By Rick Rosenberg
Associate Field Editor
Early spring typically finds me chasing largemouth and striped bass in the large, slick rock canyons of Lake Powell or Lake Mead, enjoying the charms of the southwest desert. When my editor asked if I was available for trip to the lakes and highlands of Middle East Tennessee, I was a little surprised and somewhat intrigued to be invited to fish some of the quality waters in that area of the country. I’d spent some time as a teenager fishing for largemouth bass in the James River system in eastern Virginia and read of some of the quality trout fisheries of the Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains, but I’d never traveling to Tennessee, yet alone to fish.
The folks I’d known from Tennessee from my days traveling with the Army were “woods smart” and “fish crazy”. They hunted turkeys making sounds imitating a corn cob and always caught bigger fish with baits they called “chocolate covered raisins” and such. They were regular “critters”, real friendly and fun to be with. I told my editor, “Of course I’ll go. When do I leave?” Several weeks later I stepped off a jet at Knoxville’s McGhee Tyson Airport, fully expecting to be picked up by Uncle Jed himself. Wow, was I surprised when the driver delivered me to the Crowne Plaza Knoxville downtown. I can honestly say I’ve never had such accommodations on a fishing trip before. Knoxville is a beautiful, modern city with a vibrant downtown filled with art, history, music, entertainment and family fun. Home to the University of Tennessee Volunteers, Knoxville is located on the Tennessee River at the confluence of the Clinch, Holston and French Broad Rivers. With that many rivers, you know the fishing is going to be great.
I was joined by Jimmy Jacobs, an outdoor writer from Atlanta, George and Brad Uhl, publishers of BASSIN’ & CRAPPIE Magazine from Bixby, Oklahoma, for four days of guided fishing on the area’s highland rivers and renowned Norris Lake. The next day we met up with Allen Gillespie and Jon Ody of 3 Rivers Angler, a full service fly shop and guide service located in Knoxville. We loaded out gear and traveled to a launch on the Holston River, below Cherokee Lake, with drift boats in tow. This reach of the Holston is a beautiful river winding its way through subdivisions, farms and woodlands of Jefferson and Knox Counties. The river can be fished by drift boat or wading, though it is recommended to secure permission from property owners to access its banks. After rigging a five weight fly rod with a floating line and 9-foot leader, we were on our way fishing dry flies with a small caddis emerger dropper along the riffles and runs on the river.
It didn’t take long for Jimmy to hook and land several rainbow trout still within sight of the launch ramp. I was feeling a little left out when my dry disappeared and a fat rainbow tested my knots before succumbing to Jon’s net. My first eastern river rainbow- I was hooked. A veteran of the large western rivers like the South Fork of the Snake, the Henry’s Fork, Green and Colorado Rivers, I had discounted their eastern cousins, but not anymore. These Tennessee fish were strong and rewarded my efforts often that morning. Trout are plentiful in the cooler water during the winter and spring and then they go deep and give way to smallmouth bass and stripers during the warmer periods of the summer and fall. I thought, large trout in the winter and smallmouth during the summer, both without leaving my back yard- I could really come to like this place. We enjoyed our day floating the river through the rolling hills and woodlands, catching and releasing fish and enjoying the guide’s stories of past encounters, a cold drink and the warm spring sunshine.
We returned to the fly shop all smiles and excited about the success we’d enjoyed. The 3 Rivers Angler has everything you’ll need for a great day on the water including terminal tackle and flies. They provide rental rods and waders as well as a large selection of rods, reels, lines and fly fishing equipment for sale. The friendly guides are helpful for the novice and the expert angler and can provide a quality experience regardless of your skill level. Spin fishermen are welcome and enjoy similar success on the water using smaller spinners and lures.
We left Knoxville and travelled next to Norris Lake in Campbell County and settled into a comfortable family cabin in Norris Dam State Park. Norris Lake is administered by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and is located just 20 miles north of Knoxville. It is known for its deep, clear waters and is home to 56 varieties of fish including striper, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass and crappie. It covers over 34,000 acres and extends 56 miles up the Powell River arm and 73 miles in the Clinch River arm covering portions of five counties. Numerous marinas offer full boat services including boat rentals, houseboats, boat storage, launch ramps, bait and tackle, as well as some pretty good food and summer entertainment at the various marina restaurants and pubs. Norris Lake is a favorite vacation retreat and has numerous lake front homes and condominiums which look out over the picturesque setting in the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains.
The next morning came early. Our guide for the day, Rod McCarty, of Fishin’ Rod Striper Charters wanted us ready to go at the Sugar Hollow Marina in LaFollette before daylight. Rod loaded the boat, picked up some live shad minnows and soon we headed for Davis Creek just as it was light enough to navigate the lake. He pulled into a cove and began rigging planer boards and down riggers with the live shad swimming free in a 270 degree spread around the boat and we started trolling slowly with the bow mounted trolling motor.
Fish were rolling in the cove and working over a bait ball Rod had noticed on the graph coming in and it didn’t take long for Brad to hook a nice striper. The fish bent the heavy trolling rod and put a big smile on the face of the man from Oklahoma. Rod boated the fish, a very healthy striper in the 10-12 pound class. My rod bent and I set the hook on what appeared to be another striper, but to our surprise a very well fed smallmouth bass favored me with a great fight and an even better photo moment. Brad estimated the fish between five and six pounds. My trip was complete at that point, but only a few minutes later my rod took off again. This time a fat largemouth bass, similar in size to the smallmouth, busted the surface in true green fish fashion.
Now I was really excited. Having fished numerous club tournaments in my native Utah, the possibility of having 12 pounds on two fish in the boat was a dream and it was still early in the day!
Not to be outdone, Jimmy put the whipping on the big fish of the trip, a striper nearly 40 inches long and over 25 pounds. Norris Lake was rapidly moving up my favorites list and I was already trying to figure out a way to get back here. The fishing slowed when the sunlight hit the water and we really appreciated Rod’s insistence at getting us out of bed early. The ride back to the marina offered me the opportunity to email pictures of the fish to my editor and fishing buddies back home, something my brother is still upset about. That evening we gathered at Rickard Ridge BBQ in Caryville and swapped fishing stories while enjoying more fantastic BBQ and bluegrass entertainment in a spectacular setting, overlooking Cove Lake and the Cumberland Mountains.
The next morning found us hooking up with Allen from 3 Rivers Angler and Rocky Cox, a guide with Rocky Top Anglers for a day-long float down the Clinch River from Peach Orchard below Norris Lake Dam, downstream to Clinton. The Clinch is one of the best known tailwater rivers in Tennessee and currently holds the state record for brown trout at 28 pounds 12 ounces. We drifted dry dropper combinations again and threw large streamers, being rewarded occasionally by healthy rainbows and browns. We fished submerged ledges and deep cuts using flies very typical to other tailwater streams; copper johns, San Juan worms, scuds, wooly buggers and leach patterns. The guides were excellent, offering casting advice when you needed it and antidotes about previous successes and failures which kept you laughing and engaged throughout the day. I would highly recommend them if you want to experience a truly enjoyable day on the river.
After checking into a beautiful private cabin at the Twin Cove Resort and Marina on Norris Lake, we joined our hosts with the Tennessee Department of Tourism for a unforgettable evening at the McCloud Mountain Restaurant and Lodge, set high atop the Cumberland Mountains.
The next morning found us traversing the narrow winding roads that circumvent the ridges and valleys around Norris Lake on our way to the Hickory Star Marina to meet up with Mel Cooke of Mel’s Striper Guide Service. Mel’s easy going demeanor and customized bay boat gave me the feeling this would be an enjoyable day, regardless of the fishing. We motored across the glassy waters to the Clinch River arm, past 51 Pound Point and into Lost Creek. Mel set out a 270 degree pattern of un-weighted live shad on medium heavy trolling rods and planer boards, trolled slowly behind the bow mounted trolling motor. Soon the shad were running across the surface in vain and shortly thereafter I landed a very plump 12 pound striper. Each of us took turns fighting stripers in the 10 to 12 pound range. Brad hooked and landed a beautiful smallmouth bass and you could hear the squeal all the way to Knoxville.
The best time to catch stripers on Norris Lake is from late April though early June when the fish migrate up the Clinch River Arm to spawn. As the water warms in July and August, the fish migrate back to the cooler water depths near Norris Dam until October, when the lake turns over and disperses the fish throughout the lake. Special seasonal regulations and size limits apply to help manage the fish size and populations. Annual fishing licenses run February to February and non-residents have the choice of a 3-day, 10-day or annual license. Anglers under 13-years of age are not required to have a license.
After a great day on the water, we travelled to Bubba Brew’s at the Beach Island Marina for a sunset cruise, another fantastic meal and an evening of entertainment including a live southern rock band, complete with dance floor and full bar at the floating grill and pub. It’s advertised as offering “unsurpassed hospitality” and I couldn’t agree more. We retold stories of our fishing adventures over the last few days, even starting a few fledgling legends in the process. We returned to our luxurious cabin and said our goodbyes as each of us were to depart in different directions at different times very early in the morning.
Knoxville and Middle East Tennessee was everything I expected it to be; high quality guides with well-maintained boats and equipment, fantastic food and lodging, well managed fisheries offering ample angling opportunities, combined in a beautiful setting, nestled in the rolling hills of the Cumberland Mountains. The people were friendly everywhere we went and surely made us feel welcomed. As I walked down the concourse at the airport, you could almost hear “y-all come back now”. I’m pretty sure I will.
For more fishing and guide information:
3 Rivers Angler, Allen Gillespie, Knoxville TN, www.3riversangler.com, (877) 563-6424
Fishin’Rod Striper Charters, Rod McCarty, LaFollete TN, firstname.lastname@example.org, (423) 566-1328
Rocky Top Anglers, Michael “Rocky” Cox, email email@example.com, (865) 388-9802
Mel’s Striper Guide Service, Melvin Cooke, Maynardville TN, www.melsstriperguideservice.com, (865) 661-7806
Middle East Tennessee Tourism Council, Molly Gilbert, Knoxville TN, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.easttnvacations.com, (865)209-1820