On a chilly January morning last year my fishing buddy and I broke a skim of ice, launched our boat and went trout fishing.
Within five minutes we each hooked fish. The foot-long rainbows rocketed from the clear water and tail-danced across the surface. They broke water again and again, iridescent sides flashing in the glittering winter sun, until they slid wriggling into the landing net.
It wasn’t a scene from a remote Montana stream but rather on Marrowbone Lake, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency-managed impoundment located less than an hour’s drive north of Nashville. Only trolling motors can be used.
The Marrowbone trout are among approximately 90,000 stocked every winter by the TWRA. The rainbows are released in 43 locations around the state, including Stones River below Percy Priest Dam.
As soon as they are released into the water they can be caught. And once caught, the TWRA encourages anglers to keep a limit for the skillet. Instead of catch-and-release, the hatchery-stocked trout are intended to be caught and consumed.
The TWRA manages some other prime trout waters, such as the Caney Fork River, for trophy trout, and there are strict regulations regarding size and creel limits for rainbows and browns. But not these stocked trout; the only regulation is a 7-fish daily limit, no size restriction.
There is no expensive travel required, no in-depth expertise necessary, and no need to get a second mortgage in order to purchase a split-bamboo fly rod or other exotic trout tackle.
Some trout traditionalists turn up their noses at this type of fish and fishing. They contend that the TWRA could more wisely devote its resources to stocking other species of fish in their natural habitats, rather than releasing trout into waters in which most cannot survive once spring arrives and temperatures rise.
But the TWRA notes the growing popularity of the winter trout-stocking program, and says the investment is well worth it. Not only does it make trout fishing accessible and affordable for average anglers, it returns $73 for every $1 invested in the hatchery program in the form of licenses, bait, tackle and other accessories.
Few, if any, of the stocked fish go to waste. Most are caught and kept before the water warms, and in places with cool depths or spring-fed creeks, some of the trout are known to survive year-round.
The TWRA discourages “culling” – replacing a smaller fish on a stringer with a bigger one later on – because a trout is delicate, and once put on a stringer is unlikely to survive if released.
A trout license is required to fish for them, even if none are kept. Holders of a Sportsman’s License or Lifetime License are exempt. Detailed regulations are listed in the Tennessee Fishing Guide.
The stocked trout will hit an array of artificial lures, with small spinners and Trout Magnets being among the most effective. The fish also take flies, both wet and dry. Top baits include an array of commercial trout nibblets, along with whole-kernel yellow corn and worms. Any type of spinning tackle works, and light line works best with the small lures.
There is something special about a trout, be it hatchery or native. Perhaps it’s the cold, pure water in which they well, or the dazzling colors or the hard-fighting qualities of even little foot-long bantamweights.
The TWRA believes every fisherman should have a chance to catch some of these special fish. Thanks to the winter stocking program, they can.