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Fly fishing for trout on the Watauga River

Returning to Northeastern Tennessee trout waters

morning mist on the Watauga River

I have been to Tennessee to fly fish for trout twice. My first excursion was in the autumn of 2020 to Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I cannot say enough about the variety of options available to fly fish for trout within the Park and it was a truly magical place. I returned to Tennessee in the Spring of 2021 to fish the Watauga and South Holston Rivers, both of which are tailwaters that feature in Trout Unlimited’s Guide to America’s 100 Best Trout Streams. The fishing on that trip was fine, but I did not feel that I was able to maximize the experience because of less-than-ideal weather and water conditions.

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 past participants was positive, so I felt encouraged that the experience would prove to be better than my previous excursion.

a view of the upper section of the Watauga River

The first day of fishing was on the upper section of the Watauga, which is a high gradient river that flows well. It is very picturesque with a great variety of property types at the waterfront (from trailers to small cabins and mega mansions). There is also a robust amount of wildlife to witness during the float trip, including herons, eagles, osprey, kingfishers, beavers, muskrat, otters and deer – all of which we witnessed during our float trips.

Our guide, Sam, put in at a launch called ‘Mud Hole’ under overcast skies and with an eerie mist hovering over the river. Although picturesque, Sam remarked that the mist created pressure that could affect the fishing and hoped that it would lift soon. As it turned out, we were on fish rather quickly, using hopper / dropper tandems. The indicator fly was a Chubby Chernobyl of various sizes and the dropper a #22 jig-head Perdigon nymph.

In this upper section of the Watauga the trout flourish, with a population at the high end of the range of 2,000 to 6,000 fish per mile, driven by the abundance of aquatic insects. While there are trophy sized trout on this section, it is more likely that the catch will be in the 10 -12” range, which is exactly what we experienced. Our boat hooked up on some 40 fish on this float trip (both rainbows and browns, mostly the former), with the largest trout being 13”.

a Watauga rainbow

The second float on the Watauga with guide Braydon encompassed the lower section from the Blevins boat ramp to a take-out referred to by the locals as ‘Persinger Bridge’ or ‘twin bridges’. The water was at normal flow (but slower than the upper section) and slightly stained. A mist again hung over the water in the early morning but dissipated by mid-morning under a bright sun. This section of the Watauga is characterized by steep rock walls and a significant amount of limestone structure in the water, especially abutting from the banks.

We quickly learned that the fish population was at the lower end of the range of 2,000 to 6,000 fish per mile, as hook ups were hard to come by in the first few hours. The slower flow (resulting in lower oxygen levels) and less abundant aquatic insect life contribute to this. But also, a predatory striper population has an impact on the numbers. Having said that, we would be drifting the Trophy Section of the river, which is deemed to have the largest concentration of bigger fish on this river.

entering the trophy trout zone of the Watauga River

Our set-up was a tandem of flies under a wool indicator that comprised a Girdle Bug as the point fly trailing a soft hackle nymph. As I said, the morning was slow, with a few smaller fish in the net and a couple of decent sized rainbows in the 15” range lost to acrobatic leaps. After lunch, and upon entering the Trophy Section, the catching picked up, but still modest-sized trout. It was not until the final hour of the float that our fortunes changed.

While floating a bank section with a mottled colored floor, my fly got hung up on the bottom – or so my guide and I presumed – until the 'bottom' began to move upstream. The pull became more insistent and my guide was fighting to back the boat up into the current. At one point about a minute into the fight, with the fish making upstream progress, my guide was questioning whether we would be able to gain any ground. He was feeling great resistance from the current and rocky obstacles in the water. We had not yet seen the fish, but it was evident that this was the one we could be talking about that night back at the lodge. So, I turned to Braydon and said, “I know you can do this, and so does the fish”. It was at that point that I was able to finesse the fish back downstream, and after a three-minute battle, we had a beautiful 17” brown trout in the net.

a 'trophy trout' at the last minute!

And yes, over dinner, that was the story of the day!

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

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