Tennessee Mountain Stories

Old School Angling

Hunting and fishing are great sports and are widely enjoyed around the world today.  Yet we know that in days gone by hunting and fishing were much more about feeding a family and the forests and waterways have well provided for the people of Tennessee through the years. 

Fishery biologist Justin Spaulding wrote an article for the Tennessee Wildlife Magazine (Spring 2019, pp12-15) that talked about Old School Angling and I found the practices so fascinating that I wanted to share some of the article with you. 

The following is quoted by permission of the author and I thank him sincerely for sharing it with us.

Tennessee has a long history of fishing and not all of it involves traditional bait and tackle.  We often imagine the modern angler with an expensive boat or hundreds of dollars invested in waders, not to mention the garage full of gear.  However, when times were simpler, anglers fished to put food on the table using whatever means they could.

Many of these methods were developed before reservoirs altered Tennessee’s landscape.  River fishing was all that was available, and anglers pursued abundant fish like suckers, buffalo and catfish.  Some of the more notorious methods – explosives, poisons, electricity and firearms – have since been banned to protect fish populations the public and fishermen.  In recent years, some primitive approaches like archery and hand grabbling have returned to popularity   Many legal methods are still available for the Tennessee sportsmen wanting to broaden their tackle box.  Since these techniques enable the angler to harvest large quantities of fish in a single trip, the use of these devices are more strictly regulated than typical fishing gear…

Fish traps are perhaps the oldest method of fishing, while ancient cultures used several types of fish traps, the slat basket (or slat trap) is one still used in Tennessee and that remains commercially available.

Slat baskets can be constructed from wood, cane, or modern plastic materials.  The design is fairly simple, with one end acting as a throat to funnel fish into the other end called the catch area….Instructions for making baskets can readily be found online, or they can be purchased from tackle shops for under $100.  Slat baskets cannot be used within 100 yards of the mouth of a river, creek or slough…

Most slat baskets are used to catch catfish, but will catch redhorse and other suckers as well….There are a variety of options and homebrews for bait, but the most common are waste cheese, cut-bait, dog food, and soybean meal…A well placed and well-baited slat basket will easily pack a cooler.

In a song, Hank Williams, Jr. once immortalized running a trotline as a rite of passage for rural culture…Trotlines are pretty simple, consisting of a mainline attached to the bank or a float with baited droppers every few feet.  Trotlines are chiefly used to catch catfish, but anglers should be prepared for a little bit of everything.  Trotlining is one of the few methods other than where gamefish maybe kept according to local limits.

Trotlines must be checked at least once per day, but a good spot will yield buckets full of catfish in a morning or afternoon if you don’t have time to run a trotline camp like they did in the old days.

Each year, massive schools of fish congregate on the swift and clean river shoals in an effort to produce another generation of offspring.  Spawning runs normally start with the first big rain event in February and can last until early May.  Most rivers produce a healthy run of native redhorse, suckers, and buffalo, but the best will be so plentiful you would think it possible to walk across their backs to the other side.

Snagging, the process by which fish are taken by a hook (most commonly a large treble) with a swift jerking motion, is often employed during spawning runs.  Historically, snagging large river shoals or creek pools for redhorse, buffalo, and suckers was very common.  This tactic may appear distasteful to some at first glance.  However, it is a long practiced tradition in many communities and most fish caught using this tactic are eaten and not wasted…

Back in the 1940s, TWRA (then the Tennessee Game and Fish Commission) even operated a redhorse hatchery in Shelbyville to support a local shoal fishermen association. Most shoals are clear enough that anglers can identify the individual species from the bank, and will cast to a particular fish.  Fishing too soon after a heavy rain may be difficult because of muddy and swift waters.  IN the past, some nimble anglers would dangle from trees and merely lift the hook into the rooter (mouth) as a fish would pass by.  Typically, few non-gamefish are inadvertently snagged, but if caught, they must be released…

Regardless which style you try, if done correctly, a skilled angler will likely be able to catch more fish than can be eaten at once.  While old time anglers certainly enjoyed running a trotline or snagging a shoal for redhorse, at the end of the day they were working to feed their families.  Most anglers today are picky and eat only a few species of fish because they are easier to clean and require less preparation (i.e., crappie and walleye).  However, with a little practice and work, many of the less desirable non-game species can still be quite delicious.  Redhorse, white sucker, freshwater drum, and buffalo have thick scales and Y bones that need to be removed, but proper cleaning will make it worth your while.  A fish can be scaled in seconds and working around the bones requires a little elbow grease and a bit more time.