August 30, 2012
By James Buice
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?"
Bring your Fly Fishing "A" Game
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 easilyâ€”and with smaller disturbancesâ€”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.
High Water on the South Holston
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 boatsâ€”or rafts outfitted with fishing framesâ€”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 South Holston's Dry-Fly Game
No matter what hatch you're fishing, the best strategy is to sit back and study the waterâ€”and the fishâ€”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 areÂ 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 feetâ€”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. Feuilleboisâ€”who guides on the South Holstonâ€”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 Sulphursâ€”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 downâ€”especially larger trout. This is where things can get tricky.
Keeping the boat a safe distance from the trout is easyâ€”but getting a good drift on a long cast in swift current is difficult. Position the boat slightly upstream and across-stream from the rising trout. This gives you the best setup for drag-free drifts in swift water.
The Sulphur emergence normally occurs from late morning to mid afternoon, and trout take emergers as soon as the bugs begin their ascent from the riverbed. Low-riding Sulphur imitations such as CDC Compara-duns, Harrop's Flatwing Emergers, and Sulphur Cripples (#14-16) work well in the early season, from the first Sulphur emergence through late July. From late July until early September, E. invaria Sulphurs are replaced by Ephemerella dorothea dorothea, a smaller species requiring size 18 to 20 patterns. During these late-season hatches, going smaller usually works better than changing patterns.
There are also caddis hatches on the Holston during the spring and summer, but they do not bring as many trout to the surface as the mayflies. This is odd, because the Watauga River, which is just a few miles away, has a great caddis hatch in February and March.
During June, July, and August, another group of insects gets the attention of large South Holston trout. Although the Sulphur hatch is still underway, June bugs, Japanese beetles, and ants invade the east Tennessee bottomlands. It is on this dry-fly "underground" that fly-pattern authority Harrison Steeves has built his arsenal of terrestrial imitations.
The same rules apply for terrestrials as for all other drys. Long leaders, light tippets, a quiet approach, and accurate presentations generate more strikes.
Trout do not rise to terrestrials with regularity, so prospecting may be in order. Casting beetles or ants under overhanging branches and along the banks is a good starting point. A few must-have patterns include Steeves's Japanese Beetle (#14-16), Harrop's CDC Beetle (#16-18), and Monster Beetles (#8-12) for imitating Japanese beetles, wood beetles, and June bugs. For ants, black CDC Ants and Parachute Ants (#16-18) get the job done.
After Sulphurs and terrestrials depart for the season, the river goes through what locals call a "slow spell." Trout are caught, but mostly subsurface with tiny blackfly larvae (in low water) or large streamers on heavy sinking lines when the generators are pumping.
As the chill of winter sets in around late November, the dry-fly fishing picks up. Tiny Blue-winged Olives (Baetis) and midges begin hatching and run through February and sometimes March.
The best days for the BWOs are dismal and gray, and the threat of rain keeps most anglers off the river. It's tough fishing, but pay your dues and you'll often be rewarded.
In the South, the humidity is constantâ€”even in the winter. On cold, overcast days the air is damp and heavy with a chill that cuts through even the best insulation.
On these days, the South Holston is best fished at low water. Low-riding emerger patterns such as Smith's Olive Emerger (#18-20), Harrop's Last Chance Cripple (#20-22), and Brooks's Sprout Baetis (#18-22) should be in any South Holston winter fly box.
Fishing the Baetis hatch on the South Holston during the winter is challenging but when you look around to see who witnessed you landing a large trout on a #22 BWO and 7X tippet, you often realize you are the only person in sight.
Boating and Wading on the South Holston
Wading anglers have a lot of room to roam on the South Holston. Although access points are few and far between, the river's shallow nature allows you to explore vast stretches of water during low water. One of the more popular spots is at Emmett Bridge, where anglers have the option of parking and wading upstream around the labyrinth weir, or moving downstream to fish the numerous riffles, pools, and runs as much as a mile downstream. This area has excellent trout concentrations, but angling pressure can be high.
Farther downstream, there is another TVA access point off River Bend Roadâ€”park in the limited-space parking area and hike down to the river. This is a popular spot among South Holston regulars who find the long, smooth pools at the end of the hike some of the most challenging dry-fly fishing on the river.
Riverside Road is another access point for wading anglers. Here, the road follows the river for several hundred yards and offers plenty of pull-outs for parking. The numbers of fish are not as high, but the trout are typically larger. This stretch could be called the "frustration mile," because simply getting close enough to cast to a rising trout in the shallow, almost still water is difficult. If you are able to get within casting range, half the battle is won.
For floating anglers, there are only four acceptable takeouts. Most guides with drift boats, and the majority of recreational anglers, begin at Emmett Bridge.
The first downstream takeout is at Jack Prater's houseâ€”he also runs the river's only shuttle service (423-878-5345). The float from Emmett Bridge to Prater's is about 4 miles, but it can take most of a day to cover it, especially if there is a good hatch. Prater is one-of-a-kind; good-natured and always ready to show you photos of big trout he's taken on the river. It's this kind of Southern hospitality that makes the South Holston a special place.
Below Prater's, the next takeout is under Old Weaver Pike Bridge, approximately 5 miles downstream. This is a primitive ramp at best, and 4X4 vehicles are a must, especially if there has been any rain.
The next ramp downstream is near Bluff City, just before the river empties into Boone Lake. It's too long for a day float, so most anglers on the lower stretch of river motor up from Bluff City on jet sleds.
Doing everything right is a difficult task, but it is by no means impossible. The South Holston holds many secrets, and the only way to unlock them is time on the river. Pay your dues, study the river, and get skunked a few times . . . it's good for you! In the end, you'll savor the success of big Tennessee trout on a dry fly.
Local Contacts-South Holston Fly Shops
South Holston RiverFly Fishing Shop
Fly Shop of Tennessee
South Holston Guides
South Holston Lodging
South Holston Cabins
Note: There are also numerous hotels in Elizabethton, Bristol, and Bluff City.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency
James Buice is a guide for the Fish Hawk in Atlanta, Georgia, and an avid turkey hunter.