TWRA creel clerk Al Bartolotto interviews a fisherman. (Photo: TVA)

If you fish, you probably wonder just what monstrous fish may lurk beneath the surface of the water.

Patrick Black, reservoir program coordinator with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and his team of survey clerks can answer that by asking a simple question: What’s in your creel?

Whether you call it a creel (basket that holds fish), bucket or live well, Black said, “After we find out what you’re catching and how many, the science behind the process takes over to provide us valuable data about fish health and the aquatic habitat in Tennessee waterways.”


According to a study by the Tennessee Valley Authority and the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee River system, containing over 280 native fish species, is the most diverse ecosystem in North America and drives about $12 billion in economic value associated with recreation.

Black’s team has been collecting creel data since 2000. In 2016, TWRA conducted interviews with over 12,250 anglers.

“From the data fishermen shared, I can tell you that our species count and aquatic health [are] in excellent shape,” Black said.

In 2016, Tennessee anglers caught about 7 million fish, almost 20,000 per day. They also made more than 924,000 fishing trips and spent over 5 million hours at their favorite fishing holes. The 2017 data is currently being gathered and reviewed and will be ready in early summer 2018.

TWRA reviews creel survey data each year to help maintain fish populations and healthy ecosystems. According to Black, the agency combines creel survey information with fishery-independent data such as electrofishing, trap-net and gill-net surveys to get a complete picture of each fishery in the state.

Black said:

We aim to stay on top of each fishery before it suffers any risk. Our goal is to optimize growth, reproduction, prey, habitat and size structure to maximize the benefit to Tennessee anglers. Each year, we use a combination of modeling and adaptive management to fine-tune our regulations and adjust them as needed. Based on previous creel data, we did not need to make any significant changes to our fishing regulations for 2017.

TWRA works with agencies such as TVA to help ensure the Tennessee watershed remains healthy.

“The Tennessee River system is worth about $1 million per shoreline mile and generates about 130,000 jobs,” said Bucky Edmondson, TVA director of natural resources. “We work hand in hand with TWRA to protect this valuable resource.”

According to Black, it also takes public support to achieve success.

“Creating a world-class fishery is no accident,” he said. “We encourage anglers to fish responsibly, follow the rules and help protect this valuable resource for generations to come.”