The South's Magnificent Seven

The South's Magnificent Seven

Everyone knows that the Southeast is bass country. The warm climate and the hundreds of reservoirs that dot the Southeastern US make a weekend boat ride

  • By: Ian Rutter
Everyone knows that the Southeast is bass country. The warm climate and the hundreds of reservoirs that dot the Southeastern US make a weekend boat ride a nice idea-and a live-well full of largemouths almost a certainty. But these same reservoirs also provide fly anglers with an opportunity to catch trophy trout in a region where they would otherwise likely be chasing bass or catfish (not that there's anything wrong with that). The dams that form many of these lakes release cold water from their depths into the rivers below to create tailwater fisheries that benefit fly anglers across the South.In our June issue, we featured the most famous tailwater system in the South-the White River and its tributaries in Arkansas and Missouri. Below, we have highlighted seven more top-notch Southern tailwaters-places that are on par (or even rival) more well-known fisheries across the country. As management techniques improve to nourish these fisheries, the South will continue to rise… . Norris Dam Norris, Tennessee The Clinch is well known for its large population of chunky trout. Fed on a steady diet of midges, scuds and sow bugs, the fish grow at such an alarming rate that it takes a trout over the 16-inch mark to raise any eyebrows. However, while the Clinch has an extremely rich food base, the diversity of aquatic life is limited. In addition, owing to the river's clear water and slow flow, the fish can be maddeningly selective, particularly while feeding on midges. Spring is certainly the best time of year to get on the Clinch. During this time the Tennessee Valley Administration (which operates most of the dams in the region) releases only a small amount of water in order to allow Norris Lake to fill for the summer months. Not only does this produce optimum flows, but it usually coincides with the Sulphur hatch in April and May. Flows pick up by June, but are usually reduced on the weekends. In autumn however, anglers can find themselves in some high flows as the lake is drained down to winter levels. Although most people float the Clinch at zero generation, some shoals can get pretty skinny during periods of minimum flow. This river is a relatively easy float even for novice rowers, but rarely worth fishing with two generators pushing water. With one generator running, fish will often rise to a good hatch of Sulphurs. Nymphing and streamers also are effective with one generator. The Clinch has no closed fishing season. Flows: The only generation level suitable for wading is zero. But once they begin releasing water, you can add a few hours to your day of fishing by driving downstream ahead of the water rise. For instance, once generation begins at Norris Dam, watch for the water to rise about 30 minutes later at Miller's Island and five hours later near Highway 61 in Clinton. After generation ceases, watch for water to become wadable in about 60 minutes at Miller's Island and almost seven hours later at Clinton. Apalachia Dam Reliance, Tennessee The Hiwassee River is located in the rugged southeastern corner of Tennessee, and is within driving distance of Chattanooga, Knoxville and Atlanta. Yet as it flows through the mountainous Cherokee National Forest it displays a distinctly Western quality, with rapids and riffles marking its stretches. Although most of the other tailwaters have access problems, the best sections of the Hiwassee are on public lands. The most popular section of the river is the first two miles downstream of Apalachia Powerhouse. This section has plenty of easy roadside access, but the three-mile-long stretch below this is accessible only by boat or by hiking the John Muir Trail, which follows the river downstream to the small community of Reliance. Access is a bit spottier downstream of Reliance, but several pullouts and picnic areas offer less-crowded openings than the more popular runs upstream. The Hiwassee has a year-round fishing season, with spring and summer comprising the best times. Winter often can be pretty good too, with water levels usually reasonable for both floaters and waders. Fish will eat a variety of nymph patterns, and you can usually expect an afternoon Olive hatch. March, April and May are the high points of the year for dryfly fishing as a mix of Hendricksons, Quill Gordons, Blue-Wing Olives and caddis all begin hatching. By Memorial Day, you can expect a huge "rubber hatch" as rafters, paddlers and tubers descend on the river en masse for the summer. Float fishing can be excellent with hatches of Isonychia, caddis, Sulphurs and terrestrials. High water flows continue through the fall but hatch activity is relatively sparse. Flows: The Hiwassee possesses a wide range of flows that create a variety of fishing scenarios. Wading is easiest with no generation, but water levels can become so shallow and calm that the fishing suffers. Much of the river remains wadable with one generator running (1,100 cfs), and the current stimulates the fish to feed. A few spots remain wadable even with two generators operating (2,200 cfs), but a boat is required to reach most of them. In the spring they run what is known as a "pulsing flow" during which a generator pushes water for one hour out of every four. This creates the superb compromise of having enough water to turn the fish on while at the same time the river remains extremely wadable. This is one of the best times to visit. Guides seem to favor drift boats on the Hiwassee, but inflatables certainly have their place on this rocky river. Expect to put a few dings in your drift boat at the Stair Steps if you're unfamiliar with the lines to negotiate this series of jagged ledges. The upper stretch from the powerhouse to the Towee Creek boat ramp is floatable with one generator, but more water is preferred to drift all the way to Reliance. South Holston Dam Bluff City, Tennessee Just outside of Bristol in northeast Tennessee, the South Holston is perhaps the best dryfly river in the South. Mayflies hatch in profusion regardless of the flow, but even the best anglers will find the clear, shallow, slow-moving water a challenge. Summer floats on the South Holston are simply as good as it gets. Thick Sulphur hatches keep fish rising through the afternoon, and if the hatch is slow, streamer fishing can be excellent. Pound the banks as you drift and be ready for some strong hits. Several sections of the river are closed to fishing from November 1 through January 31 to protect spawning fish, so check the local regulations if you're fishing during this period. However, the fishing is good and open on the rest of the river. Low flows in the winter provide plenty of time to get on the water. Blue-Wing Olives are the predominant hatch, with cold, snowy days providing the best dryfly fishing. Sulphurs begin to hatch in May, with low-water conditions providing the best action in the spring. By June float fishing can be phenomenal as the Sulphur hatches are often extremely thick during periods of generation. Streamers provide the best action on fall floats, and Olive hatches keep things interesting when the water is low. Flows: The South Holston essentially has two water levels, on and off. Zero generation produces a shallow, slow flow (100 cfs). A weir dam about a mile below South Holston Dam slowly drains when the generator is off and maintains a relatively constant flow. Insects continue to hatch regardless of generation. However, expect the fish to be far more selective when the water is low and slow. Although wade fishing is good year round, float trips are best June through September. A Sulphur hatch is almost a given on summer afternoons and the fish eat well when the water is up. Casting streamers at the bank is highly productive for anyone who has the stamina to keep up the rhythm of casting a heavy rod and stripping in line. The South Holston has a few spots that might challenge inexperienced rowers, but should be no problem for a veteran at the oars. Wilbur Dam Elizabethton, Tennessee Located in the wedge of east Tennessee between Virginia and North Carolina, the Watauga is a favorite of anglers from all three states. Even though the highly productive South Holston is only a few miles away, a number of guides prefer to take their clients to the Watauga because its trout are often more willing to take a fly without a second look. Although most trout are less than a foot long, there are enough trout exceeding five pounds to keep anglers optimistic. Dryfly fishing is often the only order of the day, but nymphs are better producers through the winter and early spring. This tailwater has a classic freestone feel in many areas as boulders, cobbles and rock bluffs line the banks. Although there is no closed season on the Watauga, fishing can be slow in the winter. Nymphs are definitely the way to go, but you may find a light hatch of Blue-Wing Olives or midges in a long, slow run that get a few fish rising. Sulphurs and caddis join regular hatches of Olives and midges by May. Excellent dryfly fishing continues through the fall. Flows: The Watauga has some of the best year-round flows for wading or floating. A minimum flow from Wilbur Dam, about 125 cfs, provides the best fishing. This is the only time when the Watauga is safe to wade and also provides good fishing from a boat. Inflatables are preferred on the Watauga since most fishing is done at minimum flow. Hard-bottom boats will hang up frequently in low water but come into their own at high flows. Wolf Creek Dam Burkesville, Kentucky Relatively unknown even 10 years ago, the Cumberland has become one of the best rivers anywhere to target trophy brown trout. In a relatively remote area of south-central Kentucky, the Cumberland River tailwater is far from any notable population centers and requires careful map study to reach. The Cumberland is so large that motorized craft can negotiate it even at minimum flow. The river's size and rich food base grow some huge trout. It's not unusual to see several fish in the 20-inch range rising during May's caddis hatch. However, the river is better fished with a variety of nymphs and streamers. Flows: The Cumberland River drains an immense watershed, so wet years in eastern Kentucky translate to very high flows. Consequentially, anglers take advantage of drought years and their low flows to get on the river as much as they can. If you want to wade on the Cumberland, you must make sure there are no generators running. However, generators rarely remain off longer than 10 or 12 hours at a time. Locals use johnboats and jet boats to fish the Cumberland and cover vast stretches of water in a single day. The usual drill is to motor upstream to a favorite shoal and wade fish there until the water begins to rise. They then drift back downstream with the rising river to the takeout. Blue Ridge Dam Blue Ridge, Georgia The Toccoa River is probably better known to some people as the Ocoee River. That's its name in Tennessee as it roars down a steep gorge that draws a devoted crowd of serious whitewater paddlers. Upstream in northern Georgia the river has a milder manner and is kept cold by releases from Blue Ridge Dam. Long overshadowed by the Chattahoochee, the Toccoa has been an obscure trout fishery for years. Recently TVA has implemented a new regime of minimum flows that have done wonders for the fishery. Rainbow and brown fingerlings are stocked in the Toccoa every year, but some anglers believe there is also natural reproduction in the river. Caddis are among the most plentiful bugs on the river, but are just one of many you might see hatching on any day of the year. Flows: The river certainly fishes best at its minimum flow, about 130 cfs. Wading is not possible when the turbines are generating water at the base of Blue Ridge Dam. Floating is also best when the river is low. Although drift boats provide the best fishing platform, their use is limited on the upper sections of the river where getting a trailered boat on the water is difficult at best. Anyone starting from Blue Ridge Dam will need a craft that can be carried to the water. Nantahala Dam Wesser, North Carolina Flowing amid a number of truly wonderful freestone streams that drain the Great Smoky Mountains in southwest North Carolina, the Nantahala tailwater is nonetheless overlooked by many anglers. Locally known as the Big Nantahala, natives differentiate the tailwater from the headwaters and the stretch of water between Nantahala Lake and Nantahala Powerhouse. Far more whitewater paddlers than fly fishermen utilize the Nanty. However, the river is devoid of paddlers when the powerhouse isn't pushing water. The Nantahala has excellent roadside access and is essentially limited to wading. The river is still wadable in many places even when it is running high. Don't let paddlers deter you from fishing; the fish pay them no mind. Heavily stocked with rainbows, brookies and browns, the Nantahala also supports an excellent wild rainbow and brown trout fishery. Closed in March, the river has superb hatches in April, but is rarely crowded. Anglers shouldn't neglect the smaller freestone section of the river. Although heavily stocked, it receives very little pressure. The best fishing is in the evening after the crowds have cleared. Autumn is a superb time on the water with fewer boats to contend with through the day. Flows: The Nantahala has two levels: on and off. Paddlers dominate the scene when the water is high, but are usually off the water by 5 pm when generation is cut. Early risers can also get some fishing in during the morning as the releases often won't start until 9 am and the water takes a while to move downstream. Very few anglers float the Nantahala, but those who do use a raft with a rowing frame. Only experienced rowers should take on this class III river. You can check scheduled releases at www.nantahalapower.com/nantahala/lakes/schedules/. The Southern Fly Box As on any tailwater, your best bets most of the year will be nymphs such as scuds, Sow Bugs and Brassies, but these rivers also support quality dryfly fishing. You almost can't go wrong with caddis patterns, midges and Blue-Wing Olives on any of these rivers, and terrestrial patterns such as hoppers and beetles are good bets during the summer months. You'll want to check with local fly shops to get the skinny on any hatches and patterns specific to the river you're fishing. And as on any other river, streamers are your best bet to draw out the big boys. Dam Release Info Release information for all the tailwaters listed above (except for the Nantahala) can be found by visiting TVA's Web site: www.tva.com/river/lakeinfo/index.htm. You can also call TVA's lake and river information line at 800-238-2264. To check the release schedule for the Nantahala River visit www.nantahalapower.com/nantahala/lakes/schedules/.