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.”