Sulphur Hatch on Tennessee’s
South Holston River

What makes an epic adventure? Is it a trip to Alaska or Belize or Costa Rica?

For me it was a couple of days on the South Holston River with Jeffery Wilkins; veteran fishing guide and specialty fly tier from Summerfield North Carolina.

Living here in South Florida I don’t get to the mountains to fly fish for trout very often. Two or three trips a year to Georgia or North Carolina for a few days each is the best I get.

Factor in the number of bad weather days and the learning curve of a new stream or river and I am happy with just a few nice fish per trip.

I have been following Jeff Wilkins web site for some time now and receive his e-mail newsletter. Recently he announced a two-day Tennessee Tailwaters fly fishing school on the South Holston River. The group was to be limited to six students and included meals and lodging. The price was right and with encouragement from my wife, Judy, I signed up.

The plan was for everyone to arrive on Tuesday evening and fish all day Wednesday and Thursday and leave Thursday evening. In an email to Jeff, I mentioned I would be in the area by Monday evening. Jeff suggested I meet him at noon on Tuesday and we would get in an extra half day of fishing together.

I arrived in Johnson City Tennessee on Monday and visited The Fly Shop of Tennessee. This is a really nice shop. Click on the next link for a great article that high-lites what makes The Fly Shop of Tennessee so special.

Tuesday, using the MapQuest directions I had, I easily found the house where we were staying at. Jeff runs this trip several times each year and rents a large house for everyone to stay. It is located out in the country, a few miles from Bluff City. The house is just across the road from and with private access to the South Holston River.

Planning on fishing in Tennessee I purchased a Tennessee non-resident fishing license on-line before I left Florida. I was surprised when Jeff asked if I had a North Carolina fishing license, which I did. He said he had a place he wanted to fish that he had not been to in a while and did I want to go. It would be about an hours ride.

The drive to the North Helton River in NC was at least an hour. On a road that probably did not appear on any map. My cell phone indicated “zero-bars.”

But the long ride was well worth it. Very nice water, fast and real tight, for me any way. Walking towards the water I snagged my waders on a thorn bush and put a ¼ inch tear, knee high on my left leg. Then on my first back cast I snagged an overhanging tree. After getting untangled I back-casted again and on the first forward cast I snagged a second overhanging tree.

With my confidence level at a new low and the embarrassment rising, along with the cold water in my waders, I cast again. Whew! No snag. Within a couple of casts; FISH-ON. And then it started. Non-stop. One right after the other. I lost count at eighteen and I kept catching fish. Mostly Rainbows and Brookies and a Brown or two. I have read about this sort of fishing but never experienced a day like this. Could the next two days be just as exciting?

  N Helton River, NC Peter fishing Peter with fish

This is supposed to be school so what did I learn on the first day? Well I would never of fished in an area that overgrown and tight. Or with water running as fast. There were no slow areas with deep holes like on a bend in the larger streams and rivers like I typically fish. I caught almost all of my fish with very short casts that I would drop right up tight along side of a large rock and allow the nymph with dropper rig to drift along side and behind.

It was late afternoon when we started to drive back to Bluff City. When we got close enough to civilization to get a cell phone signal Jeff made contact with the rest of our party. They were on the South Holston fishing. We got in to town well after dark. The others had already cooked and cleaned up from dinner so Jeff and I, not feeling like cooking for ourselves, had dinner at the local diner and then went back to the house. I was excited and completely exhausted. I was also water-logged from having torn my waders first thing in the morning.

Other members of our group, Joe Craig and Ron Davis were not able to make the Tuesday arrival and planned to arrive Thursday evening. This left only myself and one other guest, Lynn Roloff, from Greensboro NC, in the competent care of Jeff and our other guide, Tom Jackson.

That evening Jeff tied flies for the next days fishing, we watched fishing videos and told stories. Tom and Lynn are both fly tiers and were very interested in Jeff’s methods. I was surprised at how quickly he worked. Equally as surprising was how durable his flies are along with being able to float longer than bargain box flies. Another lesson learned.

 I have become fascinated by the “bugs”. Jeff’s web site has some outstanding photography of insects and the flies that imitate them. As I have come to a better understanding of the insect life cycle (Entomology) and what to look for in the water, I am less mystified each time I open my fly box for something to tie on to the end of the leader.

Wednesday morning we were up at 6:30 AM having awakened to cloudy skies. Jeff was already cooking breakfast and the coffee was hot and plentiful. I drink coffee all day and carry a thermos in the back pocket of my vest. This was to be coffee weather all day and that Thermos was a good friend throughout the day as the weather was not cheerful.

We drove not too far, maybe thirty minutes, to a place on the Holston where we parked and then hiked in for about fifteen minutes. The air temperature was 62 degrees and the water temperature was 45 degrees.

Having torn my breathable waders yesterday I was wearing my neoprene waders today. I was glad to have them with the water as cold as it was. I also have this great jacket, the Tailwaters XT from Orvis. I bought this jacket a couple of years ago for my first winter fishing trip. It rained on that trip as it frequently does when I go fishing, and I stayed toasty warm and dry.

The Holston River was more like what I was used to fishing. Wide and flat with deep pools on the bends. The water temperature was still pretty cold and the fishing started very slow. However, as the water warmed up to around 55 degrees the fishing picked right up. Fishing was steady and after about three hours we decided to move on.

In anticipation of an early afternoon Sulphur hatch we hiked back to the cars and drove down stream. The next stop was somewhere near a church and a bridge. The water was warmer, but the air was getting cooler. The clouds were rolling in and the weatherman predicted rain and foul weather for the next few days. On and off it rained lightly.

Already in the air were Blue Winged Olives flying around having hatched earlier in the day there were only a few left.

I had never actually seen a hatch happening or least did not know I was seeing one. Magically these little Sulphurs would float up to the surface and start shaking around to get their wings out and if they were lucky get off the water before being eaten.

And they just kept hatching and hatching and hatching. . .   video Sulphurs Hatching

The damp and cloudy air was making it difficult for the insects to dry their wings and fly. Had the weather been warm and sunny there would have been fewer Sulphurs staying on the water.
The flies we were using, when landing on the water, matched the hatch so well that at times I would miss a hit because what I had been actually watching was a near by live Sulphur and not my artificial fly.

Fishing continued steady. Soon I had to stop and take a break. I was getting worn out. I was not used to this much fishing. I was learning what a day of fishing really was. It was a full day of fishing. I am used to four-hour fishing days. After that I am beat and its time to take a nap. As the others fished I sat on the bank for a while and just enjoyed watching them continue to catch fish.

I appreciate so much my time away from Florida. Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia are such beautiful places to be. The clean water in the streams, rivers and lakes is like nothing we have in South Florida. There is an ambiance to fly fishing that has always drawn me in. Fly fishers have a genuine respect for the water and the fish that is not seen in bass and saltwater fishing.

We continued to fish until 5:00 PM and then it was a short drive back to the house. I needed lots of Advil and more coffee and dinner. So while everyone else went across the road and fished the Sulphur hatch on the Holston I stayed at the house and recovered from another amazing day of fishing.

I put dinner in the oven and had it ready for them when they got back. That evening more flies, more lies. I booted up my lap top to check e-mail and surf the internet but had a very difficult time with the wireless connection as it was very slow.

 Thursday morning was a relaxed start. We were up at 7:00 AM, ate a very leisurely breakfast, and went across the road to the private river access.

The sky was cloudy and the air 52 degrees. As we approached the Holston a heavy layer of fog blanketed the river. We waded out into chilly 49 degree water. Because I was wearing my Orvis jacket and Cabela's neoprene waders I stayed toasty warm.

With only a few large Crane flies on the water, and no fish rising, we started fishing nymphs with droppers. Again, like yesterday we were catching mostly Browns. I love the color of Browns so I was thrilled to have caught so many the past two days.

At mid morning the inevitable happened. I stumbled forward and fell in. That in and of itself is not all that unusual. Even with a wading staff I can expect an occasional misstep. What was odd and a cause of concern was that I had such difficulty getting up. A few days earlier on the way to this trip I stopped to fish in North Carolina for a couple if days. There I fell backward in about eighteen inches of water. There I was sitting on my butt and having trouble getting up because my legs floated in the buoyant neoprene waders and I could not get my feet down so I could stand up. Today I fell forward on to both knees and took in some water over the top of my waders. I had a very difficult time getting up with my feet trying to float and push me over on to my face. I have never had this problem with my regular lightweight breathable waders.

A few Blue Winged Olives began to show and then, just as Jeff had prophesized, around 3:00 PM the Sulfurs started to hatch. The fish went crazy. And I did too.

Eventually there were so many Sulphurs on the water that our artificials were just lost in the crowd causing the fishing to slow down.

 With only two guests and two guides this on-the-water school was more a guided and mentored trip than it was a school. I was getting very spoiled. I was working with two fly rods. When the dry fly got too soggy to float I handed the rod off to Tom in exchange for a fresh rod and a new dry fly. When a poor cast resulted in a tangled rod tip, well, again I handed the tangled rod off to Tom for a replacement. It doesn’t get any better than this. video Fish on!

Around 4:00 PM guests Joe Craig and Ron Davis arrived and joined us on the water in this marvelous non-stop fishing experience. On several occasions I could see all of us with fish-on at the same time.

The fish-of-the-trip, however, was caught by Lynn Roloff. A twenty-three inch Brown on a 7X tippet that did not give up easily. As we all became aware of the size of this fish we stopped fishing and moved to where she was to watch the action. Several times as Lynn brought it to the net it made another charge to deeper water. At one point it ran into a weed line and we all thought it was lost. Landing this fish required at least six hands. I am not sure who actually had the net but it was a team effort. Great job Lynn.

Lynn, Jeff and Peter  Fish on Lynn and her fish

Having never done a trip with strangers before and sharing meals and lodging also, I was a bit apprehensive at first. It turned out that these were such wonderful folks to be with I look forward to doing this again next year.

There is a wealth of information at Jeffery Wilkins web site. I recommend you spend some time there and be sure to sign up for his newsletter.


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