Tribune-Courier General Manager
GILBERTSVILLE – Emergency responders continued Monday to search the waters of the Tennessee River for the bodies of two Graves County brothers presumed drowned after their pontoon boat drifted too close to the open spillway gates at Kentucky Dam.
A third brother, Roy May, 70, was pulled to safety from the water by anglers after the boat’s motor failed and the current pulled them too close to the dam causing the boat to take on water. Rescuers say they saw no sign of Gene May, 63 and James Albert May, 65.
Last week’s accident underscores the dangers of fishing below the dam, even for experienced fishermen.
“The attraction for anglers to fish below dams is simply that these areas are feeding grounds for large numbers of fish. The turbulence created by the flowing water oxygenates it and traps large quantities of plankton. These factors attract large numbers of baitfish which are attracted to to more oxygenated water and feed on plankton,” said Dave Stewart, owner of Bass Buster Guide Service.
Stewart went on to explain since the baitfish are the primary forage base for many of the fish that anglers are seeking such as Stripers, White Bass, Catfish and Sauger, these areas become rich with large numbers when the dams are generating power and and turbines are pulling water from the lakes above.
Stewart cautioned the dangers of fishing below dams are numerous, however. “If you get caught in the back water and lose engine power on your boat, the result can be disastrous. You will be drawn back to the dam and the turbulence will suck your boat and everything in it down.”
Curt Curtner, Chief of the Marshall County Rescue Squad concurs. “It’s a mean old river. Especially near the dam,” he said.
Curtner, along with other members of the squad, were on the scene shortly after last week’s accident and said, “So many times it’s the ones who have spent their lives fishing who end up in trouble near the dam. No one goes out expecting to have mechanical trouble and end up at the mercy of the waters.”
Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has installed horns, strobe lights and warning signs to alert boaters to the dangers in the area of Kentucky Dam, but these warnings all too often go unheeded.
“It’s not a safe situation near the dam,” said Curtner. “My advice is to stay clear of the area. People have the misconception this is the only place to catch the big fish, but the dangers just aren’t worth the risks.”
Curtner said the pontoon boat involved in last week’s accident was completely destroyed by the turbulence of the water. “We hauled away two truck loads of boats pieces,” he said.
Curtner also said none of the men were wearing life vests, although several were found floating in the river after the accident.
“I can’t stress enough the importance of life vests,” he said. They don’t do anybody any good if they are tucked away in a storage area of the boat. People get comfortable and think they know what they are doing. Even if you can swim, you need to being wearing a vest.”