South Holston River Fly Shop
When I read the Garden & Gun article about the South Holston River in Tennessee titled, The Other Montana, it piqued my interest, but when my friend and editor of Gray’s Sporting Journal, Russ Lumpkin, called me and raved about a six-hour float (a full-day float cut short by bad weather) where he and a friend caught around 100 fish that were mostly wild brown trout, and all caught on dry fly, that’s when I knew that it must truly be special.
Could fishing on the South Holston and Watauga Rivers really be this good? I have heard rumblings of great fishing on northeast Tennessee tailwaters for years, but the recent accolades from more notable names and titles are really starting to speak volumes. So, I recently spoke to South Holston River Fly Shop guide Josh McFadden to get to the heart of what makes these tailwater fisheries so distinct. – Seth Fields, Editor
People talk about the South Holston and Watauga Rivers in regard to their great hatches. Do you guide on both? What is the difference in the fishing between these two rivers, and could you talk a little about the hatches?
Yes, we do. The Holston has a relatively low grade; this, coupled with very cold flows results in good habitat for sulfur hatches; which we pretty much have here on a daily basis for half of the year.
Water comes out of the South Holston Lake at a consistent 48 degrees year round. The lake is absurdly deep, and it gives us that cold water that is ideal for these sulfurs to hatch. Most places only have sulfurs for a couple of weeks; we get them for six months. There are also some really epic spinner falls that take place during low water in the late evening about 30 minutes before dark. If you can time it right, and you’ve never experienced a big spinner fall like that, it can be pretty tremendous.
The Watauga is kind of the sister river to the system. It actually starts as a headwater in North Carolina and flows into Watauga Lake, then just below the lake is the Wilbur Reservoir and then we fish the section of the Watauga that’s beneath that reservoir.
Generally, the Watauga is more freestone in nature and in the way that it’s laid out. It’s really a great spring fishery, with big caddis hatches that start around April every year, including large Grannom caddis for a few weeks; then come the tan, cinnamon, and black caddis hatches, followed by mayflies coming off the first few weeks of June. There are also some sulfurs after that, but that’s really it for hatches; until summer rolls around, it becomes more of a terrestrial fishery.
Like many tailwaters, brown trout thrive in the South Holston, but they are particularly prolific here, right? Are there studies that suggest how many fish there are per mile?
All of our brown trout were born here. There hasn’t been a single stocked brown trout here in over 25 years, and they make up 80 percent of the overall trout population. We’ve heard different numbers over the years, as it often varies, but the highest population numbers we have heard in recent years was around 12,000 trout per mile.
It’s a whole bunch of fish, and the water is super clear most days. There are areas of the river where you are sight-casting to fish, and you have to present your flies in a way where the fish can’t see you. If you get buck fever at all, it can be a problem, because it’s almost like a play-by-play. He’s coming off the bottom. Here he comes. He’s heading toward your fly. He’s almost there. He’s opening his mouth! It’s really exciting.
As a tailwater within the TVA network, I assume that flows and fishing can vary. Can people usually plan trips in advance or is a lot of the fishing at the mercy of release schedules?
We have a pretty good idea the night before (laughs). But seriously, they usually project the CFS for our rivers a couple days in advance, and beyond that, we usually have a good idea of what can be expected due to general weather patterns and conditions.
We sort of live and die by the generation schedule, but, based on what we’re presented, we can always make a decision for the day and still plan on being successful. Some days, that means going over to the Watauga, and staying over there all day, or fishing somewhere low water in the early morning or fishing high water in the evening. Whatever the conditions are, we can accommodate.
Where is the shop located, and could you talk about the logistics for out-of-state clients? Are their local accommodations and dining options?
The shop is in Bristol, Tennessee, just a third of a mile from the weir dam on the South Holston River. The shop was started by father and son, Rod and Matt Champion, and I’ve been with them almost since the beginning.
As far as flights, lots of people will fly into Knoxville or into Tri-Cities Regional Airport. There are also all sorts of accommodations. We’re covered up with places to stay; there are places on the river, there are cabins, hotels, tons of VRBO type rentals, and some hotels nearby. It really depends on the type of experience that people want. We can always help point people in the direction of good places to stay and eat.
To learn more about the South Holston River Fly Shop and their services, go to http://southholstonriverflyshop.com/index.html.