State wildlife officials are stocking the Little Pigeon River in Pigeon Forge with trout for the first time in more than 20 years.
The water was once too contaminated with bacteria for fishing, but city and county officials have spent millions upgrading the sewer system and adding a sand filtration system.
"To me, it's been a 29-year battle that ended today," said Greg Ward.
Ward is the owner of Rocky Top Outfitters. He has been fishing in Pigeon Forge since childhood, and now runs the annual Smoky Mountain Trout Tournament.
"Over the years, we've had literally thousands of anglers," he said. But he says those fishing tourists have declined in recent years, both due to the recent drought and the decades-long issue involving contaminants in the Little Pigeon River.
More than two decades ago, fecal bacteria in the river caused officials to issue a public advisory warning. In response, the Tennessee Wildfire and Resources Agency (TWRA) stopped stocking the river with trout.
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To keep his tournament running, Ward has been supplying the river with his own trout.
“The fish I put in are really big fish. I’ve been plugging along, keeping fish in the water, waiting on today,” he said. “I really feel comfortable now with TWRA resuming their fish-stocking program.”
On Thursday, Wildlife officials released 750 trout into a 6-mile stretch of the West Prong from Patriot Park to the Apple Barn Restaurant. They will repeat that process every two weeks in Pigeon Forge until mid-June before picking back up in the fall.
On Friday, they will also supply Gatlinburg with 1,500 rainbow trout for their streams after the city’s hatcheries burned in the wildfires.
"It's a win-win for when tourists are in town. It's should be a win-win for the county, the cities and the state," said TWRA Regional Fisheries Manager Bart Carter.
Anglers need a TWRA fishing license as well as a trout license to fish for trout in Pigeon Forge. Because Gatlinburg raises its own trout, anglers need a special license for fishing within its city limits that does not work in Pigeon Forge.