JEFFERSON CITY, TENNESSEE - While the Holston River swished back and forth in exotic whirls, a dense fog ebbed and flowed above the water’s surface.
Below Cherokee Dam and downstream to where the low-hanging cloud arrested any further viewing, the fog also provided a deathly chill to a morning that held promise. And not just for the prospects of a sunny day but also for the expectation of quality time with the stream’s horde of stocked rainbow trout.
Doug Moore - a thirty-something fishing guide - was putting his back into the two massive oars that powers his McKenzie-style drift boat. This vessel is somewhat banana-shaped, wide in the center, upturned a bit in the nose and tail with comfortable platforms for fore and aft positioned fly fishers.
“The water’s pretty cold and when it meets the moist warm air, each morning you can bank on the fog coming,” Moore said. “It will lift in a little while.”
For now, though, the fog remained and we anticipated a good day of casting Moore’s size-20 dubbed-and-wire black-colored nymphs. The “we” being myself, Moore and my son-in-law, Gabe Rathe, of nearby Knoxville.
Ever since Gabe and my daughter Rebecca had packed their kit bags and kids and moved from Wisconsin to Tennessee, my goal was to take him on a guided trout fishing expedition in the Smoky Mountains.
Long on trout fishing legend, the Smoky Mountains attracts anglers for their many miles of fast-flowing mountain streams.
But my back and poorly maintained knees pretty much prohibits me from any long-distance hiking over stream-side boulders. Besides, I’m not much of a fan of ticks and this is serious tick country.
Anyway, few things can beat a drift boat as a fly-fishing venue. They’re comfortable and their shuttling via a river’s current offers an endless array of fly-fishing opportunities.
That, and I wanted to treat Gabe to a possible once-in-a-lifetime treat. So Moore became our hired gun; sort of “have drift boat, will travel” sort of thing.
Our options included several Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) tail-waters. In each case, tall dams hold back humongous volumes of water. At the bottom of the dams the water is icy cold, which is released to turn powerful turbines that create electricity.
This was the entire purpose of establishing the TVA many generations ago. That the water discharge also produces ample cold conditions for a trout fisheries became a bonus. And that unattended benefit is heavily capitalized on by local and visiting anglers.
The choices Moore offered were several, among them being the Clinch River beneath Norris Dam and Lake. That option faded, however, when it was found that two of the dam’s generators were on.
A two-stroke discharge of water at the time of our trip was producing a huge volume that prevented fishing, Moore said.
So we settled on the Holston River below the Cherokee Dam. It may offer a few more slack spots than does the Clinch, says Moore, but it’s still plenty good enough if you want to toss flies at eager rainbow trout.
And Gabe and I did, of course.
“My last group here caught 50, maybe 60, trout,” Moore said. “And they weren’t the best fly fishermen.”
I’ll call myself a modestly fair fly fisher with Gabe only a peg or two to my left.
We started as Moore always begins. That means rigging the fishing outfits with 6x tippets that trail to Moore’s hand-tied black nymph patterns. A couple of feet above the fly is pegged a small, clear, soft plastic bubble-style strike indicator - a fly fisher’s fancy term for a bobber.
With the nymph pattern fly thus suspended it appears to be an emerging insect. At least to the trout, anyway.
“There aren’t many mayflies in the Holston but there are a lot cadis hatches and that’s what the trout feed on,” Moore said.
Sure enough, hardly had we gotten settled in when willing-to-please trout began slurping our nymph flies. A fish would hit a fly and not stop, leaping out of the water and also using whatever current it could find to its advantage.
“Between the Clinch and the Holston the state stocks about 125,000 trout every year and you can pretty much expect to find good fishing any time, including during the summer,” Moore said as he netted a foot-long rainbow.
Most of the trout measured that size, too, the general range being about 9 to 12 inches with a few longer fish stretching the tape to around 16 inches.
Unlike the Clinch - which has also brown trout - the Holston is almost exclusively a rainbow trout fisheries, Moore says.
In all, Moore said as well, we’d travel about six miles between the drift boat’s put-in and take-out spots, a distance that would dish up a good eight hours of fly fishing.
The drift boat flowed with the undulations of the stream and Moore charged the oars to counter-balance the river’s dictations.
Moore would jockey the vessel so that both Gabe and me would find a way to toss our rigs into the choicest looking pieces of water. Best were the places where the river made a serious drop of a foot or two. In these riffles and chutes the cold water also was highly oxygenated.
Miss one chance at casting into a lively enough spot and another one would suddenly appear.
With the morning running long and our tally of caught trout growing even more, we came to our lunch stop. That’s part of Moore’s all-day package deal.
The timing of the dinner coincided with the one-hour start-up of a single Cherokee Dam generator. That produced a so-called “pulse” of discharged cold water that also yielded cloudy conditions caused by suspended grit, mud and debris.
Moore explained that whenever a pulse arrives the trout stop feeding and go into hiding. Sure enough, that proved true as the increased volume of water turned off the fish.
“It only lasts an hour and then we’ll be back to fishing,” Moore said.
With several years of guiding service under his battered fishing hat, Moore has the system down pat. Sure enough, when the pulse of water washed downstream and the water began to clear the trout began feeding once again. Time it was to put away the grub and folding chairs and table and get back to fishing.
The rest of the day went very much like the morning’s half. We’d find fish where they were supposed to be and Moore rowed his way through the dead spots.
“There’s more of them on the Holston than on the Clinch,” he said.
No matter, as Gabe and I were making short work of the rainbows which were ever-happy to challenge our nymph-patterned flies.
“I could get used to this,” Gabe said, enjoying both the comfort of the drift boat’s casting platform and the abundance of trout.
We even pocketed several trout for use later as a meal - a non-objectionable point since this is a put-grow-take fisheries.
When the day drew to a close and the river had begun to lose its zeal we reached our take-out point. In all, Gabe and I had caught and released all but the seven of the 70-odd rainbows we caught.
Yep, I could get used to this, too, I thought.
I guess maybe I need to start saving my pennies. I think I hear the Norris Dam’s generators being turned off. Might as well expand my Tennessee fly-fishing horizons.
Tennessee’s fishing license system includes on-line purchasing with a very inexpensive one-day tag as well as permits good for longer periods. Visit www.tennessee.gov/twra/fishlicense.html for further information.
For details about a half-day or all-day float trip or else a foot travel guided trip, contact Moore at 865-323-6294, email him at email@example.com. His web site is www.flyfishtennessee.com.
- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn