A Native Odyssey Blog Post 1: Tennessee

Public Land:            

Backbone Rock Campground, North Zone of the Cherokee National Forest.

     Located in northern Johnson County, Tennessee, Backbone Rock Campground is one of the most unique camping experiences East Tennessee has to offer. The name “Backbone Rock” is derived from a spur ridge on Holston Mountain that tapers off at a bend in Beaverdam Creek, just upstream of the campground. Sitting adjacent to Beaverdam Creek, campers are treated with the serene sounds of a cold Appalachian stream running just yards behind the campground. Just around the bend from the campsite visitors pass through the “Shortest Tunnel in the World” on their way upstream along Beaverdam Creek via Highway 133. Originally the tunnel was created in 1901 to provide rail access between Shady Valley, TN and Damascus VA. Backbone Rock campground offers great access to the North Zone of the Cherokee National Forest for fly fishermen, hikers, campers, and families looking to explore the wilderness of East Tennessee. https://www.fs.usda.gov

-       Brett Winchel 

Native Trout:
Southern Appalachian Brook Trout.

     The Southeast boasts only one native trout species, the Southern Appalachian brook trout, also referred to as “specks” or “brookies.” Historically, this species had a range of over 10 million acres, and today they inhabit 55% of that range. Genetic analysis concludes that Southern Appalachian brook trout are a unique strain of brook trout native only to this region.  The Appalachian Mountains hold large numbers of high elevation streams, where cold clean water provides ideal habitat for brook trout. These streams are comprised of many boulders that create pockets and holes for the trout to hide in. However, Southern Appalachian brook trout face some threats from which they cannot hide.

     Climate change is the most pressing threat to the remaining population of these fish. According to “State of the Trout,” projections show that an annual rise in temperature of just 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit from current form will result in a 20% loss of remaining Southern Appalachian brook trout numbers. With the current political environment of our country, this statistic becomes a grave concern. While rising global temperatures are the primary threat to these fish, other dangers such as non-native species and habitat fragmentation persist as well. Non-native species like brown trout, rainbow trout, and northern hatchery brook trout influence the distribution of pure strain Southern Appalachian brook trout populations. These non-native fish prey on and push out the brookies from what little habitat they still thrive in.

     Cherokee National Forest Fisheries Biologist, Marcia Carter, explained “Extensive logging and terrible management processes led to habitat loss and sediment erosion, which really decimated the native trout populations. This led to the introduction of rainbow and brown trout along with a hatchery strain of brook trout, which put us at the current 20-30% of what we used to be.” Marcia also pointed us in the direction of a fishing location that demonstrated the positive steps being taken to help restore Southern Appalachian brook trout populations.

-       Matt Crockett 

Our Experience:

Austin’s first Southern Appalachian brook trout. 

     After pulling into 3 Rivers Angler in Knoxville to pick up Brett and Matt, and stocking up on last minute essentials, we headed east towards the Cherokee National forest to conduct an interview with USFS fisheries biologist, Marcia Carter, and pitch camp for the night. Following our streamside interview, we headed off to scope out camp. We were immediately distracted by the amount of bugs hatching around our campsite, especially with the sounds of Beaverdam creek flowing just on the other side of the tree line. Brett managed a few fish just behind the campground but none were the elusive brook trout that we were after, so we returned to our campfire and laid down a plan for the next morning's adventure.

     I’ve targeted trout up in the Southern Appalachians before but I had not successfully gotten my first brook trout. So it was up to the knowledge of the Tennessee compadres to help me figure out the key to these Appalachian Brookies. A quick fuel up on some breakfast burritos and we were off to the first stream. The layout of these streams are as intricate as the thickets of rhododendron that surrounds them. From small runs to even smaller pools behind boulders, I was out of my element and definitely not making 50 foot casts to redfish anymore. With my leader barely even out of my last guide, we hiked and high sticked from pool to pool. Matt picked up a nice brook trout after a few pools on a small dry.

     After getting a few shots, and returning him to his rocky hiding place we approached, Brett said was the “Brook Trout home we were looking for.” They urged me to push my luck in this rhododendron tunnel that encompassed the pool. Brett told me “go on and get down and dirty.” Making my way up to the launch zone, I knelt down and loaded up for a bow and arrow shot through the tunnel to the top of the pool. The dry fly hit just the right section, and as it drifted over a patch of sunshine, it enticed the most beautiful trout. It was covered in red spots with a gleaming blue halos around them. Matt and Brett then informed me that a brook trout of that size in a creek like that is a feat in itself, let alone for some Florida boys first one.

-       Austin Burroughs