Updated: Jul 10
Fly-fishing for trout on the Watauga and South Holston rivers
Trout fishing in Great Smoky Mountains National Park
My first fishing experience in Tennessee was in the autumn of 2020 in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The variety of options there to fly fish for trout was impressive. This past spring of 2021, I had a return trip to the State, this time to the northeast, 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.
Fly-fishing for trout on the Watauga River
After a six-hour drive from Arlington, VA, our group (which included members of Falmouth Flats Fly Fishers), checked into our respective accommodations, had lunch and then headed to the Watauga River Bluffs State Natural Area for an afternoon fish. When the river flow is reasonable (between 250 and 400 cfs), the fishing from this access point can be very interesting and comfortable for wading. But on this afternoon, water was being released from the dam and flows were very high, above 1,000 cfs, with no sign of abating. A few small trout were caught, mostly on nymph patterns, but the water levels and related turbidity made for a disappointing excursion. Make sure to check the USGS site for the Watauga River at Elizabethton before attempting to fish from this access point (and expect a reasonable hike to the water from the parking area).
Float trip fishing for trout on the Watauga river
The next day we returned to the Watauga for a float trip with the South Holston River Company. We put in at the Blevin’s Road Access area with relatively cool temperatures and overcast skies and enjoyed frenetic action from rainbow trout in the first hour within 100 yards of the put-in area. Despite reports that water would not be released from the dam, within an hour the water levels began to rise and the fishing (make that catching) deteriorated immediately. An hour later, our guide, Sam 'Bug' Dennis, made the decision to abandon the Watauga for another option – Lake Wilbur.
I had not fished still water in at least 20 years and it is a decidedly different technique from fishing in flowing current. The takes can be more subtle and the hook set quicker, but we adapted easily using a ‘hopper’ and ‘dropper’ rig that had two midges trailing a Chernobyl Ant pattern. The decision to move from the high water at the Watauga to gentle Lake Wilbur was the right call – our boat increased the number of fish in the net by three-fold.
Float trip fishing for trout on the South Holston river
The next day’s float trip had us fishing the lower South Holston, which my fishing companion referred to as the LoSoHo. Weather and water conditions were not our friends that day with warm temperatures, bluebird skies and low, clear water flow. We put in at the J. Forrest Thomas boat ramp (aka, Rockhold) and floated about 3 miles to the Bluff City Boat Ramp. Our best fishing was early in the day where water was flowing quickly. A few browns and rainbows were netted that morning, but no trophy fish were hooked up (although we witnessed quite a few monsters in the shadows).
While the South Holston and Watauga are probably the most celebrated of trout waters in Northeastern Tennessee, there are plenty of other options in the area, including the Elk River and Stony Creek. In Southeast Virginia are the headwaters of the South Holston near Sugar Grove in Smyth County, as well as Whitetop Laurel Creek near Damascus in Southwest Virginia. I look forward to returning to fly fish these prolific trout waters.
Note: I am not being compensated for my mention of the South Holston River Company. I am simply a satisfied client!