Trout are what first drew me to fly fishing. Since my early days in the sport, I’ve learned that I can target many other species as well. Tennessee is an angler’s paradise. Some of the best trout fisheries in the east are found here. Anglers target both stocked and wild rainbow, brown and brook trout in Tennessee.
However, anglers wanting something a little different than the usual trout fishing can find plenty of other species in the Volunteer State. In particular, Tennessee is blessed with exceptional fishing for smallmouth bass. Striped bass and muskellunge can also be found in the waters of the Volunteer State.
Best Places to Fly Fish in Tennessee
1. Clinch River Fly Fishing
One of the finest tailwaters in the US, the Clinch River flows from the base of Norris Dam. The cold water from the bottom of Norris Lake provides consistent temperatures to keep the trout happy. Large rainbow and brown trout call the Clinch and its crystal clear water home. . Brook trout are also stocked here. Because of that ultra clear water, bring your 6x fluorocarbon tippet and very long leaders. Add a spring and early summer sulfur hatch and you have an exceptional fishery.
Where to Fly Fish on the Clinch River
There are several access points where anglers can fish on this river. The most popular is probably at Miller’s Island where you can wade or launch a boat. Once you see the big rainbow and brown trout you’ll know why this river is so popular.
Recommended Flies for the Clinch River
- Zebra Midge, size 18-22 in black and silver
- Pheasant Tail Nymph, size 16-18
2. Hiwassee River Fly Fishing
The mighty Hiwassee is a unique river. The trout portion begins at the Powerhouse where water emerges from a tunnel and passes through the generators. From here downstream to Reliance, rainbow, brown, and brook trout abound. In the summer, large striped bass can also be found in this river and should be targeted with large streamers that imitate trout.
Where to Fly Fish on the Hiwassee River
Powerhouse Road follows several miles of the best portion of the Hiwassee. If you want to float, then use the Powerhouse Boat Ramp and do the short float to Towee. That said, floating this river is not for the faint of heart. Wading when the water is turned off is the best strategy. Pullouts along Powerhouse Road provides access for wading anglers.
Recommended Flies For the Hiwassee River
- Elk Hair Caddis, size #14-#16 in black, olive, and tan
- Parachute Blue-winged Olive, size #18-#22
3. Reelfoot Lake Fly Fishing
Reelfoot Lake was formed by a massive earthquake in the early 1800s that occurred along the New Madrid Fault. The land sank and the Mississippi River is said to have run backwards due to the massive forces unleashed. The low area filled in and Reelfoot Lake was born. Now known as a crappie fishing destination, the lake also features good fishing for bass and other species. Bald eagles migrate here to spend the winter, so you know there are lots of fish around!
Where to Fly Fish on Reelfoot Lake
A boat is a necessity to fish here. Be careful operating it as much of the lake has stumps just under the surface where trees were harvested after the lake was created. Begin your visit here at the Reelfoot Lake State Park Visitor Center. They will help with maps of the boat ramps and also have lodging and camping available.
Recommended Flies For Reelfoot Lake
- Clouser Minnows, size #2-6, in white or chartreuse and tied sparse for crappie
- Frog patterns tied weedless, size 1/0 or larger for bass in the lily pads
Guide Tip: In the northwestern corner of Georgia the Blue Ridge Mountains clip the state. This area is a little known gold mine for trout. My friends at Blue Ridge Trout Unlimited <- link write detailed fishing reports that will help guide folks to some fishy water.
4. Great Smoky Mountains National Park Fly Fishing
A true angler’s paradise, the Great Smoky Mountains features 1,000+ miles of fishable water. Wild trout abound here including native southern Appalachian strain brook trout in the higher elevations. This is a rare place where you can catch wild and native trout on dry flies every month of the year.
For anglers with little time to explore, Little River is a particularly good watershed with lots of variety. Think rainbow and brown trout with a chance of smallmouth bass in the lowest reaches and native brook trout up high. Parachute Adams in #12-#18 and Yellow Stimulators in #12-#16 are perfect for dry flies. Bead head Pheasant Tail nymphs in #12-#20 are great for nymphs. If you want to use a guide to learn these waters, check out Trout Zone Anglers at http://www.troutzoneanglers.com to shorten the learning curve.
5. Caney Fork River Fly Fishing
The Caney Fork River tailwater flows from the base of Center Hill Dam in middle Tennessee only an hour from Nashville. One of the region’s finest trout fisheries, the Caney Fork has some big brown trout along with the usual smaller stocked rainbow, brown and brook trout.
Wading is only possible when the dam is not generating. Once the water rises, bring out heavy streamer rods and big flies to try for a big brown trout. When the water is off, access the river below the dam and try subsurface midge patterns like the Zebra Midge in #18-#20. Another good access is at the Interstate 40 Rest Area that even provides special parking for anglers.
6. Chickamauga Reservoir Fly Fishing
Chickamauga is an impoundment of the Tennessee River in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Known for big largemouth bass, the current Tennessee state record largemouth weighing over fifteen pounds came from these waters. With a healthy shad population, you want your flies to imitate these small baitfish. If crappie or bluegill are your thing, this lake provides excellent opportunities. In the upper end of the lake and the tailwaters below the dam, large striped bass can also be found.
7. Elk River Fly Fishing
Another fine trout river in middle Tennessee, the Elk River is smaller and more intimate than the more popular Caney Fork River. The river is stocked throughout much of the year meaning there are always willing trout to be found. As with all of Tennessee’s tailwaters, midges are a staple. Soft hackles also work well on this river. A 9’ four or five weight rod is about perfect on this river.
8. Holston River Fly Fishing
The Holston is found just east of Knoxville and provides excellent fishing for both trout and smallmouth bass. The river is known to grow fish very quickly, so there are better than usual chances at a trophy rainbow or brown trout or smallmouth bass. Known for its prolific caddis hatch in the spring, the trout can go into a feeding frenzy during this annual event. To match the caddis, try a CDC and Elk in #16-#22. For the smallmouth, poppers are a good bet along with minnow patterns like the famed Clouser Minnow.
9. Melton Hill Reservoir Fly Fishing
A unique reservoir close to Knoxville, Melton Hill provides the opportunity to hunt for trophy muskellunge in their southernmost range. Additionally, striped bass are also found throughout this lake. The true trophy hunter will appreciate everything this lake has to offer. For success, a guide is the best bet to help you get on fish quickly. You better bring a strong casting arm for casting those huge musky flies and fighting the big stripers.
This reservoir is unique because the cold-water inflow from the Clinch River keeps the reservoir at a more consistent temperature throughout the year. The long growing season is what enables the stripers and musky to grow to trophy proportions. Want a true mixed bag experience? Hit the Clinch tailwater part of the day for its trophy trout and Melton Hill part of the day for stripers or musky.
10. Obey River Fly Fishing
The Obey River provides excellent trout fishing below Dale Hollow Dam and great smallmouth bass fishing above. The trout section is short as the river runs a few miles to the Cumberland. Some large rainbow and brown trout call this section home though. In the tailwater, the usual midges will catch trout all day. Large brown trout will often run up the river in the fall which is a good time to target them.
The world record smallmouth bass came from Dale Hollow Lake. While other species can be found here, the smallmouth bass bring anglers from all over for their shot at a trophy. For smallmouth in the lake, shad imitations are best.
11. Tellico River Fly Fishing
The Tellico is the stuff legends are made of. It is a river so good that it has a fly named after it. Hint: fish a Tellico nymph #10-#14 while you’re on this river. There is a reason it was named after this river. This fly imitates the golden stonefly nymphs found in excellent numbers throughout this river and in fact all over the southern Appalachians.
The river is stocked heavily through the warm months from a hatchery that sits right beside the stream. During the winter, delayed harvest regulations provide catch and release fun for anglers looking to catch some larger than usual fish. While normal 9-12 inch stocked rainbows are the norm, don’t be surprised by brown trout more than twice that large. There are some true monsters in this system.
12. South Holston River Fly Fishing
The South Holston River is, along with the Clinch and Watauga, the best of the best when it comes to trout fishing in Tennessee. Another Tennessee tailwater, this river is arguably in the top two or three trout streams east of the Mississippi River. Flowing out of Virginia and into the northeast part of the state, the South Holston flows for many miles from the dam to Bluff City where it enters Boone Lake.
The entire tailwater provides excellent trout fishing for wild brown trout along with a few wild and stocked rainbow trout. Access is good throughout the river, but especially up near the dam. If floating is your thing, this river is perfect for a drift boat or raft.
Famed for the sulfur hatch, it is not unusual to see sulfurs hatching eight or nine months of the year. Make sure to have a good selection of sulfurs in #16-#18 along with some blue-winged olives.
13. Watauga River Fly Fishing
There are many good hatches, but the blue-winged olives and caddis are probably the best. The sulfur hatch is overshadowed by that of the nearby South Holston but the hatch is very good on the Watauga as well. The big spring caddis hatch draws anglers from across the country.
The northeast corner of Tennessee is blessed with an abundance of great water to fish. The Watauga is another fine tailwater. Emerging from Wilbur Dam, this river feels more like an oversized mountain stream than most of Tennessee’s tailwaters. It fishes more like a mountain stream as well.
Fishing in the winter is usually excellent and helps cut down on the crowds often experienced here. Anglers come here to target the big rainbow and brown trout. If a trophy is in your sights, then throw the meat. Large streamers account for many of the largest brown trout landed each year. In the lower river, don’t be surprised when a big striper eats that streamer during the warmer months. If you want to specifically target the stripers, then giant streamers that imitate rainbow trout should be in your box.
Gear For Fly Fishing in Tennessee
Anglers will want an arsenal of fly rods to truly take advantage of everything the Volunteer State has to offer. For trout in the Great Smoky Mountains and other mountain streams, a 10’ 3 weight is ideal for high sticking or reaching across the many different currents to get your fly to the trout. Your reel isn’t particularly important in the Smokies as most of your casts are short and very few of the fish are capable of pulling line. Leaders of 7.5’ to 9’ in the 4x to 5x range is all you need in the Smokies.
I’ve spoken about the TFO Drift Fly rod in my article Best Fly Fly Rod, Line and Reel for Nymph Fishing. A great fly rod that will work for a lifetime.
A 9’ 5 weight is useful in the Smokies and on most of the tailwaters across this state. On the tailwaters, a better reel with a good drag is recommended. The big strong trout found here will often impose their will on anglers fishing the light tippets required for midge fishing. 6x fluorocarbon is a must on area tailwaters. Longer leaders are best on the tailwaters with a 9’ being the shortest you should consider and longer is better.
For throwing streamers for trout or smallmouth, a 6 or 7 weight rod is best. Finally, if you want to chase stripers or musky, a heavier rod in the 9 or 10 weight range is best. Striper flies can usually be cast on lighter rods, but the backbone of the 10 weight is nice when a 20 or 30 pound fish hits and starts to run. Keep those tippets in the 12-15 pound test range for hunting larger fish. For the musky, don’t forget some type of bite guard. We recommend 80 pound fluoro although some anglers prefer wire bite guards.
Official References for Fly Fishing in Tennessee
The Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency (TWRA) regulates all fishing in Tennessee and regulations vary by water. You can find all of the rules here at:
Also available is stocking information for both warm and cold water fisheries. Trout stocking information can be found here at: Trout Stocking Tennessee.
Warm water stocking information can be found at: Warm Water Fish Stocking Tennessee.
Trout Unlimited offers monthly meetings and activities across the state. Two popular chapters near Knoxville include:
In Nashville, the Middle Tennessee Fly Fishers is an active club. https://www.middletennesseeflyfishers.org