South Holston River Fly Fishing
Tim travels to eastern Tennessee to fish one of the Southeast’s premier tailwater fisheries. He fishes with guide Mike Bone and Kirk Otey, vice president of TU’s Southeastern region. While chasing the river’s brown and rainbow trout, Tim learns about work to improve the river’s water quality and aquatic habitat.
The last time I fished a Tennessee tailwater I landed the biggest brown trout of my career—or whatever you call fishing for a living—so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to visit another of this state’s fine fisheries. Once again a Tennessee tailwater delivered and the fishing was incredible. And once again it poured while I was there. I’ve never been to Tennessee when I wasn’t fishing in the rain at some point. But it’s always worth it!
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.
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.
Sulphurs, elk hair caddis, hare’s ear, Tellico nymph
River’s Way Lodge
889 Stoney Hollow RD
Bluff City, TN 37618
Clinch River Outfitters
PO Box 185
Andersonville, TN 37705
Lance Cunnigham Ford
4101 Clinton Hwy.
Knoxville, TN 37909