Since then they have grown in numbers and size. Huge schools of the fish have been reported, some of record-breaking size.
“I predict Old Hickory will produce a world-record before long,” said Lebanon angler Steve Creekmore, who until recently held the state Class B (archery) tilapia record with an 8-pound, 2-ouncer.
That record was broken last month by Creekmore’s bowfishing buddy Jon Merritt who arrowed a 9-pound, 4-ouncer on Old Hickory.
Merritt’s fish is just two ounces shy of the U.S. record tilapia taken in Florida.
The word-record tilapia weighed 13 pounds, 3 ounces, and was taken in New Zealand.
Creekmore is convinced if there’s not currently a bigger one than that in Old Hickory Lake, there soon will be.
“Tilapia are in there by the thousands,” he says. “Given their growth rate, there’s no telling how big they will get.”
Tilapia were first reported in Old Hickory Lake six or seven years ago. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency fisheries biologists are not sure how they got there, but theorize they were washed in when some tilapia-stocked ponds flooded along the Cumberland River.
Another theory is that someone dumped them in from a school or private aquarium, despite it being illegal to release any non-native fish in state waters.
Biologists initially were not concerned about the presence of tilapia. They believed the then-relatively few fish could not survive cold winters and would eventually die out.
That didn’t happen – just the contrary. The fish have not only been able to survive, but are thriving and reproducing. Creekmore says on a recent bowfishing trip he encountered a school of tilapia he estimated to be “in the thousands.”
He said the fish ranged in size from three inches to several pounds. The smaller fish indicate that tilapia are successfully spawning in the lake.
Creekmore, an engineer who has been bowfishing on Old Hickory Lake for two years, makes a couple of trips a week. On his best night he got 17, weighing from 2 ½ to five pounds.
He also bowfishes for other non-game species. His biggest catch was a 58-pound grass carp.
Creekmore says he used to fish with sport-fishing tackle but once he got hooked on bowfishing, “I threw my rod and reel away.”
Since tilapia are classified as a non-game species there is no size or creel limit, and they can be taken by methods other than rod and reel.
Tilapia are hard fighters, and more and more anglers are learning about their presence in Old Hickory Lake and fishing for them. The favorite bait is worms, fished beneath a float or on the bottom.
Tilapia are a prime food fish, sold in restaurants and markets world-wide, including in the U.S.
Although tilapia are fun to catch and delicious to eat, biologists are concerned about their long-term impact as they compete with native species for food and space.
We should soon know what, if any, impact they will have on Old Hickory Lake as the tilapia explosion continues.
Larry Woody is The Democrat’s outdoors writer.