He arrived at a gentle bend in the river, the glassy smooth surface cloaking a deceptively strong current as it wound through the backcountry of east Tennessee. My friend Guitou Feuillebois checked his watch.
“Eleven-thirty,” he said. “Should start happening pretty soon.”
Sure enough, the first trout broke the surface 15 minutes later. Then another.
A yellow mayfly drifted downstream in the breeze, a Sulphur dun. This was what we’d been waiting for. Within minutes, trout were rising as far as you could see upstream, breaking the silky surface of the river with varying degrees of disturbance.
We split up to chase rising fish, each of us concentrating on a particular trout. Feuillebois hooked into a solid fish within minutes. I managed to spook two trout before my brain finally screamed slow down!
I centered my attention on a third trout holding toward the center of the river in a deeper channel between two slabs of bedrock. The large brown would slide from his lie, glide through the current, and effortlessly sip emerging Sulphurs from the surface.
Carefully, I stalked to within 40 feet of the steadily feeding trout. Dozens of trout now rose within casting distance, but you cannot “bunch shoot” in situations like this. My #16 CDC Compara-dun landed a few feet upstream of the trout and drifted downstream on the long, skinny leader. As the fly approached the large brown, one question rang in my head: “Did I do everything right?”
Unless you bring your “A” game to the South Holston River, there is a good chance you’ll go home with a fat goose egg. This Tennessee tailwater provides technical dry-fly fishing that many well-traveled anglers compare to the famed waters of the Henry’s Fork and the Delaware, but with a Southern twang.
Cold year-round flows from the base of South Holston Dam create more than 14 miles of the most challenging dry-fly water in the Southeast. When the dam’s power generators are not operating, an aerating labyrinth weir about 1.25 miles below the dam maintains a minimum river flow of about 90 cubic feet per second (cfs). The dam turbines fill the weir pool twice daily. The weir was built in 1991 specifically to improve the trout fishery by maintaining a dissolved oxygen level of 6 parts per million.
At 90 cfs, the South Holston is too shallow to float but is a wade angler’s paradise, where you can stalk trout in the long, clear pools and braided riffles.
Anglers new to the river quickly realize two sinister characteristics of the water and the fish. First, the uneven, rocky riverbed is as slick as Vaseline-covered ball bearings. Spiked wading boots with felt or sticky rubber soles and a wading staff are recommended.
The second noteworthy element is that Holston trout spook far more easily—and with smaller disturbances—than trout on other rivers. Low river levels let you see trout feeding, and offer shallow paths to their locales, but getting there with enough stealth to pull off a trout-worthy presentation is frequently difficult.
Once the turbine begins churning water from the depths
of the lake, wading anglers beware. To quote the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), “waters may rise rapidly and without warning.”
The average discharge is 2,400 cfs during maximum generation, compared to 90 cfs during low water. The quickly rising waters turn the shallow, easy-to-read riverbed into a long, continuously sweeping flow appropriate only for drift boats, rafts, pontoon boats, and even jet boats. Most fly anglers prefer traditional McKenzie-style drift boats—or rafts outfitted with fishing frames—over single-person pontoon boats.
When the water rises, the trout cease feeding until the current and water levels stabilize. This usually occurs within an hour or so following the initial pulse.
Once the high water stabilizes, it’s business as usual for the trout. They dine on insects just as they do at low water, but subsurface activity increases and the rising trout are more spread out. With so much water, finding trout is no easy task, and even local guides must work hard at it.
Streamers and nymphs catch fish on the South Holston but it is the dry-fly fishing that draws most fly fishers to the river. Although several insect species hatch throughout the year, it is important to understand which bugs trigger the best dry-fly action and how to capitalize on the trout’s affinity for these specific hatches. Otherwise, you’ll just be whistling Dixie.
The Dry-Fly Game
No matter what hatch you’re fishing, the best strategy is
to sit back and study the water—and the fish—before plunging in headfirst after the first trout you see. On the South Holston, smallish, 12- to 13-inch trout are often the first to pluck drys during a heavy hatch. These diminutive fish make up the majority of the trout in the river, but they are not the ones you are looking for.
The river’s special regulations require that all trout between 16 and 22 inches must be released unharmed. Therefore, the numbers of trout 18 inches and better are higher than on any other tailwater in the region. The exact trout population has not been tallied in recent years but trout in the 20-inch-plus range are far more common than you might expect in southern Appalachia, and fish measured in pounds rather than inches are routinely caught on the South Holston. That’s something to file away in the back of your mind when you think about casting to the first rising trout you see. Patience can pay off, especially if you’re looking for “the one.”
All sizes of South Holston trout are wary, making long leaders and fine tippets the norm. Use 12-foot leaders tapered down to a minimum of 5X. Dropping down to 6X and even 7X tippets increases your chances. You may break off a few trout, but as Alfred Tennyson wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”
Rods in the 4- to 6-weight range with soft tips help protect lighter tippets. Long, accurate casts are a necessity, especially in the placid stretches of water that typify big-fish country on the river.
Having the right fly attached to a long, perfectly tapered leader does little good if it cannot be delivered to a precise spot at 40 or 50 feet—a typical scenario on this Tennessee tailwater. Practice presentation and accuracy at these distances, and you’ll tip the odds in your favor.
Perhaps the most important element in a successful Holston River trip is the ability to get within range of a feeding trout. Feuillebois—who guides on the South Holston—says the biggest mistake is failing to approach the trout properly before making your first cast.
“You’ve gotta stalk these trout,” he told me. “Slowly. Carefully. Like a bowhunter stalking a big buck. If you blow the approach, the game is over before you even get a chance to cast.”
Dry-fly fishing on the South Holston starts in March. This is when the first major mayfly hatch begins to show. Sulphurs (Ephemerella invaria) pop on the first warm days of March, but these early emergences are mostly ignored by trout. Starting in the last two weeks of April, the trout key in on Sulphurs—and they keep feeding on them until September.
April is also when the TVA increases power generation to meet summertime demand, forcing wading anglers to fish around the generation schedule. Those fishing from boats see some of the heaviest hatches, but the fishing isoften much more difficult than in low water. To learn the current flow rate, call (800) 238-2264 and enter code 01 for the South Holston River.
For high-water floats, approach rising trout at the same angle you would if the water was low and you were wading. Anchoring the boat too close to rising trout puts them down—especially larger trout. This is where things can get tricky.
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