New survey reveals happy fishermen on Chickamauga Lake

This photo is from Feb. 13, 2015 when Gabe Keen caught a new Tennessee state record largemouth bass (15 lbs. 3 oz.) on Chickamauga Lake. Biologists say this catch and many other trophy bass have catapulted Chickamauga Lake into the national spotlight. (l-r) Dennis Tumlin, Executive Director of Rhea County Economic & Community Development; Michael Neal, professional angler and owner of Dayton Boat Dock; Gabe Keen, holding his current state record largemouth bass; Gary Louallen, Dayton Mayor. (Photo: Richard Simms)

Nearly 100 percent of more than 1,000 fishermen surveyed on Chickamauga Lake in 2017 said they are "satisfied" with the fishing there. To be specific, 60.7 percent are "Satisfied," 33.5 percent are "Extremely Satisfied" while 5.7 percent are "Somewhat Satisfied." A measly 0.2 percent were "Somewhat Dissatisfied."

Fishermen are notoriously famous for coming up with excuses for why they didn't catch fish - or tales about 'the big one that got away' - so it is pretty amazing to hear that virtually all of them are happy.

The numbers come from the recently released "Chickamauga Lake 2017 Annual Report" compiled by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. Mike Jolley is the TWRA Region III fisheries biologist. He and his team are tasked with keeping tabs on the fish and fishing in Chickamauga Lake.

Stories, theories, conjecture and predictions abound among anglers on Chickamauga Lake. But biologists are like lawyers, saying opinions mean little until you can back them up with scientific facts. The facts revealed about Chickamauga in the most recent surveys are somewhat astounding.

In the year 2000, the year TWRA begin stocking Florida largemouth bass in Chickamauga Lake, the average largemouth bass caught on the lake weighed 1.42 pounds. For the last five years the average bass weighed about 3.5 pounds, hitting a staggering 4.15 pounds in 2016.

"It's unreal," said Jolley, "We just keep seeing bigger fish and more fish."

Jolley says, however, that they are watching and wondering about the amount of angling pressure being put on Chickamauga.

The most targeted species of fish by anglers on Chickamauga was bass (60.9 percent) with catfish being a distant second (12.5 percent), followed closely by crappie and panfish.

In the annual report angling pressure is measured based on "hours fished per acre." Ten years ago bass anglers fished just over five hours per acre. In 2017 that number had doubled with bass fishermen spending more than 10 hours per acre.

More than 81 percent of the dedicated bass anglers TWRA surveyed said they regularly fish bass tournaments. They said they fished an average of eight bass tournaments each year on Chickamauga Lake and according to the report, "A high volume of bass tournaments ... has overwhelmed the few existing boat ramps at Chickamauga."

With pressure, however, comes money. The report shows that fishermen spent more than $4 million fishing on Chickamauga in 2017. That figure does not include the cost of boats, fishing rods, lures and other equipment anglers buy and use repeatedly. Jolley admits those estimates of daily fishing expenses aren't necessarily scientific. They are based upon the anecdotal "guesstimates" of anglers.

"We learned a long time ago that if a guy has his wife in the boat with him, we're going to get a low number," Jolley said with a laugh.

Even if they are guesstimates, the same questions are asked consistently year-to-year to provide trends. The 2017 number of dollars spent fishing on Chickamauga Lake increased nearly fifty percent from the year before.

Dennis Tumlin, Executive Director of Rhea County Economic & Community Development, told a senate subcommittee recently, "Our tourism is driven by Lake Chickamauga. It's bass fishermen. It's a niche market and we're going specifically after the tournament bass fishermen."

He says since they began the effort in 2014 to promote Dayton as "#BassTown," they have hosted 150 bass tournaments on Chickamauga Lake. He says the effort has generated a wealth of new business, jobs and millions in additional tax dollars. He said there was a 19 percent increase in hotel nights in Dayton between 2016 and 2017.

Jolley said so far their research is showing no ill effect from the increased fishing pressure.

"When or if our data shows some reduction or changes in population structure we might need to look at some adjustments," he said.

But for now it's clear that everyone is happy with the fishing on Chickamauga Lake.

The statewide 2017 annual reports have not been completed and posted online yet. However you can view the reports for previous years on this TWRA web page.

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