South Holston River Fly Fishing


Top Southeastern Trout Fishing

Over the last couple of years, a very good case could be made for the South Holston River being the best of the best southern trout streams. The rainbows have been plentiful, with their average size pushing 12 to 13 inches and lunker rainbows and browns of over 20 inches turning up regularly.

South Holston Dam
Much of the credit for the South Holston’s outstanding fishing can be laid at the door of the TVA, especially for the installation of a labyrinthine aeration weir about a mile below South Holston Dam. By creating a long, crested waterfall across the river, the dam adds a great deal of oxygen to the downstream water.

The weir, which was the first of its kind anywhere in the world, also aids the fish population by evening out water surges. This lessens the scouring effect on the bottom, allowing for more in-stream insects and plants.

The surge-dampening lessening of the surge also makes the South Holston a bit safer for anglers when the turbines start to turn. The moderating effect of the weir allows them more time to react when the water begins to rise.

South Holston River Tactics

The easy wading and gentle flow of the South Holston make it perfect for fly-casting. Indeed, a large percentage of the anglers here carry a long rod to take advantage of the strong and active insect populations.


Spring and summer see good caddis hatches, with the local favorite being an Elk-Hair pattern in sizes 12 to 16.

Umpqua Elk Hair Caddis Flies

  • Tan
  • Size 18
  • Classic & effective dry fly pattern


Sulfur hatches, which take place in late afternoon on most southern streams, are likely to take place anytime during the day on the South Holston. This is particularly true when the day is overcast.

Umpqua Sparkle Dun Sulphur Flies

  • Sulphur color
  • Size 18
  • Imitates an emerging sulphur mayfly


Another insect hatch important on this flow is the blue-winged olive. These bugs appear almost year-round on this Volunteer State river and call for imitations on hook sizes 12 to 18.

Umpqua Blue Wing Olive Flies

  • Olive dubbing
  • Size 18
  • Sits upright in the film layer of water column


Most of the fly-fishing here involves casting to rising fish. When no such action is visible, using any of a number of regionally popular nymph patterns should turn up some fish. Tying a Tellico Nymph or Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear is a good option.

Ultimate Nymph Box

  • 133 flies in thin fly box
  • Best all around patterns for nymphs, scuds and midges
  • Caddis larvae, bead heads, pheasant tails, copper johns etc


Finally, if you are targeting big rainbows and browns, your best bet is to float the stream during high water. Casting minnow or crawfish imitations on spinning gear will bring the best results. The fly-fisher should try a big, weighted streamer. These are often dressed with a gold spinner blade.

Fishing Pressure

Of course, the downside of such a positive report on the South Holston’s fishery is that more anglers flock to it, which thins out the trout population as creels are filled. The remaining fish, too, are more skittish from having seen so many lures, baits, and flies.

The South Holston tailwater originates at the foot of the 285-foot-high, earthen South Holston Dam, which was constructed by the TVA in 1947. Below the dam, the river’s trout-bearing water stretches for 14 miles through Sullivan County to the south of Bristol in extreme northeastern Tennessee.

The South Holston is one of the more conveniently located tailwaters in Tennessee. It is almost constantly in sight of paved roads as it flows through a semi-urban area mixed with some farmland. This ease of approach, coupled with the river’s position among the Tri-Cities of Bristol, Johnson City, and Kingsport, makes it a popular destination.

Adding to the number of anglers as well is its proximity to both Virginia and North Carolina. Many fishers in search of big trout find their way across those borders to sample the South Holston fishery. Regardless of where they come from, the visiting anglers find a medium-width stream composed of slick, glassy pools broken by gentle Shoals.

Stocked Fish

These pools and shoals are home to hordes of stocked rainbow and brown trout. Stories of 50- and even 75-fish days abound on the South Holston. Added to this mix is a healthy sprinkling of trophy-sized rainbows and browns in the 7- to 10-pound range.

Coldwater Fishery

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 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.

Low Flow Wading

Virtually all of the South Holston is wadable when the water is running low, while high water levels make the stream ideal for floating in a johnboat, in a canoe, or with a float ring. Some anglers float even on low water, mainly because of the scarcity of public land along the banks.

There are only a very limited number of points where anglers can get to the river. Besides the public land sites, there are usually a number of enterprising land owners along the South Holston who rent parking spaces and access across their property to anglers. This is a constantly changing circumstance, but worth investigating while driving along the flow.

Due to its shallow and clear waters, the South Holston is one river where even many bait-anglers forsake the shore to wade the stream. This allows them to get into position to float their baits under and around logs, rocks, undercut banks, and other structure.

Wading is easy on the South Holston, since it flows at a much slower rate during low water than do many other tailwaters. Whether the baitanglers take to the water or stick to the shore, they are armed with all the usual tried-and-true trout baits. Night crawlers, corn, and crickets predominate.


The best public access to the South Holston River is located at the Osceola Island Recreation Area at the weir dam. This TVA park is I mile below South Holston Dam. Above the weir the river is almost like a lake as it flows sluggishly along. Below the weir it offers plenty of wadable water. The weir dam is located on both channels of the river on either side of the island.

The parking area for Osceola Island is on the southern shore of the river off Holston View Dam Road. There are walking trails on the island that are accessible via a footbridge below the weir dam.
A hiking trail runs 1/2 mile down the southern shore from the Osceola Island parking lot to Holston View Dam Road bridge over the river. All of this stretch is open to public fishing.

Below the bridge there are several turnout parking spots offering access to the flow both along TN 44 (Rockhold Road) and off Big Springs Road. Both of these roads border the river at several points on its southern side. Riverside Road also offers some access to the river’s northern shore, upstream of the Weavers Pike Bridge. The final access consists of boat landings at the head of Boone Lake in the town of Bluff City.

Advanced Fly Fishing

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.

Dry Fly Fishing

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.


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.

Long Leaders

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.

Recommended Reading

Tennessee Trout Waters: Blue-Ribbon Fly-Fishing Guide
  • Used Book in Good Condition
  • Rutter, Ian (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)
  • 100 Pages - 04/19/2024 (Publication Date) - Frank Amato Pubns (Publisher)
South Holston and Watauga Lakes Map [Cherokee and Pisgah National Forests] (National Geographic Trails Illustrated Map, 783)
  • South Holston and Watauga Lakes [Cherokee, Pisgah
  • National Geographic Maps
  • National Geographic Maps (Author)
  • English (Publication Language)


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