On steamy summer afternoons in East Tennessee, cooling swirls of vapor rise from the tailwater below Norris Dam—creating, in effect, a sort of outdoor air conditioning, the waters so cold that not much can survive there but trout. It was in this ghostly atmosphere, a couple of miles below the dam, that Greg Ensor cast a plug from a drift boat and made history. Something monstrous disturbed the eddy behind a boulder and took his lure, what he at first thought was a carp. After a battle of 15 minutes, he would hold the state record for a brown trout, over 28 pounds. This was in August 1988. That record still stands.
Part of what made Ensor's unlikely catch possible was the stocking of trout in the tailwaters of select TVA dams, such as Norris (the Clinch), Appalachia (the Hiwassee), Cherokee (the Holston), Ft. Patrick Henry (the South Holston), and eight others where, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), "natural reproduction is typically insignificant." Now, the money for the stocking of tailwaters is uncertain for the long term, and this deeply concerns many who fish for trout with bait, plugs, spinners, and especially those who wade into the Clinch's frigid waters with fly rods.
What has changed is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (USFWS) contribution to trout production and stocking at TVA's dams. The USFWS, hit by budget strictures, has de-prioritized the stocking of non-native species such as rainbow trout in favor of protecting native and endangered species. In May of 2013 U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander worked with TVA to create a short-term solution by which TVA contributed $906,191 annually through 2016. This temporarily funded trout stocking from the federal hatcheries at Dale Hollow and Erwin that help supply the 12 TVA tailwaters in Tennessee and Georgia.
Now, that agreement, as Powell resident and self-described "rabble rouser" John Reinhardt continually reminds his fellow fishermen, has about 700 days left, and it's time to act. Reinhardt, a longtime member of Trout Unlimited, a national nonprofit dedicated to conserving North America's coldwater fisheries, has been trying to draw as much attention to the funding issue as possible. Not only is the Clinch his playground, his country club, as he puts it, but he also feels strongly that the region and the state reaps economic benefits from locals as well as out-of-state visitors who spend money in places such as Anderson County in pursuit of the Clinch's rainbow and brown trout.
Last May, a committee of representatives from TVA and other concerned agencies—TWRA, USFWS, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources—developed four options at a public hearing. Option one recommends that Congress restore USFWS's long-term funding for trout hatchery production and stocking. Option two recommends a partnership between USFWS and TVA to fund trout stocking costs. Option three recommends a multi-source funding partnership involving TVA, USFWS, and states. The fourth option, endorsed by Trout Unlimited, recommends that "TVA would assume responsibility for the annual cost incurred for the USFWS to stock trout at TVA facilities." This cost would be passed on to TVA ratepayers. Eventually, the group will make a final recommendation that will go back through the concerned agencies for approval.
In the meantime, advocates such as Reinhardt and Jeremy Nelson, the co-owner of 3 Rivers Angler in Knoxville, want fishermen in the area to become aware of the funding issue and to make their voices heard concerning the economic and recreational importance of trout fishing. Nelson started his store in the heart of a recession, he says, standing near a display case of tiny artificial flies, because he thought Knoxville had a community that cared about fishing quality waters.
"TVA created a fishing destination getting a lot of national attention for this quality of fishing there. It would be a shame to see that go away," says Nelson, noting the considerable money that TVA has already spent making tailwaters healthy for trout. "We have people who come here and pay $400 a day for guide services."
In Nelson's store, University of Tennessee student Chris Steepleton was tying flies at the counter. A native of Memphis, his eyes light up as he describes all the places he fishes in the area. "There are hundreds of thousands of acres of playground around here," he says, "and we need to take care of it."
Joe Congleton, who started the Trout Unlimited chapter in Knoxville, has fished for trout all over the country, including Montana and Idaho. He says that the quality of fishing on the Clinch is as good as any of those western rivers and that you can catch trout below Norris all year round, even in the middle of winter. He calls it "common-sense economics" to continue funding trout stocking.
"Trout Unlimited's Guide to America's 100 Best Trout Streams" lists not only the Clinch but also the Hiwassee, the South Holston and the Wautauga, all tailwaters which would be affected by the shortfall in funding if a solution is not found.
Fishermen such as Nelson and Rich Murphree, the chair for the Tennessee Council of Trout Unlimited, say they appreciate the work that TVA has done to create conditions favorable for such great trout fishing. At the same time, some fishermen feel that TVA has an obligation to do more, in light of the current funding crisis.
"When an agency such as TVA alters a natural river by putting in a dam, they've changed the natural ecological environment of that watershed. They are obligated to do several things to mitigate those changes," Murphree says.
Allen Gillespie, co-owner of 3 Rivers Angler, says that after the snail darter controversy over the building of Tellico Dam and the subsequent loss of trout fishing on the Tellico River, TVA "put on the white hat" and began mitigation measures that converted the tailwaters below dams into fishing locations that attracted tourists from all over the country.
One example of that mitigation occurred at Norris, TVA's first dam, completed in 1936. Its 13-mile long section of tailwater did not become the popular fishing destination of today until after TVA established its Reservoir Improvement Release Program in 1981. The corporation built a weir dam a couple of miles below Norris and re-engineered its turbines to raise the oxygen level in the water, measures that created a healthier environment for trout.
Joe Hoagland, vice president for stakeholder relations at TVA, says that TVA has spent $60 million in the last 20 years on trout growth. In addition, it spends $3 million a year "to make sure that habitat stays viable and to ensure that we've got a healthy ecosystem and people can catch fish."
Hoagland emphasizes TVA's concern about the issue and its awareness of the economic and recreational importance of trout fishing in tailwaters, but said it was not a mitigation issue. He says that the work TVA has done historically has fulfilled the requirements for mitigating the impacts of TVA's dams.
Frank Fiss, of TWRA, describes the short-term effects on fishing tailwaters if trout stocking levels are not maintained. He says although TWRA would still stock fingerlings, the stocking of rainbow trout in the 9-10 inch range (eating size) would decrease by about half. This decrease, according to Fiss, would result in "reduced fishing success, unsatisfied anglers, reduced number of trips, reduced license sales for TWRA, and reduced spending and tax revenue in the Tennessee Valley."
Fiss calculates that "every dollar [spent] on trout production generates $73 of economic output."
On the Little River Outfitters online forum, Congleton noted that all fly fishermen, even those who don't fish tailwaters, should be concerned about the issue and the possible effects of a decrease in the stocking program: "Take the thousands of folks who fish the tailwaters and the stocked streams throughout the state… and put them in the [Great Smoky Mountains National] Park with you on those small streams and see how well the Park can sustain that pressure."
Meanwhile Reinhardt not only fears the economic impact of a decline in fishing below Norris Dam, he would also mourn the possible loss of community events that TU has coordinated with TVA and TWRA, such as the annual cleanup of the Clinch tailwaters as well as the Kids Fish Free event.
"In a world of 3-minute music videos, and Xbox games of explosions and mayhem, it is amazing to see a child slow down and actually enjoy the sport of fishing and all it brings," Reinhardt says. "We literally can see the transformation as the families launch from the boat area or wade in the water with our TU members as they fish and drop behind the frantic pace of deadlines and commitments."
State record-holder Greg Ensor didn't know about the funding issue until recently. When he found out that trout stocking below Norris and 11 other dams might be reduced, he called it "a colossal mistake." Sounds like a guy who wouldn't mind if his record were broken.