In the 1930’s, spurred by the need for electricity during World War II, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) went on a dam-building spree in Tennessee, erecting over 30 dams throughout the state. Any river large enough to supply hydroelectric power was dammed, in many cases multiple times. This left today’s angler with lots of fishing opportunities in impoundments and tailwaters.
During a recent trip to Tennessee this reporter (sadly) did not fish in any of the impoundments. So let’s take a look at fishing the tailwaters.
The Clinch River gained notoriety in 1988 when one Greg Ensor caught a 28-pound plus brown trout there, the current Tennessee state record. While Mr. Ensor was not fly fishing, big trout, both browns and rainbows, are often taken here by hackle heavers.
The water levels in the Clinch River, like those in all other tailwaters in Tennessee, are controlled by the TVA. The TVA posts a release schedule on their website https://www.tva.gov/Environment/Recreation/Recreation-Release-Schedules . However, the schedule can be, and often is, changed at a moment’s notice. Wading anglers need to closely monitor the water level and get out of the water immediately if they notice it’s rising.
Shawn Madison, a self-professed river rat, prefers low water when fishing the Clinch. “Low water” as defined by Shawn means no power is being generated. At this stage the water is low, the flow is slow, and the river is wadable.
The fish, used to seeing anglers, are suspicious of everything. Shawn most often uses what he calls a “nymph rig,” a Gink-treated strike indicator made from wool trimmed to the size of a pencil eraser on a 15-foot tapered leader with a 5x or 6x tippet. The distance between the fly and the indicator varies with the depth of the water and can be easily adjusted.
A large fly for Shawn is a number 16. He often goes down to 20s or 22s. Flies most often imitate midge or black fly larvae.
On day one Jim Tedesco and I fished with Shawn from his boat, a small aluminum skiff. Casts were long, 50 feet or so. The goal was to let the nymph drift, drag free, for as long as possible or until the indicator disappeared. The indicator disappeared on a regular basis. While we did not catch any 28-pound fish, a number of rainbows to almost 20 inches and a single brown fell for our fakes, providing a satisfying morning of fishing. Then the water got deeper, the speed of the current increased, and we were done for the morning.
Day two was much the same.
On day three Shawn and I went wading above and below the weir dam, about a mile below the Norris Dam. It being a beautiful Sunday morning, we had plenty of company. We were the only fly fishers I saw, but we caught as many fish as anyone else did. Then the alarm went off – fifteen minutes until the water release. We waded to the shore and were done for the day.
While we did not try it, anglers interested in trophy trout here often swing streamers, especially when water is being released. You must have a boat to do this. You will make a lot of fruitless casts. While in 3 Rivers Angler, a fly shop in Knoxville, I met a local fisherman who told me, “I hooked a big brown in the Clinch below the weir this morning. He took my streamer and my pride when the leader parted at a knot.”
We did not try dry fly fishing either, although there were a few sulfurs on the water. Shawn said, “We have good hatches here sometimes. Fish will rise all over the river, including some big ones. But day in and day out, nymphing produces the most fish.”
The best-known tailwaters in Tennessee other than the Clinch include the Holston, the South Holston, and the Watauga. There are several other streams that are just as productive. In all of them the trout fishing is similar to what’s described above.
I also fished the French Broad River below the Douglas Dam. Like the Clinch, the French Broad is a tailwater. Unlike the Clinch, and unique among east Tennessee tailwaters, the primary gamefish in the French Broad is the smallmouth bass.
My guide for day one of this excursion was Capt. Josh Pfeifer of Frontier Anglers TN. I hopped in Josh’s Hyde boat and we drifted off down the river, throwing poppers, streamers, and crayfish imitations. While we had to work to get strikes, changing flies frequently, the releases were into double digits when the float ended. The largest fish, about three pounds, came on a blockhead popper. I missed a couple of strikes by fish that may have bested that mark.
On day two I floated the French Broad in a canoe, accompanied again by Jim Tedesco. This float showed us the value of fishing with a local. We worked it hard for about five hours, getting only two modest bass on a crayfish pattern for our efforts.
Josh Pfeifer was a great guide. The second float only reinforced that opinion.
Local Fly Patterns
Allen Gillespie, owner of 3 Rivers Angler, said to me during my visit there, “It’s hard to get excited about a new midge pupa pattern.” Granted. But that doesn’t stop fly tyers from inventing them.
Shawn Madison ties many of his nymphs with tungsten beads and stripped and dyed peacock herl. Every tyer has his own little secrets! Most of Shawn’s nymphs imitate either blackfly or midge larvae. Shawn believes that new patterns that the fish have not yet seen increase the strike percentage somewhat.
Crayfish imitations are used for smallmouth bass and carp (a favorite target of some locals).
Shad are eaten by a wide variety of fish, including both bass and trout. Carrying a few imitations is a good idea.
My Tennessee exploration lasted about ten days. You could spend every day of a summer there, fishing new waters every day, and not see it all. There’s enough variety to satisfy anyone, from finicky trophy trout to bruising striped bass. I found the trip very rewarding, and I suspect any other fly fisher would, too.
Where to Stay
If you intend to fish the Clinch River, the place to stay is Clinton. For information about food and lodging in this area visit http://www.yallcome.org or call 800.524.3602.
This area has two wonderful museums (Museum of Appalachia and the American Museum of Science and Energy) that are worth a trip all by themselves. My wife and I spent a week in Clinton and enjoyed every minute of it.
There are many chain hotels in the area around the French Broad. Josh Pfeifer can recommend a few places.
Tennessee’s Other Tailwaters and Other Fish Species
With 30-odd dams, there are lots of other tailwaters in Tennessee. Better-known trout rivers include the Holston, South Holston, and Watauga. A complete list with the stocking schedule can be found at https://www.tn.gov/twra/article/tailwater-trout
While not often mentioned, the Caney Fork holds the state brook trout record, a fish in excess of four pounds, a solid brookie!
We spent ten days in Tennessee, not nearly enough time to fully sample the fishing there. In the two tailwaters we fished we ignored the striped bass, carp, buffalo, drum, and spotted gar. There are largemouth bass, walleyes, sunfish, and muskellunge. I caught a mooneye on a popper in the French Broad. Fly fishers can certainly keep themselves amused here!
Fly Shops and Guides
Centrally located in Knoxville, 3 Rivers Angler (865.200.5721, http://3riversangler.com ) has the tackle, flies, and expert advice any angler visiting this area needs. They were extremely gracious and helpful to this reporter.
In Bristol find the South Holston River Fly Shop (423.878.2822, http://southholstonriverflyshop.com ) is headquarters for fishing the South Holston and Watauga Rivers.
Eastern Fly Outfitters in Piney Flats (423.538.3007, http://easternflyoutfitters.com ) offers trout on the Watauga River, South Holston River, and Fort Patrick Henry River and the many small streams that are home to the native Appalachian strain brook trout.
All these shops provide guide services for tailwater trout, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, striped and hybrid bass, musky and carp on the local rivers.
The only guide I came into contact with on my trip was Capt. Josh Pfeiffer, who I cannot say enough good things about. He can be reached at 865.719.0227, http://frontieranglerstn.com.
Two other guides who came highly recommended were:
-David Knapp, Smoky Mountains and Tennessee tailwaters, 931.261.1884, troutzoneanglers.com; and
-Rob Fightmaster, 865.607.2886, www.FightmasterFlyFishing.com