I’m driving to the tailwaters below Norris Dam so confident of catching fish that I bought a new lure, expecting a monster trout to break my line and steal the Panther Martin I’ve had on there for a spell. My reason for this confidence, quite rare for me, a long-time line-tangler? In the car with me is biologist Drew Crain, a Maryville College colleague, who on previous paddling trips always caught the first fish, the most fish, and led the rest of us to the prime spots. Drew and his son had “slaughtered the trout” from a motor-powered johnboat when the dam was generating.
We arrive around 9 in the morning, six hours before Norris was scheduled to start generating, a prudent course of action for paddlers, considering the strong, swirling current created by the sudden influx of water from Norris Lake.
“What if they start generating anyway?” I ask Drew.
“Then we need to pull our boats up on the nearest bank,” he says. “Immediately.”
So what does he do while I’m fumbling with my line on the bank? He paddles toward the dam, and by the time I’m in my boat, I can’t see him. Oh, there he is, up next to the sluiceways, a tiny green dot next to the blank face of slanting concrete 265 feet tall.
The water is so cold that my hand starts aching after a few seconds of immersion. On the water it’s 10 degrees cooler than bankside, and occasionally a pocket of air seems to come straight out of November, raising goosebumps on my arms.
In a few minutes, I’m shadowing Drew at the toe of the dam. All around us, stocked trout disturb the water, at its deepest a few feet and sometimes so shallow we have to scoot across rocks. I’m casting at the little disturbances, but also thinking about how strange it is to be here, in this refrigerated atmosphere, below a massive man-made barrier constructed in the 1930s, the first that TVA built.
Up above us near the substation, on a concrete apron above a drain, four guys sit swinging their legs, watching us. Are these the generator guys?
Drew laughs every now and then. He’s been casting at a troop of rainbow lined up next to the wall near the powerhouse, but they show no interest in his glittery lure. Trout splash around us as if taunting us. It’s only a matter of time, I’m thinking, before I hook a monster and he tows me toward a rock and capsizes me so that I not only lose the Panther Martin but also the new rooster tail still in the package.
We turn downstream and weave through shelves of underwater rock, invisible upon approach because of the angle of light. Looking straight down or to the side, the water is so clear you can see every detail of the algae that covers the bottom. Watching the undulating tendrils as I paddle is mesmerizing, intricate patterns in shades of green and gray gently swaying in the current.
We paddle toward the weir dam, a stair-step concrete structure about a mile and a half from our put-in. Algae hangs from fallen trees jutting out from the bank, showing the high water mark several feet above the present level. If the dam were generating, we would be hurtled toward the turbulence of the weir dam at a dangerous rate. Now people stand on it casting flies.
We come upon three people in small pontoons powered by oars.
“We might be walking back to the ramp,” says one of them. “The water is dropping.” He needs 4 inches of water to float the pontoon, he tells me, sitting up above me in what looks like a lawn chair. I’m about to ask how much his boat costs when he says he thinks he should buy a kayak.
We float downstream toward fly fishermen who stand waist deep in the water. No one is catching anything, no matter the method, location, or bait. For some reason, I’m not disappointed, far from bored. This is one of the strangest places I’ve ever paddled, strange in a good way.
The refrigerated air, the visible fish all around us, the dam looming above us, the impossibly clear water, the absence of litter, and the otherworldly algae all add up to an odd combination of the natural and the contrived. Pulling trout from here might be too much for me.
One of the pontoon guys says he caught one on a salmon egg, but he seems ready to give up. The geese are cranky and vocal, flapping their wings in annoyance as we pass them. I paddle toward a great blue heron so distracted from his fishing that he feints taking off a few times and lets me glide within 15 feet before launching into flight.
Back at the put-in, one of the pontoon fishermen shows us a photo on his phone of a 22-inch rainbow he caught here. He says the infrequent releases have decreased the oxygen in the water, making the trout less active.
On the way out, we pass the rows of trees that TVA planted and ponder the term “orchard” on the signs that label trees like white oak that don’t bear edible fruit. There’s much to ponder at this place, many possibilities that remain. One thing I learned: Nothing is a sure thing, especially when it comes to fishing.