Whether you like floating big rivers or wading tiny creeks, Tennessee trout waters have something for you. Let's look at the best destinations for all kinds of trout fishing.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
The term "trout water" brings different images to different anglers' minds, and in Tennessee those images can be widely varied. From the sparkling creeks that tumble between boulders and rhododendron tangles high in the Appalachian Mountains to the broad, flat waters of Middle Tennessee tailwaters, the Volunteer State offers tremendous diversity and an abundance of opportunities for trout fishermen.
More than 600 miles of mountain streams, all in the eastern part of the state, support wild trout populations. Rainbows are the most abundant wild trout, but the lower ends of many wild trout streams support strong populations of brown trout, and 150 different headwater creeks are home to native brook trout.
In addition, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocks 75 streams in all parts of Tennessee with more than 325,000 catchable-sized trout each year, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and TWRA together stock more than one million trout annually into the tailwaters of 11 different hydroelectric dams. The tailwaters, which are generally larger and much more productive than other trout waters, are located in Middle and East Tennessee.
Finally, several Tennessee reservoirs support very good trout fishing, and trout tend to grow large in reservoirs. Anglers commonly troll spoons or fish at night with natural offerings for reservoir trout, creating very different types of experiences from anything available from trout streams. Adding even greater variety, lake trout are part of the stocking mix in a couple of reservoirs.
Because of the sheer abundance of quality opportunities in Tennessee, picking top spots for fishermen is a tough proposition. Areas selected below by no means constitute a comprehensive look at Tennessee's top-quality trout fisheries. However, they do offer a sampling of Tennessee's widely varied offerings, and each promises outstanding fishing in the year ahead.
The waters that produced Tennessee's biggest brown trout ever more than 15 years ago remain some of the best trout waters in the state. In fact, because of major dam/tailwater improvements done by Tennessee Valley Authority and enhanced management plans by TWRA, the Norris Lake tailwater is a notably better fishery today than it was when Greg Ensor landed his 28-pound, 12-ounce giant in 1988.
As part of a broad-based management plan (which runs through 2006) for the Clinch, the TWRA now stocks more than 400,000 trout per year in the river, which is nearly twice the number that were stocked through 2001. The majority of the fish are fingerling rainbows and browns, which grow up in the river to look and act like wild trout. The stockings include 37,000 catchable-sized trout, which are stocked periodically throughout the year.
"Rainbow trout dominate the fishery, but the browns are still there. They grow to large sizes and definitely attract the attention of a contingency of anglers," said Bart Carter, Region IV stream biologist for the TWRA. "When we sample the river, we pretty routinely bring up 9- to 11-pound brown trout."
Last fall, Carter weighed an 18-pound brown trout that a bass fisherman had caught from the far lower end of the tailwater.
The Clinch is a big river, averaging more than 100 yards across. The 12-mile-long tailwater can be waded on low water or floated when one of two generators is running. When both generators are running, the river gets pretty high and swift, making it very difficult to get lures in front of trout.
Low-water fly-fishing calls for small flies, light tippets, careful approaches and good presentations. Midges and scud-imitating patterns can be critical to success. Small, in-line spinners in muted colors and assorted natural offerings perform well for spin-fishermen during low-water periods.
When one turbine is turning, however, the fish get significantly more aggressive. Woolly Buggers and minnow-imitating streamers offer flyfishermen the best prospects for getting a big brown to bite. Spin-fishermen do well with sinking minnow-imitating plugs.
A handful of public access points are scattered along the Clinch, beginning with a TVA access point at the base of the dam. General trout regulations apply.
A relative newcomer to Tennessee's trout-fishing picture, the tailwater of Cherokee Dam has been stocked regularly with trout only since 1995. Previous attempts to stock this tailwater had failed because of significant problems from low dissolved-oxygen levels. However, an oxygen-injection system installed in the lower end of Cherokee Lake remedied that problem, making the big tailwater suitable for trout stocking.
The Holston tailwater, which extends 19 miles, is managed as a put-grow-and-take fishery, with nearly 200,000 trout stocked annually, mostly as fingerlings in the fall. The fish grow fast in the food-rich tailwater, and typically are fat and very healthy by spring, according to Carter.
The Holston provides opportunities for wading and floating, and is gentle and easy to float in a canoe, according to Carter. The Nances Ferry access at the lower end of the tailwater has a boat ramp, and anglers can fish the lower tailwater with regular motorized boats given at least a moderate flow.
Fishing has been very good through the early years of the Holston trout fishery, Carter said. However, during 2003 and 2004, heavy rainfall late in the spring and into summer caused the water to become problematically warm by the end of summer, causing serious stress to fish and even some fish kills.
The best time to fish the Holston, which has not yet gained tremendous popularity except with local area anglers, is from April through the middle of summer. The river is loaded with stout trout this time of year, and insect hatches can be extraordinary.
The namesake of the Tellico Nymph, the Tellico River and surrounding area make up one of Tennessee's classic trout-fishing destinations. The Tellico is best known for heavy stockings and big-fish potential on the main river and on Citico Creek, one watershed to the north. However, a big part of the area's appeal is the great diversity of its offerings. Anglers who camp for a weekend in the Cherokee National Forest can enjoy completely different experiences from one day to the next.
The Tellico River, Citico Creek and Green Cove Pond get heavy weekly stockings from their own trout h
atchery, which is funded by special permits required to fish these waters. Green Cove Pond is open only to handicapped anglers, youngsters and senior citizens. All the permit waters offer easy access to abundant fish and great prospects for bringing home a limit of trout.
The Tellico is a big river, offering plenty of room for plenty of fishermen, and the heavily stocked section is more than 13 miles long. Stocked fish are generally larger than those stocked in Tennessee's regular hatchery-supported waters, and some trout escape harvest for several years. The Tellico produces double-digit-weight brown trout every year.
In stark contrast to the heavily stocked and heavily fished permit waters, the forks of Citico Creek and the Bald River, a major tributary of the Tellico, form the centerpieces of the Citico and Bald River wilderness areas. These streams offer wild trout in unspoiled wilderness settings and, more often than not, no company from other anglers. A few other tributaries of the Tellico and Citico Creek likewise offer good prospects for wild trout, but are not quite as much work to access and fish as the wilderness streams.
Rounding out the Tellico area's offerings, the far lower end of the Tellico River, downstream of traditional trout waters, is managed under delayed-harvest regulations. That section offers excellent catch-and-release fishing through the cool months in waters that did not used to be stocked. The harvest opened on this section on March 15.
A Tellico-Citico Permit is required for fishing Tellico River, Citico Creek or Green Cove Pond from March 15 to Sept. 15, and fishing is closed on Thursdays and Fridays, except on holidays during that period. Only children under 13, handicapped individuals and adults 65 and older may fish in Green Cove Pond.
On the North River, Bald River, North Fork Citico Creek and South Fork Citico Creek, plus tributaries of all four, the limit is three trout, with a minimum size of 6 inches for brook trout and 9 inches for rainbow trout.
Ten-pound-plus brown trout come out of the Hiwassee River every year, according to David Young, Region III fisheries biologist. Rainbows typically don't grow big in the river, but last year, Young received a photo of a 12-pound 'bow the prolific tailwater had produced.
"The Hiwassee is in very good shape," Young reported. "Fishermen seem to be enjoying good fishing and there are some large trout -- especially brown trout -- in the river."
Young noted that the Hiwassee is a very difficult river to sample effectively.
"Our best idea of what is in the river comes from the fishermen," he said. "We could shock the river for weeks and not catch any of those really big trout. Yet the fishermen catch them, so we know they are in there."
Biologists and fishermen anticipate the Hiwassee's brown trout fishing to get even better in years to come. The TWRA instituted special regulations to protect young brown trout a year ago in hopes of producing more large fish. Hatchery limitations make it impractical for brown trout to be raised to catchable size before they are stocked. Therefore, the TWRA stocks 5- to 8-inch brown trout, and they believe anglers had been catching and keeping quite a few of those small fish.
"If we can protect the brown trout for the first year, they have the opportunity to grow really large in this river," Young said.
The regulation, which covers the section of river from Apalachia Powerhouse to Reliance Bridge, allows only two brown trout in a daily limit, with a minimum size of 14 inches.
The stretch of river covered by the brown trout regulations includes the Hiwassee's "trophy section," which begins at the Big Bend parking area and extends three miles to the Reliance Bridge. Through this section, the limit for all trout is two, with a 14-inch minimum size, and only artificial lures may be used or possessed. This section also enjoys a different kind of extra protection: It turns away from the road and all access is by hiking or by floating.
River access is excellent from the powerhouse to Big Bend and good downstream of Reliance, as the Hiwassee is bounded mostly by Cherokee National Forest lands. Fishing is extremely popular in the upper end of the river, which receives the highest stocking concentrations. The Hiwassee gets stocked every two weeks throughout the year for an average annual total of 85,000 catchable-size rainbows and 20,000 juvenile brown trout.
The Hiwassee River is like two different rivers, depending on whether power is being generated. When either generator is turning, the river becomes treacherous, if not impossible, to wade; however, anglers who float in rafts or drift boats enjoy their best fishing action on high water. On low water, much of the riverbed is exposed, making for easy access, but spooky fish.
Anglers should check proposed generation schedules and should be aware the schedules are subject to change. When generation begins, the Hiwassee rises rapidly.
Most anglers think first about streams when they think about trout, but Tennessee also offers outstanding reservoir trout fishing, and Calderwood may be the most interesting of the lot. A small impoundment of the Little Tennessee River that cuts a narrow gorge along the North Carolina/Tennessee border, Calderwood serves up quantity, quality and variety to Tennessee trout fishermen.
Trout are plentiful on Calderwood, and they tend to grow large. The TWRA and North Carolina Wildlife Resources Agency together stock both fingerling trout and catchable-sized fish in the lake. Rainbows are the main species, but recent NCWRC stockings also have included brook trout and brown trout, and TWRA has stocked lake trout in Calderwood in past years.
Lake Calderwood is clear, deep and very riverine in character. Current pushes through the whole lake when power is being generated through Cheoah Dam at the head of the lake and Calderwood Dam. Trout fishing is best when the water is running.
The upper end of the lake, where the water flows in from Cheoah, is a consistent hotspot on Lake Calderwood. Fish also commonly hold around shoreline cover in the upper third of the lake. The trout make heavy use of terrestrial insects through the warm months, so terrestrial flies and small plugs are good lure choices.
A reciprocal agreement between North Carolina and Tennessee allows anglers licensed by either state to fish anywhere on the lake by boat. However, bank-fishermen must be licensed for the state they are fishing from. That's important to realize because the best bank access is at the lake's only boat ramp, which is part of a small recreation area and is in North Carolina. The ramp is accessible off state Highway 28.
GREAT SMOKY MOUNTAINS
Last, but certainly not least, anglers should not overlook the clear, cold streams that tumble down the slopes of the Smokies. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park covers half a milli
on acres, surrounding the main ridge of the Smokies, with roughly equal area in Tennessee and North Carolina. The Tennessee portion of the park alone contains 220 miles of fishable trout waters, in which all trout are wild.
Most major streams in the Smokies make their entire transition from high-elevation headwater branches to large smallmouth-dominated streams before leaving the national park. Consequently, these streams have outstanding riparian habitat and run as clear and cold as any in Tennessee.
Wild rainbows predominate in the majority of the Smokies' fishable waters. Browns abound in the lower reaches of several creeks. Brook trout fill the headwaters, but most brook trout waters are closed to fishing as part of a long-term project to restore and protect native trout populations.
Despite supporting thriving trout fisheries, even the Smokies' most popular streams get only modest fishing pressure, and many stream sections get very little attention. The least-pressured waters, not surprisingly, are those that require walking to reach. While many miles of the park's trout waters are well away from any roads, an extensive trail system in the Smokies provides good access to virtually all the park's open waters.
Road access is very good for fishing many miles of Little River, Middle Prong of Little River, and the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River, all major park streams. Abrams and Twentymile creeks are favored destinations of anglers who prefer to get away from the crowds.
Throughout the park, only single-hook artificial lures may be used or possessed, and a limit of five trout and minimum size of 7 inches apply. Except in eight designated open brook trout streams (four in each state), all brook trout must be released immediately. Anglers who possess a Tennessee license actually may fish anywhere in the Great Smoky Mountains, but given the amount of great waters in Tennessee, there is really no reason for anglers to drive over the mountains.