August 10, 2020
By Bob Borgwat
Tennessee’s Hiwassee River, with its braided water, rocky shoals, plunges, chutes, deep riffles, emerald pools and gravel bars, is among the South’s top destinations for trout fishing, both in terms of numbers of fish and the size of the browns and rainbows that can be caught there. From just east of Reliance, the Apalachia Powerhouse pours out clear, cold water from November through August that supports trout for as many as 20 miles to the Patty Bridge River Access, four miles outside Benton. Float trips that cover six miles or more often produce 30-fish days of put-and-take and holdover trout measuring 10 to 20-plus inches. However, when summer arrives, rising water temperatures shrink the Hiwassee’s trout fishery to the river’s upper seven miles.
Between June and late August, catch rates for trout anglers on the Hiwassee remain high on float trips from the powerhouse to the Reliance trestle, perhaps because of the heavy stocking schedule followed by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. But high water temperatures from July until November usually curtail the stocking of trout downstream from Reliance. By late June, few trout are found beyond the Reliance trestle, where the water commonly reaches temps in the 70s.
The good news is that’s when the Hiwassee’s thriving population of smallmouth bass come into their own. From Reliance downstream to the Highway 411 landing at Benton, a float trip through this six-mile stretch of the Hiwassee can produce smallmouths in good numbers and size. Fish commonly measure from 10 to 20 inches, and the action is good in mid- to high-volume flows that reach this stretch about two and a half hours after Apalachia Powerhouse goes online.
TACKLING THE TROUT
Catch a glimpse of the upper Hiwassee in summertime before the powerhouse goes online and you’ll marvel at its rockscape of sculptured sedimentary siltstone and sandstone. Broken shale adds to a river bottom of massive stand-alone boulders, boulder gardens, broken rubble, ledges and slides. There’s not much gravel, but in many places the riverway is dotted with bunches of aquatic grass that add to the bug life in the river’s substrate and the myriad baitfish common to southern Appalachian waterways. Trout thrive throughout this environment, which is laced with deep lanes and holes and is bounded by riverbanks strewn with fallen trees. The combination makes for action-filled float trips during summer’s guaranteed high-water flows.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, Apalachia Powerhouse spins at least one generator at 10 a.m. and two generators at 11 a.m. daily. That’s the minimum guaranteed by the Tennessee Valley Authority. When the watershed is flush with rainfall, TVA hydro techs will run one or both generators more often and for longer periods, perhaps even 24/7, when water or electricity demands run high. (Learn more about Apalachia Powerhouse)
Float fishing is the norm on the upper Hiwassee under these powerhouse flows, which measure from 1,800 to 2,800 cubic feet per second, but it’s not for everyone. There is little to no safe wade fishing in these conditions. Class II-III whitewater crops up many times along the seven-mile float. Even experienced boaters find the going tough in the long, rough shoals at Big Bend and the Stairsteps. Devil’s Shoals is a solid Class III with a challenging entrance and large standing waves. Guide services are limited to four outfitters, with the team at Reel Angling Adventures among the most experienced. Well-built, back-down boat ramps are located along River Road just downstream from the powerhouse, at Towee Creek (two miles) and at the Reliance trestle (seven miles, which requires six to eight hours of float time).
Fly fishing reigns on the Hiwassee in summertime. June patterns center on a dwindling population of sulphur mayflies and increasing numbers of tan and olive caddisflies and scattered blue-winged olives. Late in the month, the river’s isonychia mayflies—a large brown drake—emerge and grow to prominence through July. The river’s deep, flat water is marked with what seem like countless seams coursing around large, submerged, broken rock. The shoals above Foxes Run, Towee and Zig Zag offer great drifts through grass, rocks and wood. Drop through both Big Bend and the Stair Steps and fish the riffles, lanes and “sloughs” below these shoals.
Similarly, nymphs and emergers in the same dry fly patterns make great droppers below the larger dries. Under an indicator, try a large nymph pattern combined with one of these droppers or maybe a brown soft-hackle fly. In terms of streamers, don’t look much farther than Wooly Buggers. The water temperature this time of year is in the high 50s to low 60s, and the trout (sometimes five or six together) will chase down patterns in many color combinations. The guides all seem to have a favorite Bugger tie of their own.
Lure fishermen find that popular spinners, spoons, small crankbaits and small jigs carry the action throughout this float. Throw the lures to current breaks and seams, laydowns and slow, deep water.
Local guide services encourage and/or limit their clients to catch-and-release fishing with artificial lures and flies, but Tennessee fishing regulations permit fishing in all legal forms from March 1 through Sept. 30. Regulations include daily possession limits of seven trout, only two of which may be brown trout. No trout may be possessed from Oct.1 through the last day in February.
It’s not unheard of to catch more than a dozen smallmouths on summer floats on the lower Hiwassee. Cold-water anglers are still chasing trout in the upper Hiwassee, while those who float between the landings at Reliance and Highway 411 use the river’s high summertime flows to skate downstream with both spinning and fly tackle in hand.
Smallmouths are a native species in the Hiwassee (and the whole of the Tennessee River system) and thrive downstream from Reliance, where the water temperature at times of generation pushes into the upper 70s come June. Smallmouth fishing improves in July and August, giving late-summer anglers more fish to chase when the water temperature slows trout fishing to a crawl. It can be remarkable in September and October at peak water temperatures. Smallies here range from 10 inches upward; quality fish measure 16 inches and longer.
Guide services are not particularly necessary here, but the float from Reliance to Benton is characterized with a couple large shoals that require boating experience. Wait for the flows of the Hiwassee at the Reliance landing to rise about two and a half hours after the generators go online at the powerhouse. The TVA schedule from June through Labor Day assures the river will carry enough water to float from Reliance by 1 p.m. The start of a float trip here will be shallow and rough under the flow of just one generator, but water volume will increase and rise another eight inches or more when the flow of two generators pours past Reliance (about 2 p.m.) and along the six-mile float to Benton.
The lower Hiwassee is marked by bedrock, but it’s not broken up as much as in the upper river. Guides hold the local knowledge of where the smallmouth fishing is best, as the river’s flow changes from slow and shallow to deep riffles to rapids to long, slow and deep pools. Long flats of pocked granite dominate the upper three miles of this float. Cast from a distance to individual fish that ambush baits in the clear, deep holes. Chunk 1/4-ounce jigheads and swim jigs armed with soft-plastic crawfish. Pull white spinnerbaits across the holes. Fly-cast Blockhead Poppers and Dahlberg Divers.
Farther downstream, shoals are marked by ridges, followed by sometimes deep riffles (more often than by rapids) that sometimes stretch for 100 yards or more. One of these runs stretches nearly the length of Taylor’s Island, where on-foot access from nearby Highway 30 brings many shoreline and wading anglers. Scattered mostly at river right, the shoal holds a lot of broken rock. Work the moving water with crankbaits and spinnerbaits in shad and crawfish patterns. Fly fishermen do well with Whitlock Sculpin and Crazi Craw patterns.
If you’re looking for a float trip that offers excellent, technical fishing for multiple species, as well as scenic views, head to southeastern Tennessee this summer, and prepare for a doubleheader with some of the south’s finest smallmouths and trout.
If you wish to enlist the services of a guide, which is recommended when fishing the technical water of the upper Hiwassee, Reel Angling Adventures is an experienced bunch and arguably the best in the area. The outfit offers both fly- and spin-fishing trips. For lodging, Lost Creek Cabins south of Reliance provides rustic accommodations for two to seven people. And for all of your tackle needs, be sure to pay a visit to Reliance Fly & Tackle.