Bluegill By: Steve Roark Tennessee Division of Forestry

A lot of adults who enjoy fishing got hooked (yes, a pun) on the sport by catching bluegill as a kid.  Because of its willingness to take a variety of natural and artificial baits, its feistiness when hooked, and its excellent flavor, the bluegill is a popular game fish.

The bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) is easy to identify.  They are oval shaped and average around 6-10 inches long, but you’ll see hundreds of them much smaller and very dexterous at stealing your bait.  Bluegill are dark green to blue-green in color,  have dark bars on their sides, a black spot on the dorsal (top) fin, and a black flap at the edge  of the gill cover. Other identifying features are a small mouth and long pectoral (front side) fins. Bluegill have a close cousin some call sunfish or bream (Lepomis gibbosus), which is a more brilliant green color with an orange belly and spots on their sides.


Bluegills can be found everywhere, in ponds, lakes, and slow moving rivers and streams.  They prefer quiet, weedy or brushy waters where they can hide and feed. Insects, insect larvae and crustaceans are the preferred foods of bluegills, with vegetation, fish eggs, small fish, mollusks, and snails being of secondary importance, although they may dominate their diet during certain times of the year.


Besides feeding and hiding from predators, bluegills do a lot of propagation.  They spawn from April through August, peaking in late May through June when the water temperature reaches about 78-80 degrees.  Bluegills are well known for “bedding” in large groups, where the males build circular beds (called nests) by fanning their tails vigorously to create an indention. Bedding occurs in water two to six feet deep over sand or gravel, and often among plant roots when the bottom is soft. After the bed is built the female lays 12,000 to 40,000 eggs depending on her age, which hatch in 2-5 days.  The male guards the nest, keeping it clean and protecting the young for a few days after they hatch.


From a food chain standpoint, bluegills are important in being food for the larger carnivorous game fish, and are often stocked in ponds with bass for that purpose.  The bluegills multiply so rapidly that the pond often becomes overstocked, resulting in stunted fish.  For human predation, bluegill meat is excellent; the flesh is white, flaky, firm and sweet. They are generally rolled in cornmeal or dipped in pancake batter before frying. Many rank the bluegill among the most delicious of fish, and I find it hard to argue with that.


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Year of the Tick By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

I’ve always heard a mild winter would lead to a summer with more bugs, and I’ve found that to be the case, especially this year with ticks.  We pulled them off our dogs all winter, and I’ve picked more off of me this summer than I can remember. I’ve also heard of several local folks that have gotten Rocky Mountain spotted fever.  And with new tick borne diseases on the horizon, it’s a summer to be extra vigilant for things crawling about on your body.

First some tick science: there are primarily three kinds of ticks found in our area: the brown dog, the lone star, and the American dog tick. The most common one I see is the American dog tick, which is reddish brown with silver streaks on its back. All ticks go through 4 life stages, starting with an egg produced by a female who can produce upwards of 3000 eggs. The other stages: larval, nymph, and adult, all require a blood meal before moving on, so a tick must feed on three different victims to complete its life. The larval and nymph stages more or less look like the adult stage, only smaller and may have 6 legs instead of the normal 8.  The American dog larvae don’t typically feed on humans, but the lone star will go for you at any stage, especially the larval stage (referred to as seed ticks), which can congregate in large numbers.


It’s usually during the larval feeding that ticks come in contact with diseases which they can spread to humans. Rocky Mountain spotted fever and Lyme disease are the most common problems, and in our area the spotted fever is more prevalent.  Lyme disease is concentrated more in the northeastern states and spread by the black legged tick that we thankfully don’t have yet.


The symptoms of RMSF mimic the flue, and can include fever, chills, bad headache, muscle aches, nausea, and restlessness. After a few days a red rash often appears on the wrists and ankles, which can spread over time. Not everybody gets the rash. The best course of action during the summer is to head for the doctor when symptoms show up, as left untreated the disease can become debilitating and even life threatening. Treatment of RMSF is normally strong antibiotics. With Lyme disease a circular, bulls-eye type red rash will appear at the bite site, but not always.  Another illness floating around is southern tick-associated rash illness, or STARI. Symptoms ae also flu-like and can include an expanding, bulls-eye rash similar to Lyme. This one normally doesn’t lead to arthritic or neurological problems that other tick diseases can cause.  One other new disease being watched is called Powassan, which also has flu-like symptoms that can lead to serious neurological damage and even death.  Right now there is no treatment available.


So the best defense is the diligent use of insect repellents containing either DEET or permethrin, and close body checks.  Look especially in hair, armpits, groin, waistline, around the ears, and inside the belly button. It will take at least 24 hours before a tick can dig in and begin feeding, so catch them early and your chances of infection go way down. Body checks should be done at the end of each day if you’ve been around any vegetation. But please don’t let this restrict you or your kid’s enjoyment of the outdoors. Just exercise due caution and still get out there.

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The 2017 Solar Eclipse Light Show By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

By now you have seen numerous reports on the solar eclipse that will occur on August 21.  It’s a big one because our neck of the woods is close to the path where it will be a total eclipse, which hasn’t occurred here in a long time.

Let’s start with an astronomy review.  An eclipse occurs when the disk of the moon appears to cover the disk of the sun.  Most of the time it’s a partial eclipse where only a portion of the sun is covered. But somewhere on the planet about every 18 months or so, folks get to see a total eclipse, where the moon completely covers the sun. I find it mind blowing that the moon is just the right distance from Earth (240,000 miles) so that is appears to be the same size as the sun.  The odds of that seem astronomical pardon the pun.


So in 2017 it’s our turn to see a total solar eclipse, but you have to be inside what’s called the path of totality, which is a 70 mile wide streak of land that will run from Idaho to South Carolina, including mid and east Tennessee and western Kentucky.  You can go on line and find maps showing where the totality path is.  Some of the closest places in our area are all in Tennessee and include Farragut, Oak Ridge, Maryville, and Harriman.  If you’re outside of the path it will still be a good show, as the moon will still cover over 90% of the sun, but still leaving a sliver of brightness.


From everything I’ve read it is worth the trip to travel and see the total eclipse.  When the sun is totally blocked, its outer atmosphere (the corona) becomes visible, and it has been observed as big jets and streamers of light rippling around the sun.  It’s been described as stunning. Also during totality it gets weird, suddenly becoming   twilight dark and there is a distinct temperature drop.  You can see the moon’s shadow moving toward and then away from you across the landscape.


Whether you want to see the eclipse in totality or partially, you need to do it safely.  Looking at the sun for even short periods can literally sunburn your cornea and blister the cells, causing painful irritation that if you’re lucky goes away.  Stare too long and you damage the retina and risk permanent loss of sight, so don’t mess around. The best option in buy some solar viewing glasses which allow you to look directly at the sun for short periods. I’m hearing there are glasses being sold that are not adequate protection, so be sure you buy some that meet the international standard ISO 12312-2.  NASA has a listing of reputable companies selling solar glasses on a website, so type in NASA recommended solar glasses and you should be able to find it. Directions for use are on the glasses, and mine says don’t look continuously, only intermittently.  It’s a long duration event so spread your looks out.


In our area the eclipse will begin around 1 PM on August 21, reach maximum coverage around 2:30, and end around 4:00. So experience and enjoy the event, but do be careful and monitor the kids closely to keep them safe.

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Globetrotting in a Forest By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

The mountains of our area contain one of the most diverse forests in the world.  Over 170 tree species grow here, second only to tropical rain forests in variety.  If you hunt around you can find forest settings here that are the same as forests hundreds of miles away.

For a feel of Georgia, climb up on a dry mountain ridge where only pine trees grow.  Smell the rosin, and listen to the soft sighing of the needles in the wind.  How about a trip north? Walk into a deep hollow with a mountain stream, and here you will find hemlock, sugar maple, and rhododendron growing so thick you can hardly walk.  You could just as well be in Canada, which has similar forests.  It’s cool and damp here, with musty smells and noisy water.  One more trip: In the fall find a pawpaw growing in a low, moist spot.  Take a bite of its fruit and enjoy the banana-like flavor.  The folks of South America enjoy the same thing.


The reason our forests are so diverse is a combination of climate, terrain, and pre-historic happenings.  One of our forest types is called mixed mesophytic, meaning a place that is neither very wet or very dry, and not very warm or very cold.  This in-between situation allows trees to survive here that are native to areas with more extreme weather conditions.  But how did northern and southern trees get here? According to scientists, our area used to have a tropical climate, with trees and plants that like it warm and moist.  But along came the Ice Age, and the climate became cooler and stayed that way for eons.  The tropical plants (like the pawpaw) died out except in low, sheltered places.  Along with the cooler climate came trees that migrated down from the north like the hemlock, spruce, and fir.  Eventually our climate warmed up slowly to its present condition, and some of the tropic trees made a come-back.  The northern trees receded back north, except for cool places in deep mountain drains and high mountains.


So the upshot of all this is we have very diverse forests to enjoy, from huge trees to delicate wildflowers. These mesophytic forests are delicate and need protection from disturbance, especially around stream sides where they act as a buffer to protect the water from soil erosion.  The Hemlock wooly adelgid is a bug that’s hammering our hemlocks, and emerald ash borer is decimating our ash species, so there is trouble in paradise.  For forest health concerns contact your local state forestry service

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The House That Saved the South By Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

Let me warn you that this story is not for the squeamish. Way back in 1908 the millionaire John D Rockefeller wanted to make still more money. But most of his markets were saturated, so he began looking at the southern United States as an untapped marketplace. But there was a problem…the South’s economy was lousy.  The people were illiterate, dirt poor, and were perceived as lazy. Farms weren’t fully operational, and the economic engine seemed to be turned off.

Rockefeller wanted to know why, so he formed a commission of economists and sociologists to go down and figure out why southerners weren’t faring well. They came back that southerners on average appeared to be sick. They were pale, physically slow (not mentally) and lethargic, classic signs of being anemic.  So Rockefeller sent another commission of doctors to find the basis of the anemia.  They not only verified that there was widespread anemia among southerners, but that the anemia was related to soil types: on sandy- loamy soils (good farm land), people were anemic; on clay soils (not so good farm land) there was little anemia. So they determined that the anemia was linked to the soil.


They ran tests and found a very high incidence of hookworm, an intestinal parasite. They then had to figure out how southerners were getting hookworm, and so they looked at their feces, which is how hookworm gets spread. They asked the southerners “where do you go?”  The answer usually was “over there by that tree”.  Another important factor was many southerners (especially children) did not wear shoes regularly, and concluded that the people were getting hookworm through their feet. But no one intentionally steps in their own poop, which meant that the hookworms must crawl.  So they set out to find out how far.  They built a sandbox and put some hookworm infested stools in the middle.  Every day they sampled the soil to see if hookworm larvae were moving out away from the stool, seeking victims. By day 4 they were able to move out four feet away from the stool, but on day 5 they stayed at four feet, apparently exhausted.  And by Day 7 they were dead.  So the answer to stopping hookworm was to devise a way to keep human feces (and hookworm) six feet away from people, as six feet is two feet further than hookworm can travel. So they pondered and their answer was….the outhouse.


Now outhouses had been around since at least the 1500s in Europe, but to erect an outhouse with a six foot deep pit under it was new.  I interviewed some local seniors that grew up with outhouses and got interesting answers (and funny looks). Some did not use an outhouse until the 1940s or so.  Most said their outhouses did not have a pit dug under them.  When I asked about the poop building up under the outhouse, one smiled and said “that’s why we kept a few mongrel dogs around.”  Uh….moving on…nobody noticed people being sick or anemic around here, so it must have been a more southern problem


In 1910 Rockefeller launched a campaign against hookworm.  Workers built outhouses at schools, encouraged children to wear shoes, went door to door discussing hygiene and hosted picnics to talk about testing and treatment.  Within 5 years hookworm was controlled and the south rose again. People got stronger, kids stayed in school longer, productivity increased, and the economy began to prosper.  Rockefeller eventually got his new market.  Outhouses have always been part of the mountain culture and often a humorous subject.  But I now look upon them with much greater respect. Information for this article was partially from the radio program Radio Lab.




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Improving Young Forests By: Steve Roark TN Dept. Agriculture, Forestry Division

In a young forest, there is always room for improvement.  What you try to improve for depends on your goals, which can include better timber, wildlife habitat, natural beauty, or recreation opportunities.

Harvesting practices often play a role in the condition of a forest.  High-grade harvesting is a cut the best, leave the rest system that can reduce the future value of a forest.  It normally leaves damaged, diseased, crooked, low forked, and undesirable species to take up growing space.  Sun energy is very precious in a forest, and its highest benefit comes through giving it to the most desirable trees.


Some forests have had past wildfire problems, which can wound trees and open them up to heart-rot disease.  This fungus decays the very center of the tree over time, leaving it alive but worthless for timber.  Hollow trees can serve as dens for wildlife, but only a few per acre are needed.


Wildlife habitat can be improved by encouraging tree species that produce food, such as oak, hickory, dogwood, and persimmon.  Thinning out trees puts more sunlight onto the forest floor, allowing more understory growth that can serve as cover and food.


Forests tend to be crowded when young, and trees compete to the death for sunlight and nutrients, causing slower growth.  For the highest value forest (not just monetary), you want to grow the best trees fast.


You can tweak a forest to do this through a management practice called timber stand improvement, or TSI for short.  This involves removing some trees to favor others, and can be done in a number of ways.  Herbicides can be used to deaden standing trees by a simple method called hack and squirt.  All you need is a sharp hatchet to hack pocket shaped wounds in the bark, into which herbicide is placed from a squirt bottle.  It’s very low tech and fairly inexpensive.  You can also use a chainsaw to cut down undesirables and let their nutrients recycle back into the soil.  If you can use the cut trees for firewood, so much the better.


If you have some woodlands and want some ideas on what to do with them, have a forester advise you on what to do, and how.  For assistance with any forest management needs, contact your local state forestry agency.


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The Liberty Tree By Steve Roark TN Dept. of Agriculture, Forestry Division

It interests me how trees are so often intertwined with our culture and history.  The July celebration of our Independence is a good time to review the history of the Liberty Tree, a symbol for individual liberty and resistance to tyranny.

Boston was the incubator for the American Revolution, being one of the first places where strict British rule was protested.  There was a group of elm trees in the town, one of which had a great spreading crown.  This tree was a rallying point for the growing resistance to English rule.  During the summer of 1765 there was heavy protesting of the Stamp Act, one of many taxes that the colonists disagreed with.  On August 14 of that year a group calling themselves the Sons of Liberty gathered under a large elm tree at the corner of Essex and Orange Street to protest the tax.  They concluded their protest by hanging two tax collectors in effigy from the tree.  From that day forward, the tree became known as the Liberty Tree, and assemblies continued to meet under it on a regular basis.


News of the Liberty Tree spread, and local patriots in each of the 13 colonies formed a Sons of Liberty group and identified a local large tree to be used as a meeting place.  In those times, holding an unauthorized assembly was dangerous, so the casual appearance of a group chatting beneath a tree offered some safety from arrest.


The symbolism of the Liberty Tree was so strong that several flags were designed with a tree on them.  A flag was flown by colonial fighters during the Battle of Bunker Hill that came to be called the New England flag.  It was a red flag with a pine tree in the upper left hand corner.  The red color was similar to that used by many British flags, which symbolized that the colonists were still British citizens, but the tree symbolized their desire to have all of the rights and liberties of a British citizen.


The liberty we now enjoy as American citizens should not be taken for granted, as it cost many brave patriots dearly for us to have it.  The same is true for our military personnel, both past and present.  They have sacrificed their family time and their lives for our benefit, so let us not forget this.  Thomas Jefferson said it best, as he did so many things: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”



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