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Two Hot Trout Tailwaters In Tennessee

Two Hot Trout Tailwaters In Tennessee

The South Holston and Caney Fork rivers are very different from each other, but both offer outstanding trout fishing for Tennessee anglers. (April 2006)

Sixty degrees may not sound hot, but if you've spent time in the tailwater of South Holston Dam or Center Hill Dam in recent months, you know that these sections of river are sizzling. The trout fishing is as good as it has ever been on both rivers -- and it could be getting even better.

In case you haven't had the opportunity to visit either stream lately, we've talked with folks who know the fisheries intimately and gathered insights that will help you catch trout this month from two of Tennessee's finest tailwaters.


Despite the abundance of fine tailwater fishing opportunities in the eastern part of the state, biologist Bart Carter didn't hesitate when asked which river he would recommend to trout fishermen right now.

"The fishermen I've talked with lately about South Holston have been enjoying really good success. Everyone seems to be just wearing them out," said Carter, a Region IV stream biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

Fishing reports from the 14-mile section of the South Holston River that flows from South Holston Reservoir to the headwaters of Boone Reservoir have lined up with what biologists have seen. Catch rates were phenomenal when the TWRA conducted shocking surveys last year, according to Carter. Biologists regularly shock at 12 different sites, and they found an abundance of trout at every location.

South Holston is unique among Tennessee tailwaters in a couple of ways. Key among distinctions is a fabulous population of wild brown trout. Also unique is a gravel-heavy bottom substrate, which is part of what helps the river support such good natural reproduction.

Reproduction at the South Holston actually has been so good in recent years that the TWRA stopped stocking browns last year. They'll watch the population closely, but they do not think that cutting the stocking will have any negative affect. Instead, they expect anglers to find just as many trout available and a strictly wild population.

The Holston tailwater also contains a unique labyrinth weir, which was constructed by Tennessee Valley Authority, and Carter said that TVA deserves much of the credit for the quality of the trout fishery. The weir adds dissolved oxygen to the tailwater and sustains a minimum flow in the river. That consistently keeps the streambed wet, which has allowed great aquatic insect populations to develop, Carter explained.

The South Holston is among the smallest of East Tennessee's tailwaters, and the dam has only a single turbine. Unlike the Clinch River, below Norris, which can flow at a variety of levels, the South Holston is either on or off. Either scenario offers fishing possibilities -- each to a different set of fishermen. When the Holston is off, it's a wading river. When it's on, it pretty much needs to be fished from a boat -- usually a drift boat or a jet boat.

Low water opens the South Holston to more of the public because the riverbed can be waded. While most of the river's shore is privately owned, a few areas offer public access. When the water is low, the trout can be spooky, so long leaders or light line quality presentations and stream stealth are critical. The trout here will be quick to take a well-presented offering, but any hint of sloppiness will send them running for cover.

Carter noted that sulfurs are the insect that everyone watches for along the South Holston and that is key to some of the best dry-fly fishing. Much fly-fishing, however, is done with sub-surface offerings, including small beadhead nymphs and scud imitations.

High water makes access more challenging, as the river gets too high and swift to wade and contains a couple sections of fairly technical rapids that eliminate a lot of boats and boaters. However, anglers who can get out on the river enjoy unparalleled opportunities to lock horns with a big brown trout. Adult browns become a bit more reckless than normal when the river is running high, and anglers catch large fish fairly regularly with minnow-imitating plugs and occasionally with streamers fished on sinking fly lines.

Brown trout in the 15- to 18-inch range are pretty abundant right now, according to Carter, and there are more than a few really large fish in the mix. Anglers have caught a handful of fish weighing in the teens from South Holston.

"There are also some nice rainbows in there," Carter said. "There aren't nearly as many, but there are some good ones."

The South Holston tailwater is managed for trophy trout through a slot limit. All trout between 16 and 22 inches long must be released, and only one fish from a seven-fish limit may be more than 22 inches long. Special regulations also include two seasonal closures. Two important spawning areas are closed to all fishing from Nov. 1 to Jan. 31.


Trout on the Caney Fork River have enjoyed life relatively free of stress for the past couple years, according to Chris Nischan, owner of Rod and Gun Guide Service. That's because the sluice gates on Center Hill Dam have been opened enough for the past two years to keep dissolved oxygen levels at decent levels during the fall, when oxygen levels tend to run critically low.

Beyond directly benefiting the trout, the enhanced water quality has exponentially improved minnow and aquatic insect populations in the river, Nischan said. Add in the gradual benefits of special regulations protecting brown trout, and the Caney Fork is in outstanding condition.

"The Caney Fork is the most heavily fished trout stream in Tennessee; however, it also has the highest catch rates," said Nischan, who annually spends 100 to 150 days per year on the river. The river is heavily stocked with rainbow and brown trout from March through December and provides fine fishing year 'round.

The Caney Fork offers 26 miles of trout waters from Center Hill Dam to the river's confluence with the Cumberland River. Access to the upper end is outstanding, with eight public access points in nine miles. Access to the lower end is spotty, and most fishing is by canoe or other small craft. Nischan runs the river in a River Hawk, which is a hybrid-style boat that offers the benefits of a canoe and a small johnboat.

Most fishing on the Caney Fork takes place when the river is low. Big trout get active with a single turbine turning, but currents become very swift in the narrow channel and the river becomes somewhat treacherous. With more than one turbine turning, the river is flat-out dangerous and becomes unfishable. Nischan

sticks with low-water fishing, preferring to move from spot to spot by boat and then fish by wading.

April is one of Nischan's favorite months on the Caney Fork because the fish don't tend to be particularly spooky. Plus, a big caddis hatch begins around noon most April days, and it often is coupled with an afternoon sulfur hatch. Adding to the surface activity, midges come off 365 days a year, Nischan pointed out.

Along with dry flies to match the hatches, productive flies for the Caney Fork include scud and sowbug imitations, traditional beadhead nymphs and Woolly Buggers. Nischan also likes to swing a soft hackle downstream in the current.

"If you find the right run, you can catch trout after trout swinging a soft hackle," he said.

For spin-fishing, Nischan's bait of choice is a Fish Magnet, a small soft-plastic bait that comes rigged with a darter head. He often fishes it under a bobber, which works like a "giant strike indicator." He simply casts upstream and lets the little rig drift in the current. Most traditional natural baits will produce plenty of trout, Nischan said. For large fish, his natural offering of choice is a night crawler or a minnow.

Nischan sometimes refers to the Caney Fork as "the parking lot" because of its mostly flat bottom. The river has only occasional riffles and minimal significant structure. Because the stream bottom varies little, trout pile up around the slightest irregularities -- edges of gravel bars, spots where bars come together, indentions in the stream bottom and similar cover or structure.

Trees line the river, but most are high and dry when the river is low. Therefore, they don't play a significant factor in the low-water approach. With one generator running, the trees definitely hold trout, but they are very difficult to fish effectively with the current racing through them.

The Caney Fork falls under the statewide limit of seven trout. However, a minimum size of 18 inches applies to brown trout, and only two brown trout may be taken daily.

To book a day on the Caney Fork or to learn more, give Chris Nischan a call at (615) 385-1116 or visit


For proposed daily water release schedules from South Holston or Center Hill, go to find the lake you want to know about from the "Reservior Information" pull-down menu.

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