Fly Fishing On The Watauga River In
The Watauga River is a tailwater trout fishery located in
the upper Northeastern corner of the state of
Tennessee near the little town of Elizabethton. It's cold
water flows through the Wilburn Dam from Wilburn and
Watauga Lakes. The tailwater is stocked with rainbow,
brook and brown trout by the (TWRA) Tennessee
Wildlife resources Agency. There is a small population
of wild trout. Both the rainbow and brown trout holdover
from year to year because the stream stays cold even
during the summer months. There are some very large
brown trout in this river.
The Watauga can be waded when they are not
generating power and fished from a small boat anytime.
It is best if one generator is running if you intend to use
a drift boat. There is a lot of shallow water and canoes
and small rafts are popular. There is not a great deal of
access for the wading angler but a few locations exit.
The main attraction is the opportunity to catch a big
Caution should be used anytime you are fishing a
tailwater, so be sure to check on the discharge schedule
and keep an eye out for changes in the depth. Fly
fishing the Watauga River can be dangerous if you are
not careful wading.
Fly Fishing Guide to the Watauga River:
Fly fishing the Watauga River Tailwater is considered to
be a little on the difficult side by many anglers. The
trout can become selective on certain insects and other
foods. Some areas of the stream are rather smooth
flowing, making it easier for the trout to see the fly in
detail as well as anglers.
Conflicting currents are common and requires good line
handling techniques to get a drag free drift. The river
consist of some fast runs and long sections of riffles but
also some large, long pools. Some sections flow fast and
some slow, depending on the location. Each section
requires different techniques and strategies for success.
The most important factor in strategies are the flows. It is
very important to get the release schedule from the
TVA. It is usually fairly accurate. It determines how you
can fish the river, meaning if you can wade it or you
have to use a boat. Most of the time, the best method is
to fish the river from a drift boat. It allows you to cover
more water and provides many more opportunities than
wading. Of course, drift boats can anchor and the
anglers wade where the action is hot. Several different
sections of the river can be floated.
Public access from the bank is very limited. There are
only a few places that isn't limited by private property.
There are some pull off areas along the Wilburn Dam
Road. You can access the stream from the Wilburn Dam
parking area. There is access on the Blevins Road.
There is access at the Hunter Bridge and some access
on highway #400.
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Photo Courtesy of David Knapp Photography
Recommended Tackle & Gear
5 or 6 weight
Dry fly: 9 to 12 ft., 5 or 6X, Nymphing: 71/2
ft., 3 or 4X, streamers 0-2X
Dry fly: 5 or 6X, Nymphing: 3 or 4X,
Best Fly Rods:
Perfect Fly Superb Five or Ultimate Six
For 5/6 line size
Fly Floatants and Misc Items:
Floatants, KISS Strike Indicators
Tools & Accessories:
Nippers, forceps, retractors, etc.
Watauga River Hatches:
Our information on aquatic insects is based
on our stream samples of larvae and nymphs,
not guess work. We base fly suggestions on
imitating the most plentiful and most available
insects and other foods at the particular time
you are fishing. Unlike the generic fly shop
trout flies, we have specific imitations of all the
insects in the Watauka River and in all stages
of life that are applicable to fishing. If you want
to fish better, more realistic trout flies, have a
much higher degree of success, give us a
call. We not only will help you with selections,
you will learn why, after trying Perfect Flies,
92% of the thousands of our customers will
use nothing else. 1-800-594-4726
The main hatch that occurs on the Watauga
River is the Sulphur. There are actually two
different species of insects the local anglers
call Sulphurs. One is called an Eastern Pale
Evening Dun in most parts of the Eastern
United States. The true Sulphur is the is the
dorothea species the huge Ephemerella
genus of mayflies. The other insect called a
Sulphur by the locals it the invaria
species of the Ephemerella genus of the
Ephemerellidae family of mayflies. Both look
much alike and both species are plentiful.
They do have slightly different behavior
patterns. The Eastern Pale Evening Duns
prefer faster water than the true Sulphurs.
These two hatches last a very long time on
the Watauga. They usually start in May and
continue off and on into the early Fall
Other than the Sulphurs, there are some very
good Blue-winged Olive hatches that take
place. There are several species called
BWOs including the Eastern Blue-winged
olive species. The hatch start taking place in
November and continue all winter and spring
month through the month of June.
The fly-fishing season is year-round on the
The Watauga River fishes good throughout
the winter months. Midges represent the
bulk of the aquatic insect food supply.
Springtime brings about a nice sulphur
hatch and some good dry fly fishing.
Little Black Caddis start hatching in April.
This is a very good hatch that is called the
Mother's day hatch in some parts of the
nation. It last about a month. When it
finishes, various species of Cinnamon
Caddis start hatching. They hatch last
through the month of May.
Black flies are another source of food for
the trout. Trout eat the Black Fly larvae,
pupae and the adults. The colder parts of
the year is black fly season but imitations of
the larvae will take trout all year long.
The river also supports plenty of scuds.
Imitations of scuds usually work best
starting in May but you can catch trout all
year long on them.
Often times, in fact more often than not,
when there are no large aquatic insect
hatches taking place, the midge is king on
the Watauga River. Imitations of the larvae,
pupae and adults will catch trout
throughout the season. Cream midges are
the most common ones but there are also
some light green midges and plenty of
blood midges, or red midge larvae and
pupae. The adults that hatch from the
blood midge pupae are black.
The Watauga River also has a lot of
different types of baitfish and sculpin.
That's the main reason the brown trout
grow to large sizes. The large browns will
also eat crayfish and the river has plenty of
The stream produces trout throughout the
summer months. Terrestrials imitations
become the main dry flies used during the
Autumn provides the next best time to fish
the Watauga Tailwater. The weather and
discharges are usually very stable and
At the time I published this website, we had
only fished this stream about six times. Our
efforts were not made towards catching a
large brown trout. We haven’t had much luck
in catching larger browns using dry flies and
luck is what it will take to do that on dry flies.
Because the stream has very good hatches
for a tailwater, we have stuck with dries on our
few trips. Streamers and nymphs are much
more effective for the larger browns. We have
caught some browns up to fourteen inches
and of course, a lot of stocker rainbows and
smaller browns. We have not
fished the river from a drift boat and as
already mentioned, floating the stream is the
best way to fish it. The odds of hooking a
large brown on a streamer are considered
very good according to the anglers we have
talked to that frequently fish this
I think any angler would be interested in
trying for one of the Watauga's large
holdover brown trout. It is a beautiful little
river. This is especially true in the trophy
section of the stream. It is very near the
South Holston River tailwater, so a visiting
angler could easily fish both tailwaters
although I wouldn’t advise that for a one-day
I definitely rate it as a good “destination”
stream along with the South Holston. By
"destination stream" I mean a stream that is
worth the time and effort it takes to travel
there to fish it.
|Options For Selecting Flies:
1. Email us (firstname.lastname@example.org)
with the dates you will be fishing this
stream and we will send you a list of our
fly suggestions. Please allow up to 24
hours for a response.
2. Call us 800-594-4726 and we will help
you decide which flies you need.
3. Email us (email@example.com)
with a budget for flies and we will select
them to match the budget and get them to
you in time for your fly fishing trip.
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Headlines: The river is still in good
shape. The discharges and stream
levels remain low, and wading is
safe and easy in the few places
one can normally wade on low
water. Most of it is too deep to
wade. Drift boat should be able to
do just fine with the low flows as
well. There are still some little
Sister caddis hatching and some
little BWOs as well. Keep up with
the latest info on the river from our
weekly updated fishing report
Map of Watauga River
Copyright 2017 James Marsh