By Larry Woody
The Woolly Booger fly – a little gob of fur and hackle – dances along on the current, resembling a waterlogged insect. Suddenly, a torpedo-shaped shadow rises in the clear water, darts forward and inhales the lure. A huge rainbow trout cartwheels from the stream, its iridescent sides dazzling in the spray, then plunges back into the depths as line screams from the reel. Perhaps a fisherman’s fantasy played out on some remote wilderness river? No, just another day – and another lunker – at Bob White Springs, a catch-and-release fishing stream in Only, Tennessee.
“There aren’t many places where a fisherman can experience catching a big trout like that, especially an hour’s drive from a major city like Nashville,” says Bob Lukens, a New Jersey native who bought the 150-acre Hickman County property in 1983. “I love the outdoors, and having a place like this was a lifelong dream.”
Lukens earned a degree in fisheries from Rutgers University, and after spending 25 years working for a scientific research company, he saw an advertisement for a piece of property in rural Tennessee.
He says it was as though the ad had been written just for him. “I’d always wanted some property with a trout stream on it, but the cost of land like that up there is staggering,” Lukens says. “The place in Tennessee was more in my price range. I flew down, took one look at it and fell in love with the place.”
The Only site was the former home of the Lakeland Trout Farm, and Lukens and wife Betsy began refurbishing it for a two-pronged program: raising trout for recreational fishing and commercial marketing.
After experimenting with various species over the years, Lukens settled on rainbow trout, steelhead, brown trout, Atlantic salmon, char and a brown/brook hybrid called a “tiger trout.”
All the fish are grown on site. Lukens starts by stripping eggs from female fish, fertilizing them and keeping the eggs in moving, temperature-controlled water until they hatch. After the fry (newborn fish) reach a certain size, they are released into the stream-fed pond.
The fish grow rapidly – an inch each month – on a high-protein diet of commercial fish food.
The market fish are sold to Nashville restaurants when they reach 12-13 inches. A boned trout brings just over $3 each, and Bob White Springs produces some 25,000 such fish a year.
Other fish are raised to trophy size, and anglers pay $25 an hour to fish for them. The fishing is by appointment only and done exclusively with fly-fishing tackle. Lukens is happy to provide tackle and fly-fishing instructions if needed, but all fish must be released after catching, so as to maintain the experience for others.
“It’s a very unique experience,” says Jay Clemente, a professional fishing guide who sometimes brings clients to Bob White Springs to practice their trout techniques.
“Not a lot of people get a chance to catch a 5- or 6-pound trout. It’s a great learning experience, getting to play a big fish like that. Once they’ve done it at Bob’s place, they get it out of their system and don’t get freaked out when they hook a monster fish on a wild stream.”
Another guide, Steve Sylvis, says fishing the crystal-clear waters of Bob White Springs “is very instructive and educational. You can see your fly and how the fish react to it. You can study the fish. It’s a really neat place.”
“Understand,” Clemente says, “you won’t be fishing big waters for wild trout. You know that going in. But for what it offers – a chance to hook, fight and land some really big fish on a small stream – it’s a unique opportunity.”
“Our record is a 21-pound, 7-ounce steelhead,” Lukens says. “We catch quite a few fish in the 10-to-12-pound range. Those are extremely large trout.”
As is the case with any farming, aquaculture has its risks. “Droughts and floods – that’s what keeps you awake at night,” Lukens says.
“Our stream normally flows about 3,000 gallons a minute, but last summer we got down to 700 or 800 gallons. We finally got some rain, but we’re still below normal.” He adds that floods carry silt and other impurities into the water.
Trout are a delicate fish, requiring cold, pure water to survive – 58 degrees is ideal, according to Lukens. Too much warm runoff water can be disastrous, and floods also carry in leaves or other debris that clog screens and drainpipes.
Predators such as raccoons and herons take a toll. Lukens places wire mesh over his holding ponds to protect the smaller trout from herons and sets traps for the raccoons, but they still manage to pull off an occasional heist.
One unique fish-farm hazard: lightning. “If lightning strikes the water, it can paralyze a certain percentage of the fish,” Lukens explains. But Lukens says the rewards of trout farming are worth the work and the risks.
“I’m a very fortunate man,” he says. “I’m doing exactly what I’ve wanted to do my whole life. I’m using every facet of my professional life – sales, marketing and biology.”
Those who visit tend to agree. “It’s a beautiful setting, the trout are big and they’re always biting,” Clemente adds. “Bob’s got himself a nice little piece of heaven.”
To learn more about Bob White Springs Farm, visit www.bobwhitesprings.com or call (931) 729-5515.
Freshwater farming, or aquaculture, is the science of raising aquatic plants or animals in natural or controlled environments, and the practice has become big business in Tennessee.
Fish farms, especially, are growing in popularity. Some specialize in raising fish for commercial markets while others grow fish for recreational pursuits.
Most catch-and-pay lakes charge a fee –either a flat rate or based on the pounds of fish caught. The appeal of such lakes is that they tend to be accessible, require no complex tackle and gear, and the fish are generally cooperative.
Links to more fish farms: