Fly Fishing the Clinch River

May 2nd on a Pheasant Tail Nymph
May 2nd on a Pheasant Tail Nymph

Looking back at a few old fishing reports it is evident that May and June is when I have experienced some very good and consistent fishing on the Clinch River. However in years past we have had some very high spring water levels to deal with which has limited the fishing. So far this TVA has been giving us better flows earlier than I have seen in a quite some time. We have already heard of some lower river Sulphur hatches around the Hwy 61 bridge.

On a recent Sunday trip with the wife and dog, although I was not seriously fishing, I did manage some quality fish in a short amount of time. I believe that this action will only get better as we move into June.

At the shop many people come in and say that they have difficulty fishing the Clinch or do not know what to do. I’ll attempt to simplify it here. First a quick disclaimer, that I am not a guide nor do I get to fish as much as I used to, so the below tips are just a collaboration of my observations over the last 10 years.

Sulphur Mayfly

The Bugs: Their are really only two main bugs to worry about on the Clinch in my opinion. The first and most prevalent are midges and the second is the Sulphur. Midges are typically very small in size (20-22), but will be very prevalent at times. The zebra midge is the most common pattern to mimic this food source. When the Sulphurs are active, the fishing will be at it’s peak. The Sulphur is a larger mayfly in size 14 to 18. Pheasant Tail nymphs and Sulphur dry fly patterns are the typical flies to match this bug.

The River: The Clinch River is a tail-water below Norris Lake and Dam. It is a TVA controlled impoundment. The dam is managed for hydro-electric power, flood control and downstream barge traffic. With that in mind the angler on the Clinch River must be ready for anything. TVA does post their “predicted” flows on their website however this can change at a last minutes notice. When TVA turns on the turbines or releases water for generation it can rise rapidly and it is advised that anglers exit the water during the generation. In general there are no wade fishing opportunities once the generation has started.

Clinch River Brown Trout

The Fish: Rainbow Trout and Brown Trout are the two most prevalent species in the tail-water section. Although the river does hold large Striped Bass and I have heard of an occasional walleye being caught by accident. TWRA does stock both rainbow and brown trout on a yearly basis however there are opinions that some wild reproduction does take place as well. You will typically catch a mixed bag of both freshly stocked fish and hold over fish that will put up a great fight.

The Gear: My friends and I will fish the Clinch with either a nymph/dry fly rod or a streamer fly rod. Here I will only get into the nymph/dry fly rod as talking about streamer fishing is much more advanced and would take much longer and I said I was going to simplify this. The most common fly rod to use will be an 8’6″ to 9′ 4weight or 5weight fly rod. I would always put on a fly reel with a smooth adjustable drag and load the reel with the appropriate weight forward fly line. The water is very clear and the fish are very wise so we always fish a long leader 9ft plus in 4X to 5X and then add fluorocarbon tippet in 5X and 6X to our flies. If I use a strike indicator I will keep it as small as possible so as to not spook the fish. You will also want waders and good wading boots because the water is frigid year round.

leadertippetThe Fishing: When we fish for the day I will typically first check the generation schedule to ensure that we will have some wade fishing opportunities.  You can get an idea of what TVA has been doing over the course of the last couple days by keeping an eye on the generation schedule.  Also note that during May thru October TVA has an advised recreation schedule posted on the generation page, which will give you an idea on the weekend predicted flows.  We will typically rig our rods with one small indicator and down to 6X fluorocarbon tippet for the early morning midge bite, then as the day progresses we will switch over to the Pheasant Tail nymphs.  If we are lucky enough to be there during a Sulphur hatch we may fish a dry fly with a Pheasant Tail dropper.  When you are fishing try to be stealthy and focus on the moving water and seams around drop offs, ledges or any other underwater structure.  The fish will use this as a current break when they are feeding.  Focus on getting a drag free drift and explore different areas and sections of the river.

Rainbow Trout on Clinch RiverThe Regulations: The Clinch River is managed by TWRA as a Special Trout Regulation Zone.  From Norris Dam downstream to Hwy 61 bridge, including tributaries; All trout 14 to 20 inches must be released unharmed.  You are allowed to keep up to 7 fish, however only 1 fish can be over 20 inches in length.  This regulation helps to maintain a healthy catchable size fish.

Stream Etiquette: Many different types of people recreate on the Clinch River.  You will find both fly fishermen and spin fishermen.  There are fly fishing guides that float the river as well as recreational paddlers and kayakers.  Some folks will fish upstream while others will fish downstream.  The point is that everyone is out to enjoy the river and common courtesy should be practiced at all times.  There is ample amount of river and fish for everyone, so spread out find your own area to fish and have a good time.  Be sure to offer up a warm smile and wave for everyone that is out and enjoying the water.  Be safe and have fun!









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