When you’re stuck at the office dreaming about trout fishing, certain images come to mind: freestone rivers, snowcapped mountains, golden aspen leaves falling to the ground. In the distance, bull-elk fight over mates. Maybe a dreadlocked hippie lies by the river smoking a particularly pungent plant.
You’re thinking of the Wild West, the Rocky Mountains, or maybe the backcountry of New England.
But, what if I told you that the time you’re spending on dreaming about elaborate trips to far off waters could instead be spent planning out a weekend trip to the world-class trout fishing that can be found south of The Mason-Dixon Line? What if I told you that the world record Brown Trout was caught in a river just a few hours away from an SEC school? What if I told you there’s great trout fishing, right here in God’s country.
Well, I am telling you.
Sure, trout are cold-water fish, and the South isn’t exactly known for its “White Christmases,” but there are fish to be found if you’re looking in the right places. Today I’m going to take you to a few of those places and show you the Top Trout Fishing Destinations in The South. Along the way, we’ll even meet up with a few of my friends who can take you out on the water themselves. Let’s get started.
The White River
Remember earlier when I said the world record for the heaviest brown trout ever caught was broken with a fish from The South? Well, that wasn’t entirely true. It actually happened twice, and it happened in The Natural State- Arkansas.
And it is in Arkansas, nestled between the misty and majestic Ozark Mountains, that the White River lies. Originally fished from longboats for smallmouth bass, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers accidentally transformed this river into a world-class trout fishery in 1938 after building the dams that created Beaver Lake, Bull Shoals Lake, and Table Rock Lake.
These lakes are filled with runoff from the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, and reach considerable depths. The deep water released by the dams creates the cold-water tail-water fishery and sustains the planted trout populations.
No, the brown, rainbow, brook, and even cutthroat trout populations in the White River are not native, but you won’t see too many people complaining about that while they’re pulling in 20-inch fish. The River has crystal clear water and an astonishing 7,500 fish per mile, leading many visitors to call it “an aquarium.” (Seriously, fishing this river will spoil you. If you’ve never fished for trout before, fishing here will be like flying first class- you’ll never want to fly coach.)
But, while the White River does have a variety of trout species to target and an abundance of fish, people come from all over the country looking for one thing in particular: monster brown trout. Catching 20 or 30 fish in a day is not uncommon, but what really gets White River fishermen going is these monster brown trout and their willingness to destroy a streamer. In fact, it is in these waters where the articulated streamer gained its popularity.
On the White River, a 20-inch brown is a good start to the day. A 25 incher will make even the sternest guide crack a grin and ask for a picture. 27-inch fish will provide the topic of conversation for fly-shop banter, and maybe even arouse disbelief from your peers. But to really make riffles in this trout water, you need to start talking about brown trout that break the Dirty Thirty, and start to get measured in pounds. After all, thirty inch brown trout aren’t entirely rare on the White River, and the record is nearly 40 pounds.
The tail water flows out of these dams year round, and thus provides fishing opportunities during all seasons. But the flows can be inconsistent and high, often times requiring a drift boat to safely fish. If you don’t own a boat, or don’t feel like trailering one on the winding roads of the Ozarks, there are plenty of local guides and outfitters who can help you out.
If you’re looking to fish the White River with a guide, give my friend Duane Bell at White River Troutfitters a call. Nobody knows or cares about this fishery more than he does, and the fish seem to respect that.
West North Carolina
This isn’t a specific river and it does sound like someone confusing the names of different sates, but West North Carolina as a whole deserves to be recognized in this list.
The cold-water river systems in this area amount to over 4,000 miles of public trout streams including Deep Creek, Forney Creek, Hazel Creek, and others. The state is also home to some notable private trout streams home to some monster trout.
But my personal favorite river in the area is the Davidson River, and if you fish there you’ll quickly discover why. Don’t trust me? Trout Unlimited named the Davidson River (alongside the nearby Nantahala River) as one of the top 100 trout streams in the country. Not bad, Tar Heel State.
The Davidson River is near the beautiful Pisgah National Forrest and the town of Brevard. Almost entirely catch-and release, the fish in the Davidson River mature to a larger size than the fish in neighboring rivers. Upper sections are home to some self-sustaining populations, but lower sections are filled with mostly stockers. Don’t let this fool you, though. These fish receive quite a bit of pressure and are known to be picky eaters.
Whether you’re looking for a guide on the public waters in this area, or if you’re looking for access to some of the private trophy waters, my buddies over at Davidson River Outfitters will be glad to give you what you want.
The Watauga River
In East Tennessee, near the city of Kingsport, Smoky Mountain runoff fills the banks of the Holston River. The South Fork of this river is widely considered the best trout stream in the state, and with good reason. The Tennessee wildlife agency estimates the population density of the trout in the river to be between 5000 and 6000 trout per mile.
With its high waters and steep banks, the river nearly requires a drift boat to properly and safely fish it. That fact, combined with its well-deserved notoriety, creates a difficult and crowded fishing situation at times. So, while fishing the South Holston is a great idea for you fish hungry readers, it’s not the river we’re featuring.
Fly fishermen looking for more seclusion, and more consistent wade fishing, look no further than the nearby Watauga River.
The Watauga River offers nearly as many fish as the South Holston, without compromising the fly-fisherman’s cherished solitude. Most well known for its caddis hatches, the river also offers streamer-fishing opportunities due to the prevalence of crayfish and leaches. Obviously, the river rewards nymphing as well, but any ricky with a rod and a puddle can catch a fish nymphing so that can go without saying.
If you’re interested in a guided trip on the Watauga or South Holston Rivers, the only name you need to hear is Patrick Fulkrod at The South Holston River Company. I’ll let his resume speak for itself: 2014 Orvis Endorsed Guide of the Year, and 2012, 2013, and 2015 Orvis Endorsed Guide of the Year Finalist.
Top Trout Fishing Destinations in The South
When you first started reading this piece, you may have thought “Trout in the South???” But now you know. You don’t have to be rubbing elbows with Grizzly Bears to find world class trout fishing, and you won’t even have to get on a plane.
There are more trout than you’ll ever be able to catch right here in the South, and many of these fish put your “fish of a lifetime” to shame. So get out there and wet a line, then let us know what you caught.