What’s in Your Creel?

With this one simple question, the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency’s Reservoir regional fishery management team can determine the health of Tennessee’s fish populations.

SEPTEMBER 21, 2017—From professionals to average Joes just out spending the afternoon with the grandkids, every angler wants to know what monstrous fish lurk just below the surface. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s reservoir program coordinator Patrick Black and the agency’s team of survey clerks can tell you exactly what’s in the water by asking one simple question: What’s in your creel?

“No matter what you call it—creel [baskets that hold fish], bucket or live well—the process starts with the same simple question,” says Black. “After we find out what you’re catching and how many, the science behind the process takes over to provide us valuable data about fish health and the aquatic habitat in Tennessee waterways.”

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TWRA creel clerk Al Bartolotto interviews a fisherman on Percy Priest Lake in Middle Tennessee.

With over 280 native species of fish, the Tennessee River system is the most diverse ecosystem in North America and drives about $12 billion in economic value associated with recreation, according to a University of Tennessee study. 

Fish Tale or Fact?

Black says his team has been collecting creel data since 2000. In 2016 TWRA conducted over 12,250 angler interviews, which included a 16 question survey. “From the data fishermen shared, I can tell you that our species count and aquatic health is in excellent shape.”    

The numbers are staggering. In 2016, Tennessee anglers caught about 7 million fish—almost 20,000 fish per day. Anglers also made more than 924,000 fishing trips and spent over 5 million hours at their favorite fishing holes.  

According to Black, the 2017 data is being gathered and reviewed and will be ready in early summer of 2018. TWRA reviews creel survey data every year to help maintain fish populations and healthy ecosystems. Black says the agency combines creel survey information with fishery-independent data, such as electrofishing, trap-net and gill-net surveys to get a complete picture of each fishery in the state.    

“We aim to stay on top of each fishery before it suffers any risk,” says Black.  “Our goal is to optimize growth, reproduction, prey, habitat and size structure to maximize the benefit to Tennessee anglers. Each year, we use a combination of modeling and adaptive management to fine tune our regulations and adjust them as needed. Based on previous creel data, we did not need to make any significant changes to our fishing regulations for 2017.”      

If you believe that the proof is in the pudding, TWRA targets must have been spot on because this year Steven Paul caught a state record Muskellunge Pike on Melton Hill Reservoir that weighed 43 pounds, 14 ounces.

Teamwork is Key

TWRA works with agencies like TVA to help ensure the Tennessee watershed remains healthy.

“The Tennessee River system is worth about $1 million per shoreline mile and generates about 130,000 jobs,” says Bucky Edmondson, TVA Director of Natural Resources. “We work hand-in-hand with TWRA to protect this valuable resource.”

Edmondson says that TVA and TWRA work together on about 100 stream survey projects each year to holistically protect the river system, and coordinate actions such as improving oxygen diffuser equipment currently in place at 16 of TVA’s power producing dams.

While trout are native to Tennessee, TWRA stocks 80 streams and small lakes with the fish and closely monitors their population. “Work between TWRA and TVA ensuring correct water temperatures and oxygen levels has created a Tennessee trout fishery that rivals any other river in the U.S.,” says Edmondson.

According to Black, though, it takes one additional element to achieve success: public support. “Creating a world-class fishery is no accident,” he says. “We encourage anglers to fish responsibly, follow the rules and help protect this valuable resource for generations to come.”

About Those Trout

If you’re a trout fishing enthusiast, you can hardly do better than to fish in the tailwaters below TVA’s dams, 12 of which are stocked by TWRA and managed by TVA as world-class trout fisheries. Click here to learn more about them, pick up pro tips and find out about the ultimate trout fishing destination: the South Holston River in East Tennessee.