The Tug Is the Drug

Winter, spring, summer or fall, any angler will tell you that there is nothing like the adrenaline rush of “fish on.” The Tennessee Valley is home to many world-class trout fisheries, chief among them the South Holston River.

Monsters lurk below the surface of the South Holston River. Monsters that rival those of Arkansas's White River, New Mexico's San Juan River and Montana's Big Hole River. These monsters are ready to do battle—whether you’re nymphing, dry casting or drift fishing. The South Holston River near Bristol, Tenn., has #TVAFun waiting for you behind every rock.

“If you know how to hook them, the upper section of the South Holston holds some of the best brown trout in the eastern United States,” says Shannon O'Quinn, TVA Water Resources specialist and an avid trout angler. “This is truly a world-class fishery; people come from all over the U.S. to cast in these waters.”

TVA Water Resources specialist Shannon O'Quinn displays a beautiful 16-inch rainbow trout he caught—and safely released—on the South Holston River.

O'Quinn runs down the reasons: the food sources, the spawning habitat, the oxygen levels (thanks in part to the distinctive weir pictured at the top of the page), the water temperature—and the all-important flow. The river’s water flow is regulated by TVA in the management of its South Holston Dam. O'Quinn explains why the cold clear water from South Holston Lake makes the river a great fishery for trout: “TVA goes out of its way to support the trout population and the fishermen during the summer months. We cater to the fishing community, especially on the weekends, going 4 or 6 hours between generation.”

But even when TVA is generating power, you can still fish, O'Quinn says: “When we are generating power at South Holston Dam, the water runs deep and fast in the river channel, so wading may be a bit dangerous. But it’s the perfect time to fish from a raft or drift boat.”

TVA posts the daily South Holston Dam operating schedule at its website. For safety—especially if you're wading—O'Quinn recommends anglers check it before going on the river. (You can also download TVA’s Lake Info app and keep the schedule handy on your phone.)

Taking Stock

According to Bart Carter, Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) Region 4 fisheries coordinator, the trout in the South Holston are no accident. The TWRA carefully monitors the South Holston River to ensure the fishery maintains its renowned status, and stocks the river accordingly. “We have a fishery here in the Valley that rivals any other trout river in the U.S.,” he says. “We have been closely monitoring the fishery for the past 17 years."

Believe the hype: The South Holston is stocked with about 47,000 rainbow trout March through September. The numerous brown trout—though not native—are wild and plentiful, O'Quinn notes. During the months of May and June, when the mayflies known as sulfurs are out, the trout run hot.

You’ll want to get into the action, but know the rules before casting lines into any Tennessee waterway, suggests Carter. Anglers should check the 2017 Tennessee Fishing Guide for the special regulations for the South Holston River. Remember that TWRA strictly enforces the state’s fishing regulations, which include license requirements, fishery closures and size requirements.

“There are plenty of opportunities for anglers on the South Holston to catch large brown trout,” Carter says. “Some browns grow up to 25 inches and in excess of 10 pounds.”

O'Quinn has seen them get larger. “I know plenty of fishermen who are only impressed when you're talking about a 30-inch fish,” he says. “Then they'd say, 'Yeah, that's a pretty good catch.'”

There are fisheries below 11 other TVA dams, each of which is also stocked with trout (see the chart, Where the Trout Are, below). Another—Chatuge Dam—is renowned for its population of wild trout.

Get out on the water. Cast a fly. Face the monsters for yourself. And see for yourself what it is to let the tug be your drug.

8 Tips for Trout Fishing

Here are our top tips for trout fishing newbies.

  • Try on an outfitter. If you’re new to the sport, consider working with an outfitter—they’ll know the river and the rules, and will be able to also outfit you with rod, reel, flies and waders.
  • Match the hatch. When you’re looking for the right fly to tie, aim to match the bugs on the river at the moment. Turn over rocks and check out the larvae for clues.
  • Take it slow. Trout are highly intelligent, and they spook easily. Move quietly into the river so that they don’t see you coming and hightail it.
  • Wear the waders. Trout fishing happens in cold water, and hypothermia is a danger. Keep yourself covered up to the waist, and wear thin layers underneath to keep warm.
  • Cast a long shadow. Your best bets for active, biting trout are sunrise and sunset, so be willing to get started early and/or stay late.
  • Maintain elbowroom. Allow for plenty of distance between you and the next angler over—ideally 60 to 90 feet. Know that a single cast will easily range 25 to 30 feet.
  • Wear protective eyewear. The signature back-and-forth, 10-and-2 casting style of trout fishing increases the chances of having a hook make contact with your eyes, so keep them covered.
  • Be a kind catcher. If you’re fishing for sport (not for food), use barbless hooks. Keep a pair of forceps handy to pull the hook from the fish quickly and painlessly. Photograph and release.

Where the Trout Are

The tailwaters below dams operated by TVA for hydropower and flood control are too cold to provide a habitat for many native species. But they’re ideal for trout, which is why they’re stocked by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the state agencies such as Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. (The tailwaters below some dams, such as Chatuge, are naturally blessed with wild trout.) Here’s what species you’ll find stocked, where and when:

Tailwater Below Species Stocked Stocking Schedule
Elk River Tims Ford Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
March through November
Duck River Normandy Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
March through June,
November through December
Hiwassee River Apalachia Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
January through December
Ocoee River Ocoee Dam #1/ Parksville   rainbow trout March and April
Clinch River Norris Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
brook trout
March through September
South Holston River   South Holston Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
March through September
Watauga River Wilbur Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
brook trout
March through September
Wilbur Reservoir Watauga Dam rainbow trout February through May
Holston River Cherokee Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
November through April
South Holston River Fort Patrick Henry Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
March and April
Hiawassee River Apalachia Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
brook trout
Taccoa River Blue Ridge Dam rainbow trout
brown trout
brook trout 
January through December


Summer has come and gone, but you can always have a great time on the Tennessee Valley's lands and waters! Not sure where to start? We have you covered! Check out some of the best recreation activities on our reservoirs. While you’re enjoying the lakes, trails, picnic areas and campgrounds, share your adventures using #TVAfun on social media.

More on Trout Fishing

Get even more tips and tricks about how to fish safely from TVA's experts on our Trout Fishing the TVA Tailwaters Page.