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.

bigbrookie2

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.

brooktroutcurriedale

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.”

Note to Campers: Buying local firewood helps keep bad bugs at bay

Public policy issues wax and wane in importance among rural landowners. But some topics always tend to hover at the top of the list of concerns for families invested in woodland property.

For nearly three decades, the National Woodland Owners Association has been annually polling its members around the country for the main issues on their minds. Three themes always on the radar are taxes, property rights and controlling the spread of damaging insects.

Timberland owners spend a lot of time fretting that local government officials will try to balance tight budgets in part by raising woodland property taxes, said Keith Argow, NWOA’s president.

“All politics and forestry is local, and landowners must pay attention to new proposals,” Argow writes in the spring 2016 issue of National Woodlands, the association’s quarterly forestry magazine. “Society benefits in multiple ways from healthy forests, including clean water, wildlife habitat, a reliable wood supply for business and open space. As a rule of thumb, woodland tax rates should be no higher than $3/acre/year.”

Battles over property rights protection are often byproducts of urban-rural divides, both physical and philosophical. Increasing urbanization is a persistent issue of concern for family forestland owners, who fear diminishing public appreciation for working rural landscapes.

“As rural America continues to transform from working farms and forests to homesites without working landscapes, the character of the neighborhood changes,” said Argow. “Eventually the composition of state and local elected officials changes too. The elected officials either reflect opinion of the new arrivals, or they are soon out of office.”

NWOA tends to encourage “right-to-practice-forestry” laws at the state level to guard against restrictive local ordinances that discourage even responsible timber harvesting.

Another matter about which woodland managers are keenly alert is “bad bugs and diseases,” said Argow.

Real and present dangers to Tennessee forests include gypsy moth, pine beetles, emerald ash borer, hemlock woolly adelgid and thousand-cankers disease, which is a fungus transmitted to black walnut trees by a twig beetle.

Preventing infestation tends to be key. The invidious insects like to hitch free rides into uncontaminated forests whenever they can. Of particular concern is the transport firewood, even within the state.

“People should try to keep it as local as they can, at least within their home county,” said Tyler Wakefield, a state forester for Cannon, Coffee, DeKalb, Warren Counties. “We certainly don’t want people hauling firewood across the state to go camping.”

The Tennessee Department of Forestry advises: “Don’t bring firewood along for camping trips; get the wood from a local source. Don’t bring wood home with you.”

To check out the National Woodland Owners Association’s Top 10 list of tree-growers’ issues, visit http://woodlandowners.org/.

Argow noted that the Tennessee Woodland Association, which is affiliated with NWOA, is looking to sign up volunteers to promote public awareness about forest health issues in the Volunteer State. Contact him at argow@cs.net for details.

America’s newest national symbol is on majestic display at Lazy G Ranch in Putnam County

Tennessee’s Upper Cumberland region probably isn’t the first place that comes to mind when people think of the great American buffalo.

But prior to the demolition of wild bison herds across this country in the latter 19th Century, the massive, magnificent beasts wandered vast sweeps of the continent — not just the Great Plains and Mountain West.

The buffalo’s formal scientific nomenclature is Bison bison bison. Their historical range encompassed an immense expanse of the North American interior, from Alaska to Alabama and even into the Florida panhandle.

Buffalo Valley, just off the I-40 Center Hill Dam exit, is said for example to have gotten its name because the area served as a congregating point for migrating bands of bison meandering down to water in the Caney Fork.

The multitude of bison that once ranged this country at the end of the 18th Century, and the magnitude of their demise in the century that followed, is almost impossible for the modern American mind to grasp.

More than 40 million buffalo are estimated to have roamed what’s now the Lower 48 and upper Mexico two centuries ago, and tens of million more lived north of the U.S. border. In less than 50 years buffalo numbers plummeted to near extinction.

“To go from tens of millions of wild buffalo down to thousands — that’s something that is hard to comprehend,” says Eddie Gaw, who runs a herd of aboubisonbwt 30 bison on his Lazy G Ranch a few miles north of Cookeville on Hwy 135.

Today roughly half a million bison exist in America, on both public and private lands. Wild herds are managed by fish and game agencies in 11 states, including the Land Between the Lakes. That’s far, far fewer than the wild wandering herds of centuries past, which “darkened the whole plains,” Lewis and Clark reported in their journals.

But all the same, it’s an undeniable turnabout in the bison’s fortunes. And that was brought about by a growing popular appreciation for buffalo, coupled with efforts to preserve the colossal even-toed ungulate’s iconic place in the country’s imagination by ensuring it continues to exist on its landscapes.

Gaw’s buffalo serve as a living local monument to an ongoing conservation triumph. But to him, raising bison in the 21st Century is about planning for the future as much or more than just remembering the past.

Safeguarding a Living Symbol

The bison’s rebound has bisonwebbabymommabeen commemorated this year with its formal recognition as an official symbol of the United States.

In April, Congress passed the National Bison Legacy Act, which designates the buffalo as the “national mammal.” President Obama signed the Act into law May 9.

The Act declares that “bison are considered a historical symbol of the United States.” Buffalo were “integrally linked with the economic and spiritual lives of many Indian tribes through trade and sacred ceremonies,” the measure goes on.

Furthermore, buffalo historically shaped the terrain they roamed, which aided in the health and survival of other native plant and animal species. “Bison can play an important role in improving the types of grasses found in landscapes to the benefit of grasslands,” the Act reads.

Passage of the Bison Legacy Act marked the climax to a half-decade-long effort by the Vote Bison Coalition, a collection of more than 60 buffalo-advocating businesses, ranchers and nonprofit groups. A statement on the coalition’s website described Congress’s approval of the Act as “a great milestone for an animal that has played a central role in America’s history and culture.”

Marketing Sustainable Meat

The Bison Legacy Act specifically recognizes early efforts by private ranchers in rescuing the buffalo from oblivion.

“A small group of ranchers helped save bison from extinction in the late 1800s by gathering the remnants of the decimated herds,” declares the Act, which also expresses that “bison hold significant economic value for private producers and rural communities.”

Today, bison that are “under the stewardship of private producers” are responsible for “creating jobs and providing a sustainable and healthy meat source contributing to the food security of the United States,” the Act declares.

Dedicated to promoting bison’s potential as a source of beauty, pride and healthy red-meat protein, the National Bison Association is among the groups delighted to see the bison given official national significance along with the bald eagle and the oak, which was declared America’s National Tree in 2004.

“There has never been a national mammal,” said the association’s assistant director, Jim Matheson. “Bison being the largest mammal on the continent, and also probably the greatest conservation success story of America. So we see it as a great fit.”

Some of the bison at the Lazy G Ranch, particularly non-dominant bulls, are slaughtered for meat and hides. But Gaw’s foremost mission is raising awareness. He’s hopeful a charge of bison-promoting publicity related to the National Mammal classification will send more folks his direction for a firsthand look at the country’s newest symbol.

Gaw has set aside about half of his 150 acre spread of rolling grassy pasture for his bison. Over time, he’d like to more than double the size of the herd to around 75, and expand their range to most or all the ranch’s pastureland.

Awesome to Behold

Already, it is not uncommon to see more than a dozen cars pull into his ranch driveway on a Saturday to gaze while the buffalo graze.

What is it about bison that people find so captivating?

bisonwebblizzard

“Blizzard” is a rare white bison. His owner, Eddie Gaw, bought him as a calf two years ago. Like a lot of privately owned buffalo in America, Blizzard’s genetic profile probably includes some trace DNA remnants of beef-cow. Mr. Gaw is a member of the National Bison Association, which opposes ranchers purposefully cross-breeding buffalo with cattle.

“Just look at them,” says Gaw. The two words that typically spring to people’s minds when viewing bison — especially up close — are “powerful” and “majestic.”

That, and “big,” of course.

Bulls can weigh in at more than a ton and stand six-and-a-half feet tall at their hulking shoulders. The horns on their mammoth, wooly heads — worn by males and females alike — can grow two feet long. These burly beasts seem not far removed from the Ice Age.

Bison are startlingly agile and fast. “Buffalo can jump six feet vertical. Anything they can lay their chin on, they can jump,” Gaw said. And they can outrun a horse over sustained distances.

Just looking at them is precisely what Gaw wants more people to do at his ranch. He encourages visitors to stop and simply behold the grand critters.

Their stately grace is undeniable, whether ambling slowly along munching at turf, laying about ruminating their cuds, loping over a hill in a rumbling formation, or blithely bathing in a dirt wallow, which Gaw said they do to ward away bugs.

“A lot of people just don’t really know much about buffalo,” he said. “Anytime I see people down by the road watching them, especially if they’ve got kids, I like to go down and talk to them, and maybe educate them a little.”

Gaw is happy to entertain fibisonwebwarningeld trip buses of youngsters and adults. Residents of the Fairfield Glade Retirement Community in Cumberland County were excited to visit after reading a story in the Crossville Chronicle a couple years back about a rare white buffalo calf that Gaw had acquired from South Dakota.

“Blizzard,” as the blond young bull was christened, is a baby no more. But he still attracts an audience, including American Indians for whom a white bison holds particularly solemn spiritual significance.

Gaw said Indians have come to his ranch and sat on the grass for hours at a time meditating on the sight of Blizzard and the rest of the herd. “I’ve even had them write me letters asking for locks of hair,” he said. “If they have buffalo hair in their house, it’s Good Medicine.”Google ChromeScreenSnapz005

One of the best viewing times to watch the bison on Gaw’s ranch is as the afternoon wanes. That’s when they tend to get particularly lively and animated, calves and adults alike.

“In the evening, sometimes they’ll get to running and run the whole area of their field,” said Gaw. “They’re liable to do it for 30 minutes, chasing each other just like they are playing.”

If you’d like to call ahead to book a guided visit, call Eddie Gaw at 931-528-1681. Look them up on Facebook at Lazy G Ranch TN. The ranch address is 6070 Dodson Branch Rd (Hwy 135), which is about five miles north of TTU’s Hooper Eblen Center.

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.

burgessclosedsign

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.