When fishing folks from the rest of the country think of East Tennessee, they usually imagine Great Smoky Mountains National Park and little streams with wily brookies. However, most don’t consider the Northeast corner of Tennessee and its abundant fishing opportunities.
Truth be told, folks who live from Chattanooga to Knoxville to Bristol know that some of the best fishing is really in one of the state’s most remote and pristine regions. Whether you like to float in a drift boat or cast bushy dry flies for mountain brookies, Northeast Tennessee holds too many spots to explore in a lifetime.
To enjoy some of the best fly-fishing in Northeast Tennessee, begin in the Tri-Cities Area, which includes the relatively small towns of Johnson City, Bristol and Kingsport. There’s enough distance between the towns to give each its own flavor, but they’re still close enough that the people share a love for the mountains.
In Johnson City, East Tennessee State University is home to the sort of fly-fishing crowd and trout bums that crop up around academic institutions. The area is also frequented by the die-hard gentry anglers of Northern Virginia and Washington D.C., who have long bypassed the crowds in Western Virginia for a more secluded getaway.
Aside from great fishing, all three cities have great food and beer, making them hotbeds for trout bums and other hardcore anglers.
Though the South Holston area is known for its culture and scenery, it also offers unique biologic conditions and remote streams that render large and aggressive trout.
Running right through Kingsport, the South Holston River (affectionately called the SoHo) is an incredible tailwater that is a bit of biologic oddity. While plenty of tailwaters provide great fishing in Tennessee and the rest of the South, the South Holston is one of the few rivers where the population is roughly 85% brown trout. Folks in the know are all too aware of how big, mean, and carnivorous brown trout can be. Furthermore, the vast majority of these fish are wild, though the state does support a stocking program for rainbows and browns alike.
Take note, the South Holston is not to be confused with the Holston that runs through Knoxville, which is also a trout tailwater.
To fish the SoHo, local award-winning guide Patrick Fulkrod suggests using at rod at least 9 feet long and nothing heavier than a 5 weight with long, knotless tapered leaders. Another biologic characteristic of the SoHo is that it produces BWO and Sulphur mayflies nearly year round, so dry flies are only out of the question on the coldest or muddiest of days, though size 18 or 20 midges are a sure technique as well. If you happen to go during a nasty day or during the fall, don’t rule out using big streamers to chase large browns.
When visiting, DO NOT try to wade fish the SoHo when TVA is generating at the South Holston Dam. If they are, it’s best to use a drift boat, canoe, or hire one of the great guides in the area. If they’re not generating, the SoHo is extremely wade-fishing friendly.
Even more unknown than the SoHo, the Watauga is a blue ribbon trout stream near Elizabethton, Tenn. Flowing from one of the cleanest lakes in the country (also a great fly-fishing spot if you enjoy stillwater), the Watauga is 16 miles long and runs through remote farms and small communities. Wade fishing is certainly possible when Wilbur Dam is not generating, but fishing from a drift boat or other watercraft is the preferred method.
The best section of the river is the 2.5-mile Quality Trout Zone monitored by the TVA. This section has specific regulations, but more or less they require you to practice strict catch and release.
Just east of the Tri-Cities, the northern half of the Cherokee National Forest straddles the Tennessee and North Carolina line, with the Appalachian Trail splitting the prominent ridgelines. In this area, trout inhabit nearly every clean stream that sits above 1,000 feet of elevation. Many of the fish is these streams are native brookies, the only trout native to Southern Appalachia.
While you can catch Brookies any time of the year, they’re most beautiful in mid-October to late November when their colors become more dramatic. Brookies are notoriously aggressive, but stay stealthy, and cast big bushy size 10-14 dry flies with a 3 or 4 weight rod and light tippet.
There are way too many spots to suggest, so get on Google maps or lay a map out on your car hood and find a little blue line to explore.
If you’re new to fly fishing, fly fishing for trout, or just want to relax and let someone row you in a boat, there are several great guides that can help you out, including Mountain River Guides, which leads float trips, wade trips and Intro to Fly Fishing trips.
Having received regional and national awards, the South Holston River Company is perhaps the most notable guide service in the area. Based out of Bristol, the SoHo River company will take you on a half-day or full-day trip. A float trip is the same price as a wade trip, so take the opportunity to learn a little more about tailwater fishing.
Another shop, High Country Angler in Gray, Tenn., regularly offers beginner fly-fishing trips and lessons if you’re not ready to hire a guide.
If you’re looking to fish the area DIY-style, stop by Mahoney’s Outfitters near Johnson City. Family-owned and founded in 1960, the massive Mahoney’s store is area icon and outfits kayakers, hikers, fly fishers, and even hunters.
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