Accident Database

Report ID# 115375

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Accident Description

From: Robin Pope, ACA

Sent: Fri, Oct 1, 2021

In May of this year, over Memorial Day Weekend, I helped teach a kayak instructor course on the lower Nolichucky River in Tennessee.  During the course, one of the instructor candidates (who happened to be my son) ran into a line suspended out into the current.  In the process of disengaging from the line, he discovered that it was actually a fishing line with multiple suspended hooks.  He made contact with a hook, and may have been briefly snagged.

Our group examined the line.  It was secured across the river and had no tag or label that would help identify an owner.  The line was dark colored against a dark background, making it difficult to see until it couldn't be avoided.   It was suspended at a height that would strike a canoe, kayak or raft paddler, or an inner tube rider, anywhere from just above water level to neck and head level, and an SUP paddler at ankle to thigh level.  It extended at a downward angle from shore well out into the current before actually entering the water.   Its position could cause a paddler to capsize or fall overboard.  To make matters worse, the line was set an angle to current, so that if someone fell overboard or capsized, they would flush underwater into the fishing hooks. 

The lower Nolichucky is heavily traveled by private boaters and commercial groups, including rafts, tubes and SUPs.  The line was untended and created what appeared to be a clear, imminent threat.  It obviously impeded safe navigation, and there were several large novice groups upstream of us.  It had no identifying information on it.  If we'd been doing a waterway cleanup, there's no question it would have been taken down.  If I had deliberately wanted to hurt a paddler, I'm not sure I could have set it any more effectively.  Given all that, we removed it.

Unfortunately, the owners showed up as we prepared to leave and later confronted us at the takeout.  Law enforcement was called (by our group, because the owners of the line became threatening), the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Administration (TWRA) did a brief investigation over the next few days, and the local District Attorney reportedly said something to the effect of "I'd have done the same thing in your shoes".  Unfortunately, he later changed his mind, submitted it to a grand jury (for a misdemeanor "interfering with fishing" charge) and now Scott Fisher, the owner of the school running the class, has been charged.  Scott is the owner of Nolichucky Outdoor Learning Institute, an ACA level 3 SWR IT (with paperwork in place for level 5 SWR IT and level 4 river kayak IT), and a former Army Ranger officer.  Through NOLI, Scott offers a variety of discounted programs for the community, including school and other youth groups, and is deeply involved with Team River Runner.  In essence, a former Army officer has been charged for removing trash from the river, the day before Memorial Day, to prevent others from being injured by it. 

Scott has spoken with his attorney, who hopes to get the case dismissed.  Everyone in the class (including Tom Burroughs, a swiftwater rescue ITE and someone who frequently trains Fish and Wildlife personnel) submitted a statement describing the events.  The attorney has encouraged Scott to create publicity about this event; Andrea White, the ACA TN State Director and Scott's marketing director is taking point on publicity.  Andrea has strong relations with local media and with the leadership of TN State Parks and TWRA and has already started discussions with them.  AW and ACA also have been contacted.  Regardless of the outcome of the case, this will be an impetus to pursue a fishing rule change. 


From: Tom Burroughs <>

Sent: Wednesday, September 29, 2021 3:44 PM

To: Scott <>; to: Robin Pope <>; Andrea White <>

Subject: May 30 2021 Trotline incident

I am writing this summary of my recollections of the happenings of May 30, 2021 on the Lower Nolichucky River. On this day, Scott Ficher, Robin Pope, Jess Christian, Brad Eldridge, David Pope, Maddie Payne and I were all part of an ACA Whitewater Kayak Instructor Certification course. The incident in question was the entanglement of one of our participants (David Pope) in a riverwide trotline, and the subsequent removal of this hazard to navigation.

I will open with the explanation of my background. I started in the fire service in 1990, and have been involved since then in numerous roles in public safety as a certified firefighter/ national registry EMT/ Search and Rescue technician and am currently the team leader of our local wilderness search and rescue team. I am an Instructor Trainer Educator for the American Canoe Association in the disciplines of Swiftwater Rescue and Whitewater Kayaking, and am an Instructor Trainer in the Whitewater Rafting discipline as well. I perform risk management consulting services to numerous outdoor education programs, and in the winter, spend time as a whitewater kayak expedition guide in central and south america. Suffice it to say, keeping people safe and protected is my business.

What we came upon on May 30th was a life threat to all river users that day. We were just one of many groups on the river that day. This section of the Nolichucky is regularly used by groups of recreational floaters in addition to whitewater paddlers due to it being a mild section of river compared to the upstream Nolichucky Gorge section. Many people of all ages float down the river here in simple inner tubes, with their legs and other body parts floating below the surface of the water.

The hazard was a riverwide "trotline" with large barbed hooks every 24" or so, on leaders approximately 24" long. The main line suspending the hooks is a nylon twisted line of no less than 100# strength. It was stretched and tied from one tree on river right to a tree limb hanging well out over the river on river left, both ends well above the water line. However, due to the color of the line, and it being suspended by overhanging branches, it was not readily visible to river users. . Of note, there were no identification labels showing ownership anywhere on the line, which I believe is a legal requirement for any trotline?

The careless and hazardous manner in which the line was rigged resulted in numerous large hooks both above the water (on river left) and just below the water for many feet from shore on both sides of the river. This created an extreme hazard to any river user traveling down the river. There did not appear to be bait of any sort on most of the hooks, which is probably because of the fast current that the line was suspended in. Program participant David Pope paddled into the line (as mentioned, it was very hard to see) and became caught up in it, due to the swift current moving through that part of the river. Due to my being upstream at that time, I was only aware of what was happening when I saw Robin and Scott working quickly to get him disentangled. Luckily David was quickly freed by the quick and decisive actions of Robin and Scott. Had David been a solo paddler, or with a less experienced group, this event could have become a fatality.

After David was freed, the line was disconnected from the trees on both ends and from a brick (that may have been a very unsuccessful attempt at weighting the line?). At this point, the self-proclaimed owner of the line showed up on river right and the coiled up line was returned (no hooks were removed), with admonishment from us that they not risk the lives of people on the river in the future. The owner of the line claimed that he had every right to do what he did and what happened to others was not his problem. We then continued paddling downstream to the take-out/parking spot.

When we arrived, there was another man (believed to be the trotline owner's father) yelling at us from the bridge in a threatening fashion. With our students, we as a group carried our boats to our vehicles which were parked in the parking spot along the road. When we arrived at our vehicles, we discovered we had been blocked in by at least two trucks, preventing us from being able to leave, and were verbally accosted in an aggressive fashion by several men (who were the owners of those trucks). This threatening behavior prompted us to call 911 to request law enforcement. At that point the men moved their trucks a few hundred feet up the road but continued to threaten us and our participants. When LE arrived, they talked to us and to the men in question. They stayed with the men while we were allowed to leave.

If we had not come along when we did, and removed this river-wide hazard after freeing our participant, others coming down could have easily become entrapped on this riverwide line of large hooks and this could have been a very different situation.


Tom Burroughs

ACA Swiftwater Rescue/Whitewater Kayak ITE

ITRA Level 3V Swiftwater Rescue Instructor

NREMT/EMT-W/MPIC - Wilderness Medicine Instructor

2015 ACA "Excellence in Instruction" National Award recipient

Team Leader- Washington CO AR Search and Rescue team

Director, Ozark Safety and Rescue Educators

Member- Wilderness Medical Society



To whom it may concern:

I have read Robin Pope's description of the incident on the Lower Nolichucky River in Tennessee. 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.

Yours Truly,

Charles C. Walbridge

Board member, American Whitewater

Safety Editor and Accident Database Manager

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