Harpeth trout Tennessee
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It’s Prime Time for Hooking up with Tennessee’s Trout

Snow covered the banks of the Harpeth River in Franklin. Anglers, dressed for the cold, lined up for one of Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency’s stocking trucks to finish unloading hundreds of trout. In a matter of a few minutes after the hungry fish slid down the large transparent pipe the trout were eagerly eating flies, streamers, corn, worms, Power Eggs and other morsels fishermen put before them.

Repeatedly, then as now, this scene plays across the Volunteer state – even some West Tennessee waters receive doses of trout. TWRA’s winter stocking program began this year in early December and continues into February. For a complete list of streams and stocking dates. check out the state’s schedule here.

Great Smoky Mountains Fishing

Fishermen and women young and old enjoy throwing lines at Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Stocking History

When I asked TWRA Assistant Chief of Fisheries Frank Fiss when the trout stocking program began he answered with a question: “Which one?”

As it turns out the history of stocking trout in Tennessee is mostly lost but Fiss says, “A Federal agency was the first to bring in brown and rainbow trout to repopulate streams devastated by deforestation in the Smokies. That was one of the earliest management tools before Tennessee Wildlife came into being. Flintville was our first trout hatchery and that was back in the 1930s.”

Flintville, Tellico, Buffalo Springs and Erwin are TWRA’s cold water hatcheries dedicated to trout production; reared from the egg to a catchable size fish. The Dale Hollow National Fish Hatchery also supplies trout for our state.

Tennessee Trout Stocking

Taking the tally after unloading hundreds of trout, biologists look at their logs to see where the next load goes.

Fiss says, “At the time we started stocking trout there weren’t any natural problems to solve and that wasn’t the mindset of fisheries back then either. We just provided anglers with trout and things haven’t changed much since then. We’ve been in the trout stocking business since the inception of this agency and the agency before that. For the readers of your blog, I guess you could say that we’ve been stocking trout since most of them have been alive.”

Fiss adds that the most radical change TWRA has put into practice started in 1999 with winter trout stocking. “That changed the Middle Tennessee program in that we stock as many fish in the winter as we stock in the spring.”

Lake trout are still being stocked in South Holston and Watauga Lakes and, if TWRA has enough fish, they stock Chilhowee too. Be sure to check Tennessee Fishing Guide for restrictions on 13 specific waters, as well as on streams in the Cherokee WMA. Fourteen tailwaters stocked with trout are also listed.

TWRA stocks about 75 streams and small lakes with rainbow, brown and brook trout annually. These waters are selected because they either hold no or few wild trout but can support the species. While fishing is open year-round on most streams, stocking takes place between March and July in addition to the winter programs.

Browns, Brookies & ’Bows

Perhaps the most popular trout in Tennessee, the rainbow, is a non-native species. It arrived here from western North America. After habitats for our native brook trout were destroyed, heartier rainbow and brown trout were brought in to replace the brookies. (See state record fish at www.tn.gov/twra/fish/FishRecTbl.html).

Brook trout are more temperature sensitive than browns and ’bows and tend not to survive in water much over 60 degrees F., whereas rainbows and browns can tolerate 70-degree water. Even in areas with undisturbed natural habitat, brookies also lost territory to the more vigorous rainbow and brown trout.

Brown Trout Tennessee

This hefty brown trout is regaining its strength and waiting to be released after an exhilarating fight with a fly rod. (Photo by Chris Nischan)

Wild brookies can be found above 3,000 feet in the Smokies and Cherokee National Forest. It’s rare that a brookie lives beyond three or four years and some never reach the legal length limit in smaller East Tennessee streams. TWRA recognizes a brookie 10 inches long as a trophy for its Tennessee Angler Recognition Program.

The brown trout typically spawns a little later in the fall than does the brook trout but grows much larger; however, in the South browns grow faster but don’t live as long as those in northern waters. After a brown reaches a length of 10 inches its diet switches from mostly insects (larvae to adults) to other fish. Anglers using lures that imitate fish usually have better success than using insect patterns. Browns become solitary and nocturnal as they age, and stay in a home territory. More cautious than other trout, they are more difficult to catch.

“The South Holston River has 100 percent reproduction of brown trout,” says biologist Fiss. “We even have some reproduction of rainbows and don’t need to stock it. We also have natural reproduction of rainbows and browns in Watauga River, but we don’t have enough reproduction there that we feel comfortable backing off our stockings.”

Some rivers, like the Clinch, don’t support reproduction but they do have good nursery habitat. “For years the Clinch has been ‘growing out’ stocked fingerlings,” says Fiss.

Clinch River Fishing

Early morning mist hangs over the Clinch River below Norris Dam but anglers can see the ripples as trout rise to pick breakfast from the surface.

Fishing Caney Fork

According to guide Chris Nischan (615-975-2766) of Nashville, “The Caney is home to some monster browns, much larger ’bows than have been populating the river in the last decade. The latest arrival, the brook trout, is taking well to the river.”

Trout can be found in all 26 miles of the Caney Fork River but the better fly fishing is from the dam downstream 22 miles. After the 22-mile mark the river gets pretty big and offers little for specialist fly anglers like Nischan.

“I like a floating line and a nine-foot leader, tapered down to a 4x or 5x,” says Nischan. “That’s a good all-round rig that lets you fly fish with just about any fly – pheasant tail, prince nymphs, sow bugs, caddis flies, beetle imitations, grasshoppers. Most of the trout on the Caney Fork feed beneath the surface on midges of various types. Midges are a tiny insect kind of like a mosquito. Trout are very prolific feeders; they have quick metabolism so they have to eat a lot to maintain their body weight.”

Caney Fork Fishing

Nashville fly fishing guide Chris Nischan unloads his line to cast a San Juan worm to reach a small eddy behind a boulder where trout hold out of the current.

Nischan concludes, “The Clinch River is my next favorite after the Caney Fork, then Watauga, South Holston and the Holston Rivers – those are some of the best trout waters in the state.”

Without TWRA’s stocking programs for browns, brookies & ’bows, these species would be few and far between. And with the winter and spring stocking programs anglers have about 325,000 chances at catching 9- to 12-inch trout between February and July. I like those odds.

 Harpeth trout Tennessee

This low water dam was the most popular spot on the Harpeth River for catching freshly stocked trout. After the dam was removed both anglers and trout the lost their focal point causing trout to spread up and downstream to other habitats with anglers in pursuit.

Until next time, happy hooking!

Hi there! I’m Vernon Summerlin. Like many, I came to Nashville to break into the music industry. After years of striving, I...Read on

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