American Fly Fishing

Dam Good Southern Tailwater
By Bill R. Chiles

Big spots, coal black and crimson red, splattered over a honey-golden flank, glowing through diamond water. Fall’s confetti flickering in a chilly breeze, ceremoniously adorning a parading drift boat in nature’s celebration of trout. Tiny sails floating in the current, disappearing in swirls. Silence punctuated by the gasps of near misses and the chuckles of an old friend. Fly fishing is filled with moments. If those moments are rich enough, they are stored in a catalogue of memories forever held in the consciousness of the participants, rewarding them for decades with comfort. A story takes form.
   I met Ronnie Hodge more than two decades ago. He was the minister of a small-town Baptist church; I was a new physician eager to practice my craft. We both had ambitions to change the world; we both learned that lofty ambitions come at a price. The inevitable stresses of the world plagued us both. Together we learned that fly fishing was better therapy than the latest designer pharmaceutical or any psychotherapy. Fly fishing did not enrich our lives; it saved them.
   There are few wild trout streams in the western Carolinas that we have not explored to some extent, particularly small mountain headwater streams. Indeed, for us, wild trout became synonymous with tiny, high-gradient trickles draining the Blue Ridge. Sure, we explored fisheries beyond our home, including some big freestones in the American West. However, by the time all those Southeastern headwaters converge to form big rivers in the valleys, it’s time to pack up the 3-weights and dry flies and break out the 7-weights and bass poppers. Or so we thought.
   Dams have changed everything. Though many curse them, and though they have detrimentally disrupted fish movements in some fisheries, no one can deny the magic they have created: tailwater trout fisheries. Ice-cold water, drawn from the depths of a reservoir, can feed a river and prevent trout-unfriendly high temperatures in the sweltering heat of the Southern summer. I had heard of the fabulous fishing in Southeastern tailwaters, but, undeterred by little details like facts, I had resisted any exploration of them. I needed a nudge, in the form of an invitation.
   “We would love to have you come up and check out the Watauga,” said Brownie Liles, who heads up an elite group of fly-fishing guides for Watauga River Lodge. “I think you’ll be pleased. October should be perfect; the big browns will be moving.”
   Big browns? Brownie Liles? No fly fisher in his right mind could refuse such an offer. So I agreed, and Liles assured me that he would hook me up with a top-notch guide. Knockout fishing action was a virtual guarantee. And with the company of a good fly-fishing buddy tagging along, another fly-fishing memory began to form.


Once Upon a Time
The Watauga is rich in history. One of America’s first folk heroes, Daniel Boone, is closely connected to the area. As a wild game trapper, Boone blazed a path from settled areas in the eastern valleys of Virginia through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. He became a legend for his frontier exploits, both real and myth. Some believe that Boone carved on a beech tree along the banks of Boones Creek, a Watauga River tributary, the inscription “D. BOON CILLED A BAR ON THIS TREE IN THE YEAR 1760.”
   Boone was also known for his adventures with Native Americans, such as the Cherokee and Shawnee. He fought the Cherokee in the Anglo-Cherokee War and was twice captured. Despite this, however, Boone held a deep admiration for Native Americans, perhaps fostered by their mutual respect for the wilderness. This mutual respect proved valuable for Boone, as he was instrumental in brokering a
peace treaty. 
   The Watauga was central to the lives of the Cherokee, who built numerous settlements along its length, including one bearing the same name near present-day Elizabethton, Tennessee. The river was, of course, a resource for basic needs such as food and transportation, but it was also revered by the Cherokee for its stunning beauty. Some believe its very name to be derived from the Cherokee word watagi, which is translated as “beautiful water.” It is beautiful indeed.
   In the 1930s, the country plunged into the Great Depression. Poverty ruled in the South. Communities were isolated and lacked electricity. Poor farming practices and erosion left the countryside devastated. Franklin Roosevelt, eager to make good on his promise of a New Deal, signed into law in 1933 the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Act. The TVA’s mission was to manage the region’s natural resources and create low-cost electricity. Dams were constructed throughout the region, controlling floods and producing hydroelectric power. And, inadvertently, the TVA created some fabulous trout streams.
   Soon after the Watauga crosses into Tennessee, it is impounded by Watauga Dam and, after a short distance, by Wilbur Dam. The water released from Wilbur Dam comes cool and clear from the lake bottom, transforming the Watauga from a warm-water fishery into a 20-mile trout paradise.


The Fishery
Ronnie Hodge and I pulled into Watauga River Lodge well after sunset. Despite the darkness, the beauty of the lodge was evident. Three log structures, one constructed in 1861 and subsequently remodeled, provide guests with a taste of the region’s historic past, but with the finest of modern amenities. Even the anticipation of a day on the water could not deter us from a night of deep sleep. Pillow-top mattresses, crisp white sheets, and the fragrance of pine have that effect.
   After pouring my first cup of morning coffee, I layered in fleece to ward off the October morning chill. Stepping onto the front porch, I gasped at the sight before me: a ribbon of emerald water cutting a deep gash in the eastern Tennessee bedrock. Watauga River Lodge sits on a lovely bend of the Watauga River, smack in the middle of a stretch of water that the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) has designated as a “Quality Zone.” This was shaping up to be something special.
   As if on cue, Travis France pulled up to greet us. France, an eastern Tennessee native, has been fishing state waters for more than three decades. Like many fishing guides, he pursued a life in the mainstream world, as a land surveyor. But a fly-fishing passion burned deep in his soul, and for the past 14 years he has made his living helping others feel the joy of a fine trout on a fly. Liles had promised me, after all, that he would hook me up with one of the best.
   “All right, guys, let’s go catch some trout,” France drawled, exuding the confidence that a first-timer like myself loves to hear. Moments later we were launching his boat below Wilbur Dam. Ronnie and I immediately noticed that the river was roaring, well over the high-water mark.
   “I think he’s worried,” Ronnie whispered. “He thinks the water might be too high.”
   France quickly studied the situation. Like a surgeon securing his sutures, he began lengthening leaders, adding tiny midge patterns, and crimping weight on the fine strands of monofilament. And with the demeanor of someone who feels he is guiding a pair of competent fly fishers, he gave the order: “OK, guys, get your flies in the water.”
   Ronnie promptly lobbed a beautiful open loop, so appropriate for his multi-fly, split-shot-laden rig. I promptly threw a tail-loop, split-shot, rod-wrapping disaster. France, the consummate fly-fishing guide, immediately came to my rescue. But just as he reached for my monofilament bird’s nest, Ronnie whooped, “Fish!”
   Spinning around, France saw a deep bend in Ronnie’s rod. He promptly abandoned me for the net. A few moments later, Ronnie and France were admiring the first fish of the day, a lovely rainbow. Of course I was happy for my friend. But I was also eager to get in on the action. I frantically struggled to untangle my mess. France again came to my rescue. Ronnie lobbed another nice cast. France pondered cutting my hopeless-looking puzzle and starting over. Ronnie again barked, “Fish!”
   Ronnie was experiencing what many fly fishers have already discovered: the Watauga River tailwater is fly-fishing nirvana.
   The upper river is generally considered to be the water from Wilbur Dam to the outskirts of Elizabethton. This stretch flows through Cherokee National Forest. The scenery is spectacular, with the water wearing deep cuts in the bedrock, leaving sheer cliffs flanked by southern Appalachian deciduous oak forest. The TWRA continues to stock fish here, although evidence suggests that natural reproduction is robust, particularly in the brown trout population.
   The Watauga then takes a path right through the middle of Elizabethton, where it is commonly known as the middle river. One might assume the fishing quality would suffer in this less pristine setting. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The river gains nutrients from farmland runoff, bolstering bug life. Hatches are solid, as is the fish population. A couple of notable parks here offer anglers access: Riverside Park and Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park. Much of the middle river, however, flows through private property. The best way to experience the river here is by boat.
   The lower river begins at the Blevins Bend Public Access and ends in Boone Lake. Included in this stretch is a 2.6-mile section from the Smalling Road bridge to the CSX Railroad bridge that the TWRA has designated a Quality Zone. Anglers commonly refer to this as the trophy section. The TWRA enforces special fishing regulations here. Only artificial lures or flies are allowed, only two trout can be harvested, and there is a 14-inch-minimum size limit on harvested trout.
   Although there are options for wading anglers, the Watauga is probably fished more effectively from a boat. Wading anglers need two bits of critical information: legal access sites and dam release schedules. The Watauga River Map and Fly Fishing Guide by Fishwater Maps ( is a must. The TVA Water Release info line is (800) 238-2264 + 4 + 42. The TVA reserves the right to change water releases at any time without public notice to meet emergency energy demands. Wading anglers must always stay alert to rising water.


Fish Food to Know
As a tailwater, the Watauga is truly a year-round fishery. That said, spring and fall offer the best overall conditions. Spring hatches can be outstanding. Indeed, fly fishers from around the region, including devotees of other regional tailwaters, love to test their hatch-matching skills on the Watauga as the bugs begin to come to life in March and April. 

   The Black Caddis emergence might be the main event of spring. This dark caddisfly species is large, size 12 to 10. These meaty morsels move trout to the surface, even the biggest browns. Watauga regulars prefer a big Elk Hair Caddis to imitate the adults. While drag-free drifts are the common mantra of fly fishing, egg-laying female caddisflies struggle to break through the meniscus. An Elk Hair fished with a bit of twitch often draws takes. It is vital to realize that emerging caddisflies rise to the surface on an air bubble. Slashing rises can be a sign that fish are targeting the emergers. Consider fishing a Caddis Sparkle Emerger as a dropper behind an adult pattern. Also consider swinging a LaFontaine Sparkle Pupa to imitate an emerging caddisfly swimming to the surface.
   Another spring hatch of major significance is the Sulphurs. They can appear on any day of the year, but are a virtual certainty in spring. Imitate duns with yellow-bodied Comparaduns tied with wings of CDC or elk hair in sizes 16 and 18. Parachute-style flies also work well. Yellow Soft Hackles make serviceable emerger imitations. Stay alert to other classic Eastern spring hatches as well. The Watauga hosts significant populations of Hendricksons, March Browns, and Quill Gordons.
   Terrestrials are often relegated to the final paragraph of fly-fishing articles. The forests of the southern Appalachian Mountains, however, have one of the most diverse insect populations in the world. More than 100 species of beetles alone have been identified. Stay alert to the tiny critters around you. And forget the notion that terrestrials are only for summer. They can be found in abundance in all but the coldest months. Terrestrial patterns make great searching flies for opportunistic feeders. They also make a great platform for fishing droppers.
   Fall is a great time to be on the Watauga. Blue-Winged Olives are the classic autumn hatch, and the Watauga is loaded with them. Trout seem to love these tiny morsels and will spend hours sipping them from the surface, giving fly fishers ample opportunities to make an adequate presentation.
   It is impossible to discuss hatches on the Watauga without discussing midges. Quite simply, midges are everywhere all of the time. Midges are to trout as bread is to humans; they are an always-present staple. This is especially true of the underwater midge life cycle. Check out the fly boxes of a Watauga River regular and you’ll likely find a variety of midge pupa patterns, often in every conceivable color with all manner of secret trimmings. Indeed, when I queried Travis France about his favorite Watauga fly, he responded without hesitation, “BHT [Bead-Hook-Thread] Midge.” No multi-fly nymph rig should be without a midge pupa pattern.
   The Watauga is gaining a reputation for its massive browns. It is therefore prudent to bring a box of streamers. Browns begin their spawning ritual in the fall and continue through the winter. They become very aggressive during these periods and will often attack a big streamer.


Finally, a Fish
Self-deprecation aside, I managed to catch a trout—a lot of trout, actually. In fact, it was a glorious day of fast action, neither Ronnie nor myself going more than five minutes without a hookup. We experienced fabulous action on nymphs in the morning, and by afternoon trout were gobbling our foam beetles. Such is the potential on the Watauga, even under suboptimal conditions. For regional fly fishers, the Watauga is a must. And for Westerners or New England folks who think a Southern destination fly-fishing trip is a waste of time, think again.
   As we neared our takeout, France pointed to a high-probability seam. It was the subtle sort of holding water that you know only from many hours exploring a fishery. “All right, boys, this one holds some nice fish,” he told us. “Get your flies in there.”
   Ronnie rolled yet another perfect cast, rewarded by a near-instant take. I attempted an open-loop roll cast, caught my line on the anchor rope, and wrapped my split shot around it far too many times to even contemplate unraveling. France gave me a look that said, “Dude, your day is done.”
   He then turned to help Ronnie end his day the way it began—landing another lovely rainbow. We laughed at my buffoonery. It was another moment in the memory catalogue.


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