I was invited to go along on a trip to fish the South Holston River just outside of Bristol, TN. A little bit of tail water wild trout fishing to interrupt the perpetual overcast and cold days of West Virginia that seem to define this time of year. I had no idea what I was getting into, so I went into it with no expectations. I came away with some valuable lessons.
My friend who invited me on the trip had fished here in September and had an excellent trip. He had good weather and low flows, as the dam was not generating. You could wade the entire river and never get wet above your knees if you were careful – and there was a trout behind every rock. This was his official fishing report.
Saturday morning found us sitting in my truck in the parking area adjacent to the auto-bridge and low-water foot bridge downstream of the dam. As darkness gave way to the twilight of morning, it became apparent we were looking at a very different river than the one described to us in the September fishing report. There was one generator running, so the river level was up and flows were strong. And though the weather had been pretty mild leading up to our trip, this was still January, and we timed our trip perfectly with one of the coldest and wettest weekends of the winter.
We all split up and the morning started slow. A few hits on a black bugger and one lost little brown, but other than that nothing for me. In the mean time I watched one of my partners from across the river catch one little trout, move down ten yards, catch another little trout, move down ten yards, catch two trout, and then disappear around the bend. All-in he would catch 48 trout by dark, the last five hours in the pouring rain. I had caught up with him in the late afternoon and, being able to count all of my fish on three fingers, very quickly surmised this was a man I needed to stay very close to for the remainder of the trip.
The next day brought very different weather. The rain of the evening before had ushered in a cold front. The temps were barely above freezing and the blue skies above and wind below made it clear we now had a high pressure system over top of our shoulders. The fishing was slow and the river was still fast. Anxious to employ the meticulous big-river nymphing lessons I had learned the night before, I found a nice seam about 15 feet out from the bank that looked inviting. I eased off of the bank onto a large flat rock submerged about 20” below the surface. I took two steps and the current swept my feet out from under me. I caught myself with my right arm. Turns out my arm was about the same length as the water was deep, which kept my head and left shoulder above water while my waders filled with cold South Holston water. I managed to continue fishing for about another 45 minutes because neoprene and wool are still warm when wet. However, they are still uncomfortable when wet and the fish were not biting – not even for my world champion nymphing partner – so I headed back to the cabin.
Once warm and dry, and after a grilled cheese made with no butter (because we hade none), I headed back out. Temperatures were falling steadily throughout the day and the wind was no friend to fly fishermen. I carefully rigged an egg sack/scud dropper and went to work. It wasn’t long before I had a nice rainbow on only to lose him in a current below me. I lost a another rainbow and then a brown before I finally got my act together and landed a couple. As the sun set behind me everything seemed to come together… reading the seams, a drift with no drag, a leading rod with tip-up, the subtle pause of the strike indicator, the firm but gentle setting of the hook, and the immediate pull of the trout. In two days I had overcome my fear of two things: fishing wide rivers and nymphing. While my partners totaled over 100 fish between them, I marked my success no less than theirs because of the lessons I took home.