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Fly fishing for trout on the South Holston River

Updated: Aug 22

Returning to Northeastern Tennessee trout waters

evening mist settling over the South Holston River

The South Holston River Lodge

I have mentioned in previous posts that I have had a few experiences of fishing in Tennessee. Both were good, but I felt that I did not maximize the potential on my excursion to the Watauga and South Holston Rivers in 2021. So, when my local Orvis shop advertised a 3-day, 4-night package to the South Holston River Lodge for guided float fishing on the Watauga and South Holston, I quickly signed up. Included in the package were float trips on both rivers, riverside accommodation and all meals – with a menu that looked delicious! The feedback from previous participants was positive, so I felt encouraged that the experience would prove to be better than my previous excursion.

Float trips on the Watauga River

As will be documented in an upcoming blog post, the float trips on the Watauga River were successful in different ways. The upper section was great for catching quantity, but of modest-sized trout. The lower section offered the opportunity to hook-up big fish in the Trophy Section between the Blevins boat ramp and the Persinger Bridge, which we capitalized on. This third of the three float trips would encompass the South Holston River, guided by Joe, a friend of our Orvis sponsor, Ryan.

guide Joe and host Ryan studying the water

Float trip on the South Holston River

Ryan would be my fishing companion for the day, and talked of a pool of monster fish that he would like to target. I am sworn to secrecy regarding the location, but I will call it the ‘PhD pool’ because of the degree of difficulty associated with not just hooking up but also landing these fish. I bought in, but our guide Joe was emphatic that this could involve hours of futility that could easily break most anglers' resolve. He quizzed me as to my level of patience and determination - I countered with the fact that I just spent a week of agonizing sight fishing for brown trout on challenging spring creeks in Patagonia. Oh, and I am also a university professor, which often requires patience.

The day began cool with a mist over the water, which would dissipate under a hot sun by mid-morning. Joe put in at a private launch known as ‘Jacks’ for a float trip that would encompass about 1½ miles to the Big Springs launch, where we would pull out. This is considered the middle section of the South Holston and is characterized by a flatter gradient and slower water, over limestone shelves with the occasional spring creek feeding the river. These water conditions support aquatic insect life comprising scud bugs, sow bugs and midges, which would dictate our fly selection. The river also receives a migration of big lake-run trout that originate in South Holston Lake - behemoths that we would target on our float.

Lake-run trout on the South Holston River

We floated the early section to test our set-up, which was a wool strike indicator with a hook and a trailing nymph pattern that mimicked the scud/sow/midge aquatic species of the territory. But we only began fishing in earnest when we arrived at the ‘PhD pool’. The approach was specific – the boat was anchored 20 yards upstream of the fish and off the current. We would take turns casting directly across into the current and allow the indicator and fly to drift down into the pods of fish. It was an agonizingly slow drift and required intense focus to detect the slightest of bumps or takes. After two drifts, angler #1 would acquiesce to angler #2 and have the guide reassess the fly selection.

trying to crack the nut on the 'PhD pool'

This went on for three hours! Angler #1 two drifts and nothing – angler #2 two drifts and nothing – changing dropper flies every occasion. It was in the middle of hour three that a strong take had me in action – I frankly do not know which of the dozens of nymphs produced the strike. But it was a hard strike and the fish pulled out line instantly. Just then I learned from the guide that I needed to spool the excess line to control the fish – what? That would have been good guidance to begin with, because I had about two feet of line at my feet from feeding out to the ‘PhD pool’.

So, it is not surprising that I lost that fish, because I could not quickly put the excess line on the spool. Lesson learned. We are now into 3 ½ hours of fishing the ‘PhD pool’ when I have another strong strike. But I am very tired from the focused fishing and when the fish runs, I wind up reeling the wrong direction (letting out line) and lose that fish as well. I feel like an idiot! I guess the upside is that I fooled two doctoral level trout!

a South Holston rainbow

It turned out to be a reasonable day of some decent fish caught. But the ‘PhD pool’ got the best of us!

Note: I am not being compensated for my mention of Orvis or the South Holsten River Lodge. I am simply a happy client!

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