Fishing towns: Huntingdon, Tenn.

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Andy Canulette
Mayor Dale Kelley with Carroll County Chamber of Commerce President Brad Hurley.

HUNTINGDON, Tenn. – Take Exit 108 off Interstate 40 and turn onto Tennessee State Highway 22.

Out there, amongst the perfectly symmetrical rows of corn and soybeans, the section of highway leading to Huntingdon (population 3,970) is called Dale Kelley Highway. It’s named after the man who has been mayor of this small town for a quarter century, and who first served in public office another quarter century before that.

Before he was mayor, Kelley was a member of Tennessee State Legislature. It was in the state capital of Nashville, in 1984 to be exact, that he first broached the idea of building a detention pond back home in Carroll County. Beaver Creek, which cuts a swath right through the heart of Huntingdon, flooded frequently and that often had harmful effects on the agricultural fields that are the lifeblood of this area.

So Kelley sought a solution. He looked high and low for a sizable chunk of land that could be transformed into a detention pond that would serve as a relief valve when the creek flooded its banks. Nothing less than 1,000 acres would suffice, Kelley determined, and surveyors fanned out across the area seeking prime locations. They had 10 sites in mind, and eventually they settled on a piece of land just southwest of town on Reedy Creek. The area was ideal because it primarily was unused pastureland and already had been cleared of timber.

“It was land just holding the earth together, really,” Kelley said.

But like most governmental affairs, there were permits and processes and applications to handle. There were several dozen different property owners who had to agree to sell their land, and there were 119 acres of wetlands to be mitigated and replaced. The public also had to be convinced that building the project was economically worthwhile.

All of that took a really long time. The permits from the federal government didn’t come until 2002, nearly a full eight years after Kelley made the initial suggestion. There were at least a half dozen local, state and federal agencies working on the project at one time, and construction didn’t begin until 2008.

But in 2013, the Carroll County 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake finally opened – a full 29 years after it was first introduced in concept. All told, the project cost $26 million, but the price tag delivered much more than a detention pond. What the county received was a multi-purpose body of water where waterskiing, boating and personal watercraft usage are common. The beaches and picnic areas are popular meeting spots, too.

But the main attraction on Carroll County 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake most assuredly has been bass fishing. That says a lot considering it’s only a 45-minute drive from Kentucky Lake, which is one of the most renowned bass fisheries in the U.S.

But fishing has been good enough on the 4-year-old lake that many locals don’t have to make that drive anymore. Instead, they’ve turned a good deal of attention to the new fishery, as have national organizations such as B.A.S.S.

Nothing could be more pleasing to Kelley, who felt that a lake of this caliber would have a “Field of Dreams effect” – build it, and they will come.

But this is no field of dreams. It’s a lake of dreams.

Consider: Carroll County 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake has been home to the first four Bassmaster Junior National Championship tournaments, and the 2016 tournament had a $170,000 economic impact on the local community. That’s big money for a small place, and the financial impact should only increase as infrastructure grows to support the lake.

“We had to have a recreational lake,” Kelley said. “But we had to have something more than that. We had to have something with an economic impact. And we definitely have that.” 

BUILDING THE DREAM

To understand the lineage of how Carroll County 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake came to be, you have to know Kelley’s history, as well. Not only was he a three-term state representative and still is Huntingdon’s long-time mayor, but he is a native son who is an avid sports fan. He played basketball and baseball at Bethel University in nearby McKenzie, Tenn., and is a member of the school’s sports hall of fame. He began refereeing basketball games in 1965 and officiated three consecutive NCAA Final Four tournaments from 1978-80.

In addition to his love of sports, the 77-year-old Kelley loves Carroll County and probably is the community’s biggest proponent.

In addition to his job as mayor, he also is the athletic director at Bethel and has played a part in the school becoming a fishing powerhouse of the first order. The 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake is a practice space for the university, and the rise in youth fishing nationally helped spawn high school programs locally.

The 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake is an obvious advantage to this area’s fishing pursuits. The lake is approximately 4 miles long, and a dam at Reedy Creek measures 2,400 feet long by 60 feet high. It was built using dirt that was excavated when creating the lake. The average water depth is 20 feet, though it’s about 50 feet at the dam.

Three retention ponds were dug to hold Reedy Creek’s overflow during construction. Since it was completed, the lake has been stocked with more than 1 million fish; everything from bass and crappie to forage such as bluegill and crawfish.

And after waiting several decades for the lake to become reality, Kelley and company would not settle when engineers said it would take seven years to fill the lake naturally. Rather than wait, they drilled three wells into an aquifer 370 feet beneath the lake to expedite the water rise. With 1,400 gallons of fresh water per minute emanating from each well, the 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake was filled in 19 months.

“Seven years was unacceptable,” Kelley said. “We waited a long time. We wanted the lake to open…And we did it the right way with sensitivity to the environment. We had 119 acres of wetland to mitigate and we put 300 acres back of wetlands back into the watershed. We planted 300 acres of trees and we restored a channel 2.2 miles to its original state.”

Kelley would have it no other way than the right way. After all, the small community of Buxter where he was born also lies underneath the water of Carroll County 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake. That village, population 24, gave way to the future of the community which Kelley knows depends in part on the lake’s success.

“It was an old log cabin,” Kelley said of the house where he was born. “My parents were born in that area too. When I was born, the population of Buxter became 25.” 

BACK TO THE FUTURE

Downtown Huntingdon in many ways exemplifies the best of small town America. Much of the area’s business is centered on the town square, which is home to the Carroll Country Courthouse, a movie theater with a vintage marquee, locally owned businesses and the Dixie Carter Performing Arts Center.

On June 20, downtown Huntingdon was teeming with life as youth anglers from 28 different states and Canada weighed fish during Day 1 of the Bassmaster Junior Championship. You couldn’t find a hotel room within at least 20 miles, and the town's restaurants were filled with visitors and locals who happily mingled over barbecue platters and the like.

Kelley was there, of course, as was Carroll County Chamber of Commerce President Brad Hurley, who marveled at the impact the lake and its 22-plus miles of shoreline has had on Huntingdon.

Not bad, he said, for a voter-approved $10 raise on the Will Tax, which helps support maintenance of the lake. An Urban Growth plan is in place around the lake which helps with financing, as well, which also helps maintain growth while preventing over-expansion.

“When you look at it, you see housing coming in,” Hurley said. “We already have subdivisions being built and a number of houses are under construction. It’s only been four years...We’ll never be Kentucky Lake, and that’s just fine. We aren’t competing with them...Once we got (the 1,000 acre lake) referendum on the ballot in 2000, there really were no negatives from the public. It was all excitement when people realized this was finally going to happen.”

Kelley and Hurley said short-term goals include attracting additional hotel/motel beds so the increasing number of visitors have additional housing options. Long-term, they see the lake helping bring sustainable and smart growth to the Huntingdon area.

As for the bass fishing, the Carroll County 1,000 Acre Recreational Lake has been very productive. The lake record bass of 11 pounds, 14 ounces was caught during the Bassmaster Juniors Championship two years ago, and a steady stream of bass weighing 7, 8 and 9 pounds comes from the lake primarily from January to late May.

Steve Orzechowski is a local angler who fishes there four or five times per week. He said the lake suits him perfectly, as he lives only a few miles from the launch. He’s also caught a couple 9-pounders there, which keeps him coming back for more.

“I think it’s one of the best lakes in western Tennessee,” Orzechowski said. “I can go in there and whack ‘em and catch dozens of bass in the 2- and 2 1/2-pound range. But when the conditions are right, you really can catch some big bass in there…I think they’d like this to eventually be a trophy base lake, and it’s got a good head start on being that, I think.”

Oh, and Beaver Creek doesn’t flood and ruin the Carroll County crops anymore.