July and August, in recent years past, have found Greg Safford and Judson Walls on an annual pilgrimage to Almont Colorado and our dear friend, John Bocchino. However, bowing to more recent economic challenges, Greg and I opted for less distant, and less expensive, waters in northeast Tennessee—The Watauga and the South Holston Rivers. Both fed by bottom-release, power-generating dams, these two rivers promised a respite from the high temperatures and low water conditions we’ve experienced in the east for the past several months. With justified expectations of plentiful and large fish, Greg and I put a great deal of planning into this trip. Consulting maps, researching and tying flies, and booking hotels were all done well in advance as required by two people who feel lucky to find time to breath.
The trip down I-81 was smooth and a reasonable 4.5 hours. Patrick, our contact at Bristol VA’s Mountain Sports (an authorized Orvis Dealer), was extremely pleasant and recognized two “combat fisherman” who wanted to get on the water as quickly as possible. Annotating our maps with Patrick’s detailed directions and appropriate warnings (more to follow), Greg and I were on the South Hoston by 2 pm.
We worked this lovely section of the Holston hard—Getting our new river legs accustomed to the stream bed, identifying the likely holding spots, and tying on a variety of dry fly indicators over double nymph combinations. However, by 5 pm and with no fish landed, we found ourselves in the middle of the river experiencing a sudden increase in water noise, flow, and depth–The water flows from the power generation dam (Patrick, at the fly shop, warned high flows would arrive 4 hours after the start of power generation) had arrived. We were wading in waist-deep water that was getting deeper quickly. The water flows and levels were comparable to high water conditions we experienced in Colorado, and only the use of wading staffs (that we CARRY ON EVERY STREAM since our trips out west) allowed us to reach the bank we wanted, instead of being carried to banks much further downstream. We realized we must take the generation warnings, and schedules, seriously.
Knowing it would be 8 PM before the generation was complete, we opted to tour the banks of the Watauga just to plan our next day’s adventure. The Watauga, also a wonderful looking river, was flowing deep and fast as well, so we waited until the generation was finished and spent the final hours of daylight just below the dam of the South Holston. Again, no fish, but follows and strikes, so we felt we might be learning what interested the trout.
Day two found us on the South Hoston early. While I did manage to catch two nice ( not photo worthy) trout, it wasn’t until after amost unwelcomed/unplanned swim in 44 degree water. Failing to stop my own version of the “River Dance” resulted in being neck deep in waist deep water, doing the backstroke to regain my footing. Around noon, and in response to my call of “fish on” for number two, Greg demonstrated his own interpretation of “River Dance” and the backstroke, and found himself swimming neck deep in waist deep water. While both of us always prepare for such swims with changes of clothes, we prefer these preparations to be wasted efforts. Nothing wasted this trip!
We were again chased off the South Hoston by the expected rising waters, and shifted to the Watauga that promised 4 more hours of fishing in the day. Greg’s dashboard looked like an Orvis Fly Shop display as he dried the several boxes of flies soaked by his swim in the South Holston.
The Watauga is an equally large “trouty” river. Patrick, at Mountain Sports, recommended a section, below a stretch of public access water, that would require permission from local landowners to reach. With permissions granted, we fished for about 4 hours ever conscious of the rising water flows expected at 5 pm. The water came, and, again, we were pushed off the water, but not before Greg netted two nice fish and without the annoying baptisms we experienced earlier in the day.
We now recognized our Tennessee plans were not withstanding first (or second) contact with the power generation enemy. When Greg and I plan a multi-day trip, we plan to start fishing early and stop late. Power generation schedules for both rivers are posted no more than 48 hours in advance, and are subject to change. Those lucky enough to call both rivers their “home waters” are likely rewarded with outstanding fishing throughout the year. It wasn’t working for us.
To salvage our comparatively close-to-home fishing trip, a phone call to Elk Springs Resort in Monterville, WV, yielded favorable water flow and fishing reports, and reservations for Thursday and Friday nights.
If you haven’t been to the Elk River, you simply must go. The Elk River is a large freestone river fed primarily by the Big Spring that calls the Elk Springs Resort property home. The staff of Elk Springs Resort, VA Lunceford, Dave “Elkfisher” Breitmeier, and Chad See, provide for your every lodging and fishing need, and they can put you on fish any time of the year and every water condition.
The Elk River holds many, and large, fish. Over the course of out two days there, Greg and I caught over 100 fish each. Every pocket and every run held fish, and they were very aggressive. Primarily, we fished size 14 caddis dries with two droppers below–typically a size 16-18 soft-hackle followed by a size 18-20 pheasant tail. We did “sting” some very large fish, but never brought one worthy of a picture to net. We also saw several in the 20+” range, but this trip yielded none to us. Twice, however, I was able to land the coveted “double” –two fish at the same time on each of the droppers.
So, if you are in the vicinity of Bristol VA, and your schedule permits flexibility around the power generation schedules of the Watauga and the South Holston, definitely plan on stopping by Mountain Sports for information and supplies, then spending some time on these two rivers. The release schedules simply didn’t permit us adequate fishing time. If advanced planning is required, as it is for most working and parenting folk, you must plan a trip to Elk Spring Resort and time on the Elk River. Both the Resort staff and the river are simply “top drawer”.
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