By Dave Ongie, News Editor
Dennis Baxter, manager of the river and reservoir compliance monitoring program for the TVA, spent some time out on Boone Lake last Wednesday afternoon with his colleagues surveying the fish population in the rising waters of the reservoir.
What he saw was beyond encouraging. As an electrofishing boat crawled through the water and emitted an electrical current that brought stunned fish bobbing to the surface, it was apparent the fish population in Boone Lake has continued to hold its own during an extended drawdown made necessary by the Boone Dam Project.
Not only were older fish visible, a strong group of younger fish – a result of last year’s spawn – are present in large enough numbers to set the stage for some amazing fishing in the years to come.
“It’s going to be an explosion of game fish,” Baxter told the News & Neighbor on Thursday. “We’re excited in the next couple years watching the population. We’re seeing great year classes. That means it’s going to be great fishing.”
The results of the latest fish survey have to come as a sigh of relief for the biologists at the TVA who have been partnering with personnel at the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency to monitor the health of Boone Lake during repairs to the dam.
Aquatic life has been monitored twice a year since a sinkhole was discovered in the embankment at Boone Dam back in Oct. 2014, which kick-started an eight-year project aimed at shoring up the dam and allowing the reservoir to return to full-pool. TVA biologist Jon Michael Mollish and water resource specialist Shannon O’Quinn have worked tirelessly to ensure fish monitoring efforts that extend back to 1991 have remained as accurate as possible.
This spring, the reservoir has been allowed to rise to levels not seen in nearly seven years as the repairs are tested. If all goes well, Boone Lake is expected to return to normal operations next year. What should follow is a boom in fishing that already has folks as far away as Chattanooga asking Baxter when Boone Lake will be ready.
“Once the word is out, people will come from everywhere to fish that,” Baxter said, adding that a blend of stripers, bass, trout and even some walleye offer a variety that will be attractive to anglers. “You have a mixed bag there that can draw a lot of anglers staying in the motels, eating in the restaurants, buying the tackle and the fuel – it will be an economic boom.”
That is music to the ears of those who own the marinas and other businesses that have struggled to survive through the extended drawdown. But the anticipated boom in fishing did not happen by accident.
While the water was down, the TVA and TWRA partnered on projects to help enhance the habitat fish would eventually reclaim once the water level came back up. Fish-friendly vegetation was planted, and concrete “reef balls” were placed to help encourage strong spawns. If all that isn’t enough, the TWRA plans to resume regularly scheduled stocking, which will only add to the natural spawn already occurring in the reservoir.
Boone Lake isn’t officially scheduled to resume normal operations until next year, but folks are likely to see the reservoir at or near traditional summer pool in the months ahead as testing continues on the repairs. That will likely draw more people to Boone Lake to fish, swim and boat, and Baxter had some reminders with that in mind.
First, he recommended that boaters slow down and be courteous on the water. Floating debris is always a hazard on Boone Lake, but it could be more common this year given the amount of time logs and other items had to accumulate on the lakebed during the drawdown.
“Make sure you have a clear path in front of you when you’re driving, and obey the safe boating rules in your TWRA digest,” he said, adding that lifejackets are a must. “I wear mine all the time, and I’m a rescue diver. I know enough to put that thing on because if I fall unconscious, I will drown.”