CELINA, Tenn. — Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery is a plain-Jane facility that will never be written up in Architectural Digest, but it’s a beautiful place to anglers, especially those who want to catch a few pan-sized rainbow trout at several places in and around Nashville this winter and next spring.
It can be a major stop on a meandering drive through the hills country northeast of Nashville to see a beautiful lake that Tennessee shares with Kentucky and to wonder about life in a thinly populated part of the state. While the hatchery has millions of residents, only approximately 7,200 people call Celina and surrounding Clay County home.
The imposing mass of Dale Hollow Dam is the hatchery’s immediate neighbor and the reason the hatchery exists. The hatchery’s water supply comes from about 95 feet down in Dale Hollow Lake, where the temperature is between 40 and 60 degrees.
Water feeds into an array of visually unimpressive concrete raceways that are incubators for approximately 2.5 million trout every year. Aesthetics, of course, are not the objective here.
Trout start as globs of eggs and leave as spunky, writhing, edible fish at least 9 inches long and able to put up a nice fight when an angler hooks one in a stream or lake. Stocked fish may be a bit longer than 9 inches, and a few grow longer and fatter after release.
Trout rearing begins in a beige one-level building filled with blue concrete tanks. The process continues in an expanse of outdoor raceways. The hatchery is wide open for you to walk around, chat with technicians at work and admire the beautiful fish.
Observant first-time visitors notice that black netting hangs above the outdoor raceways. Any herons, eagles and ospreys flying overhead would see the raceways as glorious cafeteria lines if it weren’t for the netting.
On my last visit, I addressed a question to employees Jerry Short and Wilson Tanksley as they stood beside one of the indoor tanks. Short held up his hand in a polite gesture that communicated, “Wait just a minute. I’m concentrating.”
Short and Tanksley were counting tiny trout they dipped from the tank and then dropped into a bowl on a digital scale. Dozens and dozens of squirming trout not even an inch long were their focus.
They were counting a set number, weighing them and then calculating the volume in the tank. The fish graduate (in a sense) as they grow, get moved from tank to tank and then finally go to the outdoor raceways when about 700 of them weigh a total of 1 pound. When 100 fish cumulatively weigh a pound, they are moved to bigger raceways. When three fish weigh a pound, they are big enough to stock for anglers’ enjoyment.
Approximately 350,000 pounds of trout depart Dale Hollow Hatchery every year for waters in Tennessee and contiguous states. Some are destined for places in and near Nashville in a winter stocking program of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
“The program is purely for people to catch fish. We try to put fish where people are,” said Jenifer Wisniewski, TWRA’s chief of outreach and communication.
Nashville-area stockings run from early December through early March. Locations include Sulphur Fork Creek in Springfield, the Stones River tailwaters below Percy Priest Dam, Nice Mill near Smyrna, the Harpeth River in Franklin, Marrowbone Lake in Joelton and the West Fork of the Stones River in Murfreesboro.
Wisniewski noted that TWRA stocks about 9 million fish a year statewide (especially trout, catfish and bass) from 11 state-owned hatcheries, plus Dale Hollow and another federal hatchery in Erwin.
Wisniewski said TWRA’s sales of fishing licenses in 2020 were strong — in part because the COVID pandemic pulled people into outdoor recreation — and that the renewal rate and overall sales rate in 2021 have remained high. She said that more than a million Tennesseans have licenses.
“It’s a delight that people found the outdoors, and it’s exciting that they found value in the experience. We hope that continues,” she said.
For some, that exploration of the outdoors begins by peering into a tank teeming with tiny trout, continues by feeling the tug on a fishing line and is rewarded by enjoying a tasty pan-fried fish.
Enjoy Tom Adkinson’s Tennessee Traveler destination articles the second and fourth Friday every month. Adkinson, author of “100 Things To Do in Nashville Before You Die,” is a Marco Polo member of SATW, the Society of American Travel Writers.