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Tug is the Drug

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 Fork Holston River.

Monsters lurk below the surface of the South Fork 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 Fork 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 Fork 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.”

Shannon O'Quinn

TVA Water Resources specialist Shannon O'Quinn displays a beautiful 16-inch rainbow trout he caught—and safely released—on the South Fork 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 the South Holston Dam. O'Quinn explains why the cold clear water from South Holston Reservoir 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 Fork Holston River are no accident. The TWRA carefully monitors the South Fork 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 nearly 20 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 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 Tennessee Fishing Guide for the special regulations for the South Fork 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 Fork 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 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 o'clock 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 tailwater below dams 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, North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and Georgia Wildlife Resources Division. (The tailwater below some dams, such as Chatuge, are naturally blessed with wild trout.) Here’s what species you’ll find stocked, where and when:

TailwaterBelowSpecies StockedStocking Schedule
Elk RiverTims Ford Damrainbow trout
brown trout
March through November
Duck RiverNormandy Damrainbow trout
brown trout
March through June,
November through December
Hiwassee RiverApalachia Damrainbow trout
brown trout
January through December
Ocoee RiverOcoee Dam #1/ Parksville  rainbow troutMarch and April
Clinch RiverNorris Damrainbow trout
brown trout
brook trout
March through September
South Fork Holston River  South Holston Damrainbow trout
brown trout
March through September
Watauga RiverWilbur Damrainbow trout
brown trout
brook trout
March through September
Wilbur ReservoirWatauga Damrainbow troutFebruary through May
Holston RiverCherokee Damrainbow trout
brown trout
November through April
South Holston RiverFort Patrick Henry Damrainbow trout
brown trout
March and April
Toccoa RiverBlue Ridge Damrainbow trout
brown trout
brook trout 
January through December



It’s always a good time for fun on the Tennessee Valley’s lands and waters. Not sure where to start? We have you covered! Check out some of the best recreational activities on our reservoirs. While you’re enjoying the lakes, trails, picnic areas and campgrounds, share your own stories and photos on Instagram using #TVAfun.

River Neighbors Newsletter

Get the all the latest news and inside information about recreation on TVA public lands and lakes.

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.

Tennessee Fishing Guide

WARNING! Water release schedules can change without notice due to unanticipated weather changes or power system requirements. Large amounts of water could be discharged at any time. Use caution! Obey all posted safety regulations and precautions! Vital safety information.