Winter on the Hiwassee

On The Fly Freshwater

Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs

December 2020

The day turned out to be cool as the On The Fly South crew shoved off from shore with guide Tic Smith of Southeastern Anglers. The plan was to target trout on the Hiwassee River in Tennessee, below the dam on Apalachia Lake. The reservoir actually is in North Carolina, but the tailwater quickly crosses the state border.

The Hiwassee tailwater is located roughly 50 miles southeast of Chattanooga, with much of the flow coursing through Cherokee National Forest property. Overall, this is a big river, but also a shallow one. Thus, it provides some good wading options. However, the only time of year when water releases dependably offer wading is in the months of April and May. That is when the upstream reservoirs are being filled and flows are low.

The rest of the year, the bulk of the fishing is from drift boats and rafts. If it’s your first time on the river, you definitely want to go with a guide to learn the nuances of floating the Hiwassee. Indeed, having a guide will make any day on this river more successful.

The weather on the Hiwassee was about as dreary as it could get.

For the first 10 miles below Apalachia Dam, the river is not trout water, since the bulk of the flow is diverted by a pipeline downstream to the powerhouse. From the powerhouse, the river then flows through the community of Reliance and down to the end of the national forest property just above the U.S. Highway 411 bridge.  

The chill in the air that greeted us was to be expected, since it was early December, but when a steady rain began to fall it really got dreary. Tic, who is into his third decade of guiding on these waters, assured us the rain was not a factor as to whether the fish would bite. They most likely would not be looking up for floating insects, but the trout still would be ready to eat.

“For the last three years we’ve had a lot of rain,” Smith said. “That let Apalachia and Hiwassee dams (the latter is just upstream of Apalachia Lake) release lots of water, which is good for the fish and fishing.” At times during our float, we got some heavier rain, so, obviously, fishing should remain good in the short term.

He did go on to explain that in August and September the water temperatures get high in the river, which dampens the fishing action. And in October 2020 the turnover of water from Apalachia Lake, which drops the oxygen level in the river, lasted longer than usual, also knocking back the angling action. But, on our day of fishing, the water temperatures and dissolved oxygen were ideal.

The Hiwassee is stocked with rainbow and brown trout annually from October to July, with most fish in the 10- to 12-inch range. There are also some holdover trout in the river, so bigger fish turn up regularly. The fishing on the river is open under Delayed Harvest rules from October 1 to the end of February from the Powerhouse downstream to the L&N Railroad bridge at Reliance. Only artificial lures are allowed and all trout must be released.

To catch those fish in the colder fall and winter periods, Tic turns to tossing Wooly Bugger patterns. These are quartered downstream and allowed to swing across the current with a slow strip added. Particular attention is paid to slightly deeper holes he describes as “pools,” which are situated amid the subsurface grass beds and rocks. You also want to have a good current sweeping over these spots.

Although hatches of Blue-Winged Olives are common during midday periods at this time of year, the steady rain precluded that action for us. Rather, we found fish in the pools already described, but also up on top of ledges where shoals were beginning. Additionally, some fish were taken where the water dropped out of the shoals into deeper water.

Our catch was dominated by the stocker-sized rainbows. We did pick up one brown and a couple of ‘bows of 14 or so inches. All told, our group boated around 25 fish for the day. This was during a relatively short float from the Towee Recreation Area down to just above the Big Bend Recreation Area.

Tic Smith and Polly Dean with her fish of the day.

The highlight came when Polly Dean swung a Bugger in a chute that formed at the top of one of the shoals. A hard strike was followed by a sizeable trout wallowing on the surface. With Tic providing advice and encouragement, she fought the fish for several minutes in the strong current. When it finally slipped into the net, she had the fish of the day, a solid, 18-inch, kip-jawed male rainbow.

Our venture on the Hiwassee proved that even on days when the weather hinges on being miserable, the angling can be very good. Of course, being with a veteran of the river, who knows the water and the fish well, doesn’t hurt either.

To book a day of fishing with Tic Smith or the other guides visit the Southeastern Anglers‘ website.

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