With deft oar strokes, Bill Stranahan steered his high-prowed Clackacraft through the first set of shoals below the put-in. I stood behind him, legs braced for balance in the rear of the gently rocking drift boat. Stripping fly line off the reel, I made a tentative first cast and watched a foam grasshopper bob downstream over the riffles.
That fly carried with it stresses of the unprecedented situation that ensnarled us all in late April. And at the end of the drift, when I raised the fly off the water, concerns over COVID-19 drifted right on downstream, washed away by focus inherent to the sport. For the moment, all that mattered existed between the banks of the Hiwassee River in Reliance, Tennessee.
This stretch, about an hour east of Chattanooga, is one of the best tailwater trout fisheries in the Southeast. Fed with cold, oxygenated water from Apalachia Lake, the Hiwassee rolls wide and shoal-broken through a mountain valley in undeveloped national forest. It is beautiful, and an abundance of aquatic insect life has earned the "Hi" a reputation for excellent dry fly fishing.
Simply put, dry flies float on the surface. They mimic the adult winged stage in the life cycles of insects, when bugs are carried helplessly on the current like a conveyor belt of fish food. Trout rise to pluck real flies from the surface film, and it's possible for an angler to indentify and target specific fish with artificial flies.
This style of fishing is considered by many to be the purest form of the sport, and it sure is fun when conditions are right. On the Hiwassee, there is a time window pretty much every day when conditions are right to fish a dry.
Try your hand
Guide/Information: Southeastern Anglers, southeasternanglers.com, 866-558-7688, firstname.lastname@example.org
When we fished in April, the dry fly action started in the afternoon with a spattering of small moth-like caddis flies. Trout were rising, leaving telltale ripple rings on the surface where they fed. We caught a few on small, size 14, bucktail caddis patterns, but the fish refused the fly more often than not.
The scenario presented a puzzle to be solved. And we needed the solution so Stranahan's 15-year-old stepdaughter, Hannah James, could catch her first trout on a dry fly.
When bugs are on the water, trout tend to key in on one type of insect and reject anything not quite to their liking. Selecting the right fly is important, and so is presenting the fly in a manner that appears natural to the fish. Accurate casts and skillful line management are required to drift a fly naturally over feeding fish. This is when teaching is an invaluable skill for a good guide.
With some patient coaching from her stepdad, a veteran with Southeastern Anglers guide service, Hannah repeatedly achieved good drag-free drifts. We all watched her fly with anticipation, but the trout weren't having any of it.
It was time for a fly change. Nature presented us with an emphatic clue as thousands of small Hendrickson mayflies began swarming in the air like self-propelled snowflakes. With a new, size 16, Hendrickson pattern tied on, Hannah watched the take and set the hook on her first dry-fly fish. There was much rejoicing as she released it carefully and went on to catch several more.
Hannah's fish were a highlight of a trip that featured one fish after the next falling for several different flies and techniques. The biggest of the bunch, a stocky 18-inch rainbow, ate a Pheasant Tail Nymph fished near the bottom.
There are a lot of good fish in the Hiwassee thanks to frequent stockings by Tennessee's Wildlife Resources Agency. The biggest ones are the holdovers which survive through the seasons to grow huge on abundant food sources. These giants are cagey and tough to catch, but they are out there.
The Hi in Summer
Through the seasons, there's a changing cast of insects that keep Hiwassee River trout looking to the surface. Spring and summer bring out the river's most famous hatches. Caddis, Hendricksons, sulphurs and giant yellow stoneflies present a mix of options during warm evenings. But fish develop a definite preference when slate drakes show up.
These big, dark-colored mayflies (Isonychia Bicolor) are matched with a size 8 to 12 fly pattern. It's fun fishing because the flies float high, like little sailboats. Their size makes them irresistible to trout and easy to see on the water.
As a tailwater, with water conditions dictated by cold flows from the bottom of a lake, the Hiwassee maintains relatively stable temperatures year-round. This is good for trout, which thrive in water colder than 70 degrees, and it's also more comfortable for humans. When the summer sun beats down, it's always noticeably cooler in the river bottom, and there's nothing stopping an angler from dipping their hat in the cold water or wading into the river for some relief from the heat.