Gerald Almy: Hiwassee produces big-water feeling

Gerald Almy

Easing into the crystal clear river I stripped line from the reel, false cast briefly, and dropped the No. 16 Blue-Winged Olive carefully onto the surface. Tensing, I waited nervously as the fly drifted 10 feet downstream then disappeared into a slow, slurping rise that could only be made by a big brown.

And big it was. The trout lurched off on a hard run as the reel screeched, then wallowed and thrashed in contortions on the surface. After several tense moments, I gradually worked the 18-inch fish in and slipped the bedraggled fly out of his jaw. As the day unfolded, a dozen more browns and rainbows fell for my dry flies and nymphs.

If you think that scene took place on one of a legendary western trout rivers like the Bighorn or Yellowstone, or maybe a famous Catskill stream like the Beaverkill, you’re in for a surprise. It took place on eastern Tennessee’s Hiwassee River. Not only is the fishing on this river incredibly productive, it also offers the big-water feel of large western rivers, spreading nearly as wide as the length of a football field in some stretches. If you’re interested in an out-of-state trout trip, this river would be a fine destination. Basically it’s a long drive straight down interstate 81.

Like many of the country’s best trout rivers, the Hiwassee is a tailwater stream. Its ability to hold trout comes from the lake above it, which releases cold water from its depths, keeping the temperature at trout-friendly levels even during hot summer months. But while some of Tennessee’s tailwater trout rivers are actually too cold to harbor heavy aquatic insect populations, the Hiwassee flows just a bit warmer, meaning prolific hatches and great dry fly action.

While you can find rising trout on the Hiwassee virtually all year, spring and summer are the best times of year to fish the river. Both wading and float fishing are productive then, with lots of hatches occurring. Quill Gordons and Hendricksons are the first hatches in spring. They are soon joined by Blue-Winged Olives, Sulphurs, Light Cahills and Slate Drakes, as well as caddis hatches such as the Little Black, Tan and Olive in May and June. Midges are also abundant and terrestrial patterns such as ants, beetles, crickets, and grasshoppers work extremely well from now through fall.

The Hiwassee actually emerges in the mountains of northeastern Georgia, draining 750,000 acres. But it’s after the water passes through four impoundments and spews out of a 10-mile tunnel below Appalachia Dam that it becomes a trout heaven. Most of the river is open for lure and bait fishing, but the Hiwassee is a paradise for fly fisherman.

As with all tailwater streams, fishing can vary with the power generation. Trout feed best when there is some generation, but not too much. Heavy releases can make wading difficult and potentially dangerous. Always get out quickly if the water begins to rise and wear a floatation vest.

The first few miles below the Appalachia Tunnel run fast with lots of Class II rapids that attract whitewater rafters when heavy releases occur. When this situation occurs, streamers, weighted nymphs and lures are the best bets.

Float fishing can be productive any time, but is especially good when water flow is heavy. Then you can slap streamers up against the shore and near rock jams and eddies to lure heavy browns and bows searching for a big mouthful. If you’re wade fishing without a boat, a good bet is to simply move to lower waters further downstream and fish them until the water releases arrive, which can take up to several hours.

The Hiwassee offers lots of spots where the angler can simply park their car, walk a short distance and start casting. There are numerous pull-off spots on Hwy 30 along the south side of the river and Forest Rd 108 on the north side. Other access points include the Power House, the Hwy 411 Boating Access Area, Gee Creek Campground, the Reliance take-out, the Childers Creek Parking Area and the Big Bend Parking Area.

From Appalachia Dam downstream to the U.S. 411 bridge the river flows through Cherokee National Forest.

Chattanooga is about an hour’s drive away, Atlanta three hours. Motels and restaurants are available in Cleveland, about 25 miles to the west.

Hiwasseeanglers.com and Hiwasseeoutfitters.com offer cabins for nightly rentals near the river. A number of guide services offer both float trips and wade fishing on the river, including hiwasseeanglers.com, flyfishtennessee.com, and southeasternanglers.com. All of these outfitters also offer advice on flies and information on current water release schedules.

The Hiwassee River chapter of Trout Unlimited has a website that offers up to date weekly fishing reports, information on water releases and current hatches. Check out their site at Hiwassee.net.

This is a big, potentially powerful river, so wade carefully, wear a floatation vest and always get out quickly if the water starts to rise. Bring an 8½-9 foot rod for a 4-6 weight line and an extra spool with a sink-tip for streamer fishing when the water is running heavy.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.