Boaters take into consideration the weather conditions before heading out on the lake. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
“It’s been a tough summer for the lake,” Richard Ballard said as he and his family glided into the gas pump area at Jay’s Boat Dock on Boone Lake in their rental pontoon boat last Saturday.
“The conditions are great now. The rain this morning has kept everyone else off the lake,” Ballard said. “Boone is usually pretty crowded, but this summer it’s been a little less crowded, just because of the weather.”
The summer season in Northeast Tennessee has been warm, but infiltrated with sporadic heavy rain and thunderstorms, setting record rainfall totals for the month of June and followed by more rain for most of July –– two months that are usually the busiest for local lakes in the region.
Boater Sam Till and his friends stopped in quickly at Jay’s Boat Dock and said they were just happy to be out on the lake in the sunshine.
“We’ve had quite a bit of rain, but other than that we’ve tried to get out anytime the sun’s shining,” Till said. “It’s been pretty calm lately. Last year, I’d say there were a lot more people out with the 100 degree temperatures. This year seems to be a little slower, less boats out. We usually spend most of the day out, hangout, go anchor in a cove and just enjoy ourselves.”
He said with the high lake levels, though, Boone Lake has seen quite a bit of debris, including logs washing into the lake through the rivers.
Andrew and Angela Tolley, who manage the marina and restaurant at Jay's Boat Dock, said business has been tough this summer.
“Where we typically have three or four month ... busy season, we had like six weeks, and out of those six weeks a lot of them rained,” Andrew said. “Last year’s ... season started the first of April and really, just had great weather up until July. This year, we really didn’t get any weather until almost June. Even as that, it seems that it rains almost every weekend and ... it really drives people off the water. The lake levels don’t affect our traffic as much as ... rain and inclement weather.”
He said the unpredictable weather and spotty forecasting has played an even bigger part in their decreased boating traffic and business.
“People aren’t out because ... it seems like it rains every weekend. July 4 and the 5th were two of the nicest lake days that we had. It was busy, but it’s not busy like it would be,” Andrew said. “Typically after the Fourth, the lake starts to slow down anyway.”
Angela said people’s boating styles are completely dependent upon the weather day by day.
“I think that a lot of people make other plans based on the weather because there’s no point in cleaning the boat, getting it out there, spending the time and energy to get ready for a lake day when it’s going to rain,” she said.
For Fish Springs Marina owner Thomas White, though, the increased rain and high lake levels haven’t necessarily disrupted business this year, but just rearranged it.
“Our business is 90 percent weather related. If it’s obviously too cold in the winter time, no one comes around. If it’s raining in the spring, no one comes around. We depend on the months between Memorial Day and Labor Day and really that’s our busiest part of the year,” White said. “What we’ve seen this year is ... as far as lake usage, the people bring their boats, they just don’t get to use them as often. They go between rain storms.”
He said even the lake levels on Watauga seem to be returning to their normal levels after a rainy first half of the season and year.
White said Fish Springs business is split into two categories –– boats/boat storage and boat sales. He said the marina mostly sells pontoons and small aluminum fishing boats.
“What we’re seeing with sales is those people that didn’t buy boats in May and June when it was raining, are buying them in July. So, we’ve had a real busy month in July, just wide open,” White said. “I think there’s some (ramped) up demand ... where they didn’t get a chance to spend their money in the spring. They’re spending it now.”
He said while sales have stayed consistent with the annual average, year-to-date, right now the marina is a little above average because they’ve done so well in July.
White said one of the things they’ve seen affected by the weather this lake season, has been the number of people that tow their boats to Watauga.
“We’re watching around the lake and there’s less people on the public ramps,” he said.
White said even the high gas prices haven’t seemed to affect business, and could even potentially be helping it.
“Our current regular price is about $4.79,” he said. “Gas prices rarely affects people using their boat. What we’ve see is when the gas is high in town, people take less trips to Gatlinburg, less trips to ... Mrytle Beach, less trips to Florida and they come to the lake. When gas prices are high, we get more business.”
White said that “staycations” and “lakecations” are catching on, and said a trip to the lake is cheaper than taking a trip out of town.
“We’re still seeing a lot of people vacating in the area and we’ve got a dozen pontoon rental boats that we use and rent out and that’s been up,” he said. “We have a lady here that does paddleboards. Paddleboarding has really come along this year. If gas prices are a problem, you can always go rent a paddleboard and use your muscle power.”
As a third generation owner of Fish Springs Marina, White said the family-run business was open the day Watauga Lake opened.
“My kids are coming along as a fourth generation,” he said. “We’re here to stay.”