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Everyone eagerly anticipating completion of dam work

Anybody who’s spent any serious time fishing on Center Hill Lake before and after the reservoir was lowered for work on the dam will likely tell you the bite isn’t what it used to be.

A standard gripe among seasoned crappie stalkers and unabashed bass bums is that years of diminished lake levels has dampened prospects for consistently landing boast-worthy gamefish. Reason being, there’s relatively little submerged wood and plant cover anymore to attract and provide refuge for fish and their prey.

Center Hill’s “monster walleye” may become more commonplace once dam work is complete and the lake level gets elevated next year. This is L. M. Davis of Nashville holding a 9-pounder he landed back in October 1953. (Photo via Tennessee State Library and Archives)

Despite the difficulty fishermen may have experienced honing in on reliable Center Hill hookup holes, the government’s full-time fish-watchers maintain that adequate numbers of the scaly subsurface lake-dwellers are down there, even if they’re hard to find.

After perceiving a decline following the initial lake draw-down nearly a decade ago, various TWRA methods for gauging attendance in fish-schools show they’v bounced back, said Mike Jolley, regional biologist for the department.

“The most recent surveys show that things are coming back to where they were at the start of the dam project,” Jolley told Center Hill Sun. “We have not seen a big downward trend.”

He added, though, that “fish populations do, even when there is not a lot going on, kind of come and go” as a result of natural survival and spawning fluctuations.

Primed to Thrive

According to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the nearly $400 million dam repair projects that have been going on for all these years are slated for completion in 2018.

That means that by next summer — hopefully — lake levels are expected to be maintained at up to ten feet higher than what standard summer pools have been of late, according to Army Corps projections. That in turn means anglers can maybe start reaping some silver-lining rewards to a long stretch of consistently mediocre fish-catching potential on Center Hill.

The drawdown over the last several years “has allowed time for trees and other vegetation to grow in the backs of pretty much all the creeks,” said the Army Corps Center Hill biologist, Gary Bruce. “There are now some pretty large trees that are going to be excellent habitat when the water does come back up.”

Often, lakes are at their most productive, fishing-wise, soon after they are created. Dale Hollow, for example, was impounded in 1943. In 1955 a local angler there landed what remains to this day a world record smallmouth, weighing an ounce shy of 12 pounds and measuring 27 inches long.

“Generally, when you build a new lake, you get this surge of nutrients, very good spawns, and everything just proliferates for the first four or five years of a new impoundment,” Benjy Kinman, a retired Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, noted in a short documentary about the record Dale Hollow bass.

Anglers and aquatic-species scientists alike are hopeful Center Hill Lake is now poised for something akin to a re-boot that may even usher in a repeat of the golden angling years of the 1950s, the decade after the dam was completed.

“There were a lot of big fish caught in Center Hill right after impoundment, some big bass and monster walleye,” said Bruce.

Jolley, who has worked around Cumberland Plateau regional lakes for more than 20 years, said TWRA has been stocking Center Hill the last couple years with an eye toward further bolstering a brighter future.

“Center Hill is probably one of the very few lakes in the whole state that gets any smallmouth bass,” he said. “Those were put in with the idea of possibly trying to enhance the abundance of smallmouth. So when the lake does come up, there will be an adult class of fish that can really take advantage of the habitat and really boost their productivity.”

Customers biting on Carthage angler’s hand-tied fishing jigs

If you happen unannounced by Darryl York’s little backyard workshop just west of Carthage, don’t be surprised if you encounter a “Gone Fishing” sign.

York, who turns 50 this spring, doesn’t just dream about going fishing a lot. He lives that dream a majority of the time.

“I’m doing something a lot that I’ve always loved to do a lot. I’m out fishing probably 200 days a year,” York told Center Hill Sun on a clear-skied midwinter afternoon that in fact found him docked at his jig-tying table rather than trolling a submerged brush pile.

“I’ve been fortunate enough that if I say I want to go crappie fishing, then I can go crappie fishing,” explained York, adding that not having a wife has probably aided his lifestyle. “And if I’m going crappie fishing, I catch crappie. Just thinking about catching crappie gives me goosebumps.”

Darryl York ties crappie jigs to order for fishermen around the country. He runs his York Bait Company and guide service from his home just outside Carthage. Visit his website at yorkbaitcompany.com.

York has stalked the scrappy slabs all over the southeastern United States, from up in Kentucky across Middle and West Tennessee down into Mississippi on over to Georgia and back up through Tennessee, again and again.

Make no mistake about it: “We live right in the heart of fishing country,” said York.

“Carthage is within 60 miles of eight lakes,” he said. “And I like being able to fish all of them.”

His favorite is Center Hill. “That’s where I learned to fish for crappie,” he said.

York recalls when state fishery managers first started stocking the feisty blacknose strain of crappie in Center Hill Lake in the mid-1990s.

“I fished there every day,” he said. “And a lot of nights, too.”

Those were the good ol’ days, before the work on Center Hill Dam commenced. “I just don’t have confidence to fish Center Hill as regularly now as I used to. Not until they get that water back up and keep it there,” he said.

York credits his love of fishing and skill for locating and landing big crappie to local fishing luminary Carroll Wilburn, an angling ace on all the local waters. “He fishes every day and he’s taught me everything I know,” York said.

And York has parlayed his shrewd on-the-water schooling into becoming a savvy guide and enterprising fishing-lure designer. For about eight years he’s run the York Bait Company out of his home. He specializes in churning out vibrant handmade jigs, spinners and plugs for anglers tracking the tastiest warm-water sport fish species — crappie, sauger and walleye.

York assembles the baits to order through his website, yorkbaitcompany.com. On the site, you’ll find a rainbow of hues and gamut of sizes for all fishing conditions and water types.

It took some time for the business to start paying off. But as a result of word of mouth, the internet and a commitment to craftsmanship and customer service, things are working out, he said.

“Business has been coming around pretty good,” said York, who has expertise as a plumber and electrician in case absolutely nothing’s biting.

Over the years, he’s developed a dexterous proficiency for putting orders together as quick as he gets them. “I can probably tie about two dozen jigs in an hour, one color,” York said. “If you start adding multiple colors, it takes a little longer.”

Like most adept anglers, York will tell you that a key to reliably hooking up with an underwater tug is confidence in what you’re tossing. That’s because confidence is also key to fishing with concentration. If a fisherman doesn’t like the bait, it won’t likely get fished in appetizing fashion, he said.

“Color is for the fisherman,” he said. “All color really does is make the object look bigger or smaller in the water. They can’t see color, per se.”

Brighter colors for darker, murkier water — more natural colors for clearer water — that’s York’s approach.

“But I wouldn’t be scared to close my eyes and pick a color and fish it,” he said. “In the springtime when they are beginning to spawn, that’s the best time. That’s when everyone’s an expert.”

To that end, York expresses supreme confidence in his jigs — especially when warming late-winter and early-spring water temperatures start luring crappie into the shallows.

“If you’re casting these jigs and you aren’t’ catching them, then the fish aren’t there,” he said.

Interested in ordering some hand-crafted baits, booking an outing or just talking crappie tactics with a regional guru? Drop Darryl York a line online, or give him a call at 615-732-2109.