When Things Don’t Go According to Plan: Fly Fishing on Tennessee’s South Holston River

The trout are abundant but luck is decidedly not

June 2, 2024 5:17 am
A few days on the South Holston River
Fly fishing on the South Holston River
Getty Images

The weekend had all the elements of a grand adventure. I invited three friends to join me on a fly-fishing trip on one of the most trout-filled rivers in the U.S. A hired guide would take us on the famed South Holston on the first day. From there we’d be on our own, but hopefully with enough knowledge to catch a few more fish elsewhere on the river. We reserved an incredible cabin about 30 minutes outside Bristol, which, from what I’d been told, was a happening little town with plenty of opportunities for live music, fun and excitement. Beer was procured, whiskeys packed. But what’s the old saying about the plans of mice and men?

Things went south even before we crossed the Mason-Dixon line. Half of our prospective crew bailed before the trip even began due to family and work commitments. Tim caught a nasty cold the day before the trip, and while he was determined to fight through it, he sounded like Tom Waits if he’d smoked three more packs of unfiltered menthols and gargled broken glass every day for the last 50 years. He looked as good as a port-a-potty smells on the last day of Bonnaroo. Things were bleak, but we were still determined to make the trip a memorable one.

Tim felt even worse on what was supposed to be our first day on the water and decided to stay back and rest, hoping he’d recover for the next day. While I was bummed Tim and I wouldn’t be hanging out on the river that day, I was also a little relieved. My fly cast is ugly, on-par with Charles Barkley’s golf swing. I’m embarrassed when anyone sees it, let alone a good friend, so I hoped a day under guide Shane Griffith’s tutoring would offer some sort of miracle cure.

A former college football player, Griffith is a large, but affable, dude. When we shook hands, mine nearly disappeared into his gigantic paw. Instead of the South Holston, Griffith decided to take us to the Watauga River where the river wasn’t running as high or fast, so the fishing would be better. I wasn’t going to argue; he was the expert, and I was reasonably sure he could choke slam me through the bottom of his drift boat if I complained. (Luckily, he’s way too nice of a guy to ever do that.)

Before things went south
Before things went south
Rob Annis

The Watauga isn’t like many of the rivers I’ve fished out west, surrounded by miles of emptiness and nature. The stretch we floated down winds through mostly semi-rural areas, recent housing developments and city parks. It’s not pristine wilderness, but a pleasant enough background. Birch and hickory trees line the banks of the river, offering both shade and opportunities to snag your hook on a branch during your back cast.

After a few minutes of watching me fish, Griffith started to get an inkling of the enormity of his task. I swear I saw him wince after my first cast. Throughout the day, Griffith offered a few tips that helped, even if it was akin to throwing a coat of fresh paint on a collapsing barn.

Luckily, even if my cast was ugly, I was still catching fish. Griffith set me up with a tiny stripper midge and BWO emerger, with a short wiggly worm bringing up the rear. On my first cast, I watched the orange strike indicator rocket through the riffle. I felt a brief tug on my line, but told myself it was merely the hook scraping against a rock. There’s no way I could have a bite this quickly. On my fourth cast of the day, I set the hook when I felt the tug — not a euphemism — and soon netted a nice-sized brown.

Before long I began plucking fish out of the river easier than if I were in the frozen food section of Costco. But as much as I’d like to take credit, it wasn’t due to my amazing skill with a fly rod. Griffith knew the river like the back of his massive hand, pointing out different holes where fish would be waiting for their next meal. I typically only catch one or two fish a day if I was lucky; but on that day, I caught more than two dozen browns and ‘bows. I felt like Reggie Miller dominating the 1995 Eastern Conference semi-finals; by the end of the day, I fully expected to hook a fish with every cast. It was easily the best day I’d had on the water to that point.

Canoe Cabin
Canoe Cabin

Tim was feeling better when I arrived back at the cabin, having ingested the county’s entire supply of DayQuil. And what a cabin it was. Immediately upon walking inside, you’re greeted by a 1940’s-era Hiawatha long-nose canoe, standing 17 feet upright from bow to stern. I guess it was called the Canoe Cabin for good reason. The canoe looked so pristine, I was tempted to rip it from the stairwell and paddle the neighboring lake. Not wanting to get blacklisted, I kept my impulses in check. The canoe theme was repeated throughout the well-appointed four-bedroom home, with canoe photos and fishing memorabilia scattered about the walls. Just like the leather sectional couch in the living room, the cabin was so comfortable, you just wanted to sink into it and never leave. But as nice as the cabin was, we wanted to check out Bristol.

So Tim and I ambled over to the Fly Box, the local fly shop with the best business model in the country. The front of the building is a standard fly shop, with all the gear you need for a weekend on the water. In the back, you’ll find a bar, serving both mass-market beers and local craft favorites. I could easily spend an entire paycheck there. (Unfortunately, being a freelance writer, that’s not terribly difficult.)

“So what were you using on the water today?” He asked as our pint glasses were nearing empty. “Let me tell you what I’ve had good luck with…You boys need another beer?”

Every time we were about to finish up, our genius bartender would wander over with another helpful hint or story about other anglers reeling in monster rainbows. This went on for several rounds. I’m not sure how many beers I had, but I definitely felt smarter and more confident when we left.

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Besides the incredible fishing nearby, Bristol is likely best known for being a NASCAR hotbed and the self-proclaimed birthplace of country music. It also happens to be a pretty hopping town. Crowds of people, young and old, roamed the streets. Music poured from opened doors and windows. After taking in downtown for a bit, we stopped at 620 State, where we gorged ourselves on burgers and beer. We would have spent more time exploring Bristol, but Tim needed the extra rest.

The next day, we headed to Osceola Island, where Fly Box employees suggested we’d have the best luck. The river’s clear blue color stretched on for miles, a reflection of the perfect spring sky.

Before donning our waders, we decided to tie flies to our lines. Tim and I aren’t young men; in fact, we’re both on the downhill side of middle age. Because the current Sulphur hatch the fish were munching on was so small, our flies had to be accordingly tiny. Trying to thread the tippet through the minuscule 18-20 hook eye was a test of my vision, fine motor functions and sanity, and I failed each miserably. Imagine trying to thread a nearly invisible piece of monofilament string through a hole less than half the size of a typical needle eye. I didn’t know if I needed a stronger bifocals or a microscope. After 30 minutes, I’d only managed to tie one fly to my line, and that one was more luck than anything. Realizing I’d likely be there all day (and the next day as well), I gave up and decided to go with just the one. If I lost that fly, my day on the water would be done.

Just as we were about to enter the river, a huge trout leapt from the water and splashed back down. I looked over at Tim and we both grinned, knowing it was going to be one of those epic days we’d tell our friends back home about, but no one would believe (or, let’s face it, really care).

Except that it wasn’t. I cast upstream, half expecting a trout to take the fly before it even landed on the water. The same with my second cast. After a couple more attempts, I tried a different riffle but had the same result. I caught sight of a speckled, flopping horseshoe out of the corner of my eye, with the sound of splashing water immediately after. Seconds later, my Beadhead Flashback was floating over the exact same spot. I stood at the ready, waiting to set the hook but no luck.

South Holston boasts 8,500 fish per mile
South Holston boasts 8,500 fish per mile
Rob Annis

This was supposed to be 8,500 fish per mile of river, how was I not catching at least one? I chalked it up to the competition. Fly fishers from around the nation flock to this river trying to catch these trout; all of them much better anglers than me. I imagined a rainbow looking at my fly awkwardly thumping onto the surface of the water and thinking, “Really? You’re trying to fool me with this weak-ass shit?”

I glanced at Tim, who was having the same bad luck about 30 yards upstream. I’d bragged all night about the browns and bows I’d reeled in the day before, and as he returned my gaze, I knew he didn’t see me, but Pinocchio in size large Orvis waders. To be honest, a few times that morning, I wondered if I’d imagined it all as well. But at least he wasn’t laughing at my lousy casting.

The only fish we saw that day were the ones jumping from the water; with the exception of a tiny nibble or two, we didn’t come close to catching anything that day. After a few hours on the water, Tim tapped out. He was still feeling sick, and instead of sticking around an extra day to fish, he wanted to go home to Indy to recuperate. While he headed north, I drove back to the cabin to drown the day’s failures in pizza and IPAs.

What was supposed to be four days of epic fishing, heavy drinking and light debauchery ended up fizzling like a wet firecracker. It wasn’t all bad; I managed to catch a lot of fish that first day, but the weekend didn’t live up to the anticipation I’d built up in my mind, and that’s okay. Life doesn’t always have a Hollywood ending; sometimes you just make the most of a mediocre situation. Best case scenario, you might eventually get an article out of it.

Although the trip did go awry for the most part, I couldn’t help but smile the next day as I pointed my van toward home. I got to hang out with a good friend, drink some whiskey in a beautiful setting and have a few laughs. More importantly, even if I was skunked the day before, I still hooked more than a dozen fish that weekend while my buddy only caught a cold.


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