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Trout Fishing Tennessee's Tailwaters

Trout Fishing Tennessee's Tailwaters

Tennessee's trout-holding tailwaters are a coldwater fishing paradise for everyone from youngsters with cans of worms to fly-anglers with the finest gear. (April 2008)

Author Jim Casada and veteran guide Jason Reep pose with a big, richly colored Watauga River rainbow.
Photo courtesy of Jim Casada

Conceived in a time of national crisis and constructed amidst considerable controversy, most of the dams along the Tennessee River drainage have their origins in the 1930s. Growing demands for hydroelectric power, ravages of recurrent floods and provision of employment during the Depression's lean, mean times all figured prominently in a madness for impoundments.

Fishing, whether for trout or other species, did not at first enter the equation in any significant way, nor for that matter did boating or other outdoor recreational activities. Not surprisingly, many contemporaries sharply criticized the drive to build dams. A "damn the dams" attitude was exhibited by some politicians, many prominent conservationists, and in particular, those who stood to lose their land. The latter, hardy rural folks living close to the earth, bemoaned flooding of the rich bottomlands their families had farmed for generations. Sportsmen, for their part, complained about the loss of traditional hunting grounds and favorite fishing holes.

Today, three-score-plus years later, most view impoundments created by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Army Corps of Engineers in a quite different light. Everyone realizes that flood control in the Tennessee Valley was a singular achievement, and the lakes along the river drainage have provided varied recreational opportunities. Dam advocates predicted some of these developments, but nowhere in original mission statements or among the considerable hoopla surrounding construction will you find mention of trout fishing. Quite simply, no one, not even the wildest of dreamers, anticipated the trout habitat and fishing potential of cold, highly oxygenated waters that formed dam tailraces.

Beginning in the 1940s though, all this changed. Initial experimental stockings proved highly successful, and it dawned on fisheries biologists of the time that they had a potential bonanza just waiting for a bit of tender attention. That proved to be the case — in spades. Today, the state of Tennessee can make a convincing argument for having some of the country's finest tailwater fishing. These tailwaters are scattered over roughly half of the state, ranging from sites along the western edge of the spine of the Appalachians on westward into the Cumberland Plateau region of Middle Tennessee.

Suitable tailwaters grow trout and grow 'em fast. Fingerlings become fine, feisty specimens fit to grace any creel or stringer in just 12 to 18 months, and stocked fish that manage to evade the attentions of anglers for a few years can become impressive specimens weighing well into double digits. Tailwaters are for the most part a put, grow and take type of fishery, but in some of them, brown trout have, to use parlance you'll find among mountains folks in East Tennessee, "taken holt." That means they are reproducing naturally.

With that bit of history by way of background, let's take a peek at a half-dozen top Tennessee tailwaters along with a glimpse at some of the many techniques that will put you in meaningful contact with trout.


Before doing so, though, a few words on safety and water flow seem imperative. After all, what makes tailwaters special is the strong flow of cold, nutrient-rich water released from dams upstream, but when the water is "on," it is a true torrent that makes wading (in most streams) problematic if not impossible. A full flow also brings dramatic changes in fish behavior and, accordingly, necessitates different tactical approaches on the part of fishermen.

One of the inevitable frustrations connected with fishing tailwaters anywhere focuses on stream flow. Depending on the dam and how many gates it has, this can range from little more than a trickle to a raging torrent. On Tennessee's trout-holding tailwaters, flyfishermen generally fare much better when the water is "off" (i.e., when the dam gates are closed and turbines are not turning). The resultant low water levels make wade-fishing possible, produce many of the heaviest insect hatches, and allow the angler to stalk feeding trout. Conversely, flyfishermen must either say "forget it" when all turbines are operating or else opt for float-fishing trips of the sort once more commonly associated with Mackenzie boats on Western rivers. Obviously spin- and bait-fishermen are somewhat more flexible and thus less affected by stream flow, but even for them knowledge of generation schedules is important.

While the TVA never makes guarantees about its release schedules, as a service to anglers and others, it does have a toll-free telephone number that provides information on water flow for the previous eight hours. It is given in cubic feet per second on an hour-by-hour basis.

That phone number is (800) 238-2264. After the recording answers, punch 4 to access release data, and then enter the two-digit number for individual dams. For Apalachia Dam (Hiwassee River) that number is 22; for Fort Patrick Henry Dam (South Holston River) it is 04; for South Holston Dam (also the South Holston River) it is 01; Norris Dam (Clinch River) it is 17; for Watauga Dam (Watauga River) it is 02; for Wilbur Dam (also Watauga River) it is 42; for Tim's Ford (Elk River) it is 50; and for Center Hill (Caney Fork) it is 37.

The rivers given above and the numbers for release information take us to the heart of the matter, Tennessee's prime trout-holding tailwaters. The first four — the South Holston, Watauga, Clinch and Hiwassee — are in East Tennessee. They range southward from the Tri-Cities area to Knoxville on down to the little crossroads of Reliance north of Chattanooga. The last two, the Elk and Caney Fork rivers, are in the middle part of the state, quite convenient to Nashville. In other words, all these tailwaters are relatively close to major population centers, but they are large and fertile enough to take the kind of fishing pressure lick this guarantees yet still retain a solid kick.

In every instance, there are public access points, both in the form of launch areas for watercraft and for wading fishermen when the water is off. A careful look at the fishing regulations and other information available from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will help you in this regard.

There are also special regulations areas, such as artificial lures or catch-and-release only, on some tailwaters, and awareness of that is important. Then, too, keep in mind that stretches of these tailwaters run through private property. You are fine as long as you are in a boat, but once you go ashore, you could be trespassing. As in all areas of sport, courtesy,

common sense and knowledge of the regulations will serve you well. If in doubt on something, check with a local sporting goods store or outfitter. All of these tailwaters are of sufficient importance and renown to attract such operations.

By nature, tailwaters have multiple personalities. They are placid sleeping giants when the turbines upstream are closed, boisterous but still wadeable when partial releases occur, and intimidating torrents when all gates are open. Fishermen must adjust their techniques, often quite dramatically, according to the "mood" of the tailwater at any given time.

For flyfishermen, the periods of dramatically reduced flow are the times to be astream. Low water concentrates trout and makes for safe, easy wading. However, fish become particularly wary in such conditions and even a small wake can put down feeding trout at distances of 50 yards. Clear water and slow flows over long stretches also present difficulties. The answer to these and related problems lies in special tactics and techniques.

Long, delicate casts and light tippets increase the likelihood of takes. Also, when the current moves so slowly as to be barely discernible, go against the dry-fly canon and fish downstream. The trout sees the fly first, as opposed to leader and tippet, and is less likely to be spooked.

If fish seem particularly finicky or even the most delicate of casts puts them down, you can feed line out until the fly drifts into the fish's feeding zone.

Alternatively, seek out stretches of the tailwaters where the flow is faster. Ripples, drops or a bit of chop on the surface let the fisherman get away with larger tippets and shorter casts. On breezy days, the wind creates just enough chop on still water to make trout comfortable. The same holds true for a soft, steady rain, and brown trout in particular are more active in the dark, cloudy conditions accompanying such rainfall.

Probing techniques using multiple-fly rigs can also be quite effective, especially when the angler has trouble identifying the insect on which trout are feeding during a heavy hatch. Try, for example, a high-floating attractor pattern, such as a Parachute Adams or any one of the hair-wing flies carrying the late Lee Wulff's name, with a nymph dropper beneath it. Attach the nymph by tying an 18- to 24-inch piece of tippet to the bend in the dry-fly hook with an improved clinch knot. In still water, give the rig an occasional twitch to make the dry fly resemble a living insect.

A variation on the multiple-fly approach involves use of a dry fly trailed by either an emerger or a pupal pattern in place of a nymph. With this rig, imparting movement gives both flies the appearance of struggling, and that can trigger takes. Similarly, you might want to consider using a readily visible dry fly in combination with a midge or other tiny pattern. As is the case with droppers, the dry fly does double duty as a strike indicator.

For those who wish to fish with the water "on," the commonly used strategy for Tennessee tailwaters is to cast from drifting boats or canoes. One often sees float tubes as well, although they can be dangerous when streams are in full spate. On the Hiwassee in particular, and to a lesser degree on the South Holston and Watauga, there are scattered locations where the cautious, experienced angler can wade even when the water is "on." This should only be done with the aid of a wading staff and with great care.

For first-timers, hiring a guide for a float trip is probably the most sensible approach. After you have a "feel" for the water, you can go it alone by wading or renting a canoe or drift boat. One additional thing to keep in mind is that trout tend to be less wary when the water is "on."

For bait-fishermen, there are plenty of options. Old standbys such as worms and night crawlers will certainly do the trick, and so will commercially prepared baits that are available on the market. You might also want to consider crickets, and though you won't find them in bait stores, having enough gumption to catch a bunch of grasshoppers in summer can serve you wonderfully well. If bigger trout are of particular interest, you might also want to give some thought to two old-time favorites — "spring lizards" (actually salamanders) and crayfish. Another grand bait is what old-timers call "nests." The larva of wasps, hornets and yellow jackets make an incredibly fine bait, one nothing available commercially can match (although wax worms aren't a bad substitute).

For the guy with spinning gear, options are almost unlimited. Bigger trout will readily take minnow-imitating plugs of the sort more frequently associated with bass fishing, while a number of the "wee" lures made by companies like Cordell and Heddon can be quite productive. Then, too, there are those tried-and-true favorites of those who spin-fish for trout, Panther Martins and Mepps Aglias. One other type of spinner that has a long history of productivity is a local rig that uses a gold Colorado blade with a Yellarhammer fly tied on a long-shank hook as a trailer.

No matter what your favored approach, you need to be aware of the fact that whether the water is "on," "off," or is in between flows, Tennessee's tailwaters have become immensely popular. This is true for Volunteer State anglers along with those from neighboring states. That means you won't find soul-soothing solitude, and on weekends at certain times of the year, things can be so crowded that, in the words of one local angler, "you need to carry your own rock if you want one to stand on." That's the nature of tailwaters, but the flip side of the coin is that they are so productive, so filled with fish, that there are plenty of trout to go around.

By the same token, Tennessee's tailwaters offer plenty of fast-growing trout and consistent hatches that take place throughout the year. For those who savor the special challenges and potential rewards of tailwaters, they can be a delightful destination.

Basically, you have one of several distinct choices when it comes to fishing tailwaters. The simplest, but also the least productive, is bank-fishing. A second option, and it works best for the flyfisherman, but is by no means his exclusive preserve, is wade-fishing when the water is off or when there is only minimal generation. Then there's the option of floating to fish. There are many possibilities here: canoes, drift boats fitted with casting frames, miniature one-man pontoon boats made specifically for this type of situation, and the like. The advantages of watercraft when the upstream dam gates are open are obvious. They let you access places where wading is impossible and you can cover many river miles.

Finally, if you are really serious and want some in-depth exposure that will later serve you well, it isn't a bad idea to hire a guide. There are plenty of them, especially on the East Tennessee tailwaters, and a good one can teach you more tricks of the tailwater trade in a day or two than you are likely to learn on your own in a dozen outings. Although I'm pretty much a do-it-myself fellow, one guide who fishes the Holston and Watauga tailwaters with whom I've spent time astream and can recommend

from first-hand knowledge is Jason Reep or 423/474-4388).

Whether you go it alone or hire a guide, wield the long rod with whistling line or bump bait along the bottom, Tennessee's trout-filled tailwaters are an angler's bonanza with full promise for tight lines and fine times.

(Editor's Note: Jim Casada is a full-time freelance writer who has fished for trout all his life. He is the author of two books on fly-fishing, as well as many other works. To learn more about or order any of these, or to sign up for a free subscription to his monthly e-newsletter, visit his Web site at

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