By Kevin Tate/Outdoors Writer
COUNCE, Tenn. – Part of the excitement of fishing big waters like the Pickwick Reservoir is not knowing exactly what you may catch, but for professionals like John Justice, it’s critical to know just what treasures these depths hold.
Justice and the other fisheries biologists with the Tennessee Valley Authority comb select pockets of the waters under TVA’s stewardship in the spring and fall, documenting the aquatic life they find.
Their work delivers invaluable research data to state and federal wildlife agencies, to universities and to the public, and it ensures TVA’s power generation and river operations continue to support a healthy fishery.
Using gear designed to temporarily stun but not permanently harm fish through an electric current in water, teams of TVA biologists spend roughly 25 weeks in the spring and fall collecting data on the fish that live in the 31 reservoir lakes along the length of the Tennessee River.
The fish are measured, weighed, inspected for injury or ailment and then released in the area from which they were collected.
The spring index focuses on fish at the top of the food chain. By studying largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass, black and white crappie, walleye and sauger, fish whose diet consists of other fish, the biologists are able to track the overall health of a given habitat.
“Sportfish are apex predators,” Justice said. “If they’re doing well, it’s a good indicator that everything that supports them is doing well.”
In any given reservoir, the scientists sample a balanced selection of good, fair and poor habitat, and they make their samples at approximately the same time every year, and in the same habitat locations. This allows for a consistent track of the overall lake system and the aquatic ecosystem at large.
“We like to see a good distribution of size classes in the fish,” Justice said. “That indicates not only a consistently good spawn, but good recruitment as well. Recruitment, in this case, means hatch survival translating into fish growing into the community. A good distribution of length classes is what you’re looking for in a healthy, balanced system.”
The information they gather is applied through management practices created with the natural resource in mind.
“When the fish go into spawn, TVA tries to maintain consistent water levels, for example,” Justice said.
Along with collecting data, the spring surveys are also used as an opportunity to share part of what TVA does with the public. Guests may ride along on the survey boats and see the process first hand.
“We post the survey schedule in mid-February and start signing people up to ride,” Justice said. The spring survey begins in early March and continues through the middle of May.
Opportunities to ride along this spring are still available.
“It’s a great opportunity to educate the public, to let people know what we do besides produce power,” Justice said. They entertain roughly 150-200 ride-along guests each spring.
For more information, call 1-800-882-5263. To see the results of previous years’ surveys, visit www.tva.com.