Why East Tennessee Lakes and Rivers Are Perfect for Fly Fishing

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South Holston Lake, Watauga Lake and their respective rivers boast bordering abundant forestry, clean waters, powerful dams and plentiful trout populations – a fly fisher’s paradise.

“It’s not a bad office to have,” says Jason Reep, a seasoned East Tennessee fly-fishing guide. Reep has been giving tours of the rivers for more than 23 years, teaching everything there is to know about catching trout. Fly fishing can be an enigma, but Reep will give you the advice and tools to solve it.

“Trout are very selective about what they eat,” he says. “If you’re fishing with the wrong thing you won’t catch anything. You’re trying to figure out the puzzle – where they are, what they are eating, crafting a fly to imitate exactly what they’re eating. You really have to know what’s going on in order to hook and catch that fish.”

The most popular time to fly fish in East Tennessee rivers is during warmer months, June through September. However, autumn is one of the best times to catch trout.

“Fall is a great time to be up here fishing,” Reep says. “Not only are the fish feeding heavy, the brown trout begin spawning in the fall, causing them to move out in to shallower water, which makes them more accessible at this time of year.”

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Top Fly-Fishing Fisheries in the U.S.

A Tennessee Valley Authority reservoir, the South Holston Lake covers 7,580 acres, and Watauga Lake covers 6,425 acres. Their rivers and dams are known as one of the top fly-fishing fisheries in the nation. South Holston Lake and Watauga Lake are located in East Tennessee, cutting through Hickory Tree and Virginia, surrounded by Cherokee National Forest, which claims 60 percent of South Holston Lake’s shoreline.

“There’s tons of Cherokee forest. Thousands of acres to go hike, and small streams to fish,” Reep says. However, Reep says that most visitors come for the tailwater, or water that comes under the dam.

“The flies you use change all through the year, from summer to spring to fall,” Reep says. “The water comes out from under the dam, where the water is extremely deep and extremely cold.”

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Jason Reep fishes in the Watauga River in Elizabethan, TN.

Perfect for Trout

According to Reep, the water stays cold year round. The base of the dam is about 200 feet deep, and stays somewhere between 48 and 53 degrees no matter the weather.

“That’s what makes the river really great for trout,” he says. “Trout need clean, cold water to survive. It’s always clear unless there’s a flood. It’s also fertile, a lot of bug and insect life in the river.”

The third-cleanest lake in the nation – Watauga Lake – may not seem like an enormous feat to some, but its implications on fly fishing are vast. Millions of Americans fish and participate in other water-related activities each year, and not only is pollution a threat to humans’ safety, but it’s a threat to the safety of ecosystems and the wildlife they sustain. Specifically for fishing, fish can’t be healthy without a clean, natural environment.

While fly fishing is used for a wide variety of species, the type of fish most sought are trout, making South Holston River and Watauga River a favorite spot for trout seekers due to its plentiful rainbow and brown trout populations around the dams.

“It’s some of the best trout fishing in the Southeastern United States,” Reep says.

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Celebrity Getaway

South Holston River and Watauga River are so renowned for their fly-fishing opportunities, they have been visited by high-profile company such as celebrities looking for a private and solitary getaway.

“People come from all over the country to fish here,” Reep says. “Brad Pitt supposedly has a place over by the river, never seen him, but that’s the story.”

If you’re a seasoned fly fisher or looking to start practicing the sport for the first time, South Holston River and Watauga River are the perfect spots. And even if fly fishing is not quite your thing, the area offers plenty of other fishing spots as well as outdoor recreational activities such as boating, water-skiing and camping.

“Fly fishing is a getaway from everyday life,” Reep says. “Wading in the river, water’s flowing by you and you’re just concentrating on what’s going to hook that fish. It takes you away.”

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Top Tennessee Fly-Fishing Sites


Little River, Townsend, TN
More than 800 miles of fishable trout streams in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
littleriveroutfitters.com
[email protected], (865) 448-9459

Abrams Creek, Blount County, TN
Great Smoky Mountains Large stream that receives its water from underground through Cades Cove.
flyfishingsmokymountains.com/acw
[email protected]

Clinch River, Clinton, TN
Medium-stream tailwater trout fishery
facebook.com/ClinchRiverTN

Hiwassee River, Reliance, TN
Eleven-mile scenic tailrace fishery
hiwassee.net

East Tennessee Fly Fishing, Elizabethton, TN
Jason Reep’s guide services for the South Holston and Watauga Lake areas, including shuttles
easttennesseeflyfishing.com
[email protected], (423) 474-4388

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