Pandemic catches trout farm by surprise; industry finds creative ways to weather the economic fallout

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The Tellico Trout Farm is part of a 250 acre property that was originally settled by the Ramsey family in the 1800s; but before that it was known as Tahlequah by the Cherokee. The 1870s home on the Tellico property was completely restored by the current owners, the Macke family, about 20 years ago.

Deena Bouknight – Contributing Writer

A stocked catch out pond is open to the public seven days a week with Rainbow, brook, brown, and even golden trout. More than 3 million pounds of fish are raised annually at Tellico Trout Farm.

Annually, March through May is a busy time for Tellico Trout Farm, a Franklin-based commercial fish farm since the 1980s. 

“We may typically move 11,000 pounds a week into Pennsylvania because of their demand … that’s a huge market for sport fishing,” said Tom Ort, manager of the Tellico Trout Farm since 1997. “But business shut down during that time and we were in a world of hurt.” 

However, even though the main focus of the Tellico Trout Farm business is commercial, providing 3.5 million fish annually to public and private waterways, the surprise was the amount of people who have wanted to enjoy fishing in the Tellico stocked pond.

 “Our catch out business increased 300 to 400 percent. Everyone got cabin fever and wanted to come out and fish and get fresh air and quality fish,” said Ort.

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. seven days a week, anyone from the public can visit the large commercial fish hatchery and fish in the well-stocked pond. 

They pay a flat $6 a pound and we give them a fishing rod, bait, a bucket for the fish, and will even help them get the fish off the line. Plus, they clean them and pack them in ice. 

“We’re getting lots of kids. And, [the employees] who run this part of our business spoil the people coming in here.” 

Saturdays and Sundays are packed fishing days, but Ort said, “During the week, you can literally have the pond nearly by yourself. The crowds are much heavier on the weekends.” 

The pandemic caused a backlog of fish, pointed out Ort. “We have 50,000 pounds of fish … more fish than I should have right now. So I’m diligently trying to find a home for them, especially before the water gets hot for the summer.”

Generally, fish are being distributed throughout mostly North Carolina and Georgia, but they go to other states as well for the purpose of  stocking ponds, streams, rivers, and lakes; supplying to sport fishing clubs and operators; and distribution to fish processing and packaging operations.

At Tellico, there is a steady growth process. “Every month we basically receive 200,000 to 300,000 eggs that we order from the state of Washington or Idaho. We get what’s called an eye egg and it’s on the property for 90 days and then sold as a three-inch fingerling. Others are sold at 11-12 months old and about 18-20 ounces. We are one of the few farms in the state that maintain brook and brown trout also, besides rainbow; but we also have golden colored rainbow trout.

Ort, a former superintendent for the N.C. Wildlife Commission, said he enjoys working on the historic farm. “It’s all very rich in history.” 

The 250-acre property, located in a remote valley shadowed by the Wesser Bald along the Appalachian Trail, is named Tellico and is a derivative of the word “Tahlequah,” meaning “rare peace” in Cherokee. Other than the Native people, the valley was settled by the Ramsey family in the 1800s. The 1870s grand house on the property has been fully restored and is used for friends and family of the Macke family. Atlanta businessman and recreation enthusiast Michael Macke purchased the property in the late 1990s and has a house nearby.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the house  and surrounding buildings served as a general store, blacksmith, post office, and grist and saw mill. The mill, in fact, was powered by a 25-foot overshot water wheel, components of which still survive, and electricity was provided to the home because of the device, according to Ort. On the property is also the locally known Tellico white oak, considered one of largest and oldest oaks in the region and reportedly once a meeting place for Cherokee. 

As a way of sharing an aspect of Tellico with the community, Macke came up with the catch out pond idea.

“The catch out pond is open until the water gets too hot and the fish stop biting, typically in August,” pointed out Ort.

Even though the pandemic has hit the commercial trout business hard, Ort is hoping to weather the economic crisis. Managing Tellico enables him to practice applied science. 

“Every fish that is in every raceway is planned for a market. It’s very rewarding to take good care of an animal and watch them grow, and do it as efficiently as possible.”

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