Copyright 2016 James Marsh
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.
Watauka 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.
All orders are shipped free in the
U. S. Orders over $50 are shipped via
Headlines: The river is low with
slow flows perfect for wading. It isn't
that you can wade all sections but
you can wade some that you cna't
wade when any water is being run.
Our customers are catching some
huge brown trout. They are in the
pre-spawn stage and some actually
spawning. Please leave them
alone. There are some very good
blue-winged olive hatches taking
place and trout can still be caught
on the surface. Keep up with the
latest info on the river from our
weekly updated fishing report
Map of Watauga River
10/15/15 The brown trout are in the pre-spawn and spawning mode right now. It is a good time
to catch a big one. The weather is going to be cooler and there is almost no rain forecast.
Great Autumn Brown Sedges are hatching. That written, don't forget that Matuka and Brown
Sculpin streamers work great for the many big browns in the Watauga. Blue-winged Olives are
hatching along with three species of caddis.
10/21/15 Great conditions exist right now on the Watauga. Anglers are catching some very big
brown trout. They are in the spawning and pre-spawn stages depending on exactly where you
are fishing. The pre-spawners are very aggressive and will take streamers like our Brown
Sculpin good. Blue-winged olives are hatching and bring some trout to the top but the bright
sun has the hatch rather sparse.
10/28/15 There are high wind warning for today and tomorrow. We don't recommend fishing
from a boat. There is rain forecast through tomorrow and again Sunday and Monday, so we
expect them to be running some water. Be sure to get the discharge schedule. Blue-winged
olives are hatching good, especially with all the cloud cover.
11/04/15 It couldn't be any warmer and comfortable to fish than it is right now. There is some
more rain on the way and that means some more discharges during the next few days. You
will have to monitor the release schedule. Brown trout are spawning, so please don't bother
their redds. Blue-winged olives and Midges are the key insects to imitate.
11/11/15 It doesn't appear to be ever be turning to the normal Fall weather pattern for this
river. It is still warm, but some cold nights are ahead. Hatches should be down to midges and
Blue-winged olives. The Brown Sculpin has been the top producing fly for the past three
weeks. That's because of the either aggressive spawning browns or hungry post-spawn
11/18/15 Heavy rain in the Watauga River headwaters in North Carolina is likely to force some
high discharges this coming week. The chances of wading will be slim but keep a close check
on the schedule. Blue-winged olives and midges are hatching good. Brown Sculpin streamers
continued to catch some big post-spawn brown trout this past week.
11/25/15 The discharges have been heavy recently and should be subsiding since the rain
has stopped. There is more coming tate this weekend and the first of next week, but there
should be some windows of opportunity there, even for those that wade. Blue-winged olives
and midges are the only insects to imitate. The Brown Sculpin Streamer has been the hot fly
12/02/15 Everyone in the same general area of the Watauga probably knows we have had a
huge amount of rain the last three days. Discharges are very high and will probably be that
way for two to three days or more at the least. Fishing should be good as soon as the stream
levels get down to where it is feasible to fish it. The Brown sculpin was a hot fly prior to this
and probably will be again very soon.
12/09/15 It looks like the TVA will be running a lot of water for the next few days. They have to
get the lake levels back down to Winter levels. You will just have to keep a close check on the
discharge schedule to see if there is a window of opportunity. Notice we have added Winter
stoneflies to the list. They will begin to hatch anytime. It is going to be very warm this coming
12/16/15 What a great forecast. It is going to continue to be warm for the next few days. There
is some rain in the forecast and it may require the TVA to run solme water at times but they
are not showing any for the next two days. It should be a great time to catch some nice trout.
The Brown Sculpin streamer has been a top producing fly but midges and Winter stonefly
nymphs should work great.
12/23/15 Check the release schedule to make sure, but for now the TVA is saying they will not
be running the turbines for today or tomorrow. That means you have some great wading
opportunities. It will be warm with a chance of rain everyday next week and that is likely to
change soon. The Brown Sculpin fly is a good one to use with the cloud cover. Otherwise,
midges should be the flies to use.
12/30/15 I checked the TVA release schedule thinking the discharge might be high and as on
right now, they are showing they are running no generators today or tomorrow. I say go if you
possibly can. Midges, winter stonefly nymphs and the Brown Sculpin streamers are the flies
01/06/16 When I checked to power company discharge schedule I was almost shocked. It was
sure they would still be running turbines but they are showing zero for today and tomorrow. It
is a very good time to give the trout a chance. Midges, winter stoneflies, black fly larva and
pupa and the Brown Sculpin streamer should more than do it.
01/20/16 Now and tomorrow are excellent times to fish the Watauga. They are showing no
generation during that period. It has been high for a long time and now is the time to catch
one of the big browns. By the way, the White Belly sculpin is the fly to use to do it. Midges and
little winter stonefly nymphs will also work well.
01/20/16 This stream should provide an excellent opportunity to catch some trout at least
today and tomorrow. They are not running water and you should be able to wade. We
recommend fishing near the dam as it is legal to do so, because the bottom discharge of
water is warmer than it is downstream of there. Midges and Winter stoneflies are the main flies
you need to be using.
01/27/16 You will have to check with TVA to get the discharge schedule linked in the fishing
report but the discharges should be low this coming week. There is little rain and snow in the
forecast. The weather is going to be warmer. Little BWO nymphs, winter stoneflies, midges
(cream and red) and Sculpin streamers are the flies you need to use.
02/03/16 The warm weather was nice but it is back to the normal February weather. It has
rained a lot today and I expect the power company will be running some water but you never
know and can't always base it on rainfall amounts. You will just have to check the schedule, as
always. Midges, little BWO nymphs, Winter stoneflies and Black Flies make up the menu for
this coming week.
02/10/16 The Watauga is in good shape with good stream levels that will remain good at least
through tomorrow. There is snow in the forecast most days during the next week. Midges,
Winter stoneflies and Black flies are the main insects you should be imitating. Fish the slack
current and holes in the bottom of runs and pools that are out of the main current.
02/17/16 They are going to be running water for the next two days and probably more.
Hopefully, anglers will get a break in the heavy discharges before the weekend ends. There is
more rain coming the first of next week and the lake level will likely rise. Midges, winter
stoneflies, little BWO nymphs and sculpin streamers are the flies you need to be using.
02/24/16 The Watauga was getting in great shape before the heavy rain started. The water is
warmer but high discharges are likely to continue for at least two or three days. You will have
to watch the release schedule to know when you have a good opportunity to fish. Winter
stoneflies, little Blue- Winged olives and Black Flies could hatch. Midge hatches are very likely.
03/02/16 The TVA is running a lot of water for the next two days for sure and most likely, for
the remained of the week. You have to keep checking, of course, but hopefully, they will slack
up some by the weekend. Midges, little Blue-winged olives, Black Flies and little Winter
stoneflies are hatching.
03/09/16 The weather is going to be very warm with some chance of rain this coming
weekend. The TVA keeps running a lot of water but surely, they will be showing down at some
point in time. You just have to keep checking the short schedule. Blue-winged olives and
Cream and Red (Blood) midges are hatching good and some trout have been taken on the
03/15/16 The river is still flowing fast and high. The schedule is showing that will continue for
at least two more days. Hopefully, that will change soon and provide some lower levels and
better flows. Meantime, streamers are the best choice of flies. Midges and Blue-winged olives
are hatching good and will be the main target to imitate when the discharges drop back down.
03/23/16 The discharges should begin to settle back down. We are basing that on the lake
level but you will still need to check the discharge schedule, of course. Midges and little
Blue-winged olives continue to be the only hatches but streamers, especially our Brown
Sculpin, has taken the most fish and for sure, the larger ones.
03/30/16 The Watauga tailwater is in great shape right now, and likely to remain in great
shape. The stream levels and discharges are looking good for the next two days and based
on the lake level, shouldn't change much. There is some rain forecast, so make sure you
check the schedule. Little Black caddis should begin to hatch, if not already.
04/06/16 The discharge schedule looks great right now. There is a lot of rain in the forecast
and that will eventually change the discharges, so go as soon as you can. Customers of ours
have been catching a lot of trout on midges and little BWOs and early and late in the day, the
Brown Sculpin Streamers. They also work great when it is cloudy and raining.
04/13/16 There is going to be some great opportunity for both boating and wading anglers the
next couple of days and most likely, the next week. Little Black Caddis may be hatching on the
lower end of the river. The water is getting a little warmer. Blue-winged olives and midges are
hatching every day. There is no rain in the forecast for the next week.
04/20/16 Conditions for fly fishing the Watauga tailwater have been great this past week and
they should continue to be good this coming week. There is little rain in the forecast but we
don't think it will change the discharge schedule very much, so there should continue to be
good opportunity to wade some sections. There are lots of caddis on the water and plenty of
little BWO hatches.
04/27/16 The conditions have been great this past week with lots of wading opportunities and
it will continue at least for two or three more days. There is rain in the forecast for the next
week, and that could change the discharge schedule later on. Several hatches are taking
place and our customers are reporting some very good catches.
05/04/16 The discharge schedule looks good for the next couple of days. There is a chance
of rain every day but the accumulation isn't expected to be all that much, so the levels may
stay good. The Eastern Pale Evening duns that locals call Sulphurs are hatching good along
with the Blue-winged olives. The Little Black Caddis are still present to some extent but will be
replaced with Cinnamon Caddis soon.
05/11/16 The Watauga has been great this past week. We have several customers who
caught good numbers of trout and some nice size ones at that. There have been some good
wading opportunities makes it even better. The discharge schedule is good for the next
couple of days but there is a lot of rain in the forecast, so make sure you check it.
05/18/16 Right now the Watauga is in excellent condition with low flows. They are not running
turbines today or tomorrow. This is likely to change with all the rain in the forecast, meaning
every day for the coming week. High flows can only be done from a boat and usually means
streamer fishing. That does get some big trout but hurts the dry fly fishing, which is very good
05/25/16 The discharge schedule of the TVA is looking pretty good for the next two days.
There should be some wading opportunities, but a drift boat is still the best way to fish this
river. There is rain forecast every day but the chances are very low so maybe the discharges
will be less than it has been the past two weeks. Sulphurs and Eastern PMDs are hatching
along with lots of caddisflies.
06/01/16 The cloudy skies continue to help the Blue-winged olive hatches take place. They
are the most consistent of the hatches. Cinnamon Caddis are also plentiful. The Sulphurs
hatches and EPEDs called Sulphurs, are sporadic so far. Streamers like the Brown sculpin
have produced well early and late and under the heavy cloud cover.
06/08/16 This is one of the best tailwaters for large brown trout in the eastern United States.
You need to put a lot of work into casting streamers, but the conditions are often perfect for
them, especially when the skies are cloudy. We received some good reports last week even
though the flows were often high. Sulphurs and three species of caddis represent the majority
of the hatches.
06/15/16 Conditions for fly fishing the Watauga have been very good this past week.
Discharges have been suitable for anglers much of the time. Hopefully, this will continue to be
the cast. Our customers are sending in some very good reports catching trout on dry flies
from the Sulphur hatches and caddis egg laying activity.
06/22/16 The Watauga is in as good of shape as it ever is at this time of the year. Discharges
have provided some time for wading in a few cases this past week. There is a chance of rain
everyday this coming week and the cloud cover is always welcome. Fish the caddis pupa
during the hatch, using mid afternoons, and adults late in the day. There are both Green
sedges and Cinnamon Sedges hatching.
06/30/16 There have been some very nice trout caught on the Watauga recently. The
discharges and stream levels have been down and providing a lot of opportunity for anglers.
We had three good reports from customers this past week. There are still a lot of insects
hatching. The late afternoon egg laying caddis brings a lot of trout to the net in a snort
amount of time. Don't leave the river too early.
07/06/16 They are running two turbines today. Sculpin streamers fished early and late in the
day should work, or if it is cloudy, you can fish them all day. There are a lot of hatches.
Sulphurs and three species of caddisflies are hatching. Customers have been catching a lot
of trout on top on the dry fly. The skies should be cloudy most of the coming week, with a
chance of rain every day.
07/13/16 There is another week ahead with a chance of rain aout every day. The total
amounts that feel this past week from the same forecast, wasn't much. There were some
opportunities to wade at times. There are sill good Sulphur hatches taking place and the late
afternoon egg laying activity of the caddisflies has continued to be very good. Again, if
possible, fish the last couple of hours of daylight for the best results.
07/20/16 The weather is going to be very hot this coming week as I'm sure most of you know,
but keep in mind it has little effect on the water temperature and that is mostly the middle and
lower end of the river. Lots of hatches are till taking place, mostly caddis, but some sulphurs.
The egg laying caddis activity take place the last three hours of the day and give you the best
opportunity to catch trout.
07/27/16 They have been running a lot of water in the afternoons recently. There is rain in the
forecast every day for the coming week and the heavy discharges are likely to continue. The
weather will be cooling off some after tomorrow. Right now, the water is getting a little to warm
in the lower part of the river but fine in the middle and upper sections. There are lots of caddis
and some Sulphurs still hatching.
08/03/16 Streamer fishing has been decent in the upper sectin of the river. There is a lot of
Blue-winged olives, non-baetis species, hatching each day. The are small, size 18-20. There
are lots of caddisflies hatching, consisting of two species. These hatch mid afternoons and
deposit their eggs the last two hours of daylight. Fish late in the day if you can.
08/10/16 The Watauga has been good to those fishing it the last few weeks. The discharges
and stream levels have given plenty of opportunity to drift boat anglers and sometimes those
wading. The pattern lately has been running turbines in the afternoon and not in the morning.
Early morning streamer fishing has been good for our customers using the White Belly and
Matuka Sculpin patterns.
08/17/16 There's a good chance of rain everyday this coming week. That means cloud cover
and that's a help. We received more reports of good numbers of trout being caught this past
week. There are some good caddisfly hatches taking place with both Cinnamon Caddis and
Green Sedges. Little sister caddis will be starting soon.
08/30/16 If you want to catch some large brown trout, try fishing our Matuka Sculpin streamer
or the Brown sculpin streamer during the morning hours. The earlier, the better. Caddisflies
are hatching during the middle of the day until about 3:00. The egg laying takes place the last
three hours of the day and this brings a lot of trout to the surface to feed.
09/07/16 It looks like afternoon releases of water will continue but of course, you never know
for sure without checking the schedule. There are still a lot of caddisflies hatching.
Remember, they hatch mid afternoons but deposit their eggs the last hour or two of daylight.
Early morning streamers did well for some customers the past weekend. The last hour or two
of the day provides the best opportunity to catch numbers of trout.
09/14/16 The river is still in good shape and flowing along at about the same rates as it was
last week. The weather remains hot but has little effect except in the lower middle and lowest
sections of the river. The cool discharges keep the hatches going. Notice, we added
Mahogany Duns to the fly list as they are starting to hatch. Streamers, like our Brown Sculpin,
are working early and late in the day.
09/21/16 The weather is still going to be hot this coming week. In makes no difference in the
upper part but affects it somewhat in the middle and lower sections of the river. They seem to
stick to running two turbines in the later part of the afternoon for a couple of hours. That
leaves plenty of time to wade the sections that normally can be waded on low water levels.
Mahogany duns, BWOs, and Cinnamon Sedges are hatching.
09/28/16 Things are really looking good for those planning a trip to the Holston in the near
future. The weather is turning cooler and that will help the lower sections. Brown trout are
getting in the love mode and a little aggressive. We had two good reports this past week of
some nice ones caught. Caddisfly hatches will be slowing done some but the Blue-winged
olives will get better and better.
10/12/16 The river is in very good shape with good discharge levels and flows. There are
some nice BWO hatches occurring, especially when it is cloudy. Our customers are catching
good numbers of trout. There are some very nice size browns being caught on our Brown
Sculpin and White Belly Sculpin streamers. The browns are nearing the pre-spawn stage and
10/19/16 The discharges and stream levels have been low and will likely continue to be low.
There is little rain in the forecast for the coming week. Our customers are catching some very
nice size brown trout. They are in the pre-spawn stage and taking our Brown sculpin readily.
There are some very good Blue-winged olive hatches taking place as well. There are still
some little Cinnamon caddis hatching.