The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

February 9, 2014

Southern trip beats cabin fever

Clint Ferguson
For The Register-Herald

BECKLEY — With the colder than normal temperatures and frozen rivers and lakes, fishing has been out of the question lately. Unless you like to fish through a hole in the ice (conditions have been great for that). Fish slow down their metabolism during the cold winter months to conserve energy and become sluggish.      

Fishing during the winter requires a low and slow approach. The fish will be on the bottom in the deeper, calmer pools so plenty of weight is required to get down to where the fish are concentrated. But with the below zero temperatures we experienced last month, even the moving rivers froze completely over, making fishing impossible.

A bad case of cabin fever was starting to set in, and something had to give. My fishing stuff had been sitting idle for way too long and it was time to knock the dust off and get back on the water. The only dilemma was, there was nothing but ice all around here and nowhere to go. That’s when the thought of heading south like a migrating bird hit me.  

The South Holston River is located near Bristol and Johnson City in the beautiful eastern Tennessee mountains. The South Holston, or SoHo as the locals call it, is a tailwater fishery full of wild brown and rainbow trout.

The cold water and abundant aquatic insects provide ideal trout habitat.  It never freezes and you can fish it all year round. I checked the forecast for last weekend and with 60 degree temperatures predicted, I packed the truck and was ready to go feel the heat wave.

The SoHo is managed by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) as a hydroelectric and flood control dam. It has controlled releases of water in which it posts on a TVA website. They’ll usually let you know what’s predicted two days ahead and always let you know what’s going on that day.

It’s crucial to check the release schedule and then plan on when to fish.  When they are generating, the water is too high to safely wade-fish, but you can still float it. On the Friday we ventured down, they stopped generating at 11 a.m. We arrived around 1:30 p.m. and caught the tail end of a blue winged olive (bwo) mayfly hatch.

The aquatic insects also react to the falling water and once the water starts to drop the mayflies start to hatch. It’s amazing how quick the water drops and the river shrinks in size. It will come up fast as well, and that’s why it’s important to know when they are releasing.

There was one spot on the river that had treated us well on past trips that I wanted to fish. When we pulled in the parking lot it was empty which put an even bigger smile on my face. We wasted no time in suiting up and heading to that hole.

When we got there, the fish were rising and a few blue winged olives were still coming off, so we knew exactly what to tie on. Tara ended up having the hot hand and caught several decent browns before the sun and temperatures dropped. I don’t know what I was doing other than wading all over the place. I’ll admit I was a tad rusty. Tara, on the other hand, just picked up where she left off.

The next day, the TVA only pulsed for an hour, from 10 to 11 a.m. We were in the river when the water started rising. I caught 2 small browns on consecutive casts as the water was coming up, before retreating to the bank to take a lunch break. After lunch we ventured downriver to try and catch the rising and falling water. It was a good idea, because when we got there, once again the fish were eating blue winged olives. I eased into the river, and on my second cast caught a beautiful rainbow trout with a deep, dark red stripe and gill plate.

A couple of quick pictures and I sent him on his way. I caught a couple more rainbows, and then noticed this decent brown trout slowly sipping in the far current. I waded on out and after a few casts caught him on a dropper fly that was imitating an emerging bwo. Sometimes when fish are rising and barely breaking the surface, they’re feeding on the emerging mayflies in the film just before they take flight. This was the case with this brown.

I finally got into a rhythm after that and caught a few more before dark. It actually got up to 64 that day, and at one point I thought I was getting sunburnt. The warm rays of the sun felt too good, as well as the tug of a few fish.    

It’s back to a white landscape for now, but I’m not complaining because, after all, it is winter. The cabin fever has been cured for now and spring is only a couple of months away. The South Holston River is a great place to fish, especially in the winter when fishing is out of the question here.