DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing in Tennessee

Tennessee is the epicenter of country music, playing host to the Grand Ole Opry and serving as the country music capital of the world.

However, the state also has much to offer anglers, with an abundance of rivers, streams, and tailwaters that serve as homes to the hundreds of thousands of trout stocked each year by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

The TWRA works hard to provide fishermen – bait and fly alike – with a rewarding experience throughout the streams, lakes, and tailraces that abound throughout the state.

Tennessee Fishing Map

map of places to fish in Tennessee

Get Directions to the Fishing Access Points shown above with the DIY Fly Fishing Map

Best Places to Fish in Tennessee

If you are planning a fly-fishing trip to Tennessee, it can be hard to determine where to start. These well-known and productive locations are great places to start when filling up your itinerary.

South Holston River

Up in the far northeastern corner of the state, the South Holston Dam serves as the starting point for the South Holston River, a tailwater offering a combination of wild and stocked trout. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency stocks rainbows and browns in March and April, below the Fort Patrick Henry Dam.

As a tailrace, these waters can move up quickly when the Corps of Engineers is generating power. During non-generating times, the river is excellent for wading, coming not even waist-high most of the time. When the generators are running, the river is perfect for floating.

There are protected spawning sites on the river, closed to fishing from November 1 to January 31. These include the area between the Hickory Tree Bridge to where the river meets Bottom Creek, and downstream of Boy’s Island to the first island above Webb Road Bridge.

During normal fishing times, you may not take any fish between 16 and 22 inches, and there is a seven trout creel limit with only one being longer than 22 inches.

Access is available via Emmet Bridge, Big Springs Road, Rock Hold, and TVA Riverbend.

Hiwassee River

This is another productive tailrace, situated in Reliance, TN. The river starts in the Cherokee National Forest flows for 21 miles. The Hiwassee was the first Tennessee river to be designated as a State Scenic River, and as such offers incredible views along its banks.

Above Reliance, there is a popular six-mile stretch of river, which contains a Trophy Section, accessible by way of a trail. This upper portion can contain riffles, runs, and pools, as well as white water type characteristics, depending upon whether water is generating or not. From the dam in Reliance to the Highway 411 Bridge the stream becomes calmer and more wadeable, as well as less crowded. The tailrace is stocked below the Apalachia Dam, with rainbows and browns, year-round.

Take note that from October through the end of February the upper portion of the river is catch-and-release only under delayed harvest regulations. For the rest of the season the creel limit is seven trout, with only two browns permitted.

Clinch River

This 300-mile waterway begins in Virginia and flows through the Great Appalachian Valley, finally reaching the Tennessee River in Kingston, TN. As far as fly fishing goes, the portion you’ll be dealing with is the 13-mile stretch between the Norris Dam and the Highway 61 Bridge in Clinton, TN.

The state stocks the tailrace from March through September, with rainbows, browns, and brookies. There is a protected slot of 14-20 inches, and a seven fish creel limit, of which only one can be longer than 20 inches. These regulations apply to the tributaries as well as the main part of the river.

Again, you will want to pay attention to the water generation. When water is not being generated, there are many wading opportunities, including around Miller’s Island and at the Highway 61 Bridge access. If one generator is running, floating is the best option, and if two generators are running the waters are considered unfishable. You can check the generation schedule here.

Watauga River

This tailwater originates at the Wilbur Dam and runs for 16 miles before emptying into Boone Lake. The Watauga is known as one of the premier trout fishing destinations in the Southern Appalachians; particularly the TVA designated Quality Trout Zone, which runs from the Smalling Bridge downstream for 2.5 miles.

The tailrace is stocked with rainbows, browns, and brookies from March through September. There is a 14-inch minimum length limit, and a two-fish creel limit. In addition to quality fishing opportunities in the Watauga, the surrounding bluffs and lush foliage make for a tranquil and scenic angling experience.

There is ample access available, via the Wilbur Dam, Hunter Bridge, Siam Bridge, Blevins Road, and the TVA Twin Bridges Ramp.

Best Time to Fish in Tennessee

There is year-round fishing in Tennessee, although many of the smaller streams become too warm for good fishing by mid-summer. The tailraces tend to retain their cold water virtually year-round, making them hospitable to fly fishermen no matter when you decide to go.

The Hiwassee River possesses the unique trait of offering top water action nearly any time of year. Winter is often under-appreciated, with this time of year often proving the most productive for the larger browns. Hatches throughout the year mean that you can take advantage of these waters by simply changing your approach.

The waters of the South Holston also remain cold even through the heat of summer, although spring and fall are considered the most lucrative times for fly-fishing there. Dry flies are particularly suitable in the spring, and fall brings a reduction in generation, which makes wading much more doable.

Essential Fishing Gear and Flies

Suit up with your typical gear – waders (the waters can be cold particularly in the tailraces), a wide-brimmed hat, rain jacket, bug spray, mosquito head net (especially in the summer months), vest or pack, nippers and other accessories.

  • South Holston River: you’ll want a 9-foot 5 weight rod with a 4X-6X tippet and 9-foot leader. Keep a trout fly line on-hand for floating, and density compensated full sink fly line for sinking. For flies, you’ll want sulphurs, BWOs, pheasant tails, midges, caddis, and mayflies. Around June terrestrials come into play. Grasshoppers, ants, and beetles will all be useful through early October.
  • Hiwassee River: a 9-foot 6 weight with a 4X tippet and 9-foot leader will work well. Trout fly line and intermediate full sink fly line should be in your box. For flies, you’ll want caddis, blue-winged olives, and sulphurs for springtime. In the fall, and into the winter delayed harvest, use stoneflies, baetis, and white streamers.
  • Clinch River: should include a 9-foot 5 weight with 3X-6X tippet and 9-foot leader, trout fly line, and streamer stripper sink tip fly line. Flies include midges, BWOs, and parachutes.
  • Watauga River: you’ll need about a 9-foot 5 weight with 6X tippet and 9-foot leader with trout fly line and depth charge full sink fly line. Flies include zebra midges, pheasant tails, caddis, and woolly buggers.

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Tennessee Fishing Regulations

Tennessee is unique among most states in that people ages 13 and older are required to have a fishing license. The state also differs from most in that the fishing license is a combination hunting/fishing license and is required whether you want to fish or hunt small game.

The resident cost for this license is $34, and $10 for children ages 13-15. You must also buy a trout license – the cost for this supplemental permit is $22.

For non-residents, there is an annual license fee of $50, with no trout permitted. The annual fishing license for all species costs non-residents $99.

There are a variety of discounts available for the blind, mentally challenged, and other specifications such as military members. Check the regulations to be sure you’re getting the appropriate permit.

Tennessee – A Fly Fishing Destination Not to Miss

While the climate may not seem like it would be hospitable to fly fishermen, Tennessee hosts a robust trout scene thanks to its world-class tailraces and active stocking program. Don’t count the Volunteer State out when planning your bucket list fly fishing destinations.

Looking for more places to fish?  Check our DIY Guide to the Best Fly Fishing Destinations in the U.S.

About the author

Ken is an avid fisherman of 40+ years who loves to explore and find new places to fish. He created DIY Fly Fishing to help you do the same.

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