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Tennessee's Overlooked Trout Fishery

Tennessee's Overlooked Trout Fishery

Mountain streams and big tailwaters often overshadow the excellent lake fishing our state has to offer trout anglers. Don't miss out on the action.

Lake Calderwood, which impounds the Little Tennessee River on the border with North Carolina, supports high numbers of rainbows with some good quality fish in the mix. Photo by Jeff Samsel

By Jeff Samsel

Reservoir fishermen measure their trout in pounds, instead of inches. Having shad and other baitfish available to fatten them up and room to spread out, trout in reservoirs enjoy the opportunity to grow to several pounds, and anglers who pursue them commonly go out with big trout specifically in mind.

When most fishermen think of trout in Tennessee, they think first of the state's highly productive tailwaters, which attract fishermen from throughout the South. After tailwaters, anglers think about wild trout streams in the far eastern part of the state, including the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where cold, clear streams tumble off mountainsides. Sometimes forgotten are those trout that are stocked in various reservoirs, which are scattered throughout the eastern part of the state.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) stocks roughly 300,000 trout annually in eight reservoirs, all in the eastern part of the state. Dale Hollow is the most westerly of the trout lakes. Only it and Parksville Lake, which impounds the Ocoee River, are outside of TWRA's Region IV.

The trout, about two-thirds of which are rainbows, are stocked at rates that range from three to 13 fish per acre. Per-acre comparisons are somewhat deceptive with trout, however, as some lakes offer good habitat throughout, while others offer trout habitat only in the deep waters near their dams or in parts of their headwaters.

In addition to rainbow trout, the TWRA stocks about 70,000 lake trout in Watauga Lake, and a few lakers in Chilhowee or Calderwood, when extra fish are available. They also stock Dale Hollow with 20,000 brown trout per year and South Holston with 10,000 browns.

Reservoir trout are managed on a put-grow-and-take basis. Many East Tennessee lakes provide good habitat for adult fish to live, but offer little or no spawning habitat. Therefore, stocking trout annually creates an added opportunity for fishermen. Most trout get stocked as catchable-sized fish, but the bulk of them spread into the lakes without being harvested right away and many end up living for several years. Anglers fairly commonly catch 4- or 5-pound trout in several of the trout lakes, and occasionally much larger fish show up.


Last year, Fort Patrick Henry Reservoir produced a few monster trout, including a new state-record rainbow. The trout, caught last September by Ronnie Rowland, weighed 16 pounds, 15 ounces. The record rainbow actually came from the tailwater of Boone Reservoir, but Fort Patrick Henry is a small-of-the-river impoundment of the South Holston River, and there is no clear distinction of where the Boone tailwater ends and the lake begins. Either way, the fish almost certainly came from a lake stocking of several years ago.

The TWRA doesn't have much hard data on trout growth or survival in reservoirs, primarily because reservoir trout are difficult fish to sample. In fact, most of what they know about where the trout go, how big they grow and how anglers target them comes through casual reports from fishermen.

Creel surveys provide some useful information; however, most of the trout lakes are small and somewhat remote and rarely have creel surveys conducted on them. Even on those lakes that do get surveyed, the creel work is always done during the day. Because most trout fishing on reservoirs occurs at night, biologists understand that creel data largely underestimates trout effort and catches.

Dale Hollow, Watauga and South Holston are easily the most popular of the reservoirs that receive trout. Anglers commonly travel from other parts of the state and even from out of state to fish these waters for trout every year. For the five other lakes - Fort Patrick Henry, Parksville, Tellico, Chilhowee and Calderwood - fishing pressure comes primarily from the local area.

Dale Hollow, which spreads over close to 30,000 acres, is Tennessee's No. 1 trout lake in terms of the amount of fish that get stocked each year. In 2001, the last year that final stocking figures were available, Dale Hollow was stocked with 76,500 rainbow trout and 20,000 brown trout. The trout get stocked in the lower half of the lake, which is where the best habitat exists.

Dale Hollow used to get stocked with lake trout, but dissolved-oxygen-level shortages in the deep water caused TWRA to abandon that program several years ago. Not many lakers remain in Dale Hollow (if any), but any that are still in the lake are apt to be giants.

Three years ago, the TWRA decided to begin stocking brown trout in Dale Hollow to replace the lake trout fishery. They expect the trout to do very well and grow to large sizes, providing a great new opportunity for fishermen.

"We have very high expectations for these brown trout, and we are happy to have the opportunity to put them in the lake," said Tim Churchill, reservoir coordinator for the TWRA. Churchill pointed out that Dale Hollow's abundant alewives, which stay deep, should keep the brown trout very well fed.

Frank Fiss, the TWRA biologist over all trout stocking in Tennessee, said that the first class of fish that were stocked should be in the 16- to 20-inch range by this spring. No fish had shown up in the creel thus far, however, so biologists don't really know how big the fish have gotten or how they have fared. He noted that they did intend to do some targeted survey work this winter just to find the brown trout and see how they were doing.

Fishermen, likewise, will be learning about brown trout as the fishery develops. Most Tennessee anglers have no experience fishing for brown trout in a reservoir, and browns and rainbows behave differently. Early brown trout catches are apt to be incidental to efforts for rainbows, walleyes and smallmouths, but over time anglers certainly will learn how to target the browns.

For now, rainbow trout are clearly the main attraction on Dale Hollow, and most fishing is done either by trolling or night-fishing. The most serious trout fishermen rig their boats with downriggers and do depth-controlled trolling from spring through the middle of summer with crankbaits, bucktails and spoons. These fishermen catch some of the lake's biggest rainbows, including some double-digit weight fish, but their tackle is quite specialized, which limits opportunities for many anglers.

Trolling actually kicks off in the spring with fishermen pulling their spoons ove

r ledges, humps and points in areas where they find baitfish throughout the lower half of the lake. During summer, after the lake stratifies, the same fishermen essentially troll in big circles in the vicinity of the dam, pulling their baits right at the level of the thermocline.

Summer is also prime time for night-fishing, which makes up the bulk of all trout fishing effort on Dale Hollow. Anglers anchored in hollows or pockets or drifting in the open water near the dam put out lights and wait for the baitfish and the trout to come to them. Most fish with natural bait, primarily night crawlers, minnows and commercially manufactured trout bait.

Tony Eckler, a Dale Hollow guide who does some night-fishing for trout, said that high catch rates are the norm this time of year, and that trout up to about 5 pounds are quite common. He also noted that the summer night-fishing is quite consistent throughout the summer

Because this approach doesn't require much specialized knowledge or equipment, it is very popular with visiting anglers who rent houseboats from marinas around Dale Hollow. The houseboats generally are anchored in sufficiently deep water for this approach, so all the angler has to do is put out a light and dangle a bait or two overboard. For information, including houseboat rentals or guide service, call Cedar Hill Resort at (800) 872-8393.

Dale Hollow trout fishing falls under a couple special regulations; however, one applies only to winter fishing, and the other is a two-fish limit on lake trout, and it's extremely unlikely that a fisherman would catch two lake trout in a day from Dale Hollow anymore.

Along with Dale Hollow, Watauga and South Holston are the state's most popular trout lakes, and they actually get stocked with higher densities of trout than Dale Hollow does. In 2001, Watauga and South Holston were stocked with 40,000 and 41,000 rainbows, respectively. In addition Watauga gets stocked with lake trout, and South Holston gets stocked with brown trout. Considering these lakes' sizes, that is a lot of trout. Watauga covers only 6,430 surface acres. South Holston is a tiny bit bigger at 7,580 acres, but 1,244 acres are in Virginia.

These lakes, both named for the rivers they impound, are located in the extreme northeastern corner of the state and are fed by mountain streams. Both are deep, steep-sided and clear. Trout fishing is very popular on both lakes, especially through the summer.

A creel survey conducted in 2001 showed that rainbow trout were behind only smallmouth bass and bluegills in terms of the number of fish caught on South Holston and that 12 percent of all fishing effort was aimed at trout. Again, this comes from daytime creel work and probably represents a fraction of the trout catch and the amount of effort.

Techniques commonly used for rainbows on South Holston and Watauga are very similar to those approaches most commonly employed on Dale Hollow. The biggest difference is that through the spring, far more fishermen cast for rainbows along the banks, often with in-line spinners, minnow-imitating jerkbaits or natural offerings. Throughout the spring, the trout can be in just about any part of either lake.

Once summer sets in, though, fishermen must move to the lower ends of both lakes. On Watauga, the best summer fishing is between Watauga Point and Butler Bridge. On South Holston, the prime zone is from the U.S. Highway 421 bridge to the dam. On both lakes, many fishermen troll with spoons or crankbaits set to run about 30 feet deep with either downriggers or lead-core lines.

Like on Dale Hollow, much of the trout fishing occurs at night, under lights, with natural baits. Again, the fishermen pick a spot in the far lower end of the lake, set up with their lights, put down bait and wait for the trout to come find their baits.

Also as is the case on Dale Hollow, brown trout fishermen are still in the learning process on South Holston. A few fish did show up in the 1991 creel survey, but they were small fish that wouldn't have been in the lake long. Again, there should be some fish pushing close to the 20-inch mark by this spring, and fishing is only expected to get better.

Lake trout fishermen on Watauga are fairly few in number, and those that do target them are quite specialized. Most lake trout anglers troll, usually with spoons. During early spring, shallow trolling will work. Once summer sets in though, lake trout fishermen must set their downriggers very deep - sometimes up to 100 feet deep - and stay in the lower end of the lake. Interestingly, lake trout fishing all takes place in the daytime only because lakers won't bite at night.

The Tennessee state-record lake trout, not surprisingly, came from Watauga. Caught in 1994 by Eddie Southerland, the record laker weighed 20 pounds, 1 ounce.

Anglers fishing South Holston should be aware that the upper end of the lake is in Virginia and that no reciprocal licensing agreement exists between the two states. Fishermen must either carry both licenses or stay on the proper side of the border.

Downstream of South Holston and Watauga reservoirs, the Watauga joins forces with the South Holston River under the impounded waters of Boone Reservoir. Boone is not stocked with trout, but Fort Patrick Henry, immediately downstream, gets a dose of rainbows every year. Stocking numbers are fairly small but the trout grow big, as evidenced by the new state-record fish. Most trout fishing occurs in the moving water within the first couple miles downstream of Boone.

Three of Tennessee's trout lakes are part of a chain of impoundments along the Little Tennessee River. The chain begins with Fontana and Cheoah lakes, both in North Carolina. Calderwood, next in line, is divided between North Carolina and Tennessee. Calderwood and Tellico are completely in Tennessee.

Calderwood and Chilhowee are both narrow, riverine mountain lakes that have current running from one end to the other when generators are turning. More current, most fishermen agree, makes for better trout fishing. These lakes offer good trout habitat from end to end and support high numbers of fish, with some good quality trout in the mix.

A creel survey conducted by the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission that looked at trout fishing on Calderwood and Chilhowee, along with a few North Carolina lakes, revealed that Calderwood was the better trout lake. It got more attention from trout fishermen than its downstream neighbor and produced higher catch rates and bigger fish.

On Calderwood, anglers get the benefit of double stocking. Both the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stock trout in this lake. Plus, last year the TWRA had a significant surplus of fingerling rainbows, which they split between Calderwood and Chilhowee. Those fish should provide a boost to already-good fisheries over the next couple years.

Calderwood is quite small and very remote, but there is a fairly good boat ramp and some room for bank-fishing in a recreation area on the Tennessee side of the lak

e, off U.S. Highway 129. Boating anglers may fish anywhere on the lake with a North Carolina or Tennessee license. Access to Chilhowee and Tellico's upper end is also off Highway 129.

Tellico, which is the final impoundment along the Little Tennessee River, is a pretty big lake at 19,000 acres. Its trout waters, however, are confined to its far upper reaches within the Little Tennessee arm (essentially the Chilhowee tailwater). Tellico gets stocked annually with 5,000 to 6,000 trout, all in the same area. Fishing is popular in the spring and in the summer.

Parksville, the last of Tennessee's trout lakes, is a fairly small impoundment on the Ocoee River. The TWRA stocks about 3,000 trout per year, and mostly local fishermen target them, primarily from the banks or in small boats in the spring. Occasional big trout do show up in Parksville, but marginal summer habitat keeps it from carrying many trout over.

The statewide general regulation limit for trout is seven fish, only two of which may be lake trout. No special restrictions on bait or gear or fishing hours apply on any of the reservoirs. South Holston Lake is completely closed to trout fishing seasonally, but that closure won't come again until Dec. 1.

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