By Richard Rourk
Scott Fisher, owner of Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute (NOLI) has been charged with violation of the Hunter Protection Act and the taking of fish caught by another in an incident that dates back to the Memorial Day weekend back in May.
The charges against Fisher were made on Sept. 10 by Bethany Watson, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s wildlife official for Unicoi County.
The charges stem from an encounter between Fisher and Unicoi County resident A. J. Silvers. Both men view the incident differently.
Fisher explained that his Institute was teaching a L4 Whitewater Instructor Certification Class when one of the paddlers became snagged by a trotline hook while paddling downstream.
“With me were two of the leading water safety experts and instructor trainers in the country, Robin Pope and Tom Burroughs,” Fisher said. “Collectively, we have been teaching safety and rescue for over 60 years and have trained thousands of recreational users and professionals, including first responders, firefighters, veterans and park rangers.”
Fisher said that as the group made its way downriver one of the students (David Pope) became snagged by an unmarked line that was stretched bank to bank across the river.
Pope shared his recollection of the events, as well.
“As we paddled downstream, 20 or 30 feet from shore, I saw a line entering from the left side of the river, just in front of me, about the same time that Jess (Christian) yelled at me about it,” Pope said.
“I wasn’t able to stop and ran into the line,” he said. “Everything from there on happened very fast, but what I remember is that after I hit the line, I slid forward, with my boat going under the line as it pressed against me. As I tried to get away from it, my boat spun, and I nearly flipped.
“I kept pulling at the line to get away from it,” he continued. “I started pulling up big fish hooks that ran across my boat and seemed to snag on my gear.”
Pope stated that he is lucky to be alive.
“With my experience in emergency medicine as a paramedic, outdoor education as a kayaking and swiftwater rescue instructor, and personal experience as an avid boater and angler, I can say with certainty that if I had reacted differently to this scenario, I could very well be dead,” Pope said. “The events were terrifying, and I still have nightmares about what could have happened if I hadn’t done the right thing, and what could have happened to someone less lucky.”
Fisher stated that the line was nearly impossible to see.
“The line was thicker than regular fishing line and black, making it almost impossible to see,” Fisher said. “Making matters worse, as David quickly worked to free himself, he saw a large heavy-duty fish hook in direct contact with the front of his life jacket. It’s only through the quick actions of this skilled kayaker that he was able to avoid getting further ensnared and pulled underwater. Had the hook caught him in a place other than his life jacket he would likely not be here today. Upon further examination, we saw that there were at least 30 more hooks evenly spaced and secured to the mainline.”
Fisher stated that he believed that the trotline appeared to have been abandoned.
“Most of the other hooks were underwater, with some dangerously close to the surface,” Fisher said. “Given that the line was unmarked we assumed it was abandoned and cut it where it was anchored on both banks and in the middle where it was weighted down. When confronted by the line’s owner shortly after we explained what had happened and the risks his line created but he declined to acknowledge the hazard it posed to river users, despite having just snagged David moments before. We subsequently handed the line back to the owner intact except for the three places we cut the line.”
Silvers, the owner of the trotline, disagreed with the version of events put forward by Fisher and stated that the trotline was safely secured and had more visible tags than are legally required.
“I had my name, address and my TWRA number on both sides of the line,” Silvers said.
Silvers, who said he had placed the trotline to catch fish for a special yearly fish fry, stated that he was shocked to find his trotline cut.
“We were fishing not far from where the trotline was set, and as we came back to check on it, we saw the kayakers in the process of cutting our line,” Silvers said.
“We started recording,” Silvers said. “I asked the kayaker to show where the hook snagged him on his life jacket and I will buy him a new one, but they declined to show it.”
Silvers noted that a lot of time and investment went into the making of the trotline.
“It took me and my friends several hours and more than $200 to make that line,” Silvers said.
Both Fisher and Silvers stated that they hope the incident will bring about more public awareness regarding rules governing the recreational use of the Nolichucky River.
“I hope that this will encourage people to educate themselves on TWRA laws,” Silvers said.
For his part, Fisher said that he hopes that TWRA will review current laws.
“I want to make it clear that I and those in our group have no issue with fishermen or any other user on the river,” Fisher said.
“We are all out there enjoying the beauty of the region doing what we love.” Fisher said. “Unmarked lines with hooks exposed above the waterline, as in this case, are even more dangerous as people can’t see them until it’s too late.”
Fisher noted, “It will take just one 7-year-old girl or boy to get hooked in the eye, face, torso, arm or leg and then get pulled underwater and drowned to make folks wonder how such a tragedy could have happened.”
Fisher said that he believes public safety is the driver in this particular situation.
“TWRA and the local legal system would benefit the community at large to make sure that their actions truly represent the public good.” he said. “During my time in the military one of our core values was moral courage, which means doing the right thing even though it may not be easy. I ask that TWRA and local officials do the right thing and support changing the current regulation to disallow bank to bank trotlines and require that instead they be set parallel to the nearest bank.”
Fisher is due back in court Tuesday, Nov. 30. Both charges that he faces are classified as Class C misdemeanors.
“We’ve been instructed to not comment on the matter as it is an open case,” said TWRA Information Specialist Matthew Cameron in response to a request for comment from The Erwin Record.