A Circus, some Trophies and an Old Splash Dam: Lessons from Tennessee

A Circus, some Trophies and an Old Splash Dam: Lessons from Tennessee

Matthew Dickerson

January, 2009


“In general,” Jim Habera said, “I think there is more [of a conservation ethic] now than there was twenty years ago.” Two of my environmental studies students and I were interviewing Habera, a cold-water fisheries biologist for Tennessee, at his office in Morristown. Our focus was a particular pair of rivers—the South Holston and Tellico—but we also asked what he had observed about general attitudes toward rivers and conservation, and how (if at all) those attitudes had changed. “I’m seeing that change reflected in a couple ways,” he went on. “Twenty years ago, if you were going trout fishing, you were going to catch your limit and take ‘em home. Now, if you ask someone in Tennessee or in the southeast, that mentality has shifted. What we’re seeing now is a significantly reduced emphasis on killing fish to take home and eat. Guys now are doing it for the enjoyment, for the sport, or to just get out. There’s not nearly the emphasis on harvest that there used to be.”

One result of a change in attitudes and management strategies is a phenomenal wild trout fishery in the South Fork of the Holston River in the northeast corner of Tennessee. Thanks in part to some observant fly fisherman, Habera and other biologists began to study the river and realized that, while there was little successful breeding of rainbow trout, the stocked browns had been successfully reproducing; there were many of these “wild” fish mingled with the stocked ones. So, beginning about a decade ago, they stoped stocking browns, put in some new regulations to protect the best redds during spawning season, and instigated a slot limit protecting fish in the 16” to 22” range. The result has been an amazing stretch of trophy trout water that attracts anglers from all over the region – mostly for the enjoyment of catching big fish. Anglers are routinely catching (and releasing) numerous browns over 8 lbs. While we sat in his office three days after a visit to the river, Habera showed us a picture of one 41” brown that the biologists shocked in the same stretch of river we had just fished.

The lesson seemed simple. In a river with good water quality, plenty of food, and good spawning grounds, if you protect fish from being killed, they will naturally both reproduce and grow big. And that makes for a great place to catch fish—with plenty of evidence to prove it.

Not that the state manages all of its rivers like this. They provide a wonderful diversity of experiences. Four hours southwest of the South Holston is the Tellico River—a “circus” as Habera describes it. It is the longest free-flowing cold water stream in Tennessee. Though studies have shown that it is capable of supporting wild fish in much of its length, it is the most heavily managed put-and-take fisheries I have ever heard of. Every Thursday, for six straight months (from mid-March to mid-September) the river is stocked: a total of 135,000 trout put into every year, some of which are big enough to put a good bend in a rod. The “circus” begins on Friday, as people come from all over, paying a $10-a-day fee (in addition to the cost of their state license), to fill their creels with these recently stocked fish. Those who want the pleasure of trout sizzling in the pan have a great resource in the Tellico.

Though the Tellico fishery is anything but wild in the lower stretches, two of the tributaries higher up in the mountains in the heart of what is now the Cherokee National Forest are managed for wild fish, including upper reaches that have a native strain of southern Appalachian brook trout. That the region is now almost entirely forested, and its rivers can now support any trout at all, is something of a miracle considering its history. Eighty years ago, the entire forest was laid bare by clear-cutting. “All we want to do is get the most we can out of this country, as quickly as we can, and get out,” said Horace Kephart, a logger in 1901. By that time, the intense logging had already been going on for three years, with the logs being shipped downriver via “splash dams”: a technique where they store up a large quantity of water behind a simple timber dam, and then bust it open– scouring the river bottom and sometimes flooding a lot of farmland in the process of floating the the logs down.

“The general government ought to step in before it is too late,” ran a Newspaper editorial in Tellico Plains that same year. “If the timber is all stripped from these hills the streams will dry up and the ultimate loss will be serious and widespread.” Nonetheless, by the mid 1920s, the timber was all stripped, the logging companies packed up and got out, and the ultimate loss was (as warned) both serious and widespread. Though the forest is very different now than what it was a hundred years ago—the old growth poplars measuring several feet in diameter are gone, replaced by a variety of young oaks and other hardwoods—to see it once again covered with trees was a sign of hope.

As I explored these two rivers in eastern Tennessee, and interviewed people who studied them, lived on them, and worked on them, it struck me that our situation in Vermont is not entirely different. As Bristol resident John Elder pointed out hopefully more than a decade ago, we have also gone from a mountain state once three quarters cleared to being three quarters forested. And what Jim said about the attitudes of anglers in Tennessee certainly rings true with what I have experienced in Maine and Vermont where I have done most of my trout fishing over the past thirty-five years: there is less emphasis on filling a creel, and more on the pleasure of seeing, catching, and releasing wild fish (and big fish).

Two decades ago, nearly all of Vermont fisheries were of the put-and-take variety, and there were very few opportunities to fish for large wild fish. In the past decade, however, slot limits protecting fish in their prime breeding size, or creel limits, or catch-and-release regulations, have been instituted on a number of rivers and streams, leading to some fantastic fishing in the state. Rivers like the New Haven, Barton, Clyde, Dog, Lamoille, Mettawee, White, and Winooski have either stretches or seasons of special regulations to allow a different fishing experience than the old put-and-take stocking approach.

At the same time, those who like the venerated tradition of catching and eating fish not only have the majority of rivers in the state to practice this, but with some of the states “trophy stocking” practices they can even catch (and eat) some pretty good-sized fish – though they aren’t wild, and probably aren’t 41”.