Watauga’s Easy Trout

Fishing Downtown Elizabethton

On The Fly Freshwater

March 2022

Article and Photos by Jimmy Jacobs

Tennessee’s Watauga River downstream of  Wilbur Dam has a well-deserve reputation for good trout action and producing some large fish. Ordinarily this angling is associated with float trips in drift boats, or with the wading at the foot of the day or downstream at the Siam Bridge area. All of these are good options for great fishing.

On the other hand, there is another place on the river that provides user-friendly access to both rainbow and brown trout. To find these conditions, you need to drop on down the river to the city of Elizabethton and locate Riverside Park. It is just downstream of the US 19E (Bristol Highway) bridge.

Riverside Park in downtown Elizabethton.

 Here you find that getting into the river is easy and the area available for wade fishing is much longer than either of the previously mentioned sites. The park covers a total of 6.8 acres, including a long portion of the river’s shoreline. During lower water levels most of the park waters are easily waded and there are several small riffles that break up the flow.

Adding to its appeal is the presences of a section of the Elizabethton Linear Trail along the river bank. This allows for easy walking up or downstream if you want to cover more water, even extending downstream of the park itself.

A couple of the better spots to try are the obvious shoal near the upper end of the park  and near the US 19E bridge. The Pleasant Beach Baptist Church is on the north side of the river across from the park at this point. The riffle extends across the river, angling downstream from the north to the south shore.

Polly Dean casting to a chute through the upper shoal in Riverside Park.

Swinging nymphs across the chutes coming through the shoal often works. Just above the riffle is a place to watch for rising fish along the north bank. Caddis patterns are good choices, while Blue-Winged Olives are a better option in fall and winter.

A bit farther down, the north bank has an area of exposed rocks jutting out from that shore. On one early fall trip, Associate Editor Polly Dean and I landed a number of rainbows adjacent to that rocky structure by presenting the BWOs in size 14.

An “in-town” Watauga River rainbow.

Although this part of the river is not noted for giving up big fish, there generally are numbers to be had in the 10- to 14-inch range.

Beginning at the park playground, there is another long riffle running downstream to beyond the park boundary. After a bit of slower water, a large, shoal extends across the flow. From that point on down to an island behind an old factory, the water slows. For some reason, this area has yielded more brown trout than in the park proper. These have fallen victim to Prince Nymphs in sizes 12  to 14.

A brown taken just downstream of the park on a Prince Nymph.

There are a couple of other areas in Elizabethton that offer low water wading possibilities as well. One of these is found at the boating access at the south end of the Broad Street bridge toward the east end of town in the suburb of Hunter. At this site, wading is possible down to the first rapid below the bridge.

A second option is found to the west of town in Sycamore Shoals State Park. This historic location was the site where the “Over the Mountain” men of Tennessee converged to cross the Blue Ridge Mountains and administer a stinging defeat to the British at Kings Mountain during the Revolutionary War.

Today there is bank access and wade possibilities at the shoals where the river narrows down. Also, a broad shallow flat is upstream of the shoals where wading is available when water levels are low.

Targeting a run between the shoals.

The tailwaters below Wilbur Dam are stocked with adult, catchable-sized brook, brown and rainbow trout, as well as fingerling sizes. These releases take place in March through September annually, as well as in November and December.

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologists note that there also is some reproduction of browns in the Watauga.

The Tennessee Valley Authority water release schedule for Wilbur Dam is available on that agency’s website. Be aware that the schedule may change at any time, so always be watchful for rising water when wading.

If you are into do-it-yourself trout action, but also prefer to avoid difficult access or wading conditions, these sites on the Watauga should suit you fine.

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