Could one of the South’s most legendary fishing destinations be threatened by whatever killed more than 300 catfish in Chickamauga Lake in early May?
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists are looking into the cause, and the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation maintains water quality in the Tennessee River between the Chickamauga and Watts Bar dams is safe, including water from the Hiwassee River used by utilities for drinking water.
Officials so far have found no cause behind the fish kill or drinking water complaints.
Wildlife officials said surveys of Chickamauga Lake completed Thursday show it is possible conditions are improving. No new dead or sick catfish were found, agency spokeswoman Mime Barnes said Thursday in a phone interview.
State officials were a bit surprised but not as alarmed about the dead catfish showing up as some lake users, Barnes said.
“Catfish are so hardy, they’re the creature we don’t worry about,” she said, “and that they were dying off and no other types of fish were is very reflective that it wasn’t a toxin or chemical spill.”
While state biologists were surveying the lake, they saw dead fish of other species but in small numbers, Barnes said. Other species found dead could be a result of common seasonal diseases or predation or fishing wounds, she said.
Anglers who fish the “Chick,” as most of the bass fishing community dubs the lake, have been raising the alarm over concerns other species — including largemouth bass — are being affected, too, posting photos of floating fish other than catfish on social media.
“It’s not only catfish dead on Chick,” angler Ben Jones posted Monday on the Facebook page Lake Chickamauga Fishing Group, with a photo of some dead fish. “This red eye, two crappie plus a drum, and about 30 cats stinking up the place. This red eye was still alive. Count me out on fishing this lake for a while.”
One angler, Thoran Ellis, started a fundraising campaign page Wednesday to raise money to do private testing for contaminants or disease.
“As you are probably aware, Lake Chickamauga is undergoing something extraordinarily strange,” Ellis said in a comment posted with his fundraiser. “A massive fish die-off has left the entire lake covered in dead fish, and every expert on the lake agrees that the cause is worryingly worse than what we’re being told by certain agencies. This community and economy depends on the health of the lake, and together we can get some real answers.”
On the other hand, some anglers posting their catches on Chickamauga Lake on Wednesday and Thursday on the fishing group page were showing off healthy largemouth bass and giving accounts of healthy catfish being caught.
In response to comments on social media pointing fingers at the wildlife agency, Barnes said some of the state’s anglers are missing something important.
“We have the same concerns,” Barnes said of wildlife officials. “We’re all anglers. I’ve always been an angler, too. For me, fishing is like Christmas — the anticipation of the gift and not knowing when it’s coming, and then — what’s on the line? I absolutely love fishing.”
Wildlife officials are leading the state’s probe into the dead catfish and have continuously monitored the situation throughout the week and have found only the same catfish found during previous inspections, Barnes said Thursday in a follow-up statement.
“Agency biologists have covered over 130 miles of shoreline during surveys and are working closely with Auburn University’s Southeastern Cooperative Fish Parasite and Disease Laboratory to investigate potential causes of the catfish die-off,” Barnes said. “The agency has not found evidence of toxins or chemical spills that could have caused the issue.”
According to wildlife officials, natural fish die-offs can occur due to warm waters, lower oxygen content and other events such as outbreaks of naturally occurring pathogens. The types of markings or wounds on the fish being seen are not unusual in reservoirs in the Southeastern United States during spring and early summer, as water temperatures begin to increase, officials said.
“TWRA initially received calls regarding dead catfish on Chickamauga Lake the first week of May,” Barnes said in the statement. “Primarily catfish around one pound in the same age range have been observed. Biologists have been monitoring a large expanse of the lake since this time.”
BAD-TASTING DRINKING WATER
There have also been other worries among anglers over water that flows into Tennessee from the Hiwassee River between the two TVA dams, and some of Chickamauga’s anglers wonder if utility customer complaints about stinky, bad-tasting drinking water has anything to do with dead fish. State officials said there has been no link found so far, but the distasteful water remains an issue.
Cleveland Utilities in Bradley County and Athens Utilities in McMinn County — both utilities use water from the Hiwassee River — have issued statements since late April about the drinking water.
Cleveland Utilities in a statement Wednesday said officials have been working to determine the cause for the water taste and odor changes that have persisted for several weeks.
“Recent tests indicate the source of the taste and odor issue is primarily 2-methylisoborneol and is located on the Hiwassee River — upstream of the confluence with the Ocoee River,” the statement said.
According to the utility, 2-methylisoborneol, called MIB for short, and another substance found in the water, geosmin, are naturally occurring algae-derived compounds often found in lakes and reservoirs across the U.S., and they have an earthy, musty taste and odor but are not harmful.
The utility has drawn its drinking water from the Hiwassee River for almost seven decades and has never had the problem before, officials said.
Athens Utility Board spokesman Wayne Scarbrough said tests show drinking water is safe, according to a similar statement issued earlier this month.
“This is not a new issue by any means,” Scarbrough said. “There is not a problem with the water from a health standpoint in any way. But there is, for some, a strange, earthy taste.”
Officials hope the weather leads to an improvement as the state monitors the situation.
Contact Ben Benton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6569.