A Circus, some Trophies and an Old Splash Dam: Lessons from Tennessee
By Matt Dickerson
“In general,” Jim Habera said, “I think there is more (of a conservation ethic) now than there was 20 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 two rivers, the South Holston and Tellico, but we also asked what he had observed about general attitudes toward rivers and conservation, and how those attitudes might 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 stopped stocking browns, protected spawning areas, and put in a slot limit protecting fish in the 16-to-22-inch 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 many browns over eight pounds. While we sat in his office three days after a visit to the river, Habera showed us a picture of one 41-inch brown that the biologists stocked in that stretch of river.
The lesson seemed simple. In a river with good water quality, plenty of food and good spawning grounds, if fish are proteced from being killed, they will naturally reproduce and grow big. And that makes for a great place to catch fish.
Not that Tennessee manages all of its rivers like this. Four hours southwest of the South Holston is the Tellico River, a “circus,” in Habera’s words. It is the state’s longest free-flowing cold-water stream. Though studies have shown that it is capable of supporting wild fish, it is the most heavily managed put-and-take fisheries I know of.
Every Thursday, 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 on top of the cost of their state license to fill their creels with these recently stocked fish.
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 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 loger Horace Kephart in 1901.
By that time, logging had already been intense for three years. The logs were being shipped downriver via “splash dams” — a large quantity of water was stored behind a simple timber dam, and then it was busted open, with the result scouring the river bottom and sometimes flooding farmland while transporting logs downriver.
“The general government ought to step in before it is too late,” ran an 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, serious and widespread. Though the forest is much different now than a hundred years ago — the old-growth poplars measuring several feet in diameter are gone, replaced by a 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 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 Habera said about the attitudes of Tennessee anglers certainly rings true with what I have experienced in Maine and Vermont, where I have done most of my trout fishing over the past 35 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 few opportunities to fish for large wild fish. In the past decade, however, limits protecting fish in their prime breeding size, creel limits or catch-and-release regulations have been instituted on many 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 good-sized fish — though they aren’t wild, and probably aren’t 41 inches.