South Holston River Fly Fishing

River Info
At first glance, the South Holston seems more like a shallow lowland stream than a fine trout fishery, but its cold water and new weir dam provide fantastic fish and aquatic insect habitat. Midges are a constant food source; sulfurs and caddis provide fine action during the spring and early summer. Most common dry fly patterns will take trout.

Access to the upper end of the South Holston tailwater is very good, with many public parks and access points in the first miles below the dam. Farther downstream, more of the river flows through private property, but bridges provide some access.

The river is wadeable when water levels are down, but like all tailwaters, these are subject to rapid change as dam operators release water through the generating turbines. Check the release schedule (1-800-238-2264) before you fish, and keep an eye out for disappearing rocks and rising water.

The Holston offers a graduate school fly-fishing experience. The river hosts a 34% wild fish population that will challenge even advanced fly-fishers. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency stocks fingerling and catchable Browns and Rainbows that acclimate quickly and enjoy a high growth rate. These fish serve beginning and intermediate fly-fishers well. Lots of stocked fish hold over annually, conditioning them to a point that makes them virtually indistinguishable from their wild cousins.

Spawning sites are protected from November through February. The wild fish stock is further protected by a strictly enforced slot limit. Anglers must release all fish between 16 and 22 inches. While a total of 7 fish per day may be kept, only 1 over 22 inches may be harvested.

The Holston is noted for its dry fly-fishing opportunities. Gary Borger calls it the Henry’s Fork of the East. The river is best known for its prolific year-round Sulphur hatch. Excellent Sulphur emergences are likely to happen on

Thanksgiving, New Years and Easter as well as the “normal” times of early to mid-summer. When Sulphurs aren’t popping, Blue Winged Olives probably are. Several BWO species emerge year-round, too, in sizes #18 to #24. Mixed in with those are Blue Duns, several caddis, midges and Henricksons in season. We always keep plenty of dries, nymphs and emergers to meet the current insect activity.

The South Holston varies in depth and width, but fully 85% is wadeable at low water. Wading fly-fishers seldom must wade beyond waist deep except when traversing the river. Bank to bank distance varies from 60 to 100 yards or so. The limestone/dolomite bedrock forms shelving ledges that provide prime habitat for bugs and fish while enhancing the slightly alkaline pH value of the nutrient rich water. The ledge rock also breaks up the flow, creating some interesting conflicting currents that challenge even advanced spring creek fly-fishers.

Fly rods for fishing tailwates, including the South Holston and Watauga, are generally long and light. The most popular rod on the river is a 9 foot 5 wt. MOUNTAIN SPORTS, LTD., highly recommends the ORVIS Trident 905TL Mid-flex rod. The Mid-flex action allows delicate, accurate casts to fussy feeders with more than enough power to punch long casts and turn over lengthy leaders. Some fly-fishers choose shorter, lighter rods for a close-in situation. An 8 – 8 1/2 foot 3 weight is ideal for this kind of fine fishing, and a fight with an upset foot-and-a-half Rainbow is fun.

Veteran South Holston anglers use long leaders terminating in fine tippets. A good leader to start with is a 12 foot 6x leader. Some fly-fishers use braided butt leaders with extra long compound tippets combining to 18 or even 20 feet.

Because the larger fish can be exceedingly selective and fussy feeders, most regulars on the Holston use fluorocarbon tippets. ORVIS Mirage tippet material has consistently proven to be the best in the industry. Mirage tippet virtually disappears in the water and maintains knot strength even when wet.

Because the South Holston emanates from a TVA hydroelectric power generating dam, extreme caution must be used when fishing or planning a trip here. When the turbine starts up, water flow will suddenly increase from a gentle 130 cubic feet per second to a life-threatening 3,300 cfs. The river cannot be waded at high water. Anglers can access the TVA Lake Information Line by calling 1-800-238-2264. The access code for the dam at South Holston is 01.

In 1950, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) finished construction of a 285-foot earthen dam on the South Fork of the Holston River, in Sullivan County, Tennessee. The dam radically changed the river, creating the South Holston Reservoir and a 20-mile stretch of water below it where temperatures had dropped enough to support coldwater fish species.

One year later, the TVA stocked trout in the new tailwater. Over the years, these and subsequent stockings drew an increasing number of anglers, and today, thanks in large part to improvement efforts by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) and local Trout Unlimited chapters, the river boasts a nationally recognized fishery.

Conditions since construction of the dam have not always been as favorable to trout populations as they are today. Low dissolved oxygen limited the river’s productivity, and drastically fluctuating water levels wreaked havoc with the riverbed. Both conditions must be stable at a set of minimum requirements to support healthy aquatic insect populations.

In 1991, after years of vigorous advocacy by local TU members, the TVA constructed a 7.5 foot-tall aerating labyrinth weir below the dam. Functioning as an artificial waterfall, the weir increases dissolved oxygen in the water. Since its completion, dissolved oxygen levels have increased by 100 percent, and aquatic insect populations have flourished.

Additionally, TU purchased and donated to the TVA valves for the weir that maximize releases by increasing minimum flows from the weir pool. By raising these minimum flows, the valves expand wetted areas in the tailwater, stabilizing and increasing the amount of trout and insect habitat.

In the years following the construction of the weir, as the fishery continued to improve, anglers began seeing spawning activity in certain reaches of the tailwater. Unfortunately, redd or nest construction often occurred near manmade structures in the river, including several bridges, leaving the trout susceptible to fishermen who use snagging as a method to catch fish.

Upset by this new development, TU chapters worked with the TWRA to develop regulations to protect the newly wild population. To support their case, TU engaged Tennessee Tech professor Dr. Phil Bettoli to study the fishery, including the effect of snagging on spawning trout.

Thanks in part to these efforts, the TWRA implemented new regulations closing the most important spawning grounds during the late fall and early winter spawning periods, and has posted significant signage to educate anglers about the effects of snagging. Additional regulations banning snagging at any time have also been adopted.

River’s Way Lodge
889 Stoney Hollow RD
Bluff City, TN 37618

Clinch River Outfitters
Mike Bone
PO Box 185
Andersonville, TN 37705

Lance Cunnigham Ford
4101 Clinton Hwy.
Knoxville, TN 37909
Fax: 865-687-9030