There ain't no fish in there," a maybe-drunken female voice croaked. We had drawn an audience. The woman and her two male companions watched from the bridge over First Creek while we fished beneath the SunTrust ATM sign. "Mumble, mumble, stupid," we heard her tell her pals. How would they know? The water in the deep ditch in front of the Broadway Kroger was clearer than some trout water I've fished. Nothing emanating from the creek overpowered the smell of Taco Bell's exhaust vents across the parking lot. Still, I thought to keep my wet fingers away from my mouth. First Creek exceeds safe bacteriological standards thanks to septic plumes and leaky sewer lines.
Karma miscalculated by 10 casts. My mint-green fly line twitched, and I hooked a small silvery fish. I looked up in triumph, but the heckler had wandered off down Broadway, doubtless to finish up her aquatic biology dissertation. A 40-oz MGD bottle floated by, clinking along the rocks. The shiner or darter or whatever it was had a cultured palate: It struck a tiny bead-headed nymph tied to mimic insect larvae on Colorado's South Platte River.
If you don't want to autoclave your gear after each trip, the city's website lists 11 less-fecal fishing locations, all but two on the Tennessee River. The two outliers are Victor Ashe Park, where you can ply the waters of two-acre Victor Ashe Lake, and Holston River Park. I sampled a few of the options, starting with the small water.
I was already familiar with Holston River Park. It's my occasional nice-day lunch spot, a quick zip from downtown via Riverside Drive. The section of the Holston River adjacent to the park is narrow and fast, and clearer than the water in Fort Loudoun Lake. Much of the water within casting distance is thick with aquatic vegetation, emancipated from an aquarium around 1960.
Non-boaters can use two docks, and there's a boat ramp and parking. I spoke with a couple who were fishing with their young son, using the classic rig: bobbers and night crawlers. "A few small ones," the dad says about their luck, "and she caught a turtle." I asked him for the largest fish he'd caught here: "In the Holston River sure, I've caught some big fish, but nothing here."
The stretch of the Holston River from Niles Ferry (near Blaine) to the confluence with the French Broad is renowned smallmouth water, but the problem for bank fishermen is access, or the lack of it. The few walkable spots, like Holston River Park, get all the pressure. I flung a green mini-lizard with no luck.
Victor Ashe Park is off Bradshaw, near Pleasant Ridge. The park is at first sight just acres of fútbol; Victor Ashe Lake and a disc golf course hide on the other side of the trees past a small hill. My first thought was "skimmer's busted," but this isn't a swimming pool. From 30 feet away, half the surface of the mayoral pond is an artificially flat, artificially bright golf green. Up close, the skin is millions of tiny duckweed leaves. Duckweed grows rapidly: Photos on the city website from the Father's Day fishing derby on Victor Ashe show none of the matted green skin on the surface. From the photos, bream and catfish are the primary inhabitants of the pond, with some of the catfish reaching respectable size.
The open water was reasonably clean and I saw little of the usual fishing debris at Victor Ashe, just one old Styrofoam worm container floating in the duckweed. Every golf-green metaphor needs a hole, I suppose. If you choose to pursue catfish here, you could lazy-man fish, half asleep on a bench, with the line around your finger.
Next stop was Ned McWherter Park, beneath South Knoxville Boulevard. It's shady and concrete-cool under the bridge. There's a boat ramp, Porto let, picnic tables, and two docks, one of which is Knoxville Rowing Association's long multi-section floating dock for launching shells. The distant traffic noise overhead is strangely soothing, and there's a great view of the downtown skyline.
Rick and Linda Evans, Fourth and Gill residents and owners of Friends Antiques, aren't having much luck on a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Rick is drowning a minnow beneath a bobber while Linda throws a small Rapala crankbait. They're after bass or stripers. "When they're running, you'll catch a tubful in no time," Rick tells me, "but they're not here right now." Rick says he caught a 12-pound catfish here a few weeks ago, "on a piece of stinky liver."
The KRA dock is an aircraft carrier deck, providing access to a lot of water. I threw my little green lizard again, and felt a familiar pleasure as it tugged through the milfoil. My amygdala associates that sensation with the electric tap of a fish, so I get the endorphins even if I don't get a bite. I watch the line swim away from the bank and set the hook on a healthy little spotted bass. At least it's a game fish.
Hunter and Dylan, both 12, are in full Huck Finn mode, flipping rocks in shallow water, hunting crayfish. "For bait," one says. Hunter's saint of a mom waits to drive them to Volunteer Landing, where Hunter tells me he caught a four and half pound smallmouth on a live crawdad. Breaking fishing Rule One, he tells me where: "The bridge between Calhoun's and the marina, where the railroad bridge runs over the little waterfall." Hunter's honey hole: First Creek inlet, two square concrete tunnels emptying into the lake. That MGD bottle should be there about now.
Access at Volunteer Landing is high off the water, so if you do hook a big fish, you'll be winching it up vertically, or dragging the poor thing up a steep wall of riprap. The only spot close to water level is the base of the steps in front of the concession stand, a busy hardscape. I spoke with a gentleman fishing over the railing on the east end of Calhoun's lot, his minivan backed up to a park bench. He was after catfish, big ones, with pieces of pork chop as bait. He said he'd caught catfish to 35 pounds here.
Prehistoric, lazy carp cruise the banks at Volunteer Landing, but if they're not gorging on mayflies or human-thrown food pellets, they won't always take a bait. I dropped a tiny foam beetle in the path of cruising carp for about an hour before giving up. I would recommend barbless hooks if you're fly fishing here, to ease removal from joggers and bicyclists you'll snag on the back cast.
In South Knoxville, you can get fishing access at Island Home Park and Scottish Pike River Park. Island Home is grassy, shady and quiet, except for the small planes launching and landing at Island Home airport. The water is thick with milfoil, and there is a decent amount of accessible bank. No one was fishing the chilly Saturday I visited, during the Tennessee/Buffalo game, but there was fisherman-sign along the bank.
Technically, you could fish at Scottish Pike River Park. It is shady and green, with plentiful trees, but the river access is up a steep, rocky embankment beside the giant pipeline warning sign. Just east on Scottish Pike is an electrical tower cut that offers far better access, beside a small inlet and set of old bridge pilings to attract fish. An open can of corn gives away somebody's spot.
Knoxville's not quite ready for a Fellini Fall Foliage Fishing Fantastico, but there are plenty of city fishing spots. Stressed out at work? Take a break, pack a lunch, and go fishing. Forty Oh Zee optional.
Fishing (and Eating) By the Rules
There are some rules when it comes to city fishing, fewer if you don't keep your catch:
> A state license is required for anyone 13 years old or older, unless you are fishing on private family farmland. A one-year county fishing license is only $9, but if you plan on taking your pole out of Knox County, you'll need the combination license, which covers hunting and fishing, for $28. Shorter-term licenses are also available. You can find the state's Online License Center at tn.wildlifelicense.com, and a list of the city's fishing locations at ci.knoxville.tn.us/recreation/fishing.asp.
> If you choose to keep fish, for pets, meat, or taxidermy, size and quantity limits may apply, varying by species and body of water. On Fort Loudoun Lake, the minimum size for bass is 14 inches for largemouth and 18 inches for smallies, and you can keep a total of five. The limit on tastier crappie is 15, with a 10-inch minimum. There's no limit on catfish under 34-inches long, but you can only keep one big-un. It all smells fishy, social engineering for fish populations, and it is. Carp get the bum's rush: no limits, you can harvest them with a crossbow, and it's a crime to be caught with a live one, harsh immigration policy for a toothless invasive exotic. If only the noble carp could get the culinary makeover given its duckweed-eating cousin the tilapia.
> Plus: Should you eat your catch? That depends. How risk-tolerant are you? Due to mercury and PCB bioaccumulation, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency advises those in high-risk groups avoid eating any fish out of Fort Loudoun Lake, and regular-risk groups are advised against eating largemouth bass or catfish over two pounds. Of all the anglers I spoke with, only the Evans' ate anything they caught, and then only small ones. The warnings have had the unintended consequence of building a healthy population of large bass in Fort Loudoun. I don't find largemouth or smallmouth great eating fish, so it's no hardship to toss 'em back. The TWRA's list of fish advisories can be found at tn.gov/twra/fish/contaminants.html.