Trotline Trouble: Kayaker facing charges says trotline was cut for safety reasons

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ERWIN, Tenn. (WJHL) — A trotline is a fishing line with baited hooks used to catch multiple fish at once. It also happens to be at the center of a controversy in Unicoi County. 

On Memorial Day weekend, A.J. Silvers and a few of his friends set out a trotline across the bottom of the Nolichucky River to catch catfish for their family fish fry per tradition, according to Silvers. 

Instead of returning to a full line of fish, Silvers said he returned to a group of kayakers with the line in hand. The kayakers, a group of professionals training other kayak instructors out of the Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute, said a member of their group had run into the line and ultimately ended up entangled with one of the hooks piercing their life jacket. 

The group located where the line was tied off and according to Scott Fisher, the owner of NOLI and leader of this group, they cut the line in three spots, handing it back to Silvers in what Fisher said was “salvageable” shape. Fisher said there was another exposed hook near where the line was anchored and no markings that he or his team could see. 

The kayakers assumed the line was abandoned until Silvers confronted the group. Silvers recorded the interaction, later posting it to Facebook. The full recorded interaction can be seen below: 

While Silvers said the relationship between fishermen and paddlers is like that of the ‘Hatfield and McCoys’, Fisher said cutting the line wasn’t about that at all. 

“We’re all out there enjoying the outdoors, it’s all good. The issue is with a line stretched across a navigable waterway with exposed fishhooks that can hook a kid, an adult, it doesn’t matter. There’s no place for that,” said Fisher. 

However, Silvers disagrees. He said within the past two years he’s had trotlines cut anywhere from 10 to 12 times, but this was the first time it was caught on camera. 

He said a lot of work, time and money go into setting up these lines, and seeing them cut is a hard pill to swallow. 

“That’s all the hard work we put into it. You cannot buy one and make it go all the way across the Nolichucky so we had to make it. It took us seven hours, three of my buddies, and seven hours,” said Silvers. 

After returning the line, Fisher said another dispute occurred when they were taking out their kayaks, one that warranted looping in law enforcement. Statements were taken from both sides according to Fisher and Silvers and then both parties left the scene. Fisher said the incident replayed in his mind frequently since but after that, they kept on the lookout for trotlines and did not see anything. He said the whole thing was out of sight and out of mind until he received word almost two weeks ago that a grand jury would be prosecuting the case.

“ADA Todd Hull went lack of evidence, to not blaming us for what we did in the interest of public safety, to prosecuting this case. When it went to the grand jury, they decided to prosecute so I had to turn myself in on September 22, the same day I got that call,” said Fisher. 

That day, Fisher turned himself in and was fingerprinted, had a mugshot taken, and was booked into the Unicoi County jail.

At the time of arrest, Fisher said they didn’t even know what to charge him with. According to Unicoi County ADA Todd Hull, Fisher was charged with violation of the Hunter Protection Act and taking a fish caught by another. Both are classified as Class C misdemeanors. 

News Channel 11 reached out to Assistant District Attorney Todd Hull for additional comment on the case and he declined to comment considering the case is ongoing. The TWRA, which was involved in this case when it came to the charges, also declined to comment for the same reason. 

Fisher said the charges aren’t justified considering he was only looking out for others and cut the line in the name of safety. He said with the number of people on the water that weekend, he’s glad they ran into a line and not a child.

“It just takes one and then it’s too late. It needs to be addressed now before somebody loses their life,” said Fisher. 

Water safety experts are also weighing in on this matter saying what Fisher did was the proper action. Charles Walbridge, the American Whitewater Safety Editor and Accident Database manager sent a statement to NOLI with his thoughts on Fisher’s actions. 

“The unattended fishing line described posed a serious hazard to navigation and a danger to recreational river users in all kinds of boats. It is fortunate that no one was injured or killed. Given the heavy use of this section by non-powered recreational users this device, if used at all, should be clearly marked. Scott Fisher of the Nolichucky Outdoor Institute was clearly justified in removing the line following what could have been a very dangerous incident. If a similar device snags someone, the person setting the device will bear full responsibility for deaths or injuries that may occur,” said Walbridge. 

According to the latest edition of the Tennessee Hunting Guide, “trotlines consist of a mainline with drop lines to which single hooks are attached”.

There are also a few criteria the line must meet in order to be legal:

  • Drop lines must not be closer than 24 inches
  • Must be tagged and/or marked with the owner’s nameand address, or TWRA identification number.
  • Trotlines attached to the bank must be tagged on the line within five feet of the bank.
  • Other trotlines must be tagged within five feet of either end and floating trotlines must be marked onfloats.
  • Trotlines may not be set within 100 yards of the mouth of any river, creek, or slough.

Silvers said his line was so far underneath the water, tagged and properly anchored that safety was never a concern. 

“If it was out of the water like he said it was, then that would have been fine, but the way it was, there’s no way it possibly could’ve been out of the water. It was tied exactly water level and held to the bottom with four bricks. So, there’s no way in the world that those could’ve come all the way up in order to hook somebody,” said Silvers. 

Silvers also went on to say that the line was not returned in a condition where it could be used again. He said of the 25 hooks that were on it, only three were returned and that the line was tangled and cut in a number of spots. 

Fisher stands by his statement to both the TWRA and News Channel 11 that the line was only cut three times and done in the name of safety. He feels these charges aren’t justified and hopes to get them dropped at his upcoming court date, however, this incident has sparked another mission. 

Along with attempting to get the charges dismissed, Fisher hopes to lobby the TWRA in an effort to clarify and fix the laws surrounding trotlines. Running trotlines across the waterway in North Carolina is illegal and he said he wants Tennessee to adopt a similar policy in order to keep these high-traffic waterways safe for users.

“We want to have the verbiage of Tennessee’s regulation mirror that of North Carolina that says a trotline should be set parallel to the current, it just makes sense. It’s safe,” said Fisher. 

An email campaign was created to change this regulation.

Fisher is due back in court on Nov. 30; Silvers faces no charges in relation to this incident.

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