Fly Fishing The South Holston River In Tennessee

By James Marsh

The South Holston River is a tailwater trout fishery located in the upper Northeastern corner of the State of Tennessee near Bristol. It is stocked with rainbow trout by the (TWRA) Tennessee Wildlife Agency. This is one southern tailwater that has a substantial population of wild brown trout. They are all wild. In addition, the stocked rainbows holdover from year to year because the stream stays cool, even during the summer months. It is probably the best tailwater in the Southeastern United States. Fly fishing the South Holston River ranges from difficult to easy depending on the type of fish.

The river can be waded when power is not being generated and fished from a drift boat when turbines are running. You can access the river in only a few places, where wading is possible. The main attraction is the wild trout and extensive Sulphur hatches.

There are actually two different species of mayflies the locals call Sulphurs. Most people call one of them Eastern Pale Evening Duns. The hatches occur for much of the entire fishing season. There are also excellent Blue-winged olive hatches.

Caution should be used anytime you are fishing a tailwater, so be sure to check on the discharge schedule and keep an eye out for changes in the depth. There is a link to the TVA dam discharge schedule on my website at The schedule will tell when the best times to fish the river are, depending on whether you are wading or fishing from a drift boat.

Fly fishing the South Holston River can be as good as fly fishing anywhere in the Eastern United States. The river is certainly worth any avid angler taking the opportunity to fish regardless of where you live.

Fly fishing the South Holston River is considered to be technical fishing by many anglers. This is one of the best tailwaters in the Eastern United States. It is one of a few tailwaters in the South that is capable of reproduction of trout. Brown trout spawn in the river with decent success. We think it offers just the right amount of challenge to any angler. It is neither difficult nor easy to fish. You have to do things right, but when you do, you are rewarded.

The thing that makes it a desirable stream to fish, in the eyes of many anglers, is the large aquatic insect hatches. The stream is full of trout food of all types. The Blue-winged Olive and Sulphur mayfly hatches can be incredible. It also has some great caddisfly hatches. This provides dry fly fishing opportunities far better than most tailwaters. There are plenty of times you have to fish subsurface using nymphs, streamers, wet flies, soft hackles, scuds, black fly imitations and others, but all in all, dry fly fishing is very good for a tailwater.

You have to pay very close attention to the discharge schedule. That is easy to do and the schedule provided is usually very accurate. There are times you can wade the South Holston River with ease and times you can’t. There are times you have a big advantage using a drift boat; it all depends on the releases. This information is available under the TVA Release Schedule link on the introduction page of my website.

Be prepared to use long leaders and tippets and to make good presentations. A drag free drift is a must most of the time. You cannot hit these trout over the head with your fly line. It is especially difficult when they are feeding in the slow to moderate water. Good realistic imitations can make a big difference.

The area just below the Weir Dam usually has plenty of trout but be aware that they are difficult to catch. They are heavily fished but they can be caught if you want to accept the added challenge.

Hatches and Trout:

Our information on aquatic insects is based on our stream samples of larvae and nymphs instead of guess work. We base fly suggestions on imitating the most plentiful and most available insects and other foods at the particular time you are fishing. Unlike the generic fly shop trout flies, we have specific imitations of all the insects in the South Holston River, and in all stages of life, that are applicable to fishing. If you want to fish better, more realistic trout flies and have a much higher degree of success, give us a call. We will, not only help you with selections, you will learn, after trying Perfect Flies, why 92% of the thousands of our customers will use nothing else.

There are several different hatches that take place on the South Holston River and the trout can become selective with the insects. Long, light leaders and careful presentations are often required to catch the trout.

The most popular hatch that occurs on the South Holston Tailwater is referred to as the “Sulphur” hatch. It is for a very good reason. Two different species of mayflies very similar to each other called “Sulphurs” hatch on the South Holston over a very long period of time. These mayflies can hatch most of the days from mid April through the first of November. In many other areas of the country, one of the two mayflies (Ephemerella invaria) are usually called “Eastern Pale Evening Duns”. The other mayflies (Ephemerella dorothea) are almost always referred to by their common name of “Sulphurs”. There’s not a great deal of difference between the two, but there’s enough worth being familiar with.

These two hatches can last a long time. This doesn’t mean that, on any given day, one of them will be hatching from one end of the river, to the other. The hatch will vary from place to place along the river depending on a number of factors; a main one being the amount of water being discharged. You cannot necessarily expect to go to one point along the river and expect the hatch to occur. This is another reason a drift boat is a good option for the South Holston.

The first of the two mayflies to hatch will be the Eastern Pale Evening Duns, the larger of the two, and the one that is more of a tan than true sulphur. They are closer to a hook size 16. It is also an easier hatch to fish. The reason is that they hatch in faster water than the slightly smaller Sulphurs. Sulphurs hatch in slow to moderate water. Because of that, the trout get a much better look at your fly and are referred to by most anglers as picky. It is possible the Sulphurs are bi-brooded, or hatch twice a year. This happens on the West Branch of the Delaware River in New York, also a tailwater.

There are some huge Blue-winged Olive hatches that occur in the winter, early spring and again in the late fall. Some of these are baetis species but there are other species of mayflies called blue-winged olives that hatch on the South Holston. If the dun is larger than a hook size 18, most likely it is an Eastern Blue-winged Olive, a Drunella species, which are crawler nymphs, as opposed to the baetis, which are swimmers.

Black flies are very plentiful and trout feed on them throughout the year. However, they are far more important during the winter months when fewer other insects are hatching. Trout eat their larvae, pupae and the adult black flies. The river also supports a good population of scuds, which are another major source of food for the trout. As with most any tailwater fishery, midges are also very important. Often they are the only flies that the trout are feeding on and imitations of them are the only trout flies that are effective.

At certain times, especially during the pre-spawn time, large brown trout can be taken on streamers. The river also has plenty of baitfish and sculpin and streamers can produce throughout the year if fished properly. They are most effective when the water is slightly off color from rain, or during low light situations, such as early and late in the day. They also work well when it is raining.

Caddisflies are very prolific on the South Holston River. There is a hatch of Little Black Caddis in April and, just as soon as it is about over, the Cinnamon Caddis will start to hatch. These caddisfles exist in several species and will hatch until the end of October. Near the end of June through July and into August, you will also find hatches of some species of the similar but smaller Little Sister Caddisflies. There is even a hatch of Spotted Sedges but they are very similar to the Cinnamon Sedges.

In late April, hatches of Green Sedges will start. These caddisflies hatch until the first of July but their larvae, called Rock Worms, are around all year and flies that imitate them are effective most of the year. In the months of July and August, you will find hatches of Little Brown Caddisflies. These can be very abundant in places.

Terrestrial insects become important around the middle of June. Imitations of grasshoppers, ants, and beetles will catch trout until the first week or two in October, or just beyond the time the first frost appears.

The Cranefly is another insect that the trout will feed on. Their larvae are around throughout the year. The adults are also around much of the year, but are more important during the late summer.

If you haven’t already done so, we suggest you try our “Perfect Flies”. We have specific imitations of everything that hatches and exist in the South Holston River. The best way is to check our South Holston Hatch Chart ( for the period of time you will be fishing the river. Our Black fly larva, pupa and adult flies were developed at the South Holston, so be sure to try them. Not only are they far more imitative of the real things, they are far more effective than most other trout flies.

James Marsh is the Owner of The Perfect Fly online and catalog, mail-order store.

Coastal Angler & The Angler Magazine