A couple of fishermen hollered at John Justice, who stood across the dark green water at the edge of his own boat. They wanted one like his, one with orange poles jutting out the front, one that seemed to draw the fish right in as if Jesus himself were on board.
It was about 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Chickamauga Reservoir at Harrison Bay, and it was cold, and the two men still had not caught anything. Justice sympathized.
"I'm sure if the stars aligned you could catch a bunch of fish, but it's just tough," he hollered at the empty-handed men as he scooped his third and fourth bass into a fishing net. Within a half-hour, he would catch 73 fish.
Justice, a fisheries biologist with the Tennessee Valley Authority, came to the reservoir Tuesday to monitor the region's sport fish. He and other TVA biologists looked for spotted bass and smallmouth bass and largemouth bass and crappies. They wanted to see how many fish were in the reservoir, and whether those fish were healthy.
The TVA team will get up before sunrise again today and do the same thing. They will do it again Thursday. Then they will combine the data they collected in those three days. But they won't analyze it. Not yet. Not enough time.
Instead, the TVA will shift operations to the Guntersville Reservoir, and then to some other Tennessee River reservoir, again and again until May, when the temperatures rise and the fish migrate and TVA finally stops collecting data for the season. That's when biologists analyze their numbers and think about why they found the amount of fish they did.
But on Tuesday, they just worried about catching all the fish they could. For fishers, Justice said, the Chickamauga Reservoir is about as bountiful as any in the country.
"You would have to go to Mexico to find a better place," he said.
But even if they were unlucky, even if the fish were reluctant Tuesday morning, Justice and the other TVA biologists didn't need the stars to align. They had an advantage. They had electricity.
Sitting on the back of a TVA boat, a generator streamed a current through a wire to an "electro-fisher" box, through another wire and into the orange poles that hung off the boat and connected to a chain, which then pushed the electricity into the water, creating an invisible electric field about 5 feet wide and 8 feet deep. The electricity froze the muscles of the fish, forcing them to float helplessly toward the surface, where the biologists scooped them up, plopped them into a livewire and later a fresh water-filled bucket, to be measured and weighed and counted and tossed back into the reservoir.
The electricity does not harm the fish, Justice said before making a trip into a third spot of the water.
Nine more half-hour trips awaited Tuesday, 32 more this week.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6476.