The War on Lake Mitchell begins

Published 6:33 pm Monday, May 18, 2009

I recall it was a pretty December morning on Lake Mitchell, but it wouldn’t stay that way long. It has been 22 years, but it seems like yesterday. If you think we have always lived in harmony in the peaceful surroundings of Lake Mitchell, my friends you are wrong!

Since we made our home at Higgins Ferry Park on the lake, it didn’t take long to see that we had a heap of trouble brewing. I immediately saw unfamiliar fishing boats everywhere, very unlike our regular trotline fishermen. I decided to check the one right across from my boathouse.From the wide boat while dressed in yellow rain suits, the two men were calmly placing a huge net-like something I had only heard about. As I came alongside their boat, I must have looked shocked. The net fishermen were polite as the spokesman said, “Sir, I suggest that you contact your office in Montgomery and find out what’s happening.”Later, one of the men from the Tennessee River told me the Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional a law that made it illegal to fish gill nets in our local and surrounding lakes, which had been the case for as long as anyone could remember.The ruling had happened so sudden that the Water Safety Office knew nothing about it—and knowing we permitted net fishing in other parts of the state, they could not share my concern for these folk’s safety. Of course, I didn’t need to be reminded of my responsibilities as a water safety officer because, at that time, we had arrest power to enforce water safety law. Hey, I mean this is no time to check life preservers!

As a young boy growing up on the river, I learned early how serious the trotline fishermen were about their fishing, since several families on the river relied on the trade for their income. This was hard for them to take. First of all, they were permitted to use the nets, and second, they were outsiders. Yes, there would be trouble.

I kept a constant vigil on our visitors, who were camped out on Pennamotely Creek in Coosa County, learned lots about them by name, watched them run their nets, and learned about how they worked and listened to their problems. One thing I was able to learn was these folks were organized, convinced they were within their rights, and though unpopular, determined to stay because they were getting fish to feed their families, too. I was afraid they were to be underestimated.

It didn’t happen suddenly, but I could definitely feel it in the air. First, the local fishermen would approach me to do something—what these people were doing was not right, etc. I tried over and over to explain the court ruling. These people had the law of the land on their side, and they knew it. There was nothing I could do but feel helpless. I even begged those who would listen, “Please don’t do anything foolish,” and I lied a little as I said, “Everything will work out, they’ll be gone soon.” Of course, by now, the net fishermen were reporting threats, theft and destruction of their equipment. Meanwhile, there were reports of tons of fish being taken from the lake each day.

Then it began: Net fishermen were forced at gunpoint to remove their nets. Their camp on Pennamotely Creek was raided by shotgun blasts from other boats at night. My friends, it was getting scary! My main concern was would the netters shoot back? Would they simply leave? At this point, any retaliation would surely have brought bloodshed, this I was certain of.

The netters who had been cooperative before suddenly began to carry shotguns and rifles themselves, and I began to hear remarks like, “I’ve run as far as I intend to.” Since we lived at the public launch in Chilton County where the local folks were based, it was not unusual for my small children to be woken by yelling, lights flashing and even gunshots from our own folks!They were determined to drive the outsiders away. I really feared for the safety of my family now.

To be continued…