Staying Safe on the Tailraces

Trapped on an Island

When I first started fishing Tennessee’s  Watauga and South Holston Rivers in  1971, there was no public turbine schedule access.  Both of these are TVA waters with large dams.  I used to have acquaintances who viewed each river from their respective front porches.   When wanting to fish either river, I would just call the befriended person’s phone and ask them to:  “Look out the front door.”   They would gladly do so and give a visual report.  Still, after driving some 90 minutes or more, one never knew what was to come.

One time on the Watauga,  I arrived in time to witness the water dropping.

I knew a certain channel that would be really good for jerking large weighted streamers while the water levels gradually come down.           The channel was on the opposite side of an island, which had to be accessed first in order to fish the channel.

Getting my gear on quickly and stringing up a 6 weight and  lead-loaded  # 4  marabou muddler,  I dropped down a steep bank and  fought the heavy falling water to access said island.   Stepping across the tail of that island with rubbery legs,  I stripped out line and began dredging with the streamer.    After some 10 minutes,  even with my bad hearing, I heard the tone of the river change……………. ……… O-O-OPPS !         The water was still up quite a bit but now the turbines had kicked back on.    …………………………..  Yow !!

Please believe me,  I TRIED to cross that narrow channel several times.   The force of that current wore me down.  At one point, my legs turned to rubber from fighting to stay on my feet.  I knew my next step would find me going down, dressed in full wading gear with heavy vest.

Somehow,  I was able to carefully turn around and inch my way back to the island.    By the way, this “island” had not one inch of dry ground when both turbines were turning,  It was actually at least 10 inches under water at the highest point.  No where to sit………………..

I stood for over  4 hours in some 10-12 inches of moving water, while gazing helplessly across the narrow channel at the steep bank  I needed to reach.

What to do?      It was getting late in the afternoon.

I hung my heavily loaded vest from the end of a broken tree limb, belonging to a river birch which grew out of the now  submerged island…………….. in preparation to swim.   I figured my chances of getting to safety that night would be best served by taking off vest, waders and swimming the 48 degree water, as opposed  to an  attempt of standing up all night in the darkness.   Before this, I had even toyed with the idea of taking my wading belt and binding my chest to that tree to keep me from falling asleep and falling down into the water during the night

About 5 minutes before I was to take the plunge, a car stopped on the road above me and not too far away.  It was somewhat of a miracle that I was spotted from the jungle-like bank above me.  It was someone I recognized and they knew I was in trouble.  They had spotted my truck downriver and came looking.  At least someone knew where I was and that I needed help.   The friend said he would be back in 5 minutes.

I began to relax a bit because I was not in this alone.  The friend returned and screamed down to me………… “They just cut the power.”        My fear subsided as I knew if the turbines were indeed off,  I would be able to walk off the island in about one hour……………….. and did.

This just goes to show that one can never be too careful, nor trust posted release schedules when turbines are involved.

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