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The Tale of Twin Trout Streams and the Twin Cities of Appalachia

This pair of waterways is united by their fishing heritage, history and the charm of Bristol, Tenn., and Va.

The Tale of Twin Trout Streams and the Twin Cities of Appalachia

Hiring a guide when visiting the South Holston and Watauga rivers is recommended. These local experts know where to find fall trophies. (Photo courtesy of Shane Griffith)

The twin cities of Bristol, Tenn., and Bristol, Va., stand as unique and charming sisters quietly nestled in the Appalachian Mountains. These fraternal twins, which grew-up together until the state line was established, owe their existence as much to the railroad, coal and timber industries as they do to a man named Joseph R. Anderson, who saw the value in creating a town where two railroads met. Today, Bristol is a bustling destination for outdoor enthusiasts, music lovers, car racing fanatics and foodies seeking breathtaking landscapes and outdoor adventures. With rivers teeming with fish, an up-and-coming cultural scene and an unexpected history as the birthplace of country music and NASCAR, these sister towns run deep on fishing opportunity thanks to some of the most abundant waters this side of the Mississippi.

BRISTOL PROPER

Two major rivers run through this area—the fabled South Holston and the lesser-known Watauga. The South Holston originates from the South Holston Dam in Bristol, Tenn., and stretches for approximately 52 miles before it joins the North Holston in Kingsport, Tenn.

The Watauga River, which originates in North Carolina, flows for 78 miles before joining the South Fork Holston River. Both the South Holston and the Watauga are easily accessible from the town(s) of Bristol and are popular with anglers in search of big trout. Both are designated as Tennessee State Scenic Rivers, with natural beauty so abundant that when you step foot in the water, you might forget it's the fish you've come for.

brown trout
Bristol's fishing community collaborates with conservation groups and guides to preserve the area’s pristine rivers. Catch-and-release is encouraged for all who fish here. (Photo courtesy of Jason McReynolds)

TREMENDOUS TROUT

Renowned for their healthy trout populations, these freestone rivers draw anglers of all skill levels in search of big browns, rainbows, brookies and even brightly colored cutthroats (they also have great bass fishing and striper runs).

Those new to fishing the area will do well to hire a local guide, who can watch the dam release schedules and get you to water you would not be able to reach on foot. This is especially important in the fall, when big trout will be deeper in the water column and easier to reach by boat.

Some of the best fishing on the South Holston is on the stretch between the South Holston Dam in Bristol and Boone Lake in Bluff City, Tenn. It's said that this stretch holds 8,500 fish per mile, with the predominant species being brown trout. To reach them, however, you'll have to cover a lot of water, which is easier if done by boat with someone who knows the landscape. While it's wise to choose a guide that is familiar with the style of fishing you prefer, if you're after big fish, let the guide be your teacher.

Fishing in Bristol goes hand in hand with a commitment to conservation and sustainability. Most guides adhere to practices intended to preserve the health and survival of the trout population for generations to come. Bristol's fishing community actively collaborates with conservation groups, and guides in the area work together to preserve the rivers and promote responsible fishing practices; as such, catch-and-release is the most common practice.

Most guides will want you to practice good fish handling skills and send trout back once a photo is taken. If you want to keep fish, discuss this ahead of time with your guide. On the South Holston, there is a seven-trout limit, with only one fish over 22 inches allowed. On sections of the Watauga, there is a 14-inch minimum and a two-trout limit; only artificial lures may be used.

Smallmouth bass being held up
While trout are considered the main attraction in the Bristol area, smallmouth are abundant here, too, and worth wetting a line for. (Photo courtesy of Jason McReynolds)

LESS PRESSURED WATERS

If you like to get more off the beaten path, the tributaries around the area offer excellent technical fishing for smaller, wild fish and DIY opportunities. To find access points and learn how to fish these tributaries, a local fly shop is your best bet. The choices are abundant in the area, with shops in Bristol proper and within a relatively short drive. Stop by The Fly Box (theflyboxtn.com) or the South Holston River Fly Shop (southholstonriverflyshop.com) for some fly advice and fish talk. You might consider hiring one of two guides: Jason McReynolds or Shane Griffith (see below). Both are excellent on the sticks and love to chase big browns.




Given the climate in Tennessee, you can fish the area throughout the year, with fun dry-fly fishing in the spring and a lot of warm-water opportunities in the summer. However, if big fish are your calling, the fall fishing is where it's at. Tennessee can be extremely hot in the summer, so the milder days of autumn make a day on the water much more comfortable—for both the angler and the fish.

In the fall, as the water temperature cools, the trout become more active as they prepare for the impending winter months. This, in my opinion, is the perfect time to target trophy browns with big articulated streamers in olive or black and a heavy sinking line. You'll want to make a decent cast and let the fly sink for a bit before stripping it back. This practice gets the fly where the big trout live. Remember, though, that the search for big browns on the fly is a game of patience, so don't expect to walk away with a lot of fish to your credit. However, when the fish cooperate, the wait is well worth it.

Additionally, if you love nighttime fishing, a mouse pattern cast at the shore and stripped back will do the trick. In my opinion, this is some of the most fun you can have on these rivers.

Recommended


If you're fishing with lures, try a swimbait in the 4- to 6-inch size, with a stop-and-go retrieve. However, don't hesitate to experiment with jerkbaits and your own favorites that imitate an injured baitfish. If you're not having any luck, adjust the retrieve and the depth until you find the fish. Trust me, they are there.

WHILE YOU’RE THERE


  • The Bristol area bristles with fun for the entire family.
Birthplace of Country Music Museum
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum walks patrons through the history of the genre and Bristol’s involvement in it. (Photo courtesy of Birthplace of Country Music Museum)

While in the area, be sure to check out the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, which has interactive displays and theater experiences that take you through the story of how Bristol had a hand in creating the country music industry.

If you’re a go-fast kind of person, the Bristol Motor Speedway hosts NASCAR races and other motorsports events that draw racing fans from across the country. Take note, however, that all of these events draw huge crowds, so you will want to plan a visit well in advance.

Foodies will appreciate the many specialty restaurants in the area. In my opinion, there isn’t a bad restaurant in the whole town, and many rank among my favorites in all of Tennessee. Make reservations at J Frank, which is one of the newest and most upscale restaurants in the area, and well worth the spend.

There are many hotel options in Bristol, and home rentals are abundant. If you’re looking for a fun experience, check out The Sessions, which is a historic building with unique rooms and suites that have a music theme. It’s also right next to the Southern Craft restaurant, which boasts the best wood-fired barbecue in the area.

GO WITH A GUIDE

  • Two local guide services that will put you on the fish.

A professional guide will make your trip much more enjoyable and safer. These guides have fished the areas for decades and are well-versed in all things trout.

Guide Jason McReynolds
  • Flying SoHo Guide Service
  • Specializes in streamer fishing for world-class trout on the South Holston River. flyingsoho.com
  • 423-534-0806
  • sohobrown12@yahoo.com
Guide Shane Griffith
  • Shane Griffith Fly Fishing
  • Specializes in float, walk and wade trips in on the Watauga and South Holston rivers. facebook.com/shanegriffithflyfishing
  • 276-608-8976
  • shane@southholstonrivercompany.com

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