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The Best of the Best for Tennessee Trout

The Best of the Best for Tennessee Trout

From Smokies creeks to big tailwaters, Tennessee offers a variety of great trout fishing. These are some of the state's very finest trout fisheries.

A canoe works well for fishing Middle Tennessee tailwaters like the Caney Fork River below Center Hill. Photo by Jeff Samsel

By Jeff Samsel

The bad news is that wild trout numbers and sizes are down almost universally in free-flowing mountain streams because the streams themselves have been down (that is, suffering from low water conditions) for the past few years. The generally lower flows have affected the brook, brown and rainbow trout populations, at least temporarily.

The good news is that wild trout and mountain streams make up only a small portion of Tennessee's trout-fishing picture and that tailwaters, stocked rivers and mountain lakes from Middle Tennessee to the Appalachians offer fine prospects year after year. Plus, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists continually consider management options that would improve opportunities, and some already fine fisheries only promise to get better.

Also, the wild trout streams will recover. Normal rain levels will rejuvenate these East Tennessee streams, and habitat; aquatic insects and the trout themselves will recover. For this year, however, anglers who are looking for the best possible opportunities are probably better off looking to other types of waterways.

Spring brings out the most serious trout fishermen on Dale Hollow, which impounds 27,700 acres on the Obey River. Anglers geared up with downriggers troll at controlled depths for rainbows that commonly weigh 7 or 8 pounds. They troll spoons, jigs and crankbaits, mostly in colors that imitate shad and alewives.

As spring gives way to summer, more trout fishermen come out. They fish at night under lights with live bait in the deep lower end of the lake. The lights cause the baitfish to congregate, and trout move up among the baitfish. Night-fishermen don't catch as many really big fish as trollers do, but they catch a lot of 3- to 5-pound fish, and the approach doesn't require a lot of specialized knowledge.

Dale Hollow also has two other trout species in it, and their histories are mirror images of one another. Lake trout haven't been stocked for several years because they didn't do well in the lake. Very few of those fish remain. Brown trout, on the other hand, have been stocked in Dale Hollow only for the past two years. The browns are expected to do very well in Dale Hollow's deep, cool water, and this may develop into a really exciting fishery.


"We are expecting this lake to grow some really big brown trout," said Bill Reeves, director of fisheries for the TWRA. Brown trout feed primarily on fish once they reach larger sizes, even in streams, and some Dale Hollow fish are expected to grow to really large sizes, feasting on alewives and hiding in the lake's depths.

By this spring, some of Dale Hollow's brown trout will probably weigh 3 or 4 pounds. Because the fishery is so new, however, fishermen don't even know how the browns will act in the lake or how or where to go about targeting them. The browns, like their rainbow-striped cousin, should provide big thrills on summer nights, especially to anglers who fish with live shiners, shad or alewives.

Downstream of Dale Hollow Dam, the Obey River is heavily stocked and provides good and very predictable fishing action through spring and summer. The Obey is narrow and gets pretty much washed out on high water, so most anglers fish it on weekends, when power generation is less common.

Cedar Hill Resort offers food, lodging and guide service at the lower end of Dale Hollow near the best lake and river fishing. For information, call 1-800-872-3201 or log onto

Major efforts to bring back the Watauga River after a big fish kill that occurred three years ago seem to be paying big dividends. The Watauga fished absolutely great last year, according to Jim Habera, a Region IV stream fisheries biologist for the TWRA, and prospects continue to look great for this spring.

The TWRA has stocked thousands of trout (including brook trout) in the Watauga since the fish kill, which was caused by an industrial fire, and the fishery has come back quickly. The fish kill was confined to the lower tailwater, and did not impact the invertebrate population anywhere in the river. The fact that the aquatic insect population - a key food source for trout - survived intact has allowed for a much faster recovery of the fishery than might otherwise have been possible.

From the base of Wilbur Dam, which is a couple miles downstream of Watauga Dam, the Watauga River offers 16 miles of trout waters. The best public access points for wading the Watauga are just downstream of the dam, along a private campground within the special regulations section and at a new access area near the town of Watuaga.

The easiest access for most anglers exists when the water is low. On high water, though, bigger trout become more aggressive. Sycamore Shoals, near the midpoint of the Watauga tailwater, creates a significant navigational hazard, so most anglers who float the river stay in either the upper or lower tailwater.

One change that Watauga River anglers need to be aware of is that the quality zone in the tailwater was moved upstream this February. The proposed lower boundary, as of press time, was moved upstream just slightly so that the new public access area would fall within general regulations and provide opportunity for more anglers. The upper boundary was to be moved upstream more significantly, creating a net gain of close to a mile of river in the quality zone.

Within the quality zone, the limit is two trout, with a minimum size of 14 inches, and the use or possession of natural bait is prohibited. Check the new regulations digest for specific upper and lower end boundaries.

The Tellico River was one of two Tennessee streams to have a section of its waters put under delayed-harvest management beginning in winter 2001-02. The program was extremely popular both on the Tellico and on Paint Creek, according to Habera. He has heard nothing but positive feedback from fishermen about the concept. In fact, some anglers would like to see the program expanded, he noted.

Delayed-harvest regulations, as the name suggests, delay the harvest of trout. The fish are heavily stocked through the winter, and only catch-and-release fishing with artificial lures is permitted during that time. In the spring, the same waters revert to general regulation

s, and trout may be taken home.

Delayed-harvest waters on the Tellico extend from the mouth of Turkey Creek, which traditionally has been considered the downstream limit of viable trout waters, to the Oosterneck Creek Recreation Area. The "harvest" season opened March 14.

Long before the Tellico became part of the delayed-harvest program, however, it had developed as one of the most popular trout streams in Tennessee. Very heavy stockings made possible by special permit fees and a separate hatchery to supply the fish have attracted high numbers of fishermen to the Tellico River for many years.

A very large trout stream and the namesake for the Tellico Nymph, the Tellico River offers more than 13 miles of tumbling trout waters. Trout are stocked weekly in the river, and the annual stocking total for the Tellico and those tributaries that fall under the same management plan exceeds 150,000 fish.

Beyond big numbers, this river produces some very big fish from time to time, only adding to its appeal. Quite a few bigger-than-normal trout are part of the regular stocking routine, and the river's large size allows many fish to survive in the river for many years. Every year, the Tellico produces some real giants.

Except in the delayed-harvest section during winter, where only artificial lures may be used, most fishermen use bait or in-line spinners to fish the Tellico River. Access to the Tellico is good from Forest Service Road 210, which parallels all the trout waters.

All fishermen, regardless of age, must possess a Tellico-Citico Permit, which costs $3.50 per day, to fish the Tellico between the North Carolina border and the mouth of Turkey Creek.

One of Tennessee's top trout fisheries for many years, the Norris tailwater seems to be getting even better. The TWRA is stocking roughly twice as many fingerling trout in the Clinch as they used to stock. The increase is part of a new management plan put in place because biologists had evidence that they were not even beginning to tap this tailwater's potential as a trout fishery. With this increase, annual stocking totals now approach half a million trout.

Surveys suggest that the number of adult rainbow and brown trout in the population is continuing to grow, and larger-sized fish are present in good numbers. Interestingly, neither angler numbers or harvest totals have increased, even though biologists have found increasingly high numbers of fish through electrofishing surveys. That means those fish remain in the river, creating extra good opportunities for fishermen.

While the Clinch receives a fair dose of catchable-sized fish, the fishery is built on trout that are stocked as fingerlings and then grow up in the river. That makes for fish that look and act a lot like wild fish and allows for great range of size-classes in the river.

Speaking of sizes, Clinch River trout grow big. The state-record brown trout, which weighed 28 pounds, 12 ounces, came from the Clinch, and it is unlikely that any stream in the state holds more high-quality trout per mile than the Clinch does. Rainbows make up a high percentage of the trout stocking mix, but browns grow to the biggest sizes.

The Clinch River offers fairly easy wading on low water, and fishermen find good access below the dam at a Tennessee Valley Authority access area. With one turbine turning, johnboats are the best rig to reach areas with the most aggressive trout. With both turbines turning, the Clinch tailwater becomes essentially flat and can be run even in a bass boat, but the same high water washes out a lot of good trout-holding holes.

Habera noted that the Clinch River is a typical tailwater in the fact that it produces a lot midges and scuds. In addition to traditional "trout foods," however, the Clinch also holds a fair number of shad, so anglers targeting larger trout should consider fishing white or silver streamers or minnow-imitating plugs in shad-imitating color patterns.

The Caney Fork River offers several miles of outstanding trout waters and ranks among the state's best trout rivers year after year. Some spots along the river can be waded, while several stretches really lend themselves better to floating in a canoe. Beyond the Caney Fork, the Duck River below Normandy Dam and the Elk River below Tims Ford Dam both kick out cold enough waters to support good trout fisheries, and all get good doses of trout.

The Caney Fork gets stocked from March through December with rainbow and brown trout. It supports trout from Center Hill Dam all the way to the river's confluence with the Cumberland, 27 miles downstream. Most fishermen concentrate their efforts on the upper half of that stretch, however. Many fish either "the pond," which is a big, deep hole immediately below the dam, a mile or so of shoals downstream of the pond, or waters around the Happy Hollow and Bettys Island access areas. These areas offer wading access on low water and points to launch or take out a canoe.

The Duck River, downstream of Normandy Dam, also gets stocked with rainbows and browns from March through December. A small river with nice shoal habitat, the Duck offers easy wading and good fishing on low to moderate flows. On high water, it becomes too swift for good fishing; however, Normandy is operated only for flood-control purposes, so water flows are generally modest.

The Elk River is either "on" or "off," with just one generator and a narrow channel. It is definitely a low-water fishery, overall, although a few eddies below the dam can be fished from the bank on high water. The Elk is a great river to float in a canoe. The best access for wading is directly downstream of the dam.

Middle Tennessee trout stockings also include winter stockings beneath Percy Priest Dam. That stocking is long finished for this year, and those fish are gone, but it's a good opportunity for anglers to keep in mind next winter. Through these stocking efforts, the TWRA hopes to provide the best possible opportunities to potential anglers in urban areas.

Some of the best fishing for wild trout in Tennessee is found within the boundaries of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and anglers fishing park waters get a bonus because the entire park (half of which is in North Carolina) is open to fishing with a Tennessee license.

More than 2,000 miles of streams within the park's half million acres constitute one of the last extensive trout habitats that remain in great shape in the eastern United States. Several hundred miles of park waters are large enough to fish and open to trout fishing. A few stretches of stream are easily accessible by road. Most of the park's waters, however, can only be reached by hiking up trails or wading up the creeks themselves.

All trout fishing in the park is for wild trout, as no fish have been stocked inside park boundaries since 1975. Wild rainbows abound in every maj

or stream in the park, and the lower ends of most large rivers also support good brown trout populations.

Every major drainage in the Smokies has plenty of trout in it. The West Prong of the Little Pigeon (often just called the Little Pigeon), Little River, and the Middle Prong of Little River are among the most accessible waters on the Tennessee side. Big Creek and Abrams Creek at the far eastern and western ends of the park, respectively, are both acclaimed for their trout offerings in more remote settings.

One change worth noting in the Great Smokies is that fishermen recently have had the opportunity to fish eight brook trout streams for the first time in more than 25 years and have even been permitted to keep some brookies.

Last July, the park opened four stream sections in Tennessee and four in North Carolina for a three-year experimental period. If populations are not negatively impacted, compared to eight similar stream sections that remain closed to fishing and are similar in habitat offerings, more brook trout waters may eventually be opened.

The Tennessee brook trout waters that are now open are Cosby Creek above the Rock Creek Confluence, all of Indian Camp Prong inside the park, Walker Prong upstream of Alum Cave and Fish Camp Prong upstream of Goshen Prong.

All trout, including brook trout in those eight streams, must be at least 7 inches long to be kept in the park, with a combined limit of five fish. Except in those eight streams, all brook trout must be immediately released, and many miles of brookie waters remain closed to all fishing. Only single-hook artificial lures may be used or possessed anywhere in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

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