A fisherman drowned below Cheatham Dam last week after falling out of his boat in the churning water.
Since the man was alone, details about exactly how the accident occurred are unknown. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which headed the recovery effort, said the Clarksville man had been "fishing near the dam" when he was reported missing. His empty boat was later recovered downstream.
According to TWRA investigators, the man "often fished near the dam," indicating that he was familiar with the rough, turbulent water that gushes through during periods of generation.
The fatal accident comes on the heels of this summer's controversial effort by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to ban boats from entering the fast water below Cheatham and other area dams on the Cumberland River system.
The Corps cited safety concerns as the reason why it wanted to keep boats out of such tailwaters. But an uprising by fishermen -- supported by the TWRA and some prominent politicians -- forced the Corps to abandon its plan to place barriers below the dams to keep boats out.
Many veteran fishermen such as guide Bill Bethel, who frequently fishes below Cheatham and Old Hickory dams for rockfish, vocally opposed the Corps plan. They insisted the water is safe if precautions are taken.
The TWRA requires all boaters in such areas to wear life jackets. However, the regulation is seldom if ever enforced. I've fished below Cheatham, Old Hickory and Cordell Hull dams numerous times in recent years and observed many fishermen not wearing a life jacket.
Frankly, I don't like to fish such rough water, with the boat rocking and churning in the rolling water. It's difficult fishing, and I always feel a tad uneasy, even with an experienced boater like Bethel.
I prefer fishing further downstream, where the current is not as strong and the fishing is more comfortable. I've caught plenty of fish in the slower water.
But others prefer to fish close to the dams, where big rockfish feed on shad and other forage fish that school in the fast water. They won a heated debate with the Corps of Engineers over their right to fish there.
Last week's drowning probably won't revise the debate, but it does serve as a grim reminder about how dangerous the churning tailwaters can be.
It's a timely warning, because cold weather means prime-time sauger fishing, and many sauger fisherman prefer to fish immediately below the dams. Some, in fact, fish within a few feet of the walls.
Wintertime fishing is especially dangerous because falling into the water will result in hypothermia. Combine that with the hazards of navigating a boat in the churning water and it makes for some risky fishing.
Even someone who has experience in fishing in such turbulent water is not immune from an accident, as last week's drowning proved.
Fishermen won the right to fish there, but they also bear the responsibility for their safety.