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Paddlesport fishing promoters chart course into international waters

A potentially sea-changing angling competition is set to launch on the vast, bass-rich reaches of Center Hill Lake at the end of May.

During the week following Memorial Day, elite kayak anglers from across the Western Hemisphere will converge on the Upper Cumberland to test their skills and try their luck against one another in a first-of-its-kind invitational tournament that organizers hope baits the hook for bigger fish to fry down the line.

The Caney Fork River’s impounded waters behind Center Hill Dam will serve as venue to a distinguished lineup of paddle-and-pole wielding mastercasters who’ll compete in this year’s inaugural Pan-American Kayak Bass Championship.

Drew Gregory will participate in the Pan American Kayak Fishing Championship on Center Hill Lake May 28-31.

Countries slated to ship angler-ambassadors here to contend against the USA Bass Kayak team for transcontinental bass bragging rights include Canada, Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Puerto Rico, Honduras and the Dominican Republic.

The overarching goal of the tournament is to lay the foundation for establishing an officially sanctioned world-championship kayak fishing competition — which could lead ultimately to recognition and embrace of the sport by the International Olympic Committee.

At a minimum, the multinational USA Bass-sponsored meet-up will elevate Center Hill Lake’s profile, and burnish the Upper Cumberland’s reputation as a paddling-angler’s paradise second to none.

Participants are expected to arrive early and stay late exploring various regional fisheries in addition to Center Hill — like Cordell Hull and Dale Hollow lakes, as well Cumberland River Basin moving-water jewels, like the upper and lower reaches of the Caney Fork and its multispecies-filled tributaries, the Falling Water, Calfkiller and Collins rivers.

A Natural Fit

The Cookeville-Putnam County Visitors’ Bureau is responsible for luring the event to the area.

This region is a “natural fit” for high-end angling tournaments and other adventure-sport gatherings with the capacity to draw substantial crowds of participants and spectators, said Zach Ledbetter, vice president of visitor development.

“We have an ideal destination for outdoor enthusiasts, especially those who want to compete on calm and bass-filled waters,” said Ledbetter. “Aside from the outstanding hospitality of our community, the value of our natural assets allows us to welcome anglers from all over the world.”

Ledbetter put together a bid package last fall that outshined efforts by other fishing destinations — including Columbia, S.C., Hot Springs, Ark. and Branson, Mo.

“Cookeville and Center Hill Lake quickly became the clear choice to host this historic event,” said Tony Forte, president of USA Bass and founder of the U.S Angling Confederation, a nonprofit sport-fishing advocacy group.

The public is encouraged to meet and mingle with anglers at the tournament launch areas — Ragland Bottom Recreation Area, Cane Hollow Boat Ramp and Rock Island State Park.

Forte said tournament officials “looked at Dale Hollow pretty hard, too.” But DHL lacked CHL’s logistical appeal, he said. Center Hill Lake is situated nearer Nashville and I-40 — and it’s neighbored by inviting communities like Sparta, McMinnville and Smithville in addition to Cookeville.

Tourism-focused businesses throughout the area may get a bite of extra business from the Pan Am event. “We really hope this proves advantageous to the host communities, and commerce is obviously part of that process,” said Forte. “If this event allows for some guided fishing trips and more stays in local hotels and meals in local restaurants and those kinds of things, then we’re all about it.”

That’s obviously what Ledbetter has in mind, too. And he echoed a sentiment shared by chamber leaders around the Upper Cumberland: visitors come here for numerous regional attractions, so it makes sense to work across county lines to promote events, activities and destinations.

Cookeville serves as a destination hub for the Upper Cumberland, Ledbetter said, and visitors will often roam out to explore the surrounding region using the city as a base camp. In fact, none of the Pan Am tournament launch points are actually in Putnam County — Cane Hollow is in White County, Ragland Bottom is in DeKalb, and Rock Island is in Warren.

“We push day trips a lot,” Ledbetter said. “Whether visitors just stay right here in Cookeville, or go out to places like Cumberland Caverns in Warren County or Granville in Jackson County, we consider it a win for all of us.”

Big Name Boaters

Forte said kayak angling has for the past decade been “exploding worldwide.” But as yet it “hasn’t evolved to the point where it’s making household names.”

“That’s part of what a tournament like ours is designed to do,” he said.

Chad Hoover

The Pan Am Kayak Bass Championship could launch competitive kayak angling onto the global stage — and likewise position the Upper Cumberland to anchor future international tournaments.

“I would love to see a world championship come to Cookeville at some point — where we invite all the nations’ best kayak anglers to come,” said Forte. “We’re hoping we can make that happen.”

If the anglers competing to win the Pan Am aren’t household names exactly, some aren’t altogether unrecognizable either.

The two biggest names on the U.S. team are probably those belonging to Chad Hoover and Eric Jackson.

Both are media-savvy adventure-sport entrepreneurs who’ve navigated their life’s passions into lucrative careers that allow them to spend a lot of their waking hours on the water for a living.

A resident of Hendersonville, Hoover hosts Youtube’s most popular kayak fishing channel.

Not only has Hoover been a kayak-fishing fanatic for two decades — long before its popularity caught on — he’s organized some of the largest North American paddlesport angling tournaments ever held. His KBF brand is one of the Pan Am tournament’s sponsors — although he himself is solely a participant.

Eric Jackson

Jackson is already a pioneering, world championship-winning athlete ranked among whitewater kayaking’s most accomplished competitors in the sport’s history. Propelling himself onto the winner’s dock to hoist aloft the first ever Pan Am kayak bass champion’s trophy would constitute a truly remarkable follow-up to Jackson’s brilliant 30-year whitewater paddling career.

There’s also the fact that the company Jackson founded is probably the most identifiable paddlesport boat-maker in the world.

Jackson Kayak’s immense White County factory headquarters bolstered the area’s allure to Pan Am organizers. JK is helping sponsor the event and will provide kayaks for anglers visiting from far-flung foreign fisheries.

Springtime Is Primetime

Speaking of which, home-water advantage for Tennessee anglers like Hoover and Jackson won’t likely play as big a factor in the Pan Am championship as might typically be expected, according to a pair of veteran anglers well accustom to competing in bass tournaments on Center Hill Lake.

The Pan Am’s timing coincides with what’s typically some of CHL’s hottest bass fishing, said local pros Josh Tramel and Adam Wagner.

Tramel lives in Smithville and Wagner in Cookeville, and both have earned more tournament wins and money finishes on the lake than either can rightly recall. Each could stock an enviable trophy room just with Center Hill Lake hardware they’ve collected over the decades.

Already this year Tramel has landed an FLW first-place trophy on CHL in a tournament that saw Wagner place 5th. Wagner netted a victory on Dale Hollow Lake over the winter — his 11th career victory in FLW Bass Fishing League competitions, tying him at third for most FLW tourney first-place finishes of all time.

Pan Am anglers will compete for inches rather than pounds.

Tramel and Wagner say black bass on CHL in late May will likely be holding in relatively shallow water, and probably in a mood to bite and fight. That’s good news for anglers unfamiliar with the lake’s perplexing range of deeper-water structure, around which bass will spend most of their daytime hours after water temps start their summertime climb in June.

Tramel expects Pan Am tournament anglers will locate fish in water less than 15 feet deep — maybe even less than 10 feet in some areas. “The 10- or 12-foot range will catch them at that time of year,” he said.

Another nice thing about spring fishing is that anglers can choose from a variety of plugs, plastics and presentation tactics that will yield success, said Wagner.

“It’ll be really, really good in late May,” he said. “That post-spawn bite over there is always good. You can catch them on topwater, you can catch them on a Carolina rig, you can catch them on a crankbait or a spoon. There are just a whole lot of things you can do to catch fish on Center Hill at that time of year.”

Tramel said Pan Am competitors might have difficulty tracking down paunchy females, but aggressive males will be guarding schools of recently hatched fry and “will be hitting pretty good.”

“It’s a really good time for like two-and-a-half to three-and-a-quarter-pounders,” he said.

Like Wagner, Tramel expects surface-swimming lures will make for good fishing during the tournament, which isn’t always the case on Center Hill.

“Topwater will be a player. There will probably be a lot of fish caught on topwater at that point,” Tramel said. “There’ll also be some good fish caught on a shakey head, drop-shot sort of thing. My favorite thing would be pitching at that point in the year — pitching a jig or some plastics, bigger-profile type baits.”

One of Tramel’s standard strategies on CHL is to keep moving. He avoids spending too much time in one area if he’s not hooking up — even if he’s already boated a couple in the vicinity. It’s kind of unusual to catch multiple keeper-size fish in one location on Center Hill, he said.

If they were competing in the Pan Am tournament, both Wagner and Tramel say they’d want to launch from Cane Hollow or Ragland Bottom.

“With either one of those, you wouldn’t have to go far at all to catch fish,” Wagner said. “You could basically put in and start fishing. All the area around both Ragland and Cane Hollow is pretty good.”

“I fish around Cane Hollow a lot,” Tramel said. “It is up in Falling Water River and there are just a couple different sorts of structure-types, but historically the fish will be hitting back in there.”

Located in the heart of the Center Hill Lake, the Army Corps of Engineers-managed Ragland Bottom recreation area offers a wealth of fish-habitat diversity in many directions.

“There’s a lot of versatile water around there where you can do a lot of different things,” Tramel said. “You’ve got the main channel, you’ve creeks and pockets and all different kinds of structure that the fish can get in to.”

Certain areas of the lake are better for smallmouth than largemouth, and visa versa, Tramel noted.

“Whereas in Falling Water, you’re going to be targeting largemouth primarily, around Ragland Bottom you’re going to have access to whatever bass species you want to fish for,” he said.

Spotted bass caught on Center Hill have lately been running smaller than smallmouth and largemouth, Tramel added.

Wagner disclosed that Davies Island, located about two river miles north of Ragland, is a Center Hill sweet spot.

“It’s got some very good current through there, especially when they’re really pulling water (at the dam),” he said. “There are a lot of spots there, where current hits, that are really good.”

Davies Island is positioned at the confluence of the Falling Water and Caney Fork river arms. The island is four miles in circumference and “a huge population of fish” tend to congregate around it, said Wagner.

Fishing in a kayak is quite a bit different than fishing in a boat. Whereas stealth and maneuverability are a kayak’s chief attributes, bass boats can obviously cover a lot more water.

Tramel and Wagner agree that not being able to zip across the lake at 60 miles an hour in search of covert bass cover would dramatical change how they’d approach a tournament.

“In a bass boat, I can run from one end of the lake to the other in not a whole lot of time,” Tramel said. “In a kayak, you better start where there are some fish, or you’re probably going to be in trouble.”

State park boasts splendiferous waterfall, swimming hole

One way or another, Cummins Falls State Park leaves you breathless.

Located in southern Jackson County just northwest of Cookeville, this aquatic getaway ranks as Tennessee’s eighth largest waterfall. The site also lays claim to being one of the 10 best swimming holes in the U.S., according to Travel and Leisure magazine.

It’s a mere 12 miles off of Interstate 40 (Exit 280), but be warned this is no place to wear flip-flops. You’ll have to cautiously make your way down the trail to the cool waters of Blackburn Fork State Scenic River and then hike along its streambed before you reach the gorgeous gorge.

Hikers and swimmers alike have a ball at Cummins Falls State Park, which boasts the eighth largest waterfall in Tennessee and one of the Top-10 swimming holes in the U.S. It’s a vigorous descent by foot to the falls on the Blackburn Fork State Scenic River, which has served as a scenic spot and swimming hole for residents of Jackson and Putnam counties for more than a century.
(Photo by Ken Beck)

There you will spy the magnificent 75-foot-high falls, which will take your breath away. Later, as you scramble back up the trail, you may find yourself once more gasping for air. It will be worth the effort. Cummins Falls is a purely natural Tennessee treasure that you can see, hear, touch, smell and taste (although we don’t recommend you sip the water).

Park manager Ray Cutcher is a 43-year veteran of Tennessee State Parks, and he’s has been at Cummins Falls since the day after the state purchased it.

“The coolest feature is the waterfall and the plunge-pool below,” said Cutcher. “The waterfall creates the magnificent swimming hole below. The ledges beneath to climb up on make it such a unique experience that people keep on coming here. In addition it’s a wild and rugged area so you have to take a pretty good hike.”

Cummins Falls was dedicated as the Tennessee’s 54th state park May 22, 2012.

Steep Soggy Slog

The ranger noted that visitors should expect “a rugged, strenuous hike that will be rocky and slippery. Sometimes a walking stick will help while crossing the stream. You will walk through water so wear footwear, like an old pair of tennis shoes.”

He also advises that you bring water or sports drinks (no alcohol allowed) and cautions this may not be the best place to tote babies or small children.

“On a typical weekend day we can draw 5,000 to 9,000. We have become such a popular place that in the very near future we’re going to have to limit the number of people in a day,” said Cutcher, adding that likely would occur in 2020.

As evidence of its growing popularity, the park saw its attendance double this past March from March a year ago.

Hours for the day-use park are 8 a.m.-6 p.m., but the gorge area closes at 5 p.m., so those at the waterfall must start walking out at 5 p.m. in order to depart the park by 6. Visitors will find the parking lot, restrooms, trailheads and designated picnic area above the falls. An overlook of the waterfall is nearby and can be reached by foot on a trail about a half-mile long. ADA access is available upon request.

Cummins Falls State Park manager Ray Cutcher has been at the park since the day after the state purchased it in February 2012. He alerts visitors that the trail to the waterfall presents “a rugged, strenuous hike that will be rocky and slippery.” Some 5,000 to 9,000 people visit the park on a typical weekend day.
(Photo by Ken Beck)

The route descending directly to the falls is about one mile along uneven terrain with tree roots and other hazards, and part of the hike includes walking upstream through the river, thus it can be slippery.

On a serious note, there have been five drowning here since the park opened. The plunge pool, a natural area with no manmade features, is 15 feet deep in places. There are no lifeguards, thus swimming is at your own risk.

It is also important to pay attention to the weather as sudden heavy rainfalls can cause flash floods. Such an event occurred in July 2017, causing two drownings and stranding 48 people for part of a day. Heavy rains also may require the pool and the hike to the 200-foot-deep gorge to be closed for two or three days.

Longtime Local Leisure Spot 

The site has been no secret to folks here in Jackson County and in nearby Putnam County as locals and their ancestors have enjoyed hitting the ole swimming hole for more than a century.

“The Cummins family had owned the area since 1825,” said Ranger Cutcher. “For over 100 years they operated a mill on this site. The Cummins family didn’t try to restrict use to the area so it kind of became a public recreation area.”

The trek to the base of Cummins Falls may be a little too demanding for some. But views from above are sure to dazzle and delight, too. Nine-month-old Emily Shinall and her mom, Christina, enjoy the pleasant vistas from a safe vantage.

 

“People came here with grain, and while waiting for the grain to be ground would make it a little vacation and stay a few days and swim and fish,” Cutcher went on. “The mill washed away in 1928, but people still continued to come because it was such a local treasure. People never were kept out of this area.”

As for what’s new this summer Cutcher said, “We’ve started doing some different evening programs, like night hikes and campfire programs, and we also have added a few photography and painting programs. These are things that people normally don’t have access to and they are fee-based.”

The park continues to offer Junior Ranger Camp with four-day sessions for children ages 6 to 12, running June 24-27 and July 15-18. Cost is $25.

Preservation Collaboration

Since 2006, local outdoors enthusiasts and the Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation had been working to protect Cummins Falls. Through combined efforts, the property was rescued from a proposed housing development at a public auction in 2010.

A stroll along the base of Cummins Falls is exhilarating, but footing can be treacherous.

It was accomplished via kindred spirits as the foundation recruited conservation buyers in Dr. Glenn Hall, Mary Lynn Dobson and Robert D. McCaleb, who temporarily secured the land. Through fundraising efforts the foundation then was able to purchase the land in 2012.

Cutcher said the park plans to purchase another small piece of property where the mill once stood. “We don’t have ownership but our friends group is holding it. And we got a Recreation Trails Program grant to build an observation deck at the main overlook. We hope to have it built later this year.”

While too late for this year, every February the Friends of Cummins Falls State Park hold an annual Cummins Falls Marathon with four certified routes: a marathon, a half marathon, a 5K and a 10K.

The last event drew approximately 300 runners with about 70 participating in the marathon. The race route is steep so, just like seeing the magnificent waterfall, the experience likely would prove breathtaking.

 


Cummins Falls State Park

Hours for the 282-acre day-use park are 8am-6pm.

The gorge area closes at 5pm. People at the bottom of the waterfall must start walking out at 5pm. in order to get back to the parking lot and be out of the park by 6 p.m.

Directions: From Interstate 40 Exit 280, go north 7.7 miles on Highway 56; turn right on Highway 290 and go about 1 mile and turn left on Cummins Mill Road. Go three miles and turn left on Blackburn Fork Road. Drive about 300 yards and turn left.

Park address: 390 Cummins Falls Lane, Cookeville, TN.

931-520-6691, (931) 261-3471.

tnstateparks.com/parks/about/cummins-falls

Cookeville mom-on-the-go publishing (healthy) hamburger cookbook

Alane Boyd isn’t a woman with a lot of extra time on her hands.

The Putnam County software engineer-entrepreneur may have “retired” for the first time at just 35 after selling a successful company she and her husband co-founded, but her daily life remains a whirl of activity and enterprise — hence her Instagram handle: @the_hurricanealane.

Boyd spends most of her waking hours working in assorted roles as business consultant, marketing specialist, entrepreneur coach and motivational speaker. And that’s in addition to pursuing various avenues of philanthropy and volunteer activity in the local community and beyond.

“I’ve got a three-year-old, I’ve got multiple businesses, I’ve got a husband and I travel all the time,” Boyd told Center Hill Sun recently at her Cookeville office in The Biz Foundry.

Well-Heeled Homemaker

Typically the antithesis of a frowsy hausfrau, on any given weekday Boyd’s rarely spied attired in footwear other than her trademark stilettos.

All the same, Boyd’s foremost functions as a woman of industrious pursuits are far and away those of wife and toddler’s mommy. And in keeping with her unwillingness to compromise her ambitions, she’s wholly resistant to outsourcing her homemaking labors of love to unwholesome outside influences.

A daily question with which Boyd wrestles is, “How to manage it all and try to eat healthy?”

“BurgerFit,” a cookbook by Putnam County food show host, author and tech entrepreneur Alane Boyd, is coming out June 1.

In fact, she’s something of a fanatic about feeding her family well.

“Cooking healthy and tasty meals is my passion,” says Boyd, who also hosts an amiably instructional Youtube channel called, “Cooking With My Friends.”

She bills her program, “The best healthy cooking show on the internet.” On a typical episode, Boyd and her guests whip up quick and easy recipes usually intended to emphasize you’re “never too old or too young to start eating vegetables.”

Later this spring — just in time for grilling season — Boyd is set to release “BurgerFit.” It’s a self-published cookbook cataloging a bumper-crop of unexpected components and directions for rustling up healthy versions of “America’s favorite food.”

Does it sound counterintuitive or implausible to think of hamburgers as “health food”?

Well, bear in mind that Boyd is an engineer by trade. That means she specializes in developing systems that work.

She has appetizingly discovered that hamburger patties make an ideal delivery means for surreptitiously smuggling vegetables into an unsuspecting family member’s diet

“No one asks before they take a bite of burger, what is in it,” Boyd writes in the introduction of her cookbook. “A burger is a trusted food.”

Sustainable Slenderizing

When she was in middle school, Boyd began struggling with weight issues — a problem that followed her into adulthood. She and her husband, Micah, would often go out for drinks and dinner after a long workday. Invariably, they’d overindulge. She recalls often thinking, “I’ve got to get myself under control.”

But it took a “wake-up call” in the form of an early-onset high blood pressure diagnosis to finally convince her that lifestyle adjustments were required.

So, using the Whole30 weight-loss program, she shed 40 pounds and gained a new outlook on food and health. “A huge component of my success was replacing meals that I usually ate with bread and carbs with vegetables,” she said.

Over time it became apparent to Boyd however that while an elimination-style diet may have worked wonders for her, it carried little appeal to those around her — especially her family from Louisiana, where she grew up.

Hamburger Humbuggery

When Boyd’s kin from Cajun Country popped in for a visit, they bluntly regarded meals devoid of sugar, carbs, dairy and beans as preposterous and repellent. To their way of thinking, those were key ingredients in life’s happiness recipe book.

“They wouldn’t eat anything that I cooked,” Boyd said. “They’d just eat a piece of meat and then go to the grocery store and get bread, and they would just eat meat and bread.”

One of the things Boyd learned on her own journey to better health is that changes made to your eating habits need be enjoyable to become sustainable. They won’t last otherwise.

She inevitably concluded that healthy cooking for her meat-loving, veggie-loathing family would require a generous dollop of subterfuge.

“I started blending up the vegetables and making the burgers with them,” she writes. “If they saw me cooking the vegetables, I would tell them that was for my dinner and they didn’t have to eat them. When they weren’t looking, I would make the patties with the veggies.”

Over time, Boyd cultivated a sly culinary aptitude for the art of skillet skulduggery, all the while gaining evermore beguiling skills as a cunning cheeseburger enchantress. Of course, were she ever found out, Boyd understood that dark oaths and perhaps accusations of witchery might fly in her direction — especially from her brothers, who she said never made it a secret they were “opposed to vegetables.”

But that didn’t happen. On the contrary, Boyd’s assembled an ample menu of meat-and-veggie patty blends that unfailingly cast a satisfying spell over even the most ardent carnivore test subjects.

“Everyone would rave about how delicious they were, and then ask what was in them,” Boyd writes in BurgerFit. “I got very comfortable with not telling them the truth. If I did, they would never eat another burger I made them. I would brush the question off and name a veggie that I knew they liked that looked similar to the veggie in the burger that they wouldn’t eat. Green peas became greens, red beets became purple cabbage, carrots became sweet potatoes.”

Boyd hopes BurgerFit becomes a hit for making all manner of ground-meat creations, not just hamburgers and not just beef.

“You can use any type of ground meat you would like,” an FAQ page on Boyd’s website communicates. “Ground pork, turkey, chicken, etc. make delicious BurgerFit burgers. If you are vegetarian or vegan, you can even replace the meat with lentils, beans, or your favorite meat substitute.”

Most any meat can make a nice patty if the meat-to-plant-material ratios are correct, Boyd said. However, it’s generally not a great idea to try and force more than two cups of cooked and cut-up veggies into a pound of ground meat, she reports. Doing so runs the risk of burgers falling apart, and thus detection

Boyd keeps a stash of pre-made burgers on hand in the freezer for quick access and fast prep. And she doesn’t hesitate to “deconstruct” them for other uses, especially tacos.

The ultimate message of BurgerFit is that you don’t have to compromise great flavor to compose a burger that’s got more nutrition to it than meets the eye.

“Even if you don’t like vegetables, don’t have time, and don’t like cooking, BurgerFit burgers are so easy to make and taste so good, that you can’t help but make them,” said Boyd.

If you’d like to get an early look or pre-order a copy of BurgerFit, which is scheduled for release in early June, visit Boyd’s website at http://burgerfitcookbook.com/.

Vintage farm furnishes antique mystique to area rich in natural magnetism

A new land-donation to the Virgin Falls State Natural Area allows visitors to stroll back into history a bit and ponder life lived at a slower pace during a more down-to-earth era.

A 19th century homestead adjoining eastern White County’s picturesque Dog Cove, which includes a still-habitable farmhouse and period outbuildings, has been added to the state of Tennessee’s public recreation-land holdings.

The state Department of Environment and Conservation — which along with Tennessee fish and wildlife officials manages the area — is ultimately planning to upgrade the vintage home so as to make it available for overnight guest rental. At this time, however, it’s only open for day-use visitation.

The Beecher Wallace Homestead, named after the man who settled the property and built the home, barn and shed structures in the late 1800s, was purchased from Wallace family heirs last summer by the Land Trust of Tennessee. Ownership of the parcel was then transferred to the state in December. The property adjoins 750 rugged wildland acres also acquired by the state in recent years with financial and technical assistance from the Land Trust, Open Space Institute and Tennessee Parks and Greenways Foundation, according to TDEC.

Virgin Falls Natural Area Manager Stuart Carroll in Dog Cove.

A day-use area with eight miles of trails, Dog Cove is known for its small creeks, big woods, serene tranquility and lovely views.

“Dog Cove really is a true cove, reminiscent of Cades Cove in Smoky Mountain National Park,” said Stuart Carroll, park manager for Virgin Falls State Natural Area. “It’s not surrounded by mountains as high as around Cades Cove, but it’s a true cove in that there’s no water that escapes. The creeks appear and disappear, then reappear again. Then they finally they go underground — and that is the source for Virgin Falls and Lost Creek Falls.”

Liz McLaurin, president and CEO of the Land Trust, calls it “a magical place.”

“The conservation of this swath of land is an example of the way, over time, land trusts and partners can build relationships that stitch together special places for the enjoyment of Tennesseans and visitors now and forever,” said McLaurin.

A primary aspect of the Land Trust’s mission is working with landowners to purchase property and “create conservation solutions for Tennessee’s important places,” said Emily Parish, vice president for tho group.

“Dog Cove’s wildlife habitat, caves, creeks and storied history will be cared for and be accessible to the public for generations to come,” Parish said. She called the acquisition effort “a tremendous success for the growing corridor of protected land in the area.”

Likewise, Tom Lee, a Beecher Wallace family descendent who’s been taking care of the place for years, said he’s glad an arrangement was reached that both preserves the property and enables others to appreciate the homestead land and history.

“This place has meant a lot to my family for generations,” said Lee. “We are grateful to know others will have the opportunity to enjoy it and that it will always be cared for.”

Ranger Carroll said the Beecher Wallace farmhouse was built in 1888. Prior to that an old log house was situated on the site. He noted that some work needs to be done on the house before it can be open to the public for overnight stays.

Nevertheless, the Beecher Wallace home “is in pretty good shape for a 120-year-old house,” said Carroll. He credits that to regular maintenance and repair efforts by Mr. Lee, a longtime Cookeville-based home-renovation specialist.

“It’s going to be a nice place for people to come for a getaway,” said Carroll.

Over the years, the state has set aside a corridor network of protected lands across Tennessee’s mid-Cumberland Plateau. Among the patchwork are Fall Creek Falls State Park, Lost Creek State Natural Area, Virgin Falls State Natural Area, Bledsoe State Forest, and Bridgestone-Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area. Other natural lands adjoining those are the Bridgestone Nature Reserve at Chestnut Mountain and Latimer High Adventure Reservation.

Taken as a whole, the plateau conservation corridor connects around 60,000 acres of “significant protected forested habitat,” according to TDEC.

The Nashville District Office of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is anticipating that heavy rains over the past weeks will result in higher-than-normal pool elevations for some time on the Cumberland River system lakes it manages.

Center Hill Lake, Dale Hollow, Percy Priest and Lake Cumberland in Kentucky are all discharging vast quantities of water in wake of a storm system that dumped 3-4 inches of rain around the region late last week.

Precipitation Friday and Saturday raised reservoirs along the Cumberland River to levels not seen since the spring floods of 2010 or before. Rainfall in Nashville for the month of February this year has surpassed 13.5 inches — reportedly breaking a previous record set in 1880.

The reservoir level behind Center Hill Dam Monday morning was reported at over 677.43 feet and still rising. That’s 20 feet higher than it was early Saturday morning. Officials said the lake could rise above 680 feet before its starts to recede. That’s tremendously higher than the 625 feet that water-level managers want to get the lake down to before summer in order to finish a scheduled boat-ramp construction project near the dam.

The Corps’ Nashville District water management specialist Anthony Rodino predicts higher than normal water-releases for the foreseeable future from dams along the Cumberland.

Water levels along Center Hill Lake have eclipsed parking lots and shore-area recreation grounds. The picnic area adjacent to Edgar Evins Marina was completely submerged as of Sunday, as were a large portion of improved campground facilities at Floating Mill Park near Hurricane Marina.

Despite well-publicized concerns over the years about the structural soundness of dams along the Cumberland River system — especially Center Hill and Wolf Creek in Kentucky — Nashville District USACE commander Cullen Jones said the impoundments have performed flawlessly so far.

“While there were localized flooding impacts, especially along unregulated waterways, the Corps of Engineers dams held a lot of water back,” Jones said.

According to the Corps, Nashville water levels “would have exceeded 55 feet without the dams holding water during recent rains.”

“The water level in Nashville crested in minor flood stage near 41 feet, so the dams reduced the water level on the Cumberland River in Music City over 14 feet,” the USACE press release said.

March means angling madness for Rock Island’s early spring spawners

Ask around what’s the best-eating freshwater fish and there’s a good chance walleye tops any serious angler’s menu.

True, walleye aren’t necessarily know for their bellicose resistance subsequent to biting a bait — leastwise not in the manner of, say, a burly smallmouth or mean-spirited musky. But owing to their delectable flavor, delicate flaky texture and bulky fillet slabs, walleye are as prized as any game fish that prowls the waters of North America.

Dale Gribble and the eye-popping walleye wall mount he made for display at the Rock Island State Park ranger station. Contact Gribble’s fishing-guide and taxidermy service at 931-743-8163.

Even though they’re not officially considered a cold-water fish, walleye are regarded by many as something of a “northern” species. To give an indication, at least three cities in Minnesota alone lay claim to the title of “Walleye Capital of the World.”

But in fact, at certain times of year, walleye fishing below the Mason-Dixon line — especially here in Tennessee — is superior even to renown Upper Midwest hotspots like the Big Lake They Called Gitche Gumee.

For starters, the world record walleye was caught by a man named Marbry Harper on Old Hickory Lake in 1960. At 41 inches and 25 pounds, that fish dwarfed the 17-18 pounders that stand as state records in Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin.

A lot of people are unaware that three years prior to the Old Hickory catch, Center Hill Lake produced a behemoth-class monster that, at 21-pounds 4-ounces, was a certified U.S. record until eclipsed by the Harper fish. You can stop in and see that fabled catch for yourself at the Rock Island State Park ranger office, where it is mounted on the wall with a placard telling the tale of how local anglers Bennie “Buck” Bryant and Glen Grissom hauled it ashore after a 20-minute tug o’ war one frigid January day in 1957.

For 54-year-old local fishing guide and master taxidermist Dale Gribble, there indeed does not exist a finer body of water than Center Hill Lake for landing trophy walleye.

Bennie “Buck” Bryant and Glen Grissom caught a 21¼ lb. walleye on Center Hill Lake in 1957. At the time it was a national record. Pictured above is Bryant and then 2-year-old Jimmy Grissom. (Photo via TN State Library and Archives)

“In my personal opinion, there is no better place anywhere in the world for walleye fishing,” said Gribble. “I have fished for walleye everywhere — from here to Canada and all over Canada. Fishing for walleye, that’s my thing. And I can tell you that when it’s on, there’s no beating walleye fishing on Center Hill Lake.”

Gribble maintains that the record Rock Island walleye isn’t even the biggest walleye he’s personally witnessed lugged out of a Center Hill honey hole.

Once when Gribble was fishing with his grandfather back in the mid-1970s, he said they observed a couple elderly anglers tow in a brute that would have eclipsed even the Old Hickory monstrosity.

“I will never forget it. They caught that thing on a bluegill, and it was he biggest walleye I’ve ever seen,” said Gribble. “I still remember the exact bush they were tied on to when they caught it. You couldn’t believe it — that fish was massive. It was huge.”

“I had a picture for years and years — I wish I still did,” he added. “It was hanging on a scale and it weighed 27 pounds. That would be a world record today.” Gribble said it measured “right around 38 inches.”

Not every walleye is a trophy, but they’re always good-eating. Here a first-time walleye fisherman shows off his catch below Cordell Hull Dam. (Photo Credit: Bill Medley, Medley Fishing School. 615-397-4137)

But it was never reported for any kind of record verification. The guys who caught it “were a couple of old-timers who didn’t care about stuff like that,” said Gribble.

As far as predicting when the fishing is going to be “on,” there’s probably no better time than March, when walleye run by the thousands up Center Hill Lake’s headwaters on the Caney Fork for their yearly spawn. That’s when and where biologists from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency collect many of the walleye they use for breeding in state-run fry-rearing facilities, like the Normandy Fish Hatchery.

“The majority of the fish we collect come from Center Hill at Rock Island,” said Mike Jolley, the TWRA fisheries manager for Upper Cumberland reservoirs.

Because of their appetizing reputation, walleye that meet size-limit regulations “generally go home with people,” said Doug Markham, a four-decade veteran of TWRA who retired last year.

For that reason, stocking programs are important for maintaining strong numbers. “It’s a fishery that needs some help to sustain itself in a lot of these waters,” Markham said. In a lot of places like the Cumberland River system, walleye “would still be there if it wasn’t for stocking, but they wouldn’t be there is such abundance,” he said.

Flavor-making is the spice of life for Cookeville entrepreneurs

Part of running a successful small business is knowing how to focus your energies where they’ll do the most good.

For Putnam County taste-creators John and Amanda Brantley, that means concentrating on the two aspects of their business they love most — the making and the marketing of their highly palatable spice-package products.

The Brantleys specialize in concocting a variety of culinary enhancement delights. They share an appetizing talent for mixing up flavor-packed batches of meat rubs, cooking-spice blends and other multi-purpose chow seasonings.

John Brantley and his wife Amanda run a pair of Cookeville-based culinary enhancement businesses: The Lagniappe Spice Company and the Tennessee Spice Company

Among their best-selling grill-mates for making mouthwatering flesh and fish dishes are products with names like Dixieland Steak Seasoning, Bodacious Blackened Seasoning, Booyah BBQ Shrimp Seasoning and Caribbean Citrus Seasoning.

Other products they prepare and sell include peppery-taste-laced jellies and jams, kits for supercharging stone-ground grits, and a line of gourmet cocoa mixes irresistibly infused with mood-warming essences like hazelnut, raspberry, peppermint and mocha.

The Brantleys founded their business in 2010, with the idea of sharing their shared fondness for down-home cooking and Southern food culture — especially New Orleans flavors.

They sell their products through a pair of homegrown companies — The Lagniappe Spice Company and the Tennessee Spice Company. “Lagniappe” is a Louisiana Creole French word that means “a little something extra,” or “an extra blessing.”

“Our custom blends are rooted in our Southern heritage and are sure to enhance your favorite recipes, and hopefully, a few new ones,” their website declares.

Blessings of Being a Small Business

For the Brantleys, living up to their company name means striving for “a little better quality and more product in a bag,” and both at a price that’s affordable to anybody who wants to add some zest to their kitchen cuisine repertoire and pizzazz to their backyard barbecue proficiency.

John said their adventure in commercial spice-making all began when he discovered a particularly savory Big Easy-style seasoning blend that he truly relished, but couldn’t get past the fact that it was a little on the bold side. “It was just too hot to eat in any quantity,” he said.

So he decided to improve upon it by dialing down the heat a bit in order to make it a little more accessible to palates unaccustomed to blistering levels of capsaicin-saturation. The result was a blend that was so popular with his friends that he had trouble keeping it on hand. So he decided to go into the business of making it for profit.

“That’s kind of how we got started,” John said.

“And here we are, 20-plus products later,” added Amanda.

Nowadays, friends and customers often tell John and Amanda they ought to open their own store or restaurant. But the Brantleys say they’re pretty sure that would cut into the fun factor of what they do — and cause unnecessary headaches

“We don’t have a lot of interest in running our own storefront,” said Amanda. “If people can sell it for us and customers see us enough locally, and they know where they can get our products, then that works just fine for us.”

John says one reason he’s an entrepreneur rather than a clock-puncher for someone else is that he gets to organize day-to-day production activities and business operations so as to avoid otherwise avoidable headaches.

“I really like flexibility,” said John, who spent two decades working as a quality-control and research development scientist in the commercial food-manufacturing industry.

Lagniappe Spice Company and Tennessee Spice Company are available direct-to-customer online and at a range of local and regional grocery stores and local-products boutiques.

“Our stuff is carried from time to time in places like Opryland,” said Amanda. “There’s a growing demand for ‘Made in Tennessee’ labeling in tourist-destination spots.”

She said the state Department of Agriculture’s “Pick Tennessee” program has been a good boost for their business — although she’d like to see more PickTN-focused shows and events around the state to promote Tennessee-based products to other Tennesseans.

Home Cooking at Home Shows

John, who helps plan the Upper Cumberland Home and Garden Show’s kitchen demonstration lineup, said he’s particularly fond of participating in trade shows and lifestyle expos.

There he and his wife get to meet not just large numbers of people in short periods of time, but also come in friendly contact with people who might never come across their products otherwise — and who may, as a result of sampling a succulent morsel of John and Amanda’s handiwork, become regular customers.

John especially enjoys conducting demonstrations on “doing something a little different” in the kitchen that people maybe haven’t seen before — like fashioning a meat or seafood glaze out of Lagniappe’s spiced jams or jellies.

“He’s cooked pork tenderloins and steaks before. People alway seem to like that,” said Amanda.

At the Wilson County Southern Home & Garden Expo in February, John gave a lesson on how to whip up a savory shrimp dip guaranteed to please at any party.

John said the culinary demonstration aspect of the Upper Cumberland Home and Garden Show has really come into its own the past few years as Cookeville and the surrounding region continue to draw in skilled chefs and food-and-beverage entrepreneurs.

“It’s nice to be able to showcase local talent,” he said. “Cookeville is becoming a great place for really good food.”

Crews are beginning to embark upon construction of the new lodge and restaurant at Tennessee’s most popular state park.

Regional politicians and state government officials gathered this week at Fall Creek Falls for a ground-breaking ceremony at the lake construction zone at Fall Creek Falls. The planned new 98,000-square-foot will be built to “to reflect the natural setting of the park,” according to a news release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, which oversees state parks.

Breaking ground at Fall Creek Falls State Park are, from left, are Erik Pyle of Bell Construction; Bledsoe County Mayor Gregg Ridley; Lt. Gov. Randy McNally; Rep. Cameron Sexton; TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill; Deputy Gov. Jim Henry; Ann McGuaran, state architect; Rep. Kelly Keisling; Rep. Ron Travis; General Services Deputy Commissioner John Hull; Ron Lustig of Earl Swensson Associates; and Park Manager Jacob Young of Fall Creek Falls State Park.

The new hotel and lake-facing restaurant will include “three floors of visitor space,” along with “indoor and outdoor gathering areas with larger meeting rooms for conferences.”

The projects designers have said the inn will “provide spacious views of the lake and of the park’s natural forest that will evoke long-lasting memories for visitors.”

Walking trails around the lodge will connect up with other trails that wind off into the remote reaches of the park.

“At Fall Creek Falls, the new inn and restaurant are forecast to generate $278,000 per year in sales and occupancy taxes, a growth of $90,000 per year compared to revenue from the previous facility,” according to the TDEC press release. “Short-term, construction is expected to bring in an estimated $14.7 million in taxable spending to the area, along with more than 100 construction jobs.”

Construction is anticipated finish up in 2020.

The Fall Creek Falls project, which also includes other upgrades to existing park facilities and infrastructure,  is part of more than $175 million in capital projects appropriated for state parks since Republican Gov. Bill Haslam took office, the TDEC release noted. Haslam is finishing up his second and final term as Tennessee’s highest elected official.

“This reinvestment in Tennessee’s most famous state park is indicative of similar reinvestments made from Memphis to Kingsport,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner TDEC. “Over $175 million in capital reinvestment is already paying back dividends through increased visitation, customer satisfaction, and revenue growth.”

Bygone days and ways live in memories alone

Standing atop Center Hill Dam or Hurricane Bridge today, it’s easy to forget that homestead activity and rural enterprise once flourished along the hillsides and throughout river bottom lands now submerged under the lake’s expansive waterline.

But across Tennessee during the great federal dam-building decades of the 20th Century, old manners and modes of living were drowned out and washed away as reservoir waters rose behind hydroelectric impoundments that still serve as monuments to modern engineering and industrial technology.

Prior to the dam’s construction, which was completed in 1948, much of the area around the Caney Fork “was subject to intensive family-type farming of money crops, such as corn and tobacco, which involved hillside plowing with mules,” notes the Army Corps of Engineers’ Center Hill Lake Master Plan. However, since the dam’s completion, “farming in the Center Hill Lake area has steadily declined.”

Center Hill Dam under construction on the Caney Fork River in DeKalb County, 1949. (Tennessee State Library Photo Archive)

Local historians and aging residents who lived through the events recall that it was a time of gloom and upheaval for many.

“By the end of 1948, all of the homes and farms were cleared out, torn down and covered with water,” wrote the authors of “Under the Lake,” a 2016 coffee table book of historic images, remembrances and genealogy from the region prior to creation of Center Hill reservoir. “People who had lived there in their lifetime would never be able to see their homes again.”

DeKalb County historian Thomas G. Webb, who wrote a book about local history for the Memphis State University Press that was published in 1986, recalled that by the end of World War II “most of (the inhabitants) had accepted the idea that they had to leave their farms, homes, schools and churches.”

“A few, however, were bitterly opposed to moving and remained in their homes until the dam was completed and the water was literally in their front yards. Some in the Center Hill area relocated in DeKalb County, but many moved to other counties, and the county lost 4,000 people between 1940 and 1950,” Webb reported.

Rosemary Ponte of Cookeville, whose family owned property where today sits the Appalachian Center for Craft, said it pains her even now to recall that “very sad time” when families in DeKalb County were forced off their homelands.

“I still feel bad about it,” said Ponte, who was born in 1931. “They took so much more land than they needed. I just hated to see the people so displaced like that, after generations and generations of their families living there.”

Recreation an Unanticipated Boon

It may seem surprising now, with Center Hill Lake a prominent recreation destination in Middle Tennessee, but leisure and sporting activities weren’t considered important to the dam-project planners.

The Center Hill Lake Master Plan even notes that “recreation was not originally an authorized function of the project” — although surrounding lands were later acquired from property owners and “recreation facilities constructed to assure unencumbered access to the lake for the general public.”

In the beginning, though, they scoffed at the idea of recreation.

“The first few years that Center Hill Lake was backed up after the lake was there, they didn’t even want to talk about recreation,” said Carl Halfacre of Baxter, whose father worked on construction of the dam. “‘If you mentioned recreation to the Corps of Engineers, they would insult you.” They would say, “That dam is for flood control and hydroelectric power — we don’t furnish recreation.’ The Corps didn’t feel it was their job to spend millions of dollars so people could have a good time.”

Nevertheless, by the middle of the 1950s, people did indeed start showing up to fish and boat and swim on Center Hill Lake, said Halfacre, who in 2014 retired from serving as managing ranger at Edgar Evins State Park for nearly two decades. At about that time, picnic areas and campgrounds started popping up, he said.

Webb noted that some who lived in the area in fact began anticipating recreational benefits even before the dam was finished.

“Those who hoped to benefit from the increased tourist trade looked forward to the completion of the dam,” he wrote.

So if you’re one of the more than three million people who annually takes advantage or accesses Center Hill Lake’s vast recreation opportunities, you might do well to spend a moment and reflect on the reality that many people gave up homes and lifeways for the lake to exist — and many would for the rest of their years suffer broken-heartedness and resentment as a result.

“There used to be a lot more life down below the water’s surface — and it was more than just fish,” said Ria Baker, one of the authors of “Under the Lake.”

Fascinating history accompanies marvelous scenery around state park

State agencies and local Warren County business and political leaders are analyzing the prospect of restoring a long-shuttered historical landmark that was once a hub of commerce and industrial activity.

Mill workers around the turn of the 19th century,

Built on the banks of the Caney Fork River in 1892, the Great Falls Cotton Mill operated for just a decade before its wheelhouse turbine system was destroyed by a cataclysmic flood in 1902. Nevertheless, in that relatively short span it became a prominent feature of the local landscape and economy, even sprouting its own adjoining company town known as Falls City.

“The mill was operate by a flume, turbine, ropes and pulleys powered by the water diverted from the falls,” reads to a placard near the mill. “The operation included the manufacture of cotton, wool products, and was known for its heavy cotton sheeting.”

An information page about the mill at TNGenWeb.org, an online genealogical research organization, recounts that the facility’s purpose was to “manufacture, spin, weave, bleach, dye, print, finish and sell all goods of every kind made of wool and cotton.”

Details and specifics about costs and timelines for the project are sketchy at this time, but the overarching goal is to boost visitation and enhance tourism in the area, officials say. The project is still in a “conceptual phase,” according to a Nov. 14 press release from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

The mill was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982.

“We are excited to pursue restoration of this important piece of Warren County history,” said TDEC Deputy Commissioner Brock Hill. Preserving and protecting “the cultural significance of Tennessee’s special places” is part of the agency’s mission, he said.

Falls below Great Falls Cotton Mill. A cataclysmic flood of the Caney Fork River in 1902 destroyed the mill’s turbine.

The mill property is situated along the Caney Fork River about about a quarter mile below Great Falls Dam, which was completed in 1917 by the Tennessee Electric Power Company. Today the mill’s remains and the dam are owned by the Tennessee Valley Authority, which is involved in the restoration discussions.

According to TDEC, other agencies mulling the costs, rewards and logistics of refurbishing the mill are the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Tennessee Historical Commission, the McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce, the Industrial Development Board of McMinnville-Warren County and various local elected officials.

Patrick McIntyre, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Commission, said his agency is “pleased to be a part of this effort to restore the Great Falls Cotton Mill. The project would fit well with the commission’s efforts “to preserve historically significant properties that are part of the rich history of Tennessee,” he added.

Rock Island State Park was established in 1969. However, the community of Rock Island dates back to the early days of Tennessee. Not only was it the first permanent settlement in Warren County, but the old Tennessee Superior Court, a forerunner to the state supreme court, would from time to time hold proceedings there. Andrew Jackson sat on the Superior Court in the late 1700s and early 1800s, nearly three decades before he served as president of the United States.

In order to improve access and parking and enhance the surrounding “green space” for people to safely and enjoyably explore the Great Falls Mill and surrounding grounds in the event that it’s transformed into a special attraction, rerouting the section of Highway 287 that runs by the mill may become necessary, officials say.

“During peak season, we have a lot of visitors who park in this area and our goal is to provide a safe experience that gives park-goers access to the historical and natural sites they’ve come to see,” said Rock Island State Park Manager Damon Graham.