“What is that thing?” biologist Drew Crain said when the fish on my line came into view, shimmering in the clear water. People standing on the bank of drawn-down Chilhowee Lake began murmuring the same sentiment. It had vertical stripes, yellow and green, and when it turned, it flashed bright orange pelvic fins.
“Don’t lose it!” said Crain, who had been fishing nearby, at the mouth of Abrams Creek, which gushed muddy water into the clear lake.
Crain, retired chemistry professor Terry Bunde, and I had arrived at the lake early, just as the thin layer of clouds above the mountains blushed pink from the rising sun. We were anxious to be casting our lures and our red worms into a lake that had been lowered 40 feet for repairs on the dam. The fish, we reasoned, would have less territory to elude us; they would be “corralled,” as one fisherman would later say, in concentrated pools.
Bunde, a lifelong fisherman, said, “If we can’t catch fish after the drawdown, we might have to surrender our fishing credentials.”
We would see the lake at a historic low (it was lowered 25 feet in 2008), and the drawdown, I thought, would surely reveal secrets concealed from human eyes since the completion of the dam in 1957 and the rising of water that followed.
We parked at a boat ramp that ended a football field away from water and contemplated the Little Tennessee River, meandering through a vast mud flat toward the dam, a sad vestige of the once free-flowing river. To get to the water, we stumbled and slid down a steep embankment of shale and loose dirt to stand on the bottom of a lake. Drew and I cast lures with one rod and reel, and baited another rig with red worms. Bunde had changed lures three times before I got my worm on the hook. He snatched them from the retractable fly keeper on the front of his fishing vest and tied them on so fast it seemed like sleight of hand. Bunde could really fish, and he knew people who caught fish. He told us a friend of his had recently caught 100 white bass in Fort Loudoun Lake.
Crain and I were crowded onto an outcropping the size of a pitching mound, and Bunde, on higher ground, remarked that one of his friends predicted carp would be all we would catch in the drawdown.
It was killing me not to be able to boat the lake in my kayak, but it was prohibited, as was fishing upstream of Abrams Creek.
Bunde was talking about catching redfish in Florida when Crain hollered and grabbed his worm-baited rig. I tried to get out of his way as he danced sideways playing the fish.
“He got off! And he was a good one,” Crain said.
Bunde headed toward the mouth of Abrams Creek and I followed. I climbed onto a huge tree stump that jutted out over the water and cast the drop-shot rigged red worm.
In no time I had a fish on, a small one, but still the first one of the day, always a thrill. It was a little catfish, more yellow than any catfish I’d ever caught. Bunde, about 300 yards upstream, was casting to the side of the silty water coming out of what was left of Abrams Creek.
Drew and I saw him land a good-sized fish and release it. He came over to us and gave us the report: a smallmouth, caught with a plastic worm. Bunde had no use for the red worms I’d gotten from the cooler at the big store the night before, where a kid walked past and murmured, I could have sworn, “Bait fishing ain’t real fishing.” Kid was maybe 10 years old. He didn’t even look at me.
Crain soon took Bunde’s place at the mouth of the creek, and I stayed at my perch, casting out into muddy water only a few feet deep.
Motorcycles began to blast down Highway 129, and more and more people stumbled down the steep banks to fish or take pictures. You could see two other bridges that had crossed the mouth of Abrams Creek, each of them underwater at normal pool. Tiny mussel shells littered the exposed lake bottom. Hundreds of cans, mostly beer, lay half buried in the mud. Bottles bobbed along in the artificial current of the Little T. Bubbles gurgled up frequently, gas released from the muddy bottom.
I found a horseshoe, crusted over like a fossil. Bunde wondered if there might be a horse somewhere under the mud. I joined Crain near the creek mouth. He offered me his place where the silty water met the clear, deep water of the lake, a distinct border where Bunde had caught the bass.
I said no and positioned myself a few yards upstream. First cast with the Little Cleo spoon, I snagged the exotic striped fish, so beautiful in the water, slightly less beautiful as it floundered in the mud. When I got the hook out and washed some of the mud off, I blurted, “It’s a saugeye!” It was the first fish that came to mind, a hybrid of a sauger and a walleye, which had a big fan-like dorsal fin like this one. For some reason, everyone seemed to agree.
I released it and he swam back to what remained of the depths.
We left a little while after the saugeye catch because nobody seemed to be pulling in the mythical hauls of fish that we’d expected. The lowered lake had lost its novelty for me, and the whole scene, like a shoddy reenactment of pre-dam history, made me mourn the lost river and ponder the eternal question: Why do people drop cans into a lake?
Crain sent me an email after I got home, including a link to a fish photo from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources website. It was a yellow perch that I’d caught. Saugeye, Crain wrote, have teeth and don’t have the orange fins. He told me I’d probably released a state record yellow perch. (The current record is 2 pounds, 2 ounces.)
The only thing worse than throwing back a state record fish would be to clean him and eat him, so at least I had that consolation, and as a mere bait slinger, fishing a drawn-down lake, I wouldn’t feel right about holding a state record.
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