Trout Hike – SF Holston (TN)

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Articles on this site are out of date since some go back to 2006. Regulations and property ownership may have changed since publication. It is your responsibility to know and obey all regulations and not trespass on private property.

Do you want to experience the perfect day on an amazing river?  Go sample the South Fork of the Holston in TN.  Wow.  Stunning. Fantastic. Amazing.

I was not kidding in the article teaser.  You do have to kick the trout out of the way to get into the river.

My day (3/3/08) started at 0900 when I pulled up at the South Holston River Fly Fishing Shop to meet Matt Champion who would be my guide and fly fishing mentor for the day.  We had a good chat in the fly shop as we geared up and loaded into his truck.  I explained that I was looking for a “tune up”.  As a new fly guy with only a year of fly experience, I knew that my casting and other fly fishing skills would be a bit rusty after the winter’s break from the passion.  He acknowledged that he was up for the task and we launched into the day.

Our first stop was on public water that was dotted with pulloffs from the road that ran along the river.  Being more used to solitary fishing experiences, I was curious and asked whether this would be a highly pressured location.  Matt replied that you could spend all day on 100 yards or less of water here, not to worry – there were probably 5,000 fish per mile.  Confused, but willing to set aside my disbelief, I watched as he rigged up a small blue wing olive with a midge dropper.  We discussed technique, approach and I began to fish under his watchful eye.  Within minutes, I picked up some nice rainbows. They were all around us.  For the first time in my life, I could appreciate what Custer must have felt like at the Little Big Horn surrounded by 1000s of Souix.  As long as we stepped carefully and blended in, no problems. 

Matt cautioned me against long casts.  “Not needed”, he said “You will catch more close in”.  I could not fathom a trout that was not excessively skittish, that would not dodge at a shadow or a sound.  Seeing my concern and recognizing he was not going to be the back half of the expression, “those who can, do.  those who can’t teach”, he stepped forward and within a cast to two pulled in a nice, fat brown caught within 15 feet of where we were standing.

“Believe your guide” Isn’t that a first principle?  “Do what they tell you to do” is another that follows a close second.  Matt carefully explained what we all know, but quickly forget after a season away from the water.  “You have to work your way out”.  “Start close, add a foot or so and work every part of the water”.  “Move when they slow down, don’t sit in the same spot”.

A key reason Matt took me to the first location was the release of water from the dam.  The Holston dam “generates” electricity on a random schedule that they publish the day before.  When generating, the dam releases a wall of water that can swell to 4 feet.  Yes, the high water mark really is the high water mark and you do not need to wait for a rain to achieve it.  Just wait for the water to roll over you.  The first spot we hit was driven by this calculus.  The dam had generated that morning and Matt’s calibrated brain knew how long it would take that water to reach our first spot, when the second spot would be clear and how to fit lunch in to maximize time on the water.  He also shared a key trick.  When fishing the Holston, mark the top of a rock or other feature far upstream.  Periodically check the water against that mark,  If it starts to move towards the top, you know the surge is headed your way.  Get out and move to another spot far enough upstream where the rush will have barrelled through and the water has returned to the normal, safe level.

After working the basics at this first location, we took a quick break for lunch.  Here I encountered what I hope is a refreshing TN tradition.  Matt pulled up to a grocery/gas station.  I assumed we would go in and grab a few sandwiches so I was pleasantly surprised to see that this small store had a lunch counter.  The homemade meatloaf with mashed potatoes was hot and ready, served with TN style and warmth.  We pulled up a plate and a table as we continued to talk fish, technique and style as I pumped him for information that I would carry into my second year of fly fishing.

When you have a full time, experienced guide at your side for a full day, you would be an idiot not to take advantage of that situation to ask every embarrassing question, the simple ones that really show your basic ignorance.  There is no better fishing confidant than a good guide.  After all, they can smell BS a mile away and, if you try and fake them out, the facade craters with your first halting cast that ends in a confused tangle.  So, set aside ego, lay it out and learn!

Generic map. The fly shop is in Emmett.

After lunch, we moved on.  One of the absolutely great things about the South Holston River Fly Shop guide operation is that they have agreements with local landowners that allow access to private land.  Matt did explain that the TVA owns up to the high water mark- no “Kings Grant” issues here.  But getting to the right water without traversing private property can be sporty.

Anyone with a road atlas can see where the public roads run next to the river.  Chances are there is access off those roads as well as the access points near bridges and in parks.  It’s much easier to leverage the relationship Matt’s operation established over the years.  You don’t waste time.  You go right to the best places.  You catch fish.  Pretty simple. 

Besides, when you drive 7 hours to get here, do you really want to screw around taking random guesses at where to go?

We hit our first private spot after lunch.  The wind had picked up and, with only one good eye, I was having trouble seeing the BWO we were using as the indicator in the surface riffles pushed up by the wind.  The wind was also playing havoc with my newbie cast.

Not a problem.  We loaded back into the truck and moved to another private spot that was in a pitched section of the river protected by high banks that provided plenty of shelter.  Again, we watched the trout scatter away from the bank as we walked up and within several casts started to haul them in as well.  I almost expected Matt to pull out a fish call to get them to return, but it wasn’t necessary.  We had returned to the Little Big Horn.

We spent the entire afternoon on this 50 yard stretch.  We moved across, back, up and down in this section for over 4 hours, never bored, pulling in fish, tuning up my cast and just having a hell of a time.  In addition to fishing the normal spots, Matt had me target some of the very shallow riffles I would have overlooked given my 48 years of spin fishing background.  These turned out to be the exact areas that held the real beasts.  We had a huge monster break off as he blasted downstream in reaction to the hookset. 

At the end of this great day, we ended up back at the fly shop.  Matt provided some advice and flies as well as some other equipment I needed to get myself through the next couple of days I would fish up in Virginia. 

Bottom Line:  I HAVE to get back.  You need to give Matt a call and book your own trip.  At $175 for a full day wade trip, this is the best guide bargain I have ever encountered.  In fact, I told Matt he needs to raise his prices next year.  The value you get for this fee is tremendous.  You can reach the shop at  423.878.2822.

First spot.  Public water, the road runs along the right.  Looking upstream

Looking downstream at the same spot

Sheltered area we hit late in the day.  Downstream

Sheltered area looking upstream.  We worked up.

Area up near the dam that we visited late in the day

Matt ties on the BWO and a midge dropper

Typical rainbow.  Nice!!

Unless stated otherwise, this article was authored by Steve Moore

Disclaimer and Warning:  The contents of this site reflect the opinion of the author and you, the reader, must exercise care in the use and interpretation of this information.  Fishing is a dangerous sport.  You can slip and fall on rocks and sustain severe injury.  You can drown.  You can get hooks caught in your skin, face, eyes or other sensitive places.  All sorts of bad things can happen to you when to go into the woods to visit the places documented here.  Forests, streams and lakes are wild areas and any number of bad things can happen.  You must make your own judgment in terms of acceptable behavior and risk and not rely on anything posted here.  I disclaim all liability and responsibility for any actions you take as a result of reading the articles on this site.  If you do not agree with this, you should not read anything posted on this site.

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