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Big Wins for White County Wildlands Preservation, Recreation

Conservation carve-outs added to Upper Caney Watershed

The rural lands that make up White County have long been recognized and appreciated for their remarkable geological features and timeless sense of hardy frontier vitality.

Over the last several decades, more and more people from outside the area have come to love and admire White County’s abundance of beauty, wildlife and recreation potential, especially southeast of Sparta, where the Cumberland Plateau fuses with the Highland Rim in the cave-pocked boulder-strewn realm of Virgin Falls.

In his essential 1999 survey of scenic regional hikes and Tennessee cultural heritage, “The Historic Cumberland Plateau; An Explorer’s Guide,” outdoor writer Russ Manning observed, “The unique features of this area are the waterfalls that plunge from great heights and disappear into the ground.”

“Big Laurel Creek flows over Big Branch Falls and farther downstream washes over Big Laurel Falls before disappearing in an underground cave behind the falls. Farther in the wilderness a small creek running out of Sheep Cave cascades 50 or 60 feet until it disappears into a hole in the ground,” wrote Manning. “But the most spectacular is Virgin Falls, which emerges from a cave, runs about 50 feet, drops 110 feet, and disappears into the rocks at the bottom. The water from all these waterfalls apparently runs through the ground, finally draining into the Caney Fork River, which flows through Scott Gulf to the south.”

Courting Conservation-Friendly Commerce

Numerous groups and individuals have devoted time, energy and resources toward shielding the mostly untamed domain from large-scale commercial and residential development, or environmentally destructive industrial land uses.

Groups that have donated time, money, land, labor or expertise toward conserving the Caney Fork watershed include the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, the Open Space Institute, the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund,  the J.M.Huber Corp., Bridgestone Americas, as well as state parks “friends” groups.

State government also has partnered with private-sector nonprofits and businesses to promote “stewardship of thousands of acres of ecologically significant areas in the Cumberland Plateau with the goals of protection, preservation and public recreation,” said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Improving the public’s access to the many recreational opportunities the rugged lands and moving waters provide will hopefully open navigable pathways toward future economic growth in an area where nagging poverty has for generations presented a snag.

Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau is home to many struggling rural communities that “need sustaining and need to be resilient,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for TDEC’s Bureau of Parks & Conservation.

Inaugural Virgin Falls Thru-Hike Expedition. Pictured at left are those who participated on Sept. 15 in the first organized hike along the newly opened 9-mile Lost Creek to Virgin Falls thru-hike trail. Left to right: Bob Ragland, Michael Faehl, Lisa Faehl, Mark Engler, Ranger Stuart Carroll, Gretchen Weir, Phil Hodge, Greg Geer and TennGreen’s Steven Walsh, who organized the event.

Hill, who formerly served as mayor of neighboring Cumberland County, asserted that “place-based economic development” not only stimulates job creation and small-business growth by drawing in visitors, it “adds a tremendous level to the quality of life for the people who already live here in this area.”

Stuart Carroll, park manager at the Virgins Falls State Natural Area, figures there’s a pretty basic and reliable formula for upping tourist visitation to a place as unique and spectacular as White County’s section of the Cumberland Plateau.

“If you open up access to the public — and provide good parking lots, good trails and good maps — then it will pay dividends to the local economy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to emulate Cummins Falls (near Cookeville in Jackson County), because that place gets hammered (from overuse), but who could have imagined the spike in sales tax collections they’ve seen in that area because of the added traffic since that park opened?”

Long an advocate for better utilizing the area’s natural potential to lure tourists and snare tourist dollars, Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce president Marvin Bullock noted that “Virgin Falls is already somewhat of a national draw.”

But opportunities for outdoor recreation are now “growing leaps and bounds”, said Bullock. And the area’s adventure-recreation profile will only increase as conservation, trail-building and public-access efforts continue, he predicts.

“It will make it even more of a national draw because there are a lot more beautiful waterfalls up through there,” said Bullock. “There are going to be miles and miles and miles more trails in the future.”

Among the most recent additions is a new section of trail from Lost Creek to Virgin Falls — thus creating a new nine-mile thru-hike and an additional trailhead and parking to access Virgin Falls. The Lost Creek State Natural Area, which was donated for public use by the James Rylander Family, was used as a backdrop in Disney’s 1994 “The Jungle Book.”

Bullock is pleased there’s common agreement that “we are not looking to build a resort park,” or establish other high-impact developments.

“We want to maybe see some wilderness campsites and that type of thing, but nobody wants to see the area built up into something like Fairfield or Lake Tansi in Cumberland County,” Bullock said.

Of course, White County and Sparta businesses are always happy to accommodate daytrippers from those communities who want to come have a magnificent look-see at the dazzling western edge of the plateau, Bullock is quick to add.

Some counties are tempted to develop large wilderness tracts into upscale residential developments in order to increased property tax rolls, said Bullock. White County, by contrast, “gets to have its cake and eat it too — trail development attracts tourists and increases sales tax revenue,” he said.

“Rural, at-risk White County will see increase in revenue, yet the population will still have access to some of their favorite waterfalls and scenic overlooks,” said Bullock.

Communication and Collaboration

More than 100 people with ties or interest in White County conservation efforts gathered Aug. 25 on a fertile grassy plain known as “Big Bottom” along the upper Caney Fork to celebrate some notable recent victories in securing and adding new landscapes to the now nearly 60,000-acre “Mid-Cumberland Wilderness Conservation Corridor.”

Over the summer, properties of 582 acres and 76 acres were formally incorporated into the preservation zone as a result of donors, landowners and various conservation-focused intermediaries working together to acquire the properties.

And back in April, Bridgestone Americas donated all 5,763 acres of its richly forested and biologically diverse Chestnut Mountain property to the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. It contains the highest point of elevation in White County. The donation was part of an innovative and intriguing project to allow the Nature Conservancy to “manage a carbon sequestration project on the property that will offset the carbon emissions of the Bridgestone Tower, the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Nashville.”

Leaders of conservation groups and state agencies delivered remarks emphasizing a consistent theme during the event — that a vast and ecologically indispensable playground for preservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts is emerging, and the cooperative efforts to bring it into being have been genuinely historic in significance.

Steve Law, director of the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, or TennGreen, said the latest 600-plus acres of land acquired represents “a significant conservation achievement” that will help enhance and protect Caney Fork water quality in perpetuity.

“Geographically, this property joins the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area to the west, it adjoins Lost Creek State Natural Area to the north, and is bounded on the south by the Caney Fork River,” said Law. “From the perspective of conservation value, this property increases available migratory habitat for rare species, including the federally endangered Indiana and gray bats.”

Law contends that effective future conservation success efforts will increasingly involve cultivating and maintaining networks of voluntary collaborations among an ever-growing array of interests, individuals and entities.

“Collaboration is a fundamental element to TennGreen’s core mission,” said Law.

TennGreen has for two decades been raising money and working with landowners to acquire and protect tracts that hold or are adjacent to “natural treasures” in Tennessee.

Joel Houser, Chattanooga-based Southeast field coordinator for the Open Space Institute, reiterated the point. “I don’t think we can stress enough the importance of partnerships,” he said.

Houser, whose New York-headquartered organization promotes the preservation of geologically and ecologically unique landscapes across North America, described the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee as “a globally significant place.”

“There are species here that live nowhere else in the world — and there are species that were forced here from the last ice age, and have persisted here ever since,” he said. “There are species here that are disjunct — the populations are disjunct from larger native ranges that may be along the coastal plain or the southern Blue Ridge or further northward at higher elevations.”

In addition to the environmental benefits, Houser said preserving Cumberland wildlands in the 21st Century “will provide recreationists a respite from the modern world, and also provides hunters and their families food.”

“It’s not just for the wildlife, the lichens, the mosses, the flowers and the birds, it is for people, too, and people are a part of the ecosystem — of this ecosystem and all ecosystems,” he said.

Tying It All Together

The growing system of trails in the area is envisioned to one day connect the Virgin Falls State Natural Area with the crown-jewel of Tennessee’s state parks system, Fall Creek Falls, and in the process tie in Scott’s Gulf, Lost Creek, Bledsoe State Forest, Bee Creek and the Boy Scout’s Latimer High Adventure Reservation.

“Linking Lost Creek and Virgin Falls has long been a goal for Tennessee State Parks to provide more recreational opportunities for visitors and protect more critical habitat,” said TDEC’s Hill.

State wildlife resources agency director Ed Carter observed that the area has “one of the highest concentrations of greatest-conservation-need species of anywhere in Tennessee.”

For Stuart Carroll, the Virgin Falls park manager, progress made over the past few years represent a gratifying culmination to his 30-plus year career.

Land-protection endeavors along the Cumberland Plateau date back to the early 1900s, but in the past 20 years the acreage acquired from willing sellers or set voluntarily aside for conservation and recreation has more than doubled, he said.

Efforts by nonprofits and landholding private corporations to preserve properties and open them for public recreation are especially important in the Southeastern United States, where “public land has not historically been a really large part of the landscape,” Carroll said.

“So it is very fulfilling to see the acreage added to the public land base so that people can get out and enjoy the recreation the lands provide — and at the same time we can take care of both the resources and the history for future generations,” he said.

Carroll has himself been instrumental in negotiating a number of key land acquisitions and conservation set-asides, not to mention providing the down-and-dirty hands-on labor required to blaze, build and maintain enjoyably traversable hiking trails. He’s also co-author of a book of trail and landscape reviews called “Hiking Tennessee: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.”

The most rewarding aspects of working around places like Fall Creek Falls and Virgin Falls is preserving not just the natural aspects, but also the historical and cultural artifacts that the land holds, said Carroll — and in turn teaching youngsters to appreciate the region’s extraordinary legacy.

“It is great to see so many people pulling together to make these type of projects happen,” he said.

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Revenue from TN Tourism Continues to Grow

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE UPPER CUMBERLAND TOURISM ASSOCIATION, AUGUST 28, 2018:

Level of visitor spending in Upper Cumberland climbs to all-time high

Nashville – Gov. Bill Haslam and Department of Tourist Development Commissioner Kevin Triplett announced today Tennessee tourism’s direct domestic and international travel expenditures reached a new all-time record high of $20.7 billion in 2017, up 6.3 percent over the previous year, as reported by the U.S. Travel Association. The announcement was made at the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum.

For the 12th consecutive year, tourism topped $1 billion in state and local sales tax revenue, reaching $1.8 billion. That marks a 7.6 percent increase over 2016, higher than the national growth of travel related state tax revenues of 4.6 percent. Tourism also generated 184,300 jobs for Tennesseans, a 3.1 percent growth year over year.

The 2017 direct domestic and international travel expenditure for the Upper Cumberland region reached an all time high of $420.9 Mil. Overall the 14 counties in the Upper Cumberland saw a 6.3% increase in their tourism spending. Two of our counties see more than $100 Million – Putnam – $132.03 Mil and Cumberland – $121.54 Mil.

Chambers of Commerce in the smaller UC counties operate on very limited budgets and they cooperate with all the 14 counties and the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association on joint promotions.

“It is important to understand that travel & tourism creates jobs, drives economic growth and helps build better societies. The Upper Cumberland of Tennessee is a prime example of this, as our region and its natural beauty is expected to attract more tourists in the coming years” said Ruth Dyal, director of the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association. It will be vital for Upper Cumberland communities and private sectors to work together with the public to ensure that tourism growth is sustainable, inclusive and benefits everyone.”

Commissioner Kevin Triplett said. “The authenticity and Southern hospitality from our communities and partners gives visitors an unbeatable experience and inspires them to return. The numbers show Tennessee is a destination of choice for visitors around the world. However, we would not have these numbers if not for the capital investments, renovations and dedication made by tourism partners across the state to deliver great experiences that create wonderful memories.”

To view the full report, click here. For more information, contact Ruth Dyal, executive director for the Upper Cumberland Tourism Association at 931-537-6347 or by email at uctourism@gmail.com.

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Adventure Tourism Mecca in the Making

McMinnville-Warren County looking to cash in on wealth of outdoor riches

It’s almost always possible to imagine better living arrangements or conditions than one’s current circumstances.

But recognizing that the grass isn’t really always greener somewhere else often enables a person not only to enjoy a more contented and fulfilling existence in present time and place, but also to realize that opportunities exist right in one’s own backyard that others may in fact tend to envy.

To that end, business and political leaders in McMinnville have commissioned a comprehensive report demonstrating that, when it comes to the economic potential of tourism in the area, the grass is already pretty green in Warren County.

And it has the potential of getting greener all the time.

The “Adventure Tourism Plan for McMinnville-Warren County, Tennessee,” released in March after more than a year in the making, lends persuasive and meticulous support to a view that’s been dawning for the past decade on many who call the area home.

The plan’s thesis is this: As a result of its location and surrounding natural features and recreational assets — with hills, mountains, scenic rivers, lakes and exceptional beauty abounding that “cannot be created by the hands of man” — Warren County is distinctly suited to take advantage of Tennessee’s thriving tourism industry, with McMinnville serving as an “adventure hub.”

“Due to McMinnville-Warren County’s geographic location on the Eastern Highland Rim and at the foothills of the Cumberland Plateau, natural resources are in abundance with the Collins, Barren Fork, and Caney Fork rivers, Cumberland Caverns – a United States National Natural Landmark, and eight state parks/natural areas within 50 miles,” according to the plan, which was written by Griggs & Maloney, a Murfreesboro-based environmental-engineering planning and consulting firm.

Paid for using part of a $28,000 state tourism development grant, the Adventure Tourism Plan functions as a strategic blueprint for business, community leaders and entrepreneurs to grow the local tourism economy. It also serves as an impressive “inventory of places and activities” already attracting visitors heading out on Tennessee highways looking for adventure.

McMinnville Mayor Jim Haley

“For a long time, our community didn’t really see our natural beauty and our environmental assets as really a selling point,” said McMinnville Mayor Jimmy Haley. “But over the last few years, more and more people have been starting to see that using the mountains and caves and rivers and great climate and lushness all plays into a bigger picture. Those things already are here, we don’t have to build them, and opportunities are basically endless. So there’s no reason we can’t use that as an asset and strategy of get other people to come and appreciate it as well.”

Tapping TN Tourism

The backdrop for the bigger picture is that the Volunteer State as a whole is doing quite well in the realm of tourism development.

Tourism is among the state’s most booming economic sectors, with expenditures from the estimated 110 million people who visited Tennessee surpassing $19.3 billion in 2016, the most recent year comprehensive data is available. That was up 4.7 percent over the previous year, and marked the 11th consecutive year that tourism topped a billion dollars in state and local sales tax revenue.

In 2017, Tennessee earned a ranking — for the fourth consecutive year — among the Top 10 travel destinations in the U.S. And last year it was also deemed the fastest-growing state in America for international travel.

Visitation and spending by nonresidents in Warren County has been rising the past several years as well, as has attendance at state parks in the area, like Rock Island, South Cumberland and Fall Creek Falls.

While “laying a roadmap for the next 20 years” for tourism development in McMinnville and Warren County is a central purpose the adventure plan serves, Haley added that it can also be read as a promotional initiative for the entire region.

“We have to quit thinking of ourselves as singular units,” he said. “When people come to McMinnville, they might decide to go up to Sparta to the Calfkiller Brewery or over to the distillery at Short Mountain. When someone is coming to Cumberland Caverns or the Isha Yoga Center or they’re coming here for the Muskie Tournament or one of our other music venues, or if they’re just floating down the river, they’re not worried whether it’s Warren County. They don’t know if it is White County, Van Buren County or Warren County. All the rivers converge at Rock Island.”

As large metropolitan areas in Tennessee and beyond continue expanding as time goes on, “more and more people are going to be looking for outdoor opportunities,” said Ryan Maloney of Griggs & Maloney, the agency that drafted the plan.

Undoubtedly, more and more are going to discover that the Upper Cumberland is a “jewel,” he said.

Choose Your Own Adventure

An “adventure tourism trip” is generally described by travel-economy analysts and marketing industry professionals as one in which an individual, family or group travels to an area outside their normal realm of day-to-day lifestyle preoccupations for the purpose of engaging in some form of physical activity in a natural environment or as part of some “culturally immersive experience.”

Adventure tourism encompasses more than just higher-energy, adrenaline-elevating activities like rock climbing, mountain and road biking, caving, backcountry backpacking, zip-lining and kayaking — all of which are common activities in or around Warren County. It could also involve consciousness-elevating pursuits like simply exploring some new natural landscape or setting out to gain improved knowledge of, or a better appreciation for, how people live or used to live in a place of historical or ecological interest.

“The definitions of adventure tourism vary as much as the activities,” explains the plan, which catalogs a dizzying index of adventure-seeking pursuits one can embark upon in the vicinity.

Among them are kayaking, rafting, canoeing, paddle boarding, trophy sport fishing, motorized water sports of all manner, road cycling, mountain biking, skydiving, cave exploration trips, zip lining, bungee jumping, geocaching, target shooting, hang gliding/paragliding, historical tours and a spectacularly scenic yoga sanctuary boasting the largest meditation hall in the Western Hemisphere.

“Within 45 miles a visitor can explore eight state parks, access over 125 miles of hiking trails, mountain bike trails, kayaking, numerous waterfalls, caves, zip lining and ropes courses, numerous fishing opportunities, an 18-hole golf course, and a 1,500 to 2,000 year old stone fort,” notes the report. Also nearby are “two recreational lakes and three rivers that could easily be listed as wild and scenic.”

Besides all the natural beauty and recreational draw of the area, visitors are also lured by “the cultural resources that represent the heritage of the communities (that) are the tangible link to the past generations who established McMinnville-Warren County many years ago.”

Many activities, places and events that “meld heritage and adventure together to form a more experience based tourism” are in Warren County, the plan states. And McMinnville in particular — a “quintessential small town” with an attractive and active downtown and “tree lined streets” — is ideally stationed as a jumping-off point for adventure tourism throughout the region.

“McMinnville is unique in that it can function simultaneously as both a hub and destination within Warren County and the surrounding region for Adventure Tourism,” according to the plan, which notes that four major urban population centers home to an estimated 2.92 million people are within an easy two-hour drive of downtown McMinnville.

“Just as the natural beauty and the landscape of McMinnville-Warren County has created business and commerce that is still evident in the landscape today, more and more people, both residents and visitors, are coming to experience and interact with the natural beauty of the area and experience the small town main street feel of McMinnville,” the plan’s authors wrote.

McMinnville is, in fact, one of 35 nationally accredited “Main Street” communities in Tennessee.

Mandy Eller, McMinnville-Warren County Chamber of Commerce president.

Like Mayor Haley, Chamber of Commerce President Mandy Eller is among those who believe it makes sense to market McMinnville and Warren County more energetically to visitors seeking physically active getaways and rewarding cultural experiences.

“That is an opportunity for the whole Upper Cumberland — maybe we can build it as a model and then they can do it across the whole region,” she said of the Adventure Tourism Plan blueprint.

Eller, who grew up the daughter of a nurseryman and then became the wife of one, said she’s always been engaged in the community. But she acknowledges there were times as a younger adult when she took some of the region’s beauty, history and outdoor recreation for granted. But once she had children of her own, Eller said she became determined to instill in them a sense of pride in their hometown and county. That in turn led her to discovering things about the area for herself that she never knew.

Her impression now is that she’s immeasurable fortunate to live and raise a family of her own in a land of unbounded allure, potential and promise.

“We are completely spoiled here, we really are,” Eller said.

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Warren County Angler Nets All-American Honors

Vandagriff earns national recognition capping outstanding high school career

A McMinnville student who considers Center Hill Lake his home waters has been named to the 2018 Bassmaster High School All-American Fishing Team.

Samuel Vandagriff, a senior at Warren County High, is among just 12 young anglers from the around the country — one of only two from Tennessee — to earn the prestigious recognition.

He landed the All-American designation after his name rose to the top of a nomination pool consisting of more than 465 names. The Bassmaster organization executives who made the selections said their criteria included not just on-the-water skills and success, but also dedication to academics and good citizenship.

“Samuel also leads off the water in his school, church and community, participating in things like hurricane relief, Habitat for Humanity and Relay for Life,” said David Lowrie, Tennessee B.A.S.S. Nation High School state director. “Samuel provides leadership for Warren County’s fishing team and sets an example for other Tennessee B.A.S.S. Nation high school and junior anglers.”

Samuel will now get to compete against other Bassmaster All-Americans at a special high school tournament being held in conjunction with the professional 2018 Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest beginning May 17.

J.W. Holt, a teacher at Warren County High who serves as the school’s fishing-club faculty advisor, described Samuel’s All-American award as “a very huge accomplishment” that has been terrific both for the school itself and building youth enthusiasm for competition fishing.

“It’s brought us a lot of attention, and put us in a good spotlight,” said Holt, who helped organize the Warren County High School bass club’s launch six years ago. Holt said the fishing club, for which Samuel serves as president, has been growing every year.

“It’s really unbelievable and amazing how it has taken off,” he said.

Holt said Samuel, who turns 18 this summer, has been a tournament standout since he started fishing with the club as an eighth grader, when he was part of a nationally ranked duo with another astute young Warren County angler, Hunter Bouldin, who’s now on the FLW circuit.

“Samuel is very persistent and he practices a lot — he just has a knack for it,” said Holt. “He’s really good at what he does, and he’s one of these kids that can handle pressure. It always seems like he’s on top of things.”

Learning the Ways of Lunkers 

Samuel said he’s been fishing for as long as his memory serves. He credits his dad and grandfathers for teaching him tricks for tracking down and hooking fish early on that have continued to serve him well.

One of the keys to tournament fishing success is versatility, said Samuel. He advises youngsters who want to make a name for themselves boating big bass to get comfortable with all kinds of angling tactics and techniques.

“Putting your time in is pretty much the biggest thing,” he said. “Figure out what you’re best at, and then once you figure that out, work on learning new stuff.”

A big secret to consistent tournament success is “getting good at fishing everything,” he said.

“I catch a lot of fish shallow, but then again I like catching them deep just as well,” said Samuel. “Most people can either do one or the other — they’re either out there deep or up in the trees. They don’t go back and forth. But not every tournament is going to be won shallow and not every tournament is going to be won deep. You’ve got to be able to fish all of it.”

Family Values Fishing

Samuel’s parents, Barry and Shannon, obviously have a lot to boast about these days — and not just because of Samuel’s successes. Their younger son, Matthew, is Samuel’s fishing partner and a rising star himself. Samuel and Matthew have qualified for nationals every year they’ve been fishing together. Last year they placed fifth in the Bassmaster National Championship tournament.

Barry also serves as their coach and manager. “I buy the gas and drive the boat,” he said. As Samuel puts it, “He’s always our boat captain.”

It never took much coaxing to interest the boys in wetting a line when they were little, Barry said. Both got pretty serious about it “as soon as they could hold a pole.”

“I guess it’s in their blood,” he said.

In the fall, Samuel is planning to attend Tennessee Tech in Cookeville. Ironically enough, the only other 2018 Bassmaster High School All-American from Tennessee — Jacob Woods of Lenoir City High School — intends to go to TTU as well. Samuel said he and Jacob have become good friends over the years and expects they’ll be fishing partners in the college tournaments.

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Kayak Fishing Tourney Underway at Rock Island

If you’re looking to test your angling talents against other paddling bass stalkers, then take note: Rock Island State Park is hosting a season of kayak-fishing tournament events this year.

Ranger Allen Reynolds is supervising the Rock Island State Park Kayak Bass Fishing Series 2018, which cost only five bucks per date to enter, or $20 for all of them.

“This year is something of a trial effort, we’re trying to generate interest and build on it from there,” said Reynolds, himself a fisherman who says there’s an abundance of fish and diverse water-types and aquatic habitats holding fish in the area, not to mention a range of fish species.

Using the “hawg trough” and photo method for fish measurement, the competition point-system is focused on the three main black-bass species: largemouth, smallies and spotted or Kentucky bass. You can a contact the ranger station at least a day ahead of a tournament date to rent a hawg trough.

There’ll also be a prize awarded at the end of the year for “most unique fish” as well. Reynolds anticipates that could end up being a gnarly looking muskie, since the launch point for certain tournament dates is the Kings Ramp on the Collins River, just south of the RISP main entrance. The Caney Fork’s tributaries above Center Hill Lake are renown for their mean and stealthy pike-species predators lurking in the currents.

Tournament No. 2 in the series begins this Saturday at 5:30 am at the RISP boat ramp.

The other dates are as follows:

  • May 5 — 6am-1pm (Rock Island State Park Boat Ramp)
  • June 9 — 6am-1pm (King’s Landing Boat Ramp)
  • September 8 — 6am-1pm (Rock Island State Park Boat Ramp)
  • October 6 — Final Event, Time and Location TBA

In addition to hopefully introducing angles to exciting new fishing waters around Rock Island State Park, one of Reynolds’ motives behind organizing the tournament series is to “level the playing field” for people who may want to participate in fishing competitions but aren’t already all-in with high-dollar investments.

“There are a lot of guys that really like to fish but maybe don’t have a big bass boat or whatever,” he said. “I think that’s the appeal of this kind of fishing.”

For those new to the sport of kayak fishing who want to test the waters before plunging in and buying one of their own, kayak rentals are available in the area.

While it’s billed as a kayak fishing tournament, it’s probably more aptly a described as a self-propelled personal watercraft competition. According to the rules, only human-powered vessels are allowed, like canoes, kayaks, paddleboards. No electric or gas motors permitted and all fish must be caught from the boat.

Both fly-fishing gear and traditional rods and tackle are permitted. However, only artificial flies and lures are allowed. No live (or formerly alive) bait can be used, said Reynolds.

Unfortunately, the famed “Blue Hole” between Center Hill Lake and Great Falls Dam isn’t really accessible for the tournaments, said Reynolds.

“If you put in at our boat ramp (on Center Hill Lake) you would have to do some dragging with your boat and it is not really safe,” said Reynolds. “Everybody wants to go fish the blue hole in a boat, but it is just too dangerous. I have had to deal with too many rescues of people who were unaware of what happens when the water comes up. It catches a lot of people off guard.”

Reynolds said he’s angling for corporate sponsorship as the tournament grows, but so far it’s mostly supported locally. Chances are, though, if kayak fisherfolks start showing up in numbers, Eric Jackson will probably take notice. Jackson, a world-champion freestyle kayaker turned competition bass angler, lives in the realm of Rock Island, and the headquarters and manufacturing center for his paddlesport boat-building company, Jackson Kayak, is located just up the road in Sparta.

Contact allen.reynolds@tn.gov to learn more about the tournament, or visit the RISP Facebook page.

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TWRA’s Phone App Updated

PRESS RELEASE from the State of Tennessee, Oct. 11, 2017:

Goal to Help Users Easily Discover Outdoors Opportunities

NASHVILLE — For nearly a quarter-million users of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s ‘On The Go 2.0’ smartphone app, finding a place in Tennessee to hunt, fish, boat, and view wildlife has become easier than ever. “We have put a lot of time into improving our app and we are happy to announce it is now available and free to all who enjoy our outdoors and want to learn more,” said Michael May, a TWRA assistant director.

“If you want to find a boat ramp, public land to hunt on, a convenient way to check-in big game, places where you can view birds and other wildlife, or keep up with news that pertains to the outdoors, this updated version of our app offers unlimited sources of information,” said May.

The upgrade is easier to navigate. Users can buy licenses, check big game while afield, view interactive maps, apply for quota hunts, and visit the TWRA website. One new feature includes a “Stay Connected Page.” It provides easy access to TWRA’s social media, Tennessee WildCast podcast, newsroom, outdoors and event calendar, and more.

Smartphone users should visit TWRA’s website by clicking here. If the current version is already installed, Apple users can easily upgrade via their app, while Android users will need to uninstall their current app before uploading the new one.

Hunters will have the opportunity to report big game harvests while in the field. There is also an interactive map to find TWRA wildlife management areas (WMAs), physical check station locations, and duck blind locations.

Another special feature is the “Hunter’s Backpack” where hunter education courses, a summary of hunting seasons, and full versions of the agency hunting guides are available.

For anglers, “Fisherman’s Tacklebox” includes, fish identification, interactive maps to find boat ramp and fish access information, fish attractor locations, trout stocking locations, and trout stocking schedules.

On the app’s boating page, the “Boating Locker” includes boat regulations, safety checklists, boating education information, navigational aids, and recommended boating equipment.

For wildlife watchers, there is information about where to view watchable wildlife across the state.

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Edgar Evins Manager’s Mission: Promote Park’s Appeal

Scenic Center Hill Lake recreation preserve something of an undiscovered treasure

When Kenny Gragg took over the top managerial post at Edgar Evins State Park last winter, it was something of a homecoming for him.

As a kid growing up in Cookeville, Gragg would often visit the 6,000 acre nature preserve and recreation destination overlooking Center Hill Lake on fun-seeking outings with friends or camp-retreats with his church group.

But it wasn’t until after he graduated with a degree in wildlife management from Tennessee Tech and worked at other parks that he said he really came to appreciate what Edgar Evins has to offer.

Kenny Gragg, managing ranger at Edgar Evins State Park

“Edgar Evins is so unique and diverse with flora and fauna. It’s nothing to see all kinds of wildlife just walking a quarter mile down one of our trails,” Gragg said. “Of all the state parks, it has some of the most diverse wildlife in the state. In my entire career I’d never seen a bobcat until I came here.”

He added, “There’s always the possibility that a bear could migrate in and show up, although I haven’t seen one, but I would never rule it out.”

Gragg, who worked as the managing ranger at Tims Ford in Franklin County before taking over the chief administrator slot at Edgar Evins, said he’s a deeply committed advocate of the Tennessee outdoors in general.

“You won’t find a bigger fan of the state of Tennessee than me,” he said. “I worked in Wyoming for a summer and I loved it out there. I even thought it might be great to move there. But when I came back, I fell back in love with Tennessee and now I never want to leave again.”

But Gragg said he was all the same a little stunned when he showed back up at Edgar Evins last winter to start his current job. It was a particularly nice day in February, the sunlight gleaming on the cliffs over the lake. A heartfelt appreciation was stirred in him for the beauty and distinctness the park’s ridges, slopes and crags.

Observation tower overlooking Center Hill Dam at Edgar Evins State Park

“One of the first things I really noticed here after coming back from Tims Ford was the hills,” he said. “It’s hilly at Tims Ford, of course, but not like it’s hilly here. This side of the Cumberland Plateau, the Highland Rim, you really just can’t beat it — I love being back in these hills.”

“Just driving on the backroads around here — like Lancaster Highway down below the dam — I’m not sure where you find a more beautiful stretch of highway in the country than that,” Gragg said.

One of Gragg’s priorities is boosting the “business side” of the government-run park by enticing more people to come to appreciate its appeal. He said he wants to do more to promote the park and “get it on the map.”

“It is amazing how little people know about the park and all that it has to offer,” he said.“You can drive to Smithville and find people who don’t even realize there is a state park over here.”

He believes a key to success in that regard is to “drive up the overnight visitation.”

“To do that we have got to develop more recreational opportunities,” Gragg said.

One of his long-range ambitions is to work with Middle Tennessee and Upper Cumberland mountain biking enthusiasts to design and build riding trails around the park. Designated backcountry biking paths would wonderfully complement the area’s hiking trails and vast capacity for paddling, fishing and boating, he said.

“For visitors to be able to go kayaking one day and then go mountain biking the next would be fantastic,” said Gragg.

For a list of upcoming events at Edgar Evins State Park, go here.

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Something Special About Small-Stream Smallies

Big lakes and large rivers aren’t the only habitat for brawny bronzebacks

Anglers are notoriously tight-lipped about where they go to rip fish lips. And that’s especially true among those serious about stalking skinny waters in search of fat bass.

But one of the great things about Middle Tennessee and the Upper Cumberland is that opportunities abound around here for escaping the mechanized weekend multitudes by sequestering yourself on backwoods bodies of moving water. There’s no shortage of covert creeks, secluded streams and secret side-channels that house hidden lairs holding lunker smallmouths.

Fervent fly fishermen like Sawyer Campbell are, of course, forever in thrall to the thrill of landing a big wily trout on an isolated run of fast-flowing river. Campbell, a Tennessee Tech grad, is Outdoor Experience of Cookeville’s floor manager and in-house fly shop tutor. But when he wants to steer clear of the Caney Fork’s flailing fleets of summer pleasure-floaters — or if an overnight excursion to East Tennessee’s South Holston River isn’t feasible — he likes to trek out to undisclosed stretches of tributaries feeding the Cumberland River in search of the copper-tinted kings of lower-elevation creeks and streams.

“It really doesn’t get much better than this,” Campbell remarks as he admires yet another plump, vermillion-eyed smallie he’s wrestled to submission on his 6-weight fly rod somewhere deep in the Roaring River watershed.

Creek-bass angling in the Upper Cumberland offers opportunities to connect with fish both in numbers and for size. That’s a pretty seductive win-win proposition for any fanatical sport fisherman, says Campbell, who’s always game to gab about fly-angling pursuits with customers browsing in the store. One of his specialty topics is discussing tips and tactics with trout anglers interested in crossing over into the realm of bass-catching.

Always Ready to Rumble

Anybody who’s ever caught a smallmouth will tell you they’re among the fightingest fish, pound for pound, of any inland North American warmer-water species. In moving currents, the initial hookup and subsequent thrashing fracas is especially vigorous.

“If you’ve caught smallmouth on lakes before, then you will understand,” said JG Auman of Mt. Juliet-based Tennessee Moving Waters Guide Service (tnmovingwaters.com). “I’d say these stream fish are on average twice as strong as a reservoir smallmouth.”

Auman and his business partner, Nick Adams, guide almost exclusively in Middle Tennessee on, as their name denotes, moving waters. One of their sought-after talents is putting customers — typically using traditional spinning rods — on secret holes in unfrequented streams that support large smallmouth.

When Auman and Adams head out for a day on the water, they ask clients if they’re looking to catch lots of fish, or just interested in targeting the big ones. If it’s the later, wielding a rod and line with some heft is imperative.

Big Fish Require Bigger Tackle

Battling a bruising five-pound smallmouth in swift current is probably a losing proposition with light gear and tackle, Auman said.

JG Auman of TN Moving Waters

“We do tend to use heavier tackle than what people often associate with stream fishing, because we often try and target trophy fish,” he said. “They will either break the rod off or break off the line when they pull it up under a tree or rock.”

Auman, who also works as an aquatic biologist for the Nashville Zoo, said a creek smallmouth that’s 20 inches long is probably 15-20 years old. “It knows every rock, every tree, every branch in its home,” he said. “And when you hook it, those are the places it’s going. You are not going to be able to stop them if you’re tackle is too light — you just aren’t going to keep them out of the cover. We learned that from experience long ago.”

In 2015 Adams and Auman were featured on Chad Hoover’s popular Youtube channel, KayakBassinTV. Hoover, who also lives in Middle Tennessee, is usually partial to chasing largemouth. But in the episode with the TMW crew, he acknowledged there’s little not to love about paddling for smallmouth on the region’s scenic rivers and creeks.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t done as much (smallmouth fishing) for the show — primarily, because I’m selfish,” Hoover said. “I really like to keep these smallmouth places to myself.”

Destinations Classified 

Auman said he gets a fair number of people calling him up not so much looking to book an outing, but just “fishing for stream names.” But he’s a devoted practitioner of the fisherman’s code of secrecy, especially on the matter of small-stream smallmouth fishing.

Holes that hold big fish will fizzle in a hurry if they get publicized, he said.

Not only doesn’t Moving Waters give out stream names, but some of their highly classified hotspots are designated for tourists only. “If I have clients that are local, I take them to streams that are somewhat known,” he said. “Then I have others that I fish only with out-of-town clients, because I know they aren’t going to tell people or come back later. In this day and age of social media, all it takes is one person to get on a Facebook page that has 5,000 members and start giving out creek names, and it’s ruined.”

All the same, Auman encourages anglers to get out and explore for their own patches of highly productive moving bass waters. Most anybody can be successful if they just scout around and study some maps, he said.

“You want to find streams that flow directly into larger bodies of water — that’s the best way that I tell people to find good smallmouth streams,” he said. “If you can find a stream that is a direct tributary to the Cumberland River or the Caney Fork River, then those are the streams you are going to want to look for. You probably don’t want the streams that just feed into another little stream.”

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Caney Fork Trout Fishing Tourney to Benefit Wounded Vets

PRESS RELEASE from Project Healing Waters of Cookeville, July 22, 2017:

On Saturday, August 12th, Project Healing Waters is sponsoring a wading only, Fly Fishing Trout Tournament on the Caney Fork River, below Center Hill Dam at Long Branch Day Pavilion.

Beginning at 7 a.m. to 12 noon. Registration is from 5 a.m. to 7 a.m. The entry fee is $50.00, limited to 100 people.

  • Grand prize for the longest trout caught will be a Jackson Mayfly Kayak, valued at $2,000.
  • Second prize for second longest trout caught will be a custom built St. Croix fly rod, valued at $600.
  • Third prize for third longest trout will be an Orvis Encounter fly rod, valued at $250.
  • Additional prize drawing will be held at the end of the tournament.

For further information, contact Pat Dudney at 931-261-3068.

Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) began in 2005 serving wounded military service members at Walter Reed Army Medical Center returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since then, PHWFF has expanded nationwide, establishing its highly successful program in Department of Defense hospitals, Warrior Transition Units, Veterans Affairs Medical Centers and local programs.

Our PHWFF program in Cookeville has been in existence for about 3 1/2 years. We are a 501c3, not for Profit Corporation. Currently we serve about 50 veterans in the Cookeville area.

We meet the first Thursday night of each month at 6p.m. in the
Cookeville High School lecture hall. Through this program we contribute to the physical and emotional rehabilitation of veterans. Veterans are equipped with fly rods, waders and a fly tying kit. Local volunteers teach them the art of fly tying and fly fishing. Our program is free and available to any veteran who may have an interest in what we have offer.

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New Statewide ‘Trout Management Plan’ in Draft Form

Anglers’ suggestions for improving fisheries welcome

The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency is updating and revising the state’s comprehensive trout-management plan.

As part of the process, the agency is seeking public comments on a new draft blueprint that’s available for inspection on the department’s website.

The deadline for submitting commentary, criticisms and suggestions for agency officials to take under advisement is Aug. 4.

Authored by “a committee of TWRA’s coldwater fisheries specialists” and edited by trout biologist Jim Habera and statewide streams coordinator Brandon Simcox, the trout plan includes sections discussing the history and present-day health of the prized gamefish populations in Tennessee.

Beyond the high, free-flowing mountain streams of the Appalachians — the natural range of the state’s only native species, the eastern brook trout — Tennessee wasn’t home to wild-spawning trout prior to the last hundred years.

However, as a result of the numerous river-impoundment projects undertaken throughout the Tennessee Valley region, as well as an advancing understanding of trout-rearing and habitat-management techniques, the Volunteer State now contains a diverse selection of highly productive trout waters, both year-round and seasonal.

Some rivers, like the Caney Fork, Elk, South Holston and Watauga, consistently lure anglers from across the country and around the world seeking spectacular trout fishing against backdrops of magnificent scenery.

Hatchery stocking is typically relied upon for the maintenance of productive Tennessee trout fisheries. But some waters have, over time, become “naturalized through stocking,” and the fish now reproduce at sustainable or even above-optimal levels, as is the case with brown trout on the South Holston.

Biggest brook trout ever recorded in Tennessee caught below Center Hill Dam on April 1, 2016.

In spring of 2016, the Caney Fork produced a new state-record northern brook trout. The 4-pound, 12-ounce fish was reared at Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery. When caught on a live baitfish by Sasa Krezic of Nashville, the burly brookie measured just over 20 inches and tipped the scales at nearly a pound more than Tennessee’s previous record-setter, which was netted in 1973 on the Hiwassee River and weighed 3 pounds, 14 ounces.

The three primary trout species stocked in Tennessee streams and lakes are brown, rainbow and brook. Lake trout are also released in a few select waters.

“Rainbow trout are the most abundant and widely distributed wild trout in Tennessee,” according to the TWRA plan. “Although native to Pacific drainages of the western us, rainbow trout became naturalized in many suitable Tennessee streams through the intensive stocking efforts that defined trout management during much of the twentieth century.”

Brown trout, traditionally native to Europe and Asia, are particularly suited to many Tennessee tailwaters and have thrived as a result of stocking.

“While not as widely distributed as rainbow or brook trout, brown trout can live longer (up to 12 years) and may attain larger sizes up to (25 inches or more),” the plan states. “They typically occur with rainbow trout, but are the predominant wild trout species in a few streams.”

The trout plan outlines goals, strategies, action items and public outreach objectives designed to guide TWRA’s management efforts over the coming years.

The net intention of the Trout Management Plan, as described in the 55-page document’s foreword, is to “provide guidance for the management of Tennessee’s trout fisheries given the current status of wild trout resources and hatchery trout production, as well as changing trout angler preferences and attitudes and new resource management issues.”

The basic mission of the TWRA trout program is to “provide a variety of quality trout angling opportunities that are compatible with Tennessee’s other aquatic species.”

The last time state fisheries officials updated their overall trout-management strategy was in 2006.

“There is no legal mandate or anything like that for us to do this, but we just feel there is value in looking a little further out for such a broad, high-scale planning effort,” said TWRA’s chief of state fisheries, Frank Fiss.

Although it isn’t necessarily written to address particular concerns related to specific water bodies, the statewide plan does speak to issues often on the minds of anglers who frequent trout-holding hot spots and honey holes.

Under “management goals” are sections that address habitat-protection initiatives and minimizing threats from introduced species and disease, as well as discussions on improving and, where appropriate, expanding angling opportunities.

The idea of “biosecurity” is a fundamental concern in the new plan, said Fiss.

Preventing new pathogens and invasive, destructive organisms from entering the state “has really come to the forefront,” said Fiss, a principal author of the 2006 trout plan.

“We were aware (ten years ago) of whirling disease and some of the other things that can be problematic, but at the time they were not as threatening to Tennessee as they are now,” Fiss said. “In just the last five years there’s been a heightened awareness among our staff. North Carolina had some issue with whirling disease, and we are constantly battling Asian carp and other invasive species, so we are just hyper-aware of problems that come with introduced species and pathogens. I would say that’s a new level of focus for us.”

The plan notes that TWRA and federal hatcheries that serve the region are committed to releasing only disease-free fish into the wild. The plan reiterates that trout-stocking in streams by private landowners remains illegal, unless done with TWRA’s assent.

Also discussed at length in the 2017 trout plan is how TWRA can better optimize the use of hatcheries to produce bigger and more abundant fish.

“Anglers obviously prefer to catch larger trout, thus TWRA should strive to stock fish that are at least 10 inches long,” the report says. Consistently hooking up with smallish hatchery trout “can detract from an angler’s fishing experience.”

Moreover, targeting particular streams for stocking even larger fish — like those grown to 14 inches or longer before release in the wild — could enhance angler satisfaction even more. “Catch rates may be reduced, but many anglers would prefer the opportunity to catch larger fish,” the plan’s authors suggest.

The trout plan also includes a section on expanding angling opportunities for people with physical disabilities, as well as youngsters.

“TWRA sponsors or hosts dozens of kids fishing day events across Tennessee,” the plan states. “Several are held at coldwater hatcheries (including Dale Hollow) or other locations where trout can be provided. They often provide kids with the opportunity to catch their first trout.”

Each of the management goals includes descriptions of objectives and problems that tend to confront execution of strategies.

For example, one of TWRA’s management goals is to “maintain a variety of trout fisheries.” The overarching aim, according to the plan, is balancing “a diverse public’s many different skill levels and definitions of quality.”

But a natural problem that invariably arises is “management that optimizes opportunities or satisfaction for one group may exclude or diminish satisfaction for other groups.”

Fiss said it’s helpful — especially when addressing points of contention or controversy among anglers and other stakeholders with respect to individual waters — to have a comprehensive stewardship-plan cataloging all the various aspects of trout management across Tennessee.

Numerous citizen groups and individuals are “very passionate when it comes to trout,” said Fiss. The management plan is “where people can get information so they kind of know where we are coming from,” he said.

Maintaining and improving public outreach is one strategy for attempting to address potentially discordant priorities among trout enthusiasts. The plan prescribes regular public opinion-seeking so as to hopefully “make sure TWRA’s management and trout angler preferences align as much as possible.”

The plan also provides a useful reference when dealing with federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which partners with the state on fish-stocking efforts, he said. About half the trout released in Tennessee come from federal hatcheries, and state-run hatcheries also receives federal funding, said Fiss.

According to the plan, trout production increased by 10 percent at TWRA hatcheries over the past ten years, mostly as a result of facility improvements at Erwin, Flintville and Buffalo Springs. However, agency trout managers believe that an additional 40,000 pounds of fish a year, beyond the 275,000 pounds that state-run hatcheries are currently rearing, would further enhance Tennessee’s angling outlook.

In the long run, that probably means bringing another hatchery on line. “TWRA would like to build a new facility, but this would cost about $18 million and — assuming funding becomes available — require several years to complete,” wrote the plan’s authors.

In a subsection on Tennessee’s tailwaters where trout are stocked, like below Center Hill Dam, the plan says that in past decades many rivers “were limited by poor water quality and inadequate flows.” That, in turn, compromised “trout growth and survival,” thus necessitating “higher stocking rates” just to “maintain angler catch rates.” A river’s production capacity for “quality-sized fish” is diminished by inadequate or oxygen-deficient water.

The plan commends federal dam operators for their willingness to pay closer attention to water flows and support building infrastructure improvements with an eye toward enhancing trout habitat.

“Installation of weirs and oxygen injection systems, establishment of minimum flows, and other efforts by TVA have greatly improved water quality below many of its dams particularly South Holston, Cherokee, and Norris,” the plan says. “Operational at Center Hill Dam by the (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) have also greatly improved water quality on the Caney Fork, although further improvements there and at Dale Hollow (Obed River) would help improve these fisheries.”

To provide comments on the draft version of the Tennessee Trout Management Plan, email agency staff at TWRA.TroutComments@tn.gov, or write to the TWRA Fisheries Division, P.O. Box 40747, Nashville, TN 37204.