When Steve Pickett reopened his family's Pickett Trout Ranch near Dunlap, Tenn., in 2004, the bulk of his business was from anglers who came to catch rainbow trout from the ponds there.
Today, Pickett has let the fishing fade and has switched almost entirely to selling 50,000 fresh 1-pound trout annually to some 15 Chattanooga restaurants that make a point to include locally grown food on their menus.
"It's been great for me," said Pickett. "The new thing is the 'farm-to-table' restaurant."
Menus at high-end downtown eateries including 212 Market, Hennen's and Easy Bistro all tout Pickett's trout as locally sourced fare. The trout are never frozen and are delivered fresh the day after they're harvested -- or the same day for an extra cost.
"I think that's really what's helping us out," Pickett said. "The fresher they are, the better they're going to taste."
Various attempts have been made to launch commercial fishing operations in the Chattanooga area, ranging from a new aquaponics operation scheduled to open in a vacant Walker County, Ga., carpet mill to commercial fishermen who haul catfish from Nickajack Lake.
Pickett may have hooked into a secret to making commercial fishing work: Meeting the growing demand for locally sourced food.
"We've been seeing so many restaurants getting into it," said Andrea Jaeger, program director for Crabtree Farms, a nonprofit research and educational farm off Rossville Boulevard. "A lot of [diners] are asking right now 'What's local on the menu?'"
To promote local food, Crabtree Farms publishes a downtown local food map listing restaurants with fare from area producers. The group also produces a local food taste directory and will print 80,000 copies of the 2013 TasteBuds, a magazine-style guide to promote awareness and consumption of food grown within 100 miles of Chattanooga. Pickett Trout Ranch is the only fish-growing business listed in TasteBuds.
It's gotten to the point that nonchain restaurants that don't offer locally produced fare are getting left behind, she said.
"I definitely think it's a good thing for restaurants to start doing," Jaeger said. "I really do think it's catching on."
Kelly Armonett, University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension Service Eastern Region Fisheries agent in Morgan County, Tenn., says aquaculture in the eastern 33 counties of the Volunteer State has fish farming participants, but the industry has seen little growth.
"We don't have very much in East Tennessee; we have some," he said. "At one time, we had the freshwater prawn, some folks were experimenting with it. But it kind of came and went."
Armonett said catfish, tilapia and freshwater prawn are the most common species farmed across the state, followed by trout and some koi, the ornamental pond fish.
"Every year for the past five years there are 10 to 15 folks that are looking to get into aquaculture," he said.
"The big thing is the marketing," Armonett said. Feed costs are high, electricity to run aerators is expensive and most operations need to harvest large quantities of fish -- for example, draining a whole catfish or trout pond at once, or harvesting highly populated "cages" of fish in artificial habitats -- to make a profit.
Armonett and Georgia Seafood safety officer Sandy Shepherd say inland fish producers need a niche market.
"There's a huge amount of interest, but unless you are able to fill a niche market with your product, there's just too much overhead for them to continue with it," Shepherd said.
He said fish farmers are learning to diversify to attract more interest and protect against losses.
Catfish production seems steady or even down in Georgia, Shepherd said, while experimentation with other species appears to be increasing.
All facets of aquaculture continue to attract attention, but most people recognize the risk, too.
Some operations change from one species to another for a period of time, he said.
"Nowadays, you've got to diversify," Shepherd said. "More people are trying a variety of things.
"Lately, we've had a lot of interest in 'aquaponics,'" he said of the practice of raising plants in an all-water environment along with fish. "I think there's an aquaponics operation up in North Georgia."
"You feed the fish, the fish waste provides the nutrients for the plant, and the fish give off ammonia, and the plants eat the ammonia," Shepherd said, simplifying the process a bit.
Section High School in Jackson County, Ala., and Ridgeland High School in Walker County, Ga., have growing aquaculture programs in which students raise tilapia, catfish and other freshwater species such as shrimp and crawfish.
Officials at both schools said as the programs developed, they would seek out buyers from area restaurants and distributors to net enough income to keep the operations self-sustaining.
Pickett offered an icy-cold handshake to a visitor Thursday.
He personally fillets each of the 50,000 trout he sells annually. Diners around here don't like eating whole fish with the head on, he said.
Trout need cold, oxygen-rich water to survive. Pickett spends a lot of time working in and around the cold spring water that issues from Cookston Cave on the Sequatchie Valley land that his family has owned for five generations. The water stays between 54 and 46 degrees Fahrenheit year-round.
Pickett raises his fish from fertilized eggs he gets each winter from Oregon. They're never given antibiotics.
"It's learn as you go," said Pickett, who perfected his filleting technique through methods such as studying YouTube videos. "Every year, I learn some new little trick."
Pickett thinks he could have made a go of getting people to come to catch their own trout. But he was tiring of having people show up as late as 10 p.m.
"It's weird when you live somewhere, and you've got people coming down all the time," he said.
Serendipity played a role in his current business model.
Before taking over the fish farm, Pickett worked for a beer, wine and liquor distributor. That put him in touch with chefs to whom he now sells fish.
His first customer was 212 Market.
"He's never brought us a bad piece of fish," restaurant manager Jesse Pyron said. "It's a great product."
Pyron said diners notice locally produced food on the menu.
"People -- especially people who are traveling ... really seem to get a kick out of getting a taste of the area," he said.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...
Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.