Icy Lake Cumberland

This aerial photo was taken Wednesday by the flight crew of the Somerset Police Department’s Guardian One while flying a patrol mission. You can see the ice on Fishing Creek at Pulaski Park.

In case you’re concerned about the fate of duskytail darters, the devilish little minnows that almost kept Lake Cumberland lower than normal last summer, please stop worrying.

A sampling of the endangered minnows is doing nicely in an environmentally controlled atmosphere at Conservation Fisheries Inc. in Knoxville waiting for the arrival of spring to trigger thoughts of love.

J.R. Shute, co-director of Conservation Fisheries, said this week about two dozen pairs of duskytail darters are in a holding condition over winter at the facility.

The water in which the dusky darters swim is kept “ ... as close as we can to the outside temperature ... now about 40 degrees,” Shute said.

Lighting for the minnows is controlled to match the length of days. As days get longer, lighting and food are increased, Shute related. Duskytail darters normally breed in May and longer light and more food will trigger spawning, he said.

“They (duskytail darters) are interesting and rare little fishes ... I think they appreciate our protection,” Shute remarked.

Adult duskytail darters are about 2 1/2 inches long. Baby darters reach adult size in about a year. Shute said the progeny, when about three-quarters of an inch long, will be moved to Wolf Creek Dam National Fish Hatchery for safekeeping.

There are not many darters left, but the few that live in fast-moving riffles in the Big South Fork of the Cumberland River drew the wrath of Lake Cumberland Country early in 2014 when existence of the rare minnow messed with the lake level.

Lake Cumberland was held about 40 feet below normal for seven years to repair leaky Wolf Creek Dam. While the lake was low, a five-mile section of the Big South Fork, normally backed up by the lake, returned to its normal state and duskytail darters moved downriver and took up habitat.

Repairs on Wolf Creek Dam were completed in March 2013 and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed the lake to rise 20 feet during the 2013 vacation season. The lake was supposed to return to normal depths this past summer.

Tourism interests in the Lake Cumberland Region were ready to welcome the Ohio Navy to return in force for Summer 2014. However, in mid-January 2014, about three months ahead of the tourist season, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers declared that newly discovered habitats of duskytail darters in the Big South Fork must be protected and the lake would remain at 2013 levels last summer.

The announcement created a firestorm of protests from tourism interests . The controversy reached Congress and Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, both of Kentucky, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Somerset’s Congressman Hal Rogers met with heads of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in McConnell’s Washington office and hammered out a quick solution to the problem. The quick solution was to seine some of duskytail darters out of the Big South Fork River for propagating and safekeeping and let the lake return to normal levels.

When captured out of the Big South Fork, the minnows were taken to Conservation Fisheries, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation and recovery of aquatic biodiversity and ecosystems in the Southeastern U.S. There, the darters hopefully will breed and produce more duskytail darters.

Duskytail darters are presently known in only four streams –– Little River in Blount County, Tenn.; Citico Creek, Monroe County, Tenn.; Big South Fork of the Cumberland River in McCreary County, Ky. and Scott County, Tenn.; and Copper Creek and Clinch River in Scott County, Va.