapes and as a result have different wines than they are accustomed to.”

“Everybody wants to go home with something from Tennessee, and a bottle of wine is the perfect thing to carry home with you after spending a vacation here,” she said.

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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.

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Trophy Browns and Rainbows Sharing Caney With Big Brook Trout

Shad-fattened lunker lurking below Center Hill Dam shatters state record

Some anglers say it’s bad luck to catch a fish on your first cast of the day.

Try telling that to Sasa Krezic.

He actually caught several more fish after that big brook trout gobbled up his introductory baitfish offering below Center Hill Dam’s spillway.

Of course, it was April Fools Day, so maybe all bets were off, superstition-wise. Or maybe the First Cast Curse just doesn’t apply if the catch is big enough.

But it’ll assuredly be that first fish on that lucky first cast that Krezic remembers, and probably for the rest of his life.

As he was wrestling the bruiser ashore, the 27-year-old Nashvillian figured it was “probably a keeper.” But little did Krezic figure he’d also soon be the keeper of a new state record for brook trout: 4 pounds 12 ounces.

Krazic, who spent the first decade of his life in the war-ravaged Balkans, said he actually “got pretty lucky” in getting his name added to the record books.

A friend he was fishing with observed, “That’s a pretty good fish — a nice-sized brook trout.”

Krazic, who’d only ever caught browns and rainbows on the Caney, said he’s seen bigger fish come out of the river. And he wasn’t particularly familiar with the state records, which, for brook trout, was 3 pounds 14 ounces and had been set on the Hiwassee River in 1973.

“I really wouldn’t have known if this other guy hadn’t looked up the old record online on his phone and told me, ‘I think this one probably weighs more’,” Krezic said.

They weighed Krazic’s brookie on a digital fish scale. Then they promptly put in a call to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

No Joke: Not a Case of Mistaken Identity

Will Collier, a TWRA fish biologist in the area, figured somebody was angling to hook him into a bit of April Fools mischief when he got a call from the agency’s enforcement officer, Tony Cross.

A record-breaking brook trout on the Caney, huh? And the guy caught it on his first cast? You don’t say.

To Collier’s surprise, the fishy story turned out to be legit. And it wasn’t a misidentified brown trout, which he’d alternately suspected. It was indeed a big brookie — almost a pound bigger than the old record.

But the more he thought about it, the more sense it made.

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YEP, THAT’S A KEEPER. Sasa Krezic of Nashville caught a state record brook trout in the Center HIll Dam spillway on April Fools Day this year.

“Compared to rainbow trout and brown trout, we haven’t put all that many brook trout in,” Collier said. “But if a person was going to catch a state record, it’s not too surprising that it would be by the dam here, where they feed on shad kills and whatnot. He caught it on a minnow, which made perfect sense. Certain times of year the fish are piling up right there, eating those little fish that come from the lake, getting fat in the process.”

There was another curious quirk, or near-quirk, in the tale of April Fools 2016’s catch of the day. Had the fish been just a half-inch shorter, it would have fallen within the Caney Fork’s “protected length range” — which for brooks and rainbows is 14-20 inches.

In that case, it would have been illegal to keep.

“It would have been something to have to write a ticket for a state record fish,” said Collier.

Bumpy Road for Brookies

For TWRA’s chief of fisheries, Frank Fiss, catching wind that a new state record brook trout had been pulled from the Caney Fork was particularly gratifying. And likewise for Andrew Currie, who manages Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery — where the big new state record brookie was reared from egg to a fry before its release, which they estimate was probably three or four years ago.

“It’s been a long time coming,” said Fiss.

Back in the early and mid-2000s, TWRA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the Dale Hollow hatchery, weren’t keen on stocking the bigger and hardier non-native brook trout strains in Tennessee waters. They feared competition or cross-breeding would jeopardize the smaller and more threatened southern Appalachian brook trout.

“We were not real eager to expand brook trout populations,” said Fiss. “But then we got a better handle on what we had in the mountains — which areas needed protecting, and which areas already had northern brook trout in them.”

They figured they could plant northern brook trout in lower elevation Tennessee rivers where they’d never commingle with native populations.

The Watauga, Clinch and Lower Caney fit the bill. Between 2007 and 2008, stocking commenced in those waters. But it wasn’t an overnight success, as any new fish-stocking initiative tends to involve some trial and error.

The Watauga was the first river where they planted. But the fish all vanished in short order. They tended to run up into the tributaries and disappear, said Fiss. So they scrapped the program there.

On the Clinch River and the Caney Fork, brookies fared much better — particularly early on.

“I remember when we first put them in, I wrote an article saying that maybe in a few years we would have brook trout over 14 inches,” said Fiss. “Then, like the next year, fishing was terrible for brook trout, and I was wishing I’d never written the article.”

Big Stocking Season Predicted for Summer of ’17

Now, though, Fiss is feeling better about the program going forward. As is Currie, who told Center Hill Sun he’s confident that after a few tough years getting good brook trout eggs shipped in, more reliable supplies are lined up.

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Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery manager Andrew Currie surveys fish-rearing raceways in Clay County, TN. Currie manages the facility, which raises brown, rainbow and brook trout for stocking in regional waters. Netting hung above the pools helps reduce predation loss to fish-feasting birds.

Last year no brook trout were stocked in the Caney because the eggs, which come from Utah, were in such short supply. And this year the Dale Hollow hatchery will only release about 5,000 brookies. But a lot more are in the early stages of development. In order to enhance their chances of survival in the wild, the fish are usually 16-18 months old and nine inches long when they’re released, Currie said.

Next summer’s goal is 100,000 brook trout, Currie said. Barring unforeseen hazards and snags, a good portion of those will ultimately find their way to the Caney Fork.

In the first months of their lives, brook trout are particularly susceptible to adverse water quality, especially nitrogen supersaturation, said Currie. But their survivability substantially improves once they’re big enough for transport to the outdoor concrete raceways — to the point that they’re hardier even than the hatchery rainbows and browns.

“Once they go outside, they outperform everything,” said Currie. “Once they get up to about three inches, they do well. It is getting them there that’s the difficulty.”

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Burgess Falls Overlooks Closed, Park Still Open

Repairs planned, but not for popular old metal stairway

Storm-damage last summer to scenic observation decks and the unique gorge-descending staircase are keeping prime Burgess Falls viewing points inaccessible this spring.

A notice on the state park’s website declares, “Repair work should begin on the overlook shortly, but the stairs down to the main falls will remained closed.”

Visitors may still hike along the Falling Water River and view various smaller cascades in the park.

“Extensive damage” to the metal staircase and overlooks in July resulted in both being “compromised and badly damaged,” park officials say.

Repairs are planned for the main falls overlook, which will cost around $55,000, and the middle falls overlook after that, said Kelly Brockman, a Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman.

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Storms last summer blew out two overlooks and the staircase into the gorge at the popular state park along Falling Water River.

Federal money has also been earmarked for park upgrades by way of the Americans With Disabilities Act. “That should help as well,” she said. “We do have funding for that, and we are in the early design process.”

However, no plans are in the works to fix and reopen the staircase, which is fastened to 90-year-old concrete pillars.

“That’s more of a capital project, and we don’t have funding for that right now,” said Brockman.

Located on the Falling Water River southwest of Cookeville, Burgess Falls State Park is a popular destination for locals and tourists alike.

“A lot of folks come from all over the United States to see this, it’s unbelievable,” said Mike Jeffers, whose family runs MMKM Family Produce on Burgess Falls Road.

Jeffers’ business is noticeably off this spring, as it was last year after the overlook and staircase closings.

“We’re down 50 percent, easy,” he said. “People go down there and they come out mad. They drive a long way and they can’t see anything.”

Jeffers, who’s been in business 13 years, figures he can weather the financial doldrums, though. When the Window Cliffs Natural Area opens, “we’ll be right in the middle of both parks,” he said.

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Can-Do Trout Flies for the Caney Fork

Ronnie Howard is an expert Tennessee angler with decades of fish-finding experience on regional waters. He’s also the resident fly fishing aficionado for Cumberland Transit outfitters in Nashville.

Howard chatted with Center Hill Sun about some tactics and must-have trout flies that will enhance your chances of hooking up with a trophy brown, ‘bow or brookie when you bug out for the Caney Fork River.

Go-to patterns include woolly buggers, midges, soft hackles, nymphs, emergers, mayfly imitators, stimulators and, occasionally, elk hair caddis and cicadas.

One of the not-so-obvious flies that every trout angler ought to have at the ready for when the fish get inflexibly finicky is an everyday red or black ant.

“Most folks don’t think an ant is capable of catching big fish, but big fish like ants, too,” said Howard.