lakebarkleyLake Barkley dam
Several years ago, I was invited to fish the Tennessee River tailwater below Wilson Dam near Florence, Ala.The weather was foggy with light rain. As we loaded our gear and headed upriver, our guide, Jerry Crook, explained that we’d be fishing with shiners bounced off the bottom on the downstream drift.
“When you get a bite, you’ll know it,” said Crook, who, like many experienced river guides, had a commanding friendliness. “If it feels like you’re hung up, you might be, but set the hook anyway because it’ll probably be a fish.”
As we motored upstream through the thickening fog, Wilson Dam appeared like an apparition. The sight startled me. Crook brought the boat to within a few feet of the nearly mile-long, 137-foot-high ancient (construction began during World War I and was completed in 1924), concrete behemoth. He idled the outboard, and we began to drift downriver, stern first, the aluminum boat rocking gently in the relatively swift current. I missed the first strike but made good on the next, wrestling a 6-pound smallmouth bass into the net.
I lost count of the number of fish caught. At the takeout ramp, I asked Crook about fishing within the shadow of the dam, which I admitted took some getting used to.
“It was good today,” he said. “We had good water. But on days when they’re spilling a lot of water, you don’t want to be out here.”
That sounded like reasonable advice. It was my first experience with big river, tailwater fishing. But it wouldn’t be the last.
Nearly all of the nation’s major rivers are dammed—the only exception is the Yellowstone. This doesn’t bother most fishermen because the waters immediately below dams generally harbor terrific fishing. The reason is threefold: the availability of food (as fish are flushed through the dam), cover and well-oxygenated water. The best fishing is usually within the first 1,000 or so feet downstream from the dam.
Tailwater boating is not without risks. Depending on the amount of water being released through a dam, boating conditions range from safe to life threatening. There is little disagreement about this. But it became the crux of the outrage that boiled from tackle stores and coffee shops along the Cumberland River valley all the way to the United States Congress when the Corps of Engineers decided fishermen had to be kept safe—even from themselves.
The controversy began late last year when rumors filtered from Tennessee that the Corps’ Nashville District office was going to block tailwater access below its 10 dams on the Cumberland River system. The Cumberland rises in eastern Kentucky, and then swings through middle Tennessee before turning north through western Kentucky and its confluence with the Ohio River. Four of the Cumberland’s dams, including Barkley, the largest and arguably the most productive tailwater fishery in the system, are in Kentucky. Six are in Tennessee.
Corps Nashville District Commander Lt. Col. James DeLapp finally confirmed the rumors. Citing safety concerns and the need to fully comply with a 1996 regulation, DeLapp said the Corps would establish no-boating zones downstream of its 10 Cumberland dams. The zones would extend from 500 to 1,000 feet at nine of the 10 dams, and one dam would have a 150-foot zone.
Opposition was immediate and nearly unanimous. A 24/7 tailwater boating ban would damage local economies, politicians and businesspeople said. A ban was unreasonable and would not save lives, fishermen pleaded. A full-time ban wasn’t necessary since most of the time water conditions were safe, state fishery agencies argued.
The Corps refused to budge. Frustration turned to outrage. Officials from both the Kentucky and Tennessee state game agencies repeatedly sought a compromise with the federal agency but found the Corps uncompromising.
The Corps actually has an excellent safety record on the Cumberland. Fourteen tailwater drownings have been reported in the past 42 years. Three of those have occurred since 2009. Each victim wore a life jacket, which is required by tailwater regulations.
Under public pressure from what generally was viewed as government run amok, the Corps scheduled four public meetings to explain what it intended to do and why. The first meeting was held in Grand Rivers, Ky. Among the 250 or so people attending was 1st District U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, a veteran Republican lawmaker from Hopkinsville. Whitfield was outraged and said so. A month later, he introduced the Freedom to Fish Act, which would block the Corps from its plan for 24/7 tailwater restrictions.
Other U.S. lawmakers joined the fray. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., took a leading role. Kentucky Senator and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell waded into the fight. Kentucky’s junior Sen. Rand Paul attended a Freedom to Fish rally at Barkley Dam along with McConnell, Alexander, Whitfield and a host of local and regional politicians.
Throughout the hubbub, the Corps kept a steady course and began installing buoys to mark the no-boat zones, which the agency said would become effective when all the buoys and additional signage had been placed. They anticipated the work to be completed by early summer.
The Freedom to Fish Act became part of the Water Resources Development Act. In May, to keep the tailwaters open during the summer fishing season, McConnell introduced Freedom to Fish as a two-year moratorium to halt the Corps. The Senate and the House passed the measure, and President Obama signed it into law on June 3.
The Corps, meanwhile, continued to decline comment on the political firestorm. At press time, work on the buoys was continuing. Only a presidential signature—not public opinion—it seemed, would have the mettle to bend the Corps’ inflexible will.