In 1992 leadership of the Great Smoky Mountains Chapter of Trout Unlimited decided to spin off a new Chapter to work as a support group for Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The new chapter would concentrate on the Park and be partners with the original chapter. To do this, TU members who lived in counties in East Tennessee that were located near the Smokies were removed from the original chapter and assigned to the new one. After much discussion, the new group decided they would be identified as the Little River Chapter. A new charter and bylaws were approved by the national organization and leadership for the Little River Chapter was chosen in 1993.
Prior to this the relationship between the National Park Service and Trout Unlimited had been antagonistic because of differing management philosophies. Chapter leadership initiated contact with Fishery Biologist Steve Moore and initiated discussion about ways to cooperate and work together. As this relationship began to bud, small fishery related projects were planned. As time went by, members from both chapters worked together and earned the respect of the Park’s fishery biologist and Superintendent Randy Pope. Perhaps the biggest key to success was that Trout Unlimited members understood from the beginning that their role was to support the Park and it’s fishery program and not tell them how to do their job.
In 1994 the two chapters worked jointly to hold a banquet in Knoxville. The banquet was a huge success and was the highest grossing Trout Unlimited Banquet ever in Tennessee. Profits from the event exceeded $18,000.
Initially, members from both chapters assisted the fisheries staff with annual population sampling projects. Every year at designated sample sites all the fish in a 100 or 200 meter section were captured using electroshocking and the individual trout counted, measured and weighed then released. Over the years, a data base was developed that demonstrated annual variation in fish populations and that this variation was mostly due to floods and droughts, not fishing pressure. These data were very revealing and helped many TU members and staff members of other agencies understand how natural systems fluctuate.
One of the primary thrust of the fishery program was and is the restoration of native brook trout to segments of its historic range. As the understanding of this project improved, members of both chapters assisted with the restoration either physically or by helping raise funds for equipment and personnel. Over the years this program has successfully restored 17.2 miles of stream for our only native trout. Because of the success of this program the Smokies opened fishing for brook trout for the first time in 30 years in 2005.
During this time Park staff in conjunction with personnel from the University of Tennessee was collecting data on acid deposition. Based on the data that were being produced, Park staff was concerned about the effects acid deposition could have on fish populations, especially high elevation brook trout populations. Because the collection of samples was so time consuming, park fishery staff approached the local TU chapters about helping collect samples for analyses. So, in an unprecedented long range project, volunteers from the Great Smoky Mountains Chapter and Little River Chapter agreed to help collect samples from across the park. Chapter members were assigned routes from which they were to collect samples on a regular basis. Many of these routes required long hikes into the backcountry. A coordinator from each chapter kept the volunteer pool of available, trained people ready for the task of continuing the Acid Deposition Project. Samples were analyzed at UT for pH, acid neutralizing capacity, conductivity, anions, cations, sulfates and nitrates. The evidence produced by this effort has conclusively shown that the streams are becoming more acidic and that acid deposition is the only plausible explanation. This efforts continues today
By this time other chapters of Trout Unlimited followed the example set by the original two and the partnership grew. Money was raised by chapters and other partners and those funds were leveraged to acquire more money for the fisheries projects. Trout Unlimited National gave extensive funding to projects.
In 2005 the Little River Chapter conceived a plan to raise money for brook trout restoration in the Smokies. They called it Troutfest. It consisted of a fundraiser banquet and festival. In just four years, the chapter raised $60,000 that has been donated to the Park for brook trout restoration. These funds have been leveraged and matched with funds from many sources to secure adequate funds for carefully selected projects. The brook trout program continues with successful projects. Additionally, a portion of the funds from Troutfest are used to help fund the Scholarship Endowment that pays for fisheries biology students to work in the park as seasonal employees.
Due to the relationship started by two Trout Unlimited chapters, the Fisheries Department has received $2.2 million in cash, labor and matching funds over the past fifteen years. Other partners include the Fly Fishing Federation, Friends of the Smokies, TU Chapters in North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia and State Trout Unlimited Councils. Many private and public companies have given money to the Smokies fisheries programs which is included in the total.
Steve Moore was and continues to be the head Fisheries Biologist at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Byron Begley was the founding President of the Little River Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Steve and Byron wrote this history together.