Fishing the South Holston River: Best Trout Spots & More

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The South Fork Holston River, more often referred to simply as the South Holston River, is one of the most renowned fishing rivers in the Southeast. Trophy trout are the main attraction for most who fish here. 

Beginning in Virginia, the South Holston River is free-flowing for the first part of its journey down the slopes of the Blue Ridge Mountains. But it has also been impounded to form several major reservoirs. 

The first is 7,580-acre South Holston Lake, which spans the state line between Virginia and Tennessee.

The tailwater below the South Holston Dam—one of the best fishing spots on the river—leads down into Boone Lake. The river then flows into Fort Patrick Henry Lake.

These reservoirs provide some excellent angling opportunities too, but that’s a topic for another day. For now, let’s take a closer look at what the South Holston River has to offer. 

Trout Fishing

First and foremost, the South Holston River is known for trout fishing. Sections in both Tennessee and Virginia are managed specifically for trout and offer very real trophy potential for both rainbow and brown trout. 

South Holston Tailwater

When people talk about trout fishing in the South Holston River, they are almost always talking about the tailwater below South Holston Lake. Trout are available elsewhere in the river, but this is far and away the best section. 

Often referred to simply as the South Holston Tailwater, this section extends about 13 miles from the base of the South Holston Dam downriver to the upper end of Boone Lake in Tennessee.

Trout are abundant, including rainbows stocked annually. The ‘bows often hold over for multiple seasons and attain some real size.

Wild brown trout are here, too, and they’re what the South Holston Tailwater is most known for.

In general, it’s fairly unusual for brown trout to spawn successfully in tailwaters, but they do here. Anglers catch browns measuring 20 inches regularly, and a 10-pounder or two are landed almost every year. 

The South Holston Tailwater is also known for its prolific insect hatches, which are much better than what you’d typically see in a tailwater environment. Sulfurs and Pale Evening Duns are especially abundant, hatching on and off from April through October.

There are some excellent Blue Winged Olive hatches, too, typically in winter and early spring and then again in fall. All the typical Southeastern caddis species also hatch here, including Little Black, Cinnamon and Little Brown Caddis. 

That all makes the South Holston Tailwater uniquely good for dry fly fishing. That said, nymphing is a good option on most days, and streamers account for many of the largest brown trout. 

The most popular spot is just below the weir dam that spans the river a few hundred yards below the South Holston Dam, but the fishing continues to be good for miles downriver. Trout are also abundant above the weir dam but very difficult to catch in the flat-calm water.

The South Holston Tailwater is very friendly to wading as long as the generators at the dam aren’t running (be sure to check the schedule). When they are running, driftboat fishing is an option.

Boone & Fort Patrick Henry Tailwaters

Though the South Holston Tailwater gets most of the attention, trout enthusiasts can also access two additional tailwater fisheries farther down the South Holston River. 

The Boone Tailwater (below Boone Lake) and the Fort Patrick Henry Tailwater (below Fort Patrick Henry Lake) are each stocked regularly with rainbow trout, and each is known for producing some of the biggest holdover rainbows in Tennessee. 

Rainbow trout measuring 10 to 18 inches are typical, but anglers have caught huge rainbows here. One landed a former state record over 16 pounds from the Boone Tailwater in 2002.

Trophy brown trout are available as well. These trout grow fat on shad, so be prepared to throw streamers like Deceivers, Clouser Minnows and Wooly Buggers.

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) has occasionally stocked cutthroat trout in the Boone Tailwater, yielding a 4-pound, 12-ounce state record in 2023.

The Boone Tailwater is best fished by boat, but the Fort Patrick Henry Tailwater has some good bank access.

Wading is only an option when generation is not in progress, as the water level can rise swiftly and dangerously.

South Holston River in Virginia

The upper South Fork Holston River is considered one of the premier trout streams in southwestern Virginia. It offers great opportunities to pursue wild and stocked fish in an intimate setting.

The river begins as a trickling limestone creek and gains momentum as it absorbs numerous small tributaries.

Anglers can mentally divide this stream at the Buller Fish hatchery, where there is a dam and a water diversion to hatchery ponds.

Above the hatchery, the trout are all wild. A mix of rainbows and browns are available, with increasing numbers of brook trout towards the headwaters. Below the hatchery, the river is stocked with rainbow trout that often measure 14 to 16 inches.

The upper river is a pleasure to fly fish in, and it doesn’t get heavy pressure due to the remoteness of its location for many Virginians. Most days, nymphing produces the most strikes, but there are also some great hatches here for dry-fly fishing. 

Blue-winged olives are the most reliable from January through June, but it’s wise to come prepared to match a wide range of species. The upper South Holston has exceptionally diverse insect populations.

Streamers and in-line spinners also work well at times of high water. Virginia manages various river sections under different regulations, so check the rules before you go.

Catch More Trout

Find more trout fishing nearby: Check out the Watauga River, which flows through North Carolina and Tennessee, before joining the South Holston River at Boone Lake.

Smallmouth Bass Fishing

Although the South Holston River is managed for trout and is most famous for its cold-water tailwater fisheries, the river also supports populations of several warm-water game fish.

For starters, the South Holston River is a highly underrated smallmouth bass river. The river provides perfect rocky habitat and supports a healthy forage base, including alewives, shad and shiners, and plenty of crayfish. 

Most river sections have at least some smallmouth bass, but the best smallie fishing is in the lower river, from the Fort Henry Dam through Kingsport to the South Fork’s confluence with the North Fork, which forms the main stem Holston River.

With its moderate flows and warm temperatures, summertime offers some of the best smallmouth action. The topwater bite is often relentless this time of year, and smallmouths readily blow up on floating plugs and poppers. 

Spinnerbaits, soft jerkbaits, and paddle-tail swimbaits are good options, too, and plenty of fly anglers target smallies with large streamers.

Expect to catch a lot of healthy 12- to 16-inch bass, but don’t be surprised if you hook a hefty 20-inch smallmouth.

Striped Bass Fishing

Tennessee stocks striped bass in many reservoirs, including Boone Lake on the South Holston River. As a result, it’s not uncommon to find stripers in the river as well. 

Though they lack the necessary habitat to reproduce here successfully, stripers take to the river every spring in an attempt to spawn, making their way upstream from Boone Lake. Some make it as far as the weir dam below the South Holston Dam. 

Expect to find the most fish from Devault Bridge on Boone Lake up through the Bluff City area. Some stripers will be in the river during other seasons, too, but spring is the best.

Large stripers over 10 pounds typically strike live shad or alewives. A variety of shad-imitating lures work as well, and it’s not uncommon for trout anglers to occasionally catch a striper on large flies intended for trophy brown trout.

Walleye Fishing

Walleye are rarely caught on the Tennessee portion of the South Holston River, but they’ve been stocked in South Holston Lake for decades. In late winter and early spring, walleye make a spawning run up Virginia’s portion of the South Holston River. 

Expect to see walleye in the river from February through April. Jigs tipped with minnows, nightcrawlers or bright-colored soft plastic bodies like curlytail grubs and paddle-tail swimbaits work well. 

The best walleye fishing is in the Alvarado area, where the South and Middle Forks of the Holston River meet and feed the upper end of South Holston Lake.

Anglers land occasional walleye up to 10 pounds here, though 1- to 5-pound fish are typical.

Planning Your Trip

The South Holston River offers fishing opportunities in every season, and areas around the river offer a wide range of amenities for anglers. Bait shops, outfitters, and riverside lodges are not hard to come by. 

Getting to the South Holston River

Tennessee’s portion of the South Holston River is easy to get to from virtually any direction. Major thoroughfares, including I-81 and US-11E, cross the river, and access to the South Holston Tailwater is just off US-421. 

Several small to midsize cities, including Bluff City and Kingsport, are on or near the river.

Virginia’s share of the river is more remote, but rural routes like Riverside Road and South Fork Road provide access to prime fishing areas. 

Upper River Access (Virginia)

The Buller Fish Hatchery is arguably the best place to access the South Fork Holston River in Virginia. Above the hatchery, Teas Road (Route 670) crisscrosses the river, providing multiple access points, including a trailhead where the Appalachian Trail crosses the river. 

There are also numerous access points below the hatchery, including bridge crossings on Routes 604, 714 and 725.

The river is navigable by canoe or kayak from Route 604 down to South Holston Lake, and the Virginia DWR provides some great info on planning a float trip.

South Holston Tailwater Access

Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) access area immediately below the South Holston Dam is the most popular place to fish the South Holston Tailwater. Anglers will find parking and walking trails along the river.

The weir dam is accessible within this TVA area, and a boat launch is immediately below it. 

The Bouton Trail, maintained by the TVA, provides foot access a little farther downriver. Additional spots to get on the water include Hickory Tree Road and the old railroad bridge in Bristol.

Big Springs Boat Ramp and Weaver Pike Bridge are also good access points, and numerous privately owned lodges and camps in this area have river access for guests. 

Boone Tailwater Access

Access is limited below the Boone Dam, and there isn’t a designated bank fishing spot in the tailwater. The best bet here is to launch at the TVA boat ramp at Beulah Bridge and make your way upriver. 

Fort Patrick Henry Tailwater Access

The Fort Patrick Henry Tailwater offers better access than the Boone Tailwater, including bank/wade fishing and a public boat ramp on TVA land just below the dam, accessible just off Wesley Road. Trout anglers should focus on this area. 

There’s also access farther down in Kingsport, where bass are more common than trout. Kingsport maintains an extensive complex of parks and trails along the river, including bank and boat access at the 19-acre Boatyard Riverfront Park.