When I mention The South to most folks, the first thing that comes out of their mouth is, "Where's the best barbecue and sweet tea?" Although we have some great places to eat, drink and throw down, the Southern hospitality goes way beyond that. Now, y'all might be thinking to yourself, "What’s a damn Yankee doing writing about the South and its trout streams?” I did not grow up south of the Mason-Dixon Line. However, I have been laying roots in the Southeast for the past 15 years and it is where I call home. My family and friends live there and it's where I spend a good amount of my time guiding.
You may not have heard about or ever thought there could be year-round, wild trout fishing in the South, but the South Holston (SoHo) is definitely not a secret. Located in Sullivan County, Tennessee, it's right in the heart of Appalachia. This tailwater is probably best known for its blanket sulphur hatches, which I have seen starting as early as February and continuing until November. You may be thinking to yourself, "This dude is crazy!” Yeah, I thought the same thing until I experienced it firsthand. Remember, bugs do not live by calendars or hatch charts. The SoHo is also home to 7,000-10,000 trout per mile in the upper portion of river and 4,000-7,000 in the lower.
As fall rolls around, most trout stream angling starts to wind down, hopefully from what was a very busy, productive spring and summer. Here in the South, fall is a welcomed relief as it brings an end to those hot, humid days of summer. The temperatures begin to drop causing the trees of the Smoky Mountains to display their beautiful fall foliage. This time of year also provides a great opportunity for anglers to catch some of the SoHo’s biggest brown trout. As we move into November, the cooler weather really gets them on the move, for what most consider one of the best bites of the year.
As winter starts to set in, many anglers change their focus to steelhead fishing or traveling to exotic places. Since the SoHo is a tailwater, we lose very few fishing days due to cold weather. In addition, since there are virtually no tributaries in the upper 3 to 4 miles of the river, there is always clear, fishable water which stays between 43-52 degrees Fahrenheit all year long. The steady supply of stable water temps, combined with an abundance of aquatic insects, allows these fish to feed 365 days of the year and grow big.
The beauty of the SoHo in the fall and winter is that you can fish many different tactics: streamers, nymphs, dries, dry-droppers and wet flies. That being said, the SoHo is no cakewalk. The fish here do see a fair amount of angling pressure. Therefore, light tippet (5-6X) and long leaders are your best bet for the big, smart trout that inhabit this river. The bite can be very light and difficult to detect. Yarn indicators are very helpful in this case, as they are more sensitive than the plastic bobbers are.
Probably the hardest thing for anglers to get used to is the ever-changing dam release schedule. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) completed construction of the South Holston dam in 1947 for flood control and hydroelectricity. As the demand for electricity fluctuates, the TVA adjusts their water release schedule on a daily basis, and sometimes hourly. The flow can go from 90 CFS on no generation, where virtually the entire river is wadeable, to 2,300 CFS at full generation, where a drift boat is necessary to safely fish. It is important to look at the daily schedule! The schedule can be found on the TVA’s website or through the TVA mobile app, and it shows the hourly release schedule for that given day. The next day's projected schedule is posted at 6 pm each evening. There are also two closed sections on the South Holston to protect the spawning redds, from November 1st to February 1st. Make sure you check the local regulations and be mindful of where you are walking.
Get out on that next adventure and explore some new water! Who knows, you might find some good eats and fine southern living.
My two South Holston Perfect Setups are as follows:
Dry fly set up: Sage MOD 9 ft 4 wt, SPECTRUM LT reel, RIO Gold, 12 ft 5-6X leader and 5-6X flourocarbon tippet. For flies, either a Sulphur or Blue Wing Olive comparadun or cripple, serving as both a dry fly and indicator, and a midge or small mayfly nymph.
Nymph set up: 10 ft 4 or 5 wt Sage X, SPECTRUM LT reel, RIO Xtreme Indicator line and 9 ft 5-6X leader with 5-6X flourocarbon tippet. High water is good for heavy nymph rigs, so most folks use bottom-bounce rigs where the weight is on the bottom of the leader and the nymphs are suspended above. In low water, I will typically use weighted nymphs with yarn indicators.