Wading into the broad, sweeping river, I stripped line from the fly reel, false cast briefly and delivered a #16 Blue-Winged Olive carefully onto the surface. Tensing, I waited nervously as the fly drifted downstream. A slow, slurping rise suddenly broke the surface as the fly disappeared in a boil of water. The size of the swirl made me believe it could only be made by a big brown trout.
And that’s exactly what it was. The trout lurched off on a hard run as the reel screeched, then wallowed and thrashed in contortions on the surface. After several tense moments, I gradually worked the 18-inch brown in and slipped the bedraggled fly out of his massive jaw.
This fish obviously had a few seasons under his belt, by releasing him, hopefully he’d see a few more. As the day unfolded, more than a dozen more browns and rainbows fell for my dry flies and nymphs.
You probably imagine that scene took place on a legendary western trout river like the Bighorn or Yellowstone, or maybe a famous Catskill stream like the Delaware or Beaverkill. Well, you’re in for a surprise. It took place in the deep South, on eastern Tennessee’s Hiwassee River. Not only is the fishing on this river incredibly productive, it also offers the big-water feel of large western rivers, spreading over 75 yards wide in some stretches.
Like many of the country’s best trout rivers, the Hiwassee is a tailwater stream. Its ability to hold trout comes from the lake above it, which releases cold water from its depths, keeping the temperature at trout-friendly levels even during hot summer months. But while some of Tennessee’s tailwater trout rivers are actually too cold to harbor heavy aquatic insect populations, the Hiwassee flows just a bit warmer, meaning prolific hatches and great dry fly action.
You can find rising trout on the Hiwassee virtually all year. Both wading and float fishing are productive, with lots of hatches occurring. Quill Gordons, Hendricksons, Blue-Winged Olives, Sulphurs, Light Cahills and Slate Drakes are the major mayflies. Caddis hatches include the Little Black, Tan and Olive. Midges are also abundant and terrestrial patterns such as ants, beetles, crickets and grasshoppers work very well.
The Hiwassee actually emerges in the mountains of northeastern Georgia, draining a 750,000 acre area. But it’s after the water passes through four impoundments and spews out of a 10-mile tunnel below Appalachia Dam that it becomes a trout heaven. Most of the river is open for lure and bait fishing, but the Hiwassee is a paradise for fly fishermen.
As is the case with all tailwater streams, fishing can vary with the power generation. Trout feed best when there is some generation, but not too much. Heavy releases can make wading difficult and potentially dangerous.
The first few miles below the Appalachia Tunnel run fast with lots of Class II rapids that attract whitewater rafters when heavy releases occur. When this situation occurs, streamers, weighted nymphs and lures are the best bets.
Float fishing can be productive any time, but is especially good when water flow is heavy. Then you can slap streamers up against the shore and near rock jams and eddies to lure heavy browns and bows searching for a big mouthful. If you’re wade fishing without a boat, a good bet is to simply move to lower waters further downstream and fish them until the water releases arrive, which can take up to several hours.
The Hiwassee offers lots of spots where the angler can simply park his vehicle, walk a short distance and start casting. There are numerous pull-off spots on Hwy 30 along the south side of the river and Forest Rd 108 on the north side. Other access points include the Power House, the Hwy 411 Boating Access Area, Gee Creek Campground, the Reliance take-out, the Childers Creek Parking Area and the Big Bend Parking Area. From Appalachia Dam downstream to the US 411 bridge the river flows through Cherokee National Forest.
Chattanooga is about an hour’s drive away, Atlanta three hours. Motels and restaurants are available in Cleveland, about 25 miles to the west. Hiwasseeoutfitters.com offer cabins for nightly rentals near the river. A number of guide services offer both float trips and wade fishing on the river, including flyfishtennessee.com and southeasternanglers.com. All of these outfitters also offer advice on flies and information on current water release schedules.
The Hiwassee River chapter of Trout Unlimited has a website that offers up-to-date weekly fishing reports, information on water releases and current hatches. Check out their site at Hiwassee.net.
This is a big, potentially dangerous river, so wade carefully. Wear a flotation vest and always get out quickly if the water starts to rise. Bring an 8½-9 foot rod for a 4-6 weight line and an extra spool with a sink-tip for streamer fishing when the water is running heavy.
If you’ve always wanted to fish a big, wide trout river but didn’t want to travel out West, give the Hiwassee a try. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised with the quality of fishing you find there.
I know I was.
Be sure to visit Sportsman’s Guide for great deals on fishing gear.