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.”