The tiny float wiggled and jiggled atop the choppy waves driven by a harsh north wind. The wiggles and jiggles were transmitted to a tiny jig twelve feet below. From even deeper, a spotted bass, lethargic in the 43 degree water, eyed the jiggling jig that imitated a dying baitfish. Finally the aggressive bass couldn’t stand it, easing upward and gently inhaling the lure.
The fisherman in the boat (me) wasn’t aware of any of this — that is until the tiny float slowly slipped beneath the surface. The nine-foot rod quickly came overhead, removing the slack line. The tiny, sharp jig hook did its job and I found myself connected to a two-pound green ball of fury by fishing line that more closely resembled sewing thread. It was a wintertime adrenalin rush, enhanced by the setting — a jewel of a lake nestled among the Cherokee National Forest. And as far as I could tell, we were the only fishermen on the lake.
Welcome to Parksville Lake, also known as Ocoee No. 1. Chances are you’ve driven by it enroute to raft the Ocoee River, or headed to Cherokee, NC for a little gambling. Located in Polk County, a mere 18 minutes out of Cleveland, most people simply admire it out the car window as they pass by. More and more often, however, fishermen are finding their way to Parksville Lake.
The 1,930-acre lake was created in 1911 by damming the Ocoee River to help produce power in the Tennesse Valley. About the same time copper mines were being opened and operated upstream at Copperhill. Most people know of the environmental carnage created by the unregulated copper smelting operations that decimated the landscape. For decades the Ocoee River and Parksville Lake were basically sterile — pretty yes, but aquatic life was largely non-existent.
The last of the copper mines closed in 1987 and serious reclamation efforts continued. As nature is prone to do, the healing began.
Jim Miller moved to Bradley County as a game warden for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in 1976. Retired now, Miller has patrolled and fished the Parksville waters for nearly four decades.
“Just since I’ve been fishing Parksville, we would hardly ever see any hatches of insects (beneficial to fish) but it’s a pretty common occurrence now,” said Miller. “Fisheries biologists I talk to who study it say the water quality is improving dramatically.” (TVA Ecological Health Rating)
The fishing was slow to follow however, until about fifteen years ago when anglers created somewhat of an environmental accident. Biologists with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency say they believe fishermen introduced Alabama spotted bass into the lake. Another sub-species, Northern spotted bass, are native to Tennessee. But the Alabama sub-species is not.
TWRA Biologist Mike Jolley said, “”We have to protect our smallmouth bass in Tennessee against an invasive species like the Alabama bass. One thing we don’t want to do is inspire unregulated stocking efforts by anglers thinking they can make fishing better in other bodies of water because of what’s happened at Parksville. Simply put, we can’t afford Alabama bass in any other Tennessee water bodies.”
While biologists are not happy about the introduction of a non-native species into Tennessee, fishermen are loving it.
In the last five years Tennessee’s spotted bass state record has been broken three times, all from Parksville Lake. Because of the new sub-species in Parksville, TWRA has even designated a new record category specifically for Alabama spotted bass.
Miller said, “It took me until 2010 to actually start fishing (Parksville) and it’s an awesome fishery. The group I fish with, we’ve caught like five spots over six pounds. One was the newest state record last year… so it’s a fantastic place to go.”
Cleveland’s Shane McKee holds the current Alabama spotted bass record with a seven-pound fish taken March 10, 2014. Nowadays, every angler who ventures onto Parksville is hoping, if not expecting, to break the record again — including me and Miller this week.
We were using a winter technique called float & fly fishing. Long rods and light line are required to cast tiny jigs suspended 10-15 feet beneath a float. Baitfish can’t tolerate extreme cold water temperatures, and the suspended jig imitates a dying baitfish. It is not a numbers game. Float & fly anglers never expect to catch a lot. They’re fishing for the experience of a unique technique and the adrenalin rush that comes with a few quality fish. On Tuesday ten spotted bass found their way to our boat, with a couple of magnum yellow perch. The weather was bitter cold and windy, but Miller says even on pretty winter days, fishing Parksville is almost like fishing your own private lake. He is excited about the incredible change he’s seen in those four decades.
“I would say in 1976, on a scale of one-to-ten, Parksville Lake fishing would have been rated about a four. Compared to Watts Bar and Chickamauga, (Parksville) was one of the last places you’d go to fish,” he said. “Today, if it was a four back then it’s probably a nine or ten now because of the spotted bass that are doing so well.”
Of course another reason for relatively few winter anglers and boaters is difficult access. There are only two public boat ramps on the lake, and when the water is down in the winter, the King’s Slough ramp is not for big bass boats, or for the faint-of-heart. A 4-wheel drive is recommended, if not required.
Access isn’t a problem when water levels are higher, and recreational boaters are also being drawn more and more to Parksville.
“Being surrounded by the national forest it’s just a beautiful place to fish,” said Miller. “Because it’s surrounded by mountains the water tends to be pretty calm so it’s just very scenic.”
Scenic, and the potential home of yet another Tennessee state record Alabama bass.