Photos and article by Farrow Allen, former SE Regional Editor Fly Fish America, fly fisher, fly tier, writer, and noted book author.
The South Holston River is one of several tailwater fisheries that resulted from a network of dams built during the 1940s by the TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) to meet the ever-increasing demand for electricity in the south. While pursuing its mission of manufacturing power, the TVA has also made some concessions to improve the quality of fishing. In the early 1990s the TVA constructed a complex, six-foot dam to mitigate the scouring effect of water rushing through the river bed during hours of peak generation.
This specially designed dam helps to moderate the flow, and re-oxygenate the water running over the dam. These factors, combined with uniformly cold water releases, have created an environment of rich vegetation, reliable insect hatches and healthy, well-fed brown and rainbow trout (right).
Another distinguishing feature, pointed out by Tennessee fly fisher Tim Landis, is that numerous areas of oxygen-rich water running through clean gravel provide suitable areas for trout to spawn. "The South Holston River," says Tim, "has the highest percentage of wild fish of all the TVA tailwater rivers in the state." Although you can float from the Holston View Dam bridge to Bluff City, some fourteen miles away, the best fishing is probably in the upper river. "From the boat ramp down to the Hickory Tree Bridge is high percentage water," says Hayden Copeland from the Appalachian Angler in Boone, NC. "Below that, you'll find some big fish, but fewer of them."
Most anglers who wade the river during non-generating hours are limited to fishing the water they can access from the road, or through someone's backyard, if they've been blessed with a friend who owns property on the river. Unfortunately, these areas can get crowded during the height of the season, and because the South Holston is open to all types of rod and reel fishing, you may find yourself competing with spin fishermen lobbing nightcrawlers, crickets and corn into your favorite pool. This is especially true on weekends. When they open the turbines below the nearly 300-foot primary dam at South Holston Lake, the only way to fish the river is from a boat, canoe, or raft. With a competent guide and enough time, you can cover all the water from put-in to take-out and fish where no wading angler can ever go. The other thing that makes drift fishing unique is that fish you can't get close enough to cast to during low water, seem unafraid when the water is up. A fish that stops feeding the instant it senses your presence when you're wading, will feed recklessly on the surface when the river is high and you're casting from a boat.
The first time I floated the South Holston River, I was with Mike Milhorn, a friend from Kingsport, Tennessee. Mike grew up in East Tennessee and would hunt and fish every day if he didn't have to make a living. Mike's wife, Lisa Anne, also loves to fish and one year surprised her husband by ordering a drift boat for his birthday! Naturally, it didn't take long for Mike to get comfortable with his new toy and when he called to invite me for a test drive it was June, the sulphur's were hatching, and I was ready to go! We met around noon, loaded our gear into Mike's Suburban, and with the boat in tow, drove down river to meet a buddy who runs an impromptu shuttle service for a few of the guides who float the river. After passing stories back and forth, and confirming that they'd be running enough water for us to make the drift back, the three of us drove up to Osceola Island Recreation Area. The boat launch is located by the recreation area, about a mile downstream from the Lake Holston Dam and several hundred feet below the Bristol weir. After helping us launch the boat, Mike's friend drove the Suburban back to his place where we'd eventually takeout at the end of the day.
Just upstream from the boat launch, there's an inviting, hard-to-resist stretch of rapids, so Mike struggled to row us up river and set the anchor. Using sinking lines, we pitched streamers and weighted olive woolly buggers into the riffles without much action. After half an hour, Mike shook his head, showed me the fly he'd caught fish on the week before and suggested, since it didn't look like it was going to happen here today, we move on. As he steered under the bridge, I cast around the abutment to my left and right and when Mike pulled the boat over toward the left bank, I began casting my size-10 bead head as close to the overhanging brush as I dared. On my third cast, a 13-inch rainbow slammed into the weighted hare's ear nymph and fought like an 18-incher in the heavy current. When I finally brought the fish to hand, we were almost 100 yards downstream from where I'd hooked it.
Interestingly, this illustrates a simple conservation benefit of fishing from manually-propelled craft: you can't fish back. In a drift boat or raft, you'll cover a lot of territory, but rarely stay in any one place very long. Indeed, many guides who work from motorized craft have been criticized by some earnest conservationists who feel they have the mobility to put immoderate pressure on the hot spots and should be forbidden from using anything with a motor. On the other hand, getting a boat on and off the river can become a complicated ordeal. Many conservation minded guides and anglers rely on a motor to avoid the hassle of shuttling back and forth. At the end of the day, they simply go back to where they put in.
As we drifted down river, using weighted nymphs and woolly buggers, we covered the shoreline and tailouts that looked like they might hold fish. Mostly we caught browns, with a few rainbows mixed in. When the sulphurs began hatching, we anchored, casting to rising fish in the slack water created by dead falls and obstructions. Although these fish were often hard to reach in such heavy cover, when you did, you were usually rewarded with a solid hookup. Toward the end of the day, as the hatch tapered off, we picked up a few stray rainbows still feeding in the open riffles, then decided to call it a day. As the sun was setting, Mike brought the boat to our takeout.
Here are some guides and shops to contact if you'd like to float the South Holston or any of the other Tennessee tailwater rivers, like the Clinch, Hiwassee and Watauga. To get the generating schedules from the TVA, call (800) 238-2264.
The Appalachian Angler, Boone, NC (828-963-5050)
Davidson River Outfitters, Pisgah Forest, NC (888-861-0111)
Hunter Banks Co., Asheville, NC (800-227-6732)
Hiwassee Outfitters, Reliance, TN (800-338-8133)
Mahoney's, Johnson City, TN (800-835-5152)
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