The Clinch's Magnificent Trout

The same stretch of the Clinch River that produced the state-record trout remains one of the finest trout streams in Tennessee -- and it may be getting better!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Jeff Samsel

Swimming a minnow-shaped plug quickly beside the crown of a big fallen tree, you watch the bait wobble along in the clear water with great anticipation. You know that a trout is apt to dart from the deepest branches and nab your lure. You also know that any fish that strikes could turn out to be a giant.

Tennessee's state-record brown trout - the biggest trout of any kind ever pulled from Volunteer waters - came from this section of the Clinch River. And every year the Norris Lake tailwater yields plenty of big trout, including some double-digit weight browns.

The state-record brown trout, which Greg Ensor caught in 1988, weighed a whopping 28 pounds, 12 ounces. Biologists reportedly once shocked up a brown from the Clinch that was longer than Ensor's and that bottomed out 25-pound scales. Clinch regulars are convinced that there are 30-pound-plus trout in the river.

The Clinch is Tennessee's oldest cold-water tailwater. Norris Dam was completed in 1936, and trout have been stocked in the river since 1950. However, for the first 25 years or so, the fishery never developed as biologists had expected it would due to problems related to low dissolved-oxygen levels and low water levels during periods of non-generation.

Beginning in 1980, Tennessee Valley Authority, which owns and operates Norris Dam, began a series of alterations to the dam and tailwater to address both of these concerns. Turbines were improved and later replaced with a system that maintains higher dissolved oxygen levels. Meanwhile, a minimum-flow plan was established in 1984 and a re-regulation weir was constructed two miles downstream of the dam to help sustain that minimum flow. The weir was upgraded in 1997.

These changes have had a significant impact on the fishery. Aquatic insect abundance and variety has increased dramatically, and the river now can sustain significantly higher numbers of trout. Fish grow quickly in the Clinch, based on biologists' assessments, and good numbers of trout survive throughout the year.

Prior to the mid-1990s, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists had very little hard data related to the Norris Dam tailwater trout fishery. However, they now conduct annual shocking surveys, shocking the river at 12 sampling sites, always on February nights with a single turbine turning. The plan is very standardized to keep conditions as similar as possible. February was chosen so that populations could be accurately assessed prior to the stocking of more trout each spring.

Between 1996 and 2002, the number of trout over 7 inches caught per hour by shocking more than doubled. While brown trout numbers have decreased over the past couple of years, the total numbers of trout that are at least 14 inches long and over 18 inches both have increased since 1996. The brown trout decrease follows a spike created by extra brown trout stockings in the mid-1990s.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency altered its stocking plan for the Norris tailwater during the 1990s. Having discovered that trout stocked at catchable size made up a very small part of the harvest and that angling mortality had little impact on the trout population, they shifted to more of a put-grow-and-take management plan, stocking mostly fingerling trout and allowing the fish to grow up in the tailwater.

Trout grow very quickly in the Clinch River (close to an inch per month), and fish that are stocked as fingerlings look and act more like wild trout. Currently, the TWRA stocks roughly 250,000 trout per year in the 14-mile-long Norris tailwater. Seventy to 80 percent of those trout are fingerlings most years. Rainbow trout always make up the majority of the fish stocked, but the actual ratio varies quite a bit from year to year.

Frank Fiss, statewide stream biologist for the TWRA, anticipated outstanding fishing on the Clinch this year. Trout densities in last year's shocking surveys were the highest ever recorded, and an entire season of high water kept fishing pressure very light last year. Both generators were turning most of the time, and the spill gates were even open some of the time. Therefore, anglers had to go other places a lot of days that they otherwise might have fished the Clinch.

The Clinch is a large river throughout the Norris tailwater, averaging more than 100 yards across. It winds through a pastoral valley, between farmland, forests and limestone bluffs. On low waters, it is lazy, shallow and easy to wade, overall, but it still has enough water for good float trips. A single generator turning puts too much water in the river for wading and makes it more suitable for fishing from a boat. When both turbines are turning, fishing prospects pretty much get washed out.

Private lands bound most of the Clinch tailwater, but scattered public access points provide anglers places to get into the river for wade-fishing or to launch canoes or other boats. Once on the river, fishermen have room to spread out because of the Clinch's size.

Tennessee Valley Authority maintains four public access points along the river, three of which offer boat ramps. The Songbird Canoe Access Area, which is immediately downstream of Norris Dam, does not have a launching ramp for larger boats. The first mile and a half of river belongs to TVA, however, so the upper end offers some of the best wading prospects. Other access points, all of which have boat ramps, are the Miller's Island, Peach Orchard and Highway 61 bridge access areas.

The most popular way to fish the Clinch, by far, is with natural bait. Creel surveys indicate that 70 percent of all anglers fish with bait. Creel surveys also show that most anglers come from the immediate area (80 percent from Knox, Anderson and Campbell counties) and that fishing pressure is only moderate. The Watauga, South Holston and Caney Fork tailwaters all get more fishing pressure than does the Clinch.

Like most tailwaters, the Clinch is like two different rivers according to whether the water is "on" or "off." Low water means easy river access and is the only time many anglers feel comfortable fishing the river. Flat and quite clear, though, the Clinch can get pretty technical on low water and the fish can get quite fussy. Big trout are tough to trick on low flows.

Low-water levels do bring good dry-fly fishing. Long-rod anglers should carry a good selection of dries - especially small dry flies - as hatches can be heavy enough that matching them really can become critical. If the trout won't come up, small nymphs, including scud patterns, are good bets. Long, light leaders are helpful for f

ishing dry flies and nymphs.

Spin-fishermen generally do best with micro-jigs or fairly small, subtle colored in-line spinners when the water is low. Light line and ultralight gear prove helpful for casting micro-sized offerings farther, allowing anglers to stay back from the fish. Anglers who favor natural offerings typically use earthworms, corn or prepared trout baits, fished on small hooks with just a split shot or two added to the line. They typically angle casts upstream and let their offerings drift in the current on or near the bottom.

High water changes everything. Bigger, flashier baits are needed to get the trout's attention and to handle the strong currents. Hatches do still come off on summer afternoons, and dry-fly fishing can be good. More often, though, anglers either drift bright-colored sinking flies like San Juan Worms and Glowballs close to the bottom or they strip Woolly Buggers and streamers beside shoreline cover. Big trout sometimes hit big flies with a vengeance when the water is up.

Anglers who favor bait use the same basic offerings when the water is up as they do on low flows. The main difference is they add more weight to their rigs in order to keep their baits close to the bottom. Spin-fishermen who favor artificial lures do very well with minnow-imitating plugs, which they cast around shoreline cover and work quickly and aggressively.

Floating the Clinch from one access point to another works well for fishing the river thoroughly and working areas that don't get as much attention. It can be floated in a canoe, a cartop johnboat or an inflatable pontoon boat. Some anglers use float tubes, but these boats aren't designed for moving water, and doing so can be dangerous. Drift boats, jet-powered johnboats or bass boats are best for fishing the river.

For water-flow information, log onto www.lakeinfo.tva.gov. Tennessee Valley Authority posts expected release schedules daily. It's vital to understand, however, that schedules can change based on power demands. Anglers wading the river should choose a recognizable rock that's just out of the water to keep an eye on it. If the rock ever disappears, it's time to get out of the river!



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