Thar’s Fun in Them Thar Hills
My school boy recollection of Tennessee conjures up memories of Daniel Boone, coonskin caps and an unexplored wilderness. It seemed to me a wild country with many opportunities to explore. For anyone with a sense of adventure and a love for the outdoors it is still a place of awe and opportunity.
Any visitor will praise the wonder of its beauty; any hunter or fisher will praise the opportunity of its outdoor resources.
Autumn produces unbelievably stunning color changes in the hills near Johnson City. The foliage season alone makes a trip to the area worthwhile. The leaves change from green to golden hues of yellow and orange interspersed with vibrant shades of red. Nowhere does Mother Nature do a better job of transforming simple leaves into brilliant and dazzling centerpieces of color.
When the autumn colors line the banks of a lazy trout steam it produces a trout angler’s wonderland. To idly wade in the midst of the color, casting a fly to unsuspecting trout relocates anglers from the busy world they left behind to a peaceful time on the bountiful waters.
The South Holston River is such a place to leave the worries of work behind. It offers wade fishing or float fishing, depending on the generation schedule of the hydroelectric dam. A weir dam below South Holston Dam provides oxygenated water to contribute to the success of the trout population. Add the cold water coming from deep below the dam and one of the best naturally reproducing trout streams on the east coast is created. The consistently cold water temperatures create by the release makes the waters productive for anglers all year long.
When the generators are running it’s time to float fish. There are plenty of outfitters ready to accommodate anglers on a float down the South Holston. Rod Champion, Owner of the South Holston River Fly Shop names May through November as a superior time to float the river. “The Sulphur Mayfly will hatch everyday during that period of time,” says Champion. Scientists report that when the hatch is good it is an indication of clean water, another plus for the fish. Anglers tells us when the hatch is good its time to be fishing. Those little nymphs and flies attract most of the fish in the river and most of the anglers for miles around.
Champion names both soft hackle flyfishing and straight out dry fly fishing as a fun way to spend an afternoon on the river. There’s no better time to fool a few fish than during the hatch. He names the afternoon for a reason. “During the Summer TVA normally runs an afternoon generation schedule,” says Champion. “During that time period the Sulphurs are coming off and that is a mid-day to afternoon event. That is why we do afternoon floats.”
If that sounds too good to be true, wait for the bonus. “I personally like to end the day by throwing streamers to the wild brown trout population. This is like icing on the cake after a good day of dry fly fishing.” Champion describes the takes and battles on the high water as nothing short of spectacular. The interesting part about the browns is that they are wild fish. Tennessee has not stocked brown trout for about 10 years. Those trophy trout that anglers are catching and photographing are from a self-sustaining population, thanks again to the health of this magnificent river. Plenty of fish over 20 inches are caught annually.
Once the generators cease and the water returns to normal the wade fishers get their chance. The cold water requires anglers to use waders, so don’t think about entering the water without them. There are plenty of good guides on the river for the wade fishing too, but you can simply meander into the stream and catch rainbows and browns in the trailwater between the weir dam and the highway below the dam. There is more angling access along the next 14 miles of river before it runs into Boone Lake.
Caution is always advised, but the stream is characterized by a hard rock bottom for fairly easy wading. One thing to be careful of is your entry into the river. Remember, only hours before, the TVA was generating and the shoreline you will use was under water. It can be slippery.
The trout are often spotted feeding on the surface. Dry flies work well for most anglers, but later in the day many switch to streamers. Either will likely give you some action from both rainbows and browns on this magnificent river.
Plenty of trout are also caught from shore, or the footbridge just below the weir. A simple spinning outfit, small hooks, weights and a jar of salmon eggs will do the trick. It is simple fishing at its best. The result can be trout for dinner.
Tennessee regulations require both fresh water fishing license and trout stamp. They are easily obtainable at local sporting goods stores, outfitters, Wal-Mart, or simply go online and purchase it directly from the state wildlife website.
There are numerous other rivers in the area that deserve attention, but one in particular caught my eye. The Nolichucky River is a fast moving body of water, draining the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina and east Tennessee. It is characterized by beautiful whitewater rapids and a name that is said to mean “Rushing Water(s) or Dangerous Water(s). Local guides refer to the more ominous title of “River of Death.”
Anglers should interpret those names to mean caution. A fishing trip down the powerful river will yield plenty of excitement in the rapids and produce some outstanding smallmouth bass fishing in the process. Anglers up to the challenge should plan with the notion in mind that they could end up in the water, so dress appropriately and secure things accordingly. It can be a real adventure.
A light spinning outfit will do just fine for floating the Nolichucky. Anglers armed with worm hooks and plastic bodies work the calm waters below the rapids, the eddy pools and the shoals along the drift to catch trophy smallmouth bass, some exceeding 4 pounds. The Nolichucky provides wild river fishing at its best.
One seasoned Nolichucky angler, Bob Parton, floats the river regularly in a two-man rubber raft. He prefers the raft over other vessels because of its stability in rushing water and the ease with which it goes over the shoals.
Parton’s favorite bait for old bronzeback is a black, 5 inch Senko. He advises anglers to pinch off about an inch and rig it weedless. The healthy profile of the salt impregnated bait allows anglers to cast it further without additional weight. Given the rocky nature of the river the use of weight is likely to result in too many snags, so take Parton’s advice and fish weightless.
Parton uses light line in the 4 to 6 pound test range, which adds casting distance and is virtually invisible to the bass. Make upstream casts with the bulky Senko and let the worm ride naturally in the current until a strike occurs. Slight wrist flicks can add additional action to the lure.
If Parton had his way all his floats would be in August and September. “The river is low, the water warm, and the bass are in the shoals.” He has a distinct love for the river, both for the bass and for its inherent solitude. “Fishing the active water instead of the more popular areas has a certain attraction to me,” says Parton. “First, there is no feeling like having a 2 1/2 pound smallmouth on light tackle using 4 pound line in swift water. Secondly, you are there by yourself, no 42 dozen bass boats and pleasure boats going by you all day long.”
For any traveler tuned in to nature a visit to Johnson City and the surrounding area should be on their bucket list. Go for the foliage, rainbows, brownies or smallies, but go. You won’t be disappointed. An added bonus is the people; they are some of the most friendly, down to earth folks you will find anywhere. If you are fixin’ to hit the highway, this attractive destination is “just down the road a piece.”