Cold but the best conditions we’ve seen in a while

We hitched up the drift boat yesterday and headed to the Holston River. The original weather forecast was for 42 and sunshine when we originally made arrangements, but every subsequent forecast would degrade ever so slightly and by the time we arrived on the water it was overcast with a slight breeze. I don’t know if temperatures were in the low 30’s or high 20’s but we had ice in the rod guides all day so we know it was never above 32 degrees.

But when you make a living as a fly fishing guide you’re keenly aware of the fact you get what you get, so we pressed on.

And away we go

And away we go

In all honesty we were expecting some great midge fishing. Cold, overcast days with low flows are usually great for finding plenty of fish sipping these tiny bugs. Now the second thing we expected didn’t happen. Virtually no bugs. Occasionally a single midge would lift off the water but hardly what you could call a hatch and certainly not enough to motivate any fish in the river.

We started with a couple of different small streamers and were absolutely appalled that we didn’t so much as even get a half hearted follow. This was pretty hard to swallow since there were an incredible number of dead and stunned shad minnows drifting down the river. We had them matched up pretty good and fished a number of retrieve styles, focusing primarily on a slow, twitch and die retrieve.

At this point things were starting to look grim….

We were approaching one of my favorite spots on the river and changed over to a double nymph rig with a split shot to ensure the flies got down. It was obvious the fish weren’t going to move out of their way for anything. We fished a Zelon Nymph on bottom with a Copper John on top. There was no real expectation for the Copper John other than to fish a flashy fly to contrast the dull one and add extra weight. (We also have a great free download about fishing Copper John)

Charity’s made the first drift through the deep run and her strike indicator when down with authority. Finally! We were just happy for a hook up, but this was much more than an average fish. I allowed the boat to coast down the run with the fish so it wouldn’t get too far from us and eased the boat into shallow water. I hopped out of the boat with the net. If you’ve ever been in a drift boat with a guide who jumps out of the boat with the net you know this is serious business. Guides will dip foot long fish from the boat all day long but can’t bear the thought of a big fish at the boat that breaks the tippet by bouncing off an oar or wrapping up in the anchor line. The fish came to the net with little drama, but it was a good one.

I don't know about your standards, but we'd call this a good one

I don’t know about your standards, but we’d call this a good one

The rest of the day was relatively uneventful. There were some more hook ups and plenty of missed strikes as well. We took the time to really work the best water and stuck with the nymphs all day long.


As the afternoon wore on there were more boils on the surface as a mild midge hatch started. It wasn’t anything to get very excited about, but it’s always nice to have rising fish to target. I switched to a #16 Thunderhead in place of a strike indicator and put a #20 Zebra Midge about 12″ under it. That did pretty good and most of the rising fish had a go at the Zebra Midge.

It always feels warmer when you're catching some fish

It always feels warmer when you’re catching some fish

It’s important to note that we never saw any full fledged rises, only the tell tale boils of fish intercepting midge pupa near the surface. There weren’t any true rises, but that’s essentially fishing midges on our local tailwaters anyway.

This weekend looks to have good flows on the Holston River. There should also be some good flows on the Watauga and South Holston as well. Those who favor the Clinch… We just hope your used to all the big water by now because you won’t be wading there this weekend.

Anyone considering the mountain streams will find cold water. Another solid layer of snow fell on the mountains last night and that’s on top of hoarfrost creating by a couple of days of freezing mist. You will probably be able to pound up a few fish on nymphs fished deep, but expect it to be colder than the civilized parts of East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.




  1. Jim Gibson says:

    Nice report. A very nice fish indeed. Ian, you know that is a warm day up here in Michigan. Sort of a regular Steelhead trip. 5 degrees outside today and -5 tonight. Hope to see +32 some day soon, The snow is so deep, I wonder if we will be able to get to the river. Most since 1977. Enjoy the warm weather down there. See you in April.

    • Ha! It’s a tough winter when our better weather days are considered Michigan days. 40-45 in the afternoon is pretty typical this time of year and there’s been very little of that. Supposed to be mid-40’s tomorrow afternoon but that’s after light snow tonight. Even when we get negotiable weather days most water hasn’t been at a flow low enough to fish. Just getting bearable weather synched up with the water flows has been a treat this winter.