Trucks piled onto a boat ramp along Lake Chickamauga in the early morning hours of a spring day. As space quickly filled, drivers made their own parking, leaving their trucks lined in the grass along the waterline.
It was the morning of another fishing tournament, one of several on the lake that Saturday.
Before daybreak, the lot was full with fishermen hoping to win the day's grand prize. Anyone coming any later would be out of luck — the father and his daughter, the man looking for several peaceful hours away from the stresses of life. If they wanted to go out in a boat, they'd have to find another place to launch or be willing to park elsewhere and walk.
The scene would be repeated the next day as more tournaments came and went. As spring turned to summer and summer to fall, leaves along the shoreline began to transform into the picturesque colors people would travel to see. All the while, the boats and trucks remained, lining miles of water and filling parking lots at local boat ramps. For, as always, there was another tournament to fish — a gathering for a local club, a small fundraiser for a man battling cancer, a tournament for a church to raise money, a qualifier for one of the premier fishing tournaments in the nation.
Just how many tournaments are fished on the lake every year — or even in a given day or week — isn't known. There's no registration, little oversight and no system to monitor them. But a state official and several local fishermen all said there's at least one tournament nearly every day and five or more in a weekend.
Evidence about how much tournament fishing has grown on the lake is almost entirely anecdotal. Without records, it's impossible for the state or concerned fishermen to measure the scope of the growing popularity. But there is a consensus: tournament fishing is growing.
"We do not have a registration system for tournaments," Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Regional Fisheries Manager Mark Thurman said. "Tournaments take place at various scales. You have clubs; you have work groups; private people putting on the tournaments, all the way up to [the Chattanooga Bass Association], with more organized events and national tournaments. It happens at a lot of different scales, but it's definitely a thing that has grown, especially at Chickamauga."
The nearly 60-mile-long lake created when the Tennessee Valley Authority created the Chickamauga Dam has become one of the top ranked bass lakes in the country. Its reputation grows as tournament fishermen record larger hauls. This year, Bassmaster's annual rankings placed the local lake at the second spot on its list of best bass lakes in the U.S., 10 spots higher than it ranked last year.
"Forty to 50 percent of fishermen out there are tournament fishermen. On Chickamauga, there's even more," TWRA reservoir manager Mike Jolley said. "It does have a lot of tournament activity, and it has increased because of the success of the largemouth [bass]."
And with that influx, the TWRA is seeing an increasing strain on boat ramps. Some are managed better than others.
Fishermen in the region often cite Dayton, Tennessee, as an example of how to properly manage tournaments and a boat ramp. The county schedules tournaments, has personnel dedicated to promoting fishing and and has a large ramp with added amenities. Fishing is now one of Rhea County's largest economic drivers.
At Chester Frost State Park in Hixson, the Hamilton County Parks & Recreation Department manages access, and although often crowded the tournaments are scheduled in advance. However, all the ramps, no matter how they're managed, go to the same lake, leaving fishermen fighting for space on the same waterway. Boats fill the shorelines and stretch out for miles, often clumping in hotspots to fish the same areas.
"Chickamauga is large, but it fishes really, really small, and it gets crowded quick," Chattanooga Bass Association Vice President Brad Ferguson said. " ... It hurts the guy who has worked all week and wants to go out on the weekend with his family. Those are the ones it hurts the most."
And those are often the ones complaining loudest. Online forums regularly become discussion places for the latest complaints surrounding recent tournaments. Emotions boil over into Facebook comments and internet posts.
Others stew in silence, watching the saga unfold as they fish less and contemplate whether it's all worth it.
Local resident Tevis Knight became interested in fishing after getting married. His father-in-law introduced him, and he began to go regularly. But Knight works during the week and wants to spend time with his family. His fishing is confined to weekends, when tournament traffic is heaviest.
He often fishes with his young son in the middle of the day during the summer to avoid tournament crowds. The two find spots that aren't being fished, which aren't typically good spots, he said. But he's accepted that and still tries to go. It means he won't catch many fish, but he gets to fish without worrying about water traffic or other fishermen fighting for the same spot. For his son, it is often harder to explain.
"Fishing is not fun if you're not catching any fish," Knight said. "If I go a few times and don't catch them, what gets me going back is knowing eventually I'll catch something. That's tough for a 6-year-old."
And it's all getting to be too much, he added. The fun is being drained for many of the everyday fishermen, and for him, he's unsure it's worth the trouble.
"I really don't know what the solution is," Knight said. "The whole lake is getting a lot busier in general. The lakes are getting slammed with people. It's an ordeal to get the boat launched. It's a disaster to get into the water."
Some have called for a registration system, one that would involve all tournaments being scheduled and registered with the state. Officials then could limit the number of tournament fishermen on the water in a given day and control traffic.
However, fishermen are overwhelmingly concerned about further government intervention. After all, many go fishing to escape the stresses of life and enjoy a day in isolation on the water with little more than a rod, a reel and maybe a buddy. The thought of state officials and regulations further managing their free time is unacceptable for many.
"Do I think steps to curb the tournaments should be taken? No, I don't," Ferguson said. "But I think there needs to be organization with it."
Ferguson pointed to the Dayton boat ramp and Chester Frost Park as places with oversight. But state officials aren't sure such oversight would be possible on a wide scale.
They're aware of boater access issues and complaints about the number of tournaments. If there were to be an overhaul, it would likely start at the state level with them, the leaders of the TWRA. They would be in charge of implementing and managing a registration system. However, that doesn't mean changes are coming in the foreseeable future "unless it becomes easier," Thurman said.
Enforcing regulations and registration would fall to Thurman and the limited number of rangers monitoring a 23-county area with hundreds of miles of shoreline.
"If there was such a mandate, it would fall on us," he said. "I have an interest in the amount of tournament traffic. I'd have an interest to track that. ... There is concern about the resource itself. Boat ramps get crowded. We're finding for ourselves on Chickamauga, we could use more access there. It does get quite busy during tournaments."
Thurman and Jolley aren't sure how much would be feasible other than expanding boat ramps to improve access, which is a possibility. A system overhaul would require more money and manpower or pulling resources away from current responsibilities.
There's also an overlying belief among fishermen — even among some who complain about the traffic and crowd — that tournaments are good for fishing.
"If you like fishing and everything that comes with it, you can't negate fishing tournaments," local fisherman Michael Nabors said. "All the nice fishing equipment, all the nice boats, all the nice rods, it's all because of fishing tournaments."
Nabors has fished in local club and benefit tournaments, but he stopped going some time ago. They began controlling too much of his life. He found himself out on the water when he would rather have been with his family, he said. He now largely avoids the tournament scene. It's too busy and too crowded.
He is retired, which gives him the luxury to go fishing when major tournaments aren't on the water. And while he believes there are more positives that come from tournament fishing than negatives, there is a mounting problem.
"Ever since people started catching a lot of bass over 10 pounds, especially when someone caught a state record, bass tournaments have flocked to Lake Chickamauga on any given Saturday," he said. "There are tournaments all over the place, and a guy that just wants to go fishing has a hard time getting on the lake on a Saturday. In particular, boat ramps are full of tournament people."
Among fishermen, the subject is often difficult to discuss. Many take part in tournaments themselves and understand the benefits. But quietly, they acknowledge there is a problem in the fishing community: things are getting crowded. The problem is generally understood, but that hasn't led to a solution. Ideas range widely from a complete overhaul to the system, which would involve state intervention and regulation, to complacency, which would leave things as they are.
It's a problem that fishermen and state officials admit to, but not one that has led to much dialogue or action.
"It's a touchy situation; it's a touchy subject," Ferguson said.