The Roaring River dam removal has already been successful in Jack Swearengin’s eyes. With over 30 years of fisheries work under his belt and a lifelong resident of the county, Swearengin knows what the river was like before the low-head dam was built and he knows what the removal will mean for fish populations today.
The low-head dam in Jackson County was removed in August.
It was roughly 220 feet across and 15 feet tall and was the largest dam of its kind to ever be removed for river or stream restorative purposes in Tennessee. The failing dam was eroding and posed a safety hazard. Instead of rebuilding, TWRA along with several partnering agencies removed the structure, knowing the outcome would prove ecologically beneficial.
Construction of the Roaring River dam was completed in 1976 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Mr. Swearengin was 16 years old. “We used to go look at the construction progress every day, just for something to do,” he said. The Cordell Hull Dam was completed prior to the building of the Roaring River low head dam, which was considered an extension of this larger dam project. The best management at the time was to keep rough fish such as suckers and chubs from moving upstream; which this low head dam would accomplish. Mr. Swearengin said, “We know better now. Suckers, chubs and other rough fish are an integral part of an ecosystem. Young fish and fish eggs are a food source for many other species. Older fish are not only fun to catch; they can be a food source for humans too.”
Not just the species in the river have changed over time. The use of the river has also changed. The river is used more recreationally now as evident by the numerous paddle crafts every weekend. Mr. Swearengin remembers a different time, when kids spent their summers outdoors. He easily recalls a childhood of flipping over rocks to look for crayfish, of collecting spring lizards to use as fish bait and riding a pony with a bait bucket hooked over the saddle horn. He also describes the shoals being covered in fish each spring when he was a child. “Locals said when the dogwood leaves were as big as a mouse’s ears, the fish would run. People collected fish to can and sustain them until the next run. People just lived off the land. They knew where their food came from.”
There are anglers that still utilize the river today and the dam removal will allow fish to move upstream. Mr. Swearengin sad, “A fish naturally wants to move upstream. The dam stopped them and concentrated them in one area. Anglers liked this. However, it wasn’t always the best for fish. Now, fish will naturally move to other pockets along the shore providing better opportunities over a longer stretch of water. I am more than confident the number of fish will increase upstream from the dam sight.”
Mr. Swearengin and other TWRA employees would know. They’ve been studying the area for some time now, in preparation of the removal. Sampling below the dam revealed healthy populations of white bass. No white bass were found above the dam. The crew also found strong populations of red horse with one fish weighing twenty percent larger than the current state record. “People overlook these fish; but they’re fun to catch. They’ll now go upstream to spawn. Hopefully some of the old-timers here will see a return of the suckers in large numbers like when I was a boy,” said Mr. Swearengin.
Mr. Swearengin credits two men for continually getting him to the river during his youth, his cousin Bill Dailey and Frank Pigg, a friend. “I learned a lot from going with them. Catching rock bass was my favorite thing. I’m glad to give back to this place.” When asked what he most enjoyed about his job with TWRA, Mr. Swearengin said, “Everything. TWRA has put a lot into this county including the Boils, Cordell Hull and Blackburn Fork WMAs. I’m glad to be a part of taking the river back in time to a healthier place.”
Those working for TWRA have a deep rooted passion for wildlife and fisheries. Protecting wildlife populations for future generations through scientific study is the foundation of the agency and something in which each agency employee believes. The diversity of the Roaring River is just one of the many areas TWRA will continue to protect. Studies will continue in the area and Swearengin will be a part of those studies.
For more information on the mission of TWRA, visit tnwildlife.org.