Float Fishing on the Harpeth

On The Fly Freshwater

By Joe Shaffer

September 2020

As the water current raced between the deeply cut banks of the Narrows of the Harpeth near Kingston Springs, Tennessee, I looked on with dismay. My little kayak would be tossed around like a toy in the current and wading from the bank wasn’t an option after the rain squalls of the previous week. The soft clay would be impossible to grip in case I needed to scramble out. Maybe if I could just get to that island in the center of the river I could fish from there.

The water isn’t awfully deep in this section and I bet there’s bass on the lee side waiting to jump on anything coming by in the current. Just then, a rather large tree of indeterminate species went by at a pace that would have been impressive in the America’s Cup. I decided to let the water calm down for another few days.

Photo courtesy of Tennessee State Parks.

The Narrows of the Harpeth State Historic Area is one of nine segments of the Harpeth River State Park that are positioned along a 40 mile stretch of the river. One oddity of the river here is the man-made Montgomery Bell Tunnel that carries a portion of the river flow through the shoreline mountain, cutting off a long bend in the flow. It was built in 1819 to provide water power to an iron foundry at the site. Today the exit forms a small water fall where the water re-enters the main river.

Tennessee likes to apply the term “scenic” to its waterways. Sometimes this honorific is applied somewhat liberally. I’ve seen scenic Tennessee waters with more used tires than fish. Fortunately, the Harpeth River is deserving of the term. The river is sizable, running approximately 115 miles through the Middle Tennessee region before its terminus in the Cumberland River near the town of Franklin.

The Harpeth is a popular destination for anglers of all types. The river is home to 85 fish species, including the invasive and polarizing Asian carp. During the winter months the river is included in the state’s trout stocking program. Releasing hatchery rainbows into the water at predetermined locations along the stream offers some decent trout fishing without the drive to the mountains in the east or concerns of surprise generation in the shadow of the TVA dams.

But as the bold greens of summer softened around me in the September sun, it was still too early for trout. The bass, almost as if noticing the first few golden and red leaves dappling onto the surface of the waters of the Narrows, began cruising up near the shallows to begin bulking for the winter. The river holds a healthy bass population year-round, with a nearly frustrating amount of panfish and shad for the larger black bass to feed on.

Photo by Joe Shaffer.

Back for a second try, as I launched my kayak, planning a relatively short 11-mile float though the Narrows, I was optimistic. The sky was a flat blue with gentle wisps of white cirrus clouds signaling that I would have a clear day to let the current take me down the river. The early September day should be a perfect time to exploit the aggressive feeding by tying on a large terrestrial beetle and fishing top water in the early morning hours.

The No.6 Foam Beetle I tie makes a loud slap when it hits the water. It isn’t a graceful presentation, but the churn and riffle of the dark water graciously affords me the luxury of a sloppy presentation. Mending and drifting from my kayak I watch as bluegill charge my fly that they can’t reasonably expect to fit in their mouth. More than a few, however, succeed in the take and their struggle on the line draws the attention of the larger fish. More than once I was tempted to see if I could get a bass to take the panfish clogging up my hook.

Seeing great luck with bluegill, I turned my Beetle into a dry dropper with a comedically over-sized Chrome Midge. The No.12 midge was big enough to pull the beetle deep into the surface film, but it stayed sort of afloat. This combo offered an interesting bit to the smaller spotted and largemouth bass that stalked the banks looking for their next meal.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

As I neared the last third of my float the sun had risen above the steep walls overlooking the river. I tied on my most sure-fire Tennessee bass fly, the olive Wooly Bugger.  The river has small olive crayfish and minnows, so this is a natural choice for fishing deeper in the water column. The Harpeth does plunge to surprising depths in many places, which would be prime candidates for a sink tip and a bodacious streamer, but that’s not really my style.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs

Smallmouth bass were seemingly willing to take the Bugger, but were one and done on the strike. A half-second hesitation on the hook set would result in fish being missed. As a wise man once told me “hook sets are free” – solid advice for this river. Unsurprisingly, a red and white Clouser Minnow was also a popular fly. Be sure that your deep-water flies ride hook-up, as there is an almost endless forest of structure in the water.

As I lugged my kayak out of the water at the Highway 70 bridge, I couldn’t help but feel a little let down. The trip was too short and the fishing was sort of lackluster. Countering this, the scenery almost makes up for the fishing. There are longer floats that are available and I will likely take one next time, but Narrows of the Harpeth should be on the list for anyone to consider if they’re planning to fish in the Nashville area.

Canoes and kayaks can be rented from a variety of small outlets along the river and most offer a shuttle service for your own watercraft.