LYNCHBURG, Tenn. – In Tennessee, AFTCO and B.A.S.S. have earned a spectacular return on their investment, as a $5,000 conservation grant to enhance habitat in one reservoir ignited an effort to improve fisheries statewide.
"Kids from the entire state are participating now. This thing just exploded," said Jake Davis, conservation director for the Tennessee B.A.S.S. Nation (TBN) "What we did this past winter would have taken the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) four or five years to do by itself."
That's not a criticism of the agency, which has limited manpower, he emphasized, but rather a tribute to the valuable assistance provided by an estimated 750 students, with their parents, from the TBN high school and youth program.
"With over 5,450 hours of labor, Tennessee B.A.S.S. Nation, TWRA and AFTCO have effectively changed the landscape throughout Tennessee," AFTCO said. "Habitat has been placed in seven of the 19 reservoirs in Tennessee, along with removal of no less than 30,000 pounds of garbage from five reservoirs."
That landscape change began when Davis' South Central Region of TBN received one of four grants in 2018, the first year of the AFTCO x B.A.S.S. Nation Conservation Grant Program. Funds were to be used to improve habitat on Tims Ford.
And, indeed it did, as TBN and TWRA teamed up to place 3,700 structures in the 10,500-acre impoundment. Habitat added included spider blocks, stake beds and anchored stands of submerged bamboo up to 16 feet tall. Some of it, Davis added, is "shallow-water, bank style habitat for fry."
But the Tennessee CD and others also saw the bigger picture: Work at Tims Ford could be a blueprint for not only other fisheries in the South Central Region, but the entire state.
"While remaining committed to use the AFTCO Grant funds solely for Tims Ford Reservoir, efforts were made to start gathering more resources from several companies throughout Middle Tennessee to support the growing conservation plan," AFTCO said. "In August of 2018, the TWRC Commissioners requested a presentation on the AFTCO Grant, which resulted in Commissioner Bill Cox issuing a challenge to take the program statewide."
Additionally, "this has exploded into more things, like cleanups," Davis said. "Now kids are having meetings at ramps to pick up trash or at someone's house to build habitat, and they're seeing the benefits of it."
The TBN conservation director added that students helped place the habitat, as well as build it at Tims Ford. "The biologists even asked the kids where they wanted to put some of it," he said.
Word of TBN's student activism went viral too, and one day Davis received a phone call from someone who told him that students from Michigan State wanted to use their spring break time to help with a cleanup at Normandy Lake. At first, he thought it was a prank call.
It wasn't. As part of their "Pay It Forward" tour, 160 college students helped TBN members, TWRA crews and other volunteers collected what Davis said was enough trash "to fill a semi."
The man who helped start Tennessee's high school fishing program added that TBN youth will continue to team with TWRA to improve habitat. "And it's not just where we have tournaments," he said.
Bass pros could provide a huge assist by talking about the importance of habitat, not only for Tennessee reservoirs but for aging fisheries nationwide, Davis said. "We get enough about how to work a jerkbait in the spring."
As Tennessee moves forward with more habitat improvements, other AFTCO x B.A.S.S. grants from 2018 are being used to help grow vegetation in Virginia, develop a Lunker Fish Care University in Texas and help outfit a Youth Division fish care trailer in Michigan.
Additionally, application for 2019 grants is open until May 15. Approved projects must involve youth, have endorsement of a local fisheries management agency and work to accomplish goals of mutual benefit.
You can access the grant application form here.