At the end of a fishing trip, there's usually a few straggling minnows left in the bait bucket. Most fishermen simply dump them overboard.
There's just one problem that: it's against the law.
The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency reminds fishermen that it is illegal to release any fish -- including left-over bait minnows -- into public waters.
The reason is simple: you never know what sort of invasive species might be mixed in with the bait. For that reason, any left-over minnows should be dumped on the ground, where birds will quickly gobble them up.
A growing problem -- and potential catastrophe -- in Tennessee is strains of Asian carp, both big-head and silver. They were accidentally released in Arkansas during the early 1990s when the Mississippi River flooded.
Before long the invasive carp population exploded. The fish quickly spread through West Tennessee and into Middle Tennessee waters, including the Cumberland River and its tributaries such as Stones River.
The carp are not only dangerous -- they frequently leap into the air when disturbed by a boat motor, with the potential to cause serious injury -- but they can devastate native fish populations.
The carp feed on plankton and other micro-organisms at the bottom of the food chain. Once the carp deplete that food source, game-fish fry are doomed -- as are, eventually, mature game fish.
Unless a solution is found to stop the proliferation of the carp, an unprecedented fisheries disaster could devastate the state's billion-dollar sport-fishing industry.
So far biologists have found no practical way to reduce the carp population once it infests a body of water. Commercial netting can reduce the population in a specific area, but is not cost-effective. So far all biologists can do is try deter the introduction of the carp into new waters.
That's why dumping bait fish is prohibited.
Young carp look similar to shad, both threadfin and gizzard, which are popular bait fish for species such as rockfish and hybrids. (The TWRA Tennessee Fishing Guide has photos of threadfin shad, gizzard shad, bighead carp and silver carp, and they are virtually indistinguishable.)
When buying commercially-raised minnows such as tuffies, you never know what might be mixed in with the legal bait. I've found sculpin in buckets of crappie minnows, and once discovered a one-inch catfish.
The threat from invasive species is considered so critical that the TWRA bans certain species from being transported or possessed in Tennessee: silver carp, bighead carp, black carp, blueback herring, New Zealand mud snail, round goby, rudd, ruffe, snakehead, swamp eels and zebra mussels.
Frankly, most of us wouldn't know a blueblack herring if we saw one -- which is, of course, the problem. When we empty a bait bucket, we're never sure what's in there.
So don't dump it in the water. The future of fishing in that body of water could be at risk.