Complete Guide to Fishing the Watauga River

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Tumbling down from the western slope of North Carolina’s Grandfather Mountain, the Watauga River grows slowly and steadily, transforming from a scant trickle to a powerful waterway by the time it merges with the South Holston River in Tennessee.

Along its 78.5-mile course, the Watauga provides some truly outstanding fishing opportunities. It’s known as one of the best fly-fishing rivers in both North Carolina and Tennessee.

While much of the upper Watauga River is free-flowing, dams impound lower portions to form a series of reservoirs. These impoundments—and tailwaters below their dams—offer some unique fishing opportunities as well. 

The Watauga River enters 6,425-acre Watauga Lake shortly after crossing into Tennessee. After exiting the reservoir through the Watauga Dam, the river almost immediately enters the small but deep Wilbur Lake.

The tailwater below the Wilbur Dam offers what might be the best fishing in the entire Watauga River. Sixteen miles below Wilbur Dam, the river enters Boone Lake and ends beneath the reservoir’s surface, converging with the South Holston River.

Watauga River Trout Fishing

The Watauga River is known first and foremost for its excellent trout fishing. Brook trout, brown trout and rainbow trout are all available, and the river offers a mix of stocked and wild fish, with the former generally being more common. 

Tennessee’s portion of the Watauga River is primarily a tailwater fishery, and it fishes quite differently from the upper Watauga River in North Carolina. 

Wilbur Dam Tailwater (Tennessee)

The tailwater below Wilbur Dam, often referred to simply as the Watauga Tailwater, has a reputation as one of the best trout fishing spots in the Southern Appalachians. Thanks to releases from the base of the dam, water temperatures stay within a 45- to 65-degree range year-round, which is suitable for trout.

Most trout here are stocked fish, with a few wild trout mixed in. Holdovers commonly survive multiple years and attain impressive sizes, especially brown trout.

The Watauga Tailwater is 16 miles long and can be further broken down into sections that include multiple put-in and take-out points for float trips. Kayaking is popular in this area, and conditions are favorable for wading. 

That being said, it’s always important to check the generating schedule. Wading is easy when the dam is not generating but unsafe when it is. Anglers commonly use drift boats to hop from spot to spot.

The entire tailwater section can be excellent, but some of the best fishing and biggest trout are at the upper end, from Wilbur Dam down to Siam Bridge. This section is where you’re most likely to tangle with trophy brown trout. 

The fishing from Siam Bridge down through Elizabethton can also be excellent, especially for stocked rainbows. The Stony Creek confluence is a good spot.

Typical rainbow trout measure 9 to 13 inches in this section, and browns measure 12 to 16, but bigger fish are available.

One of the reasons the Watauga Tailwater is special is that it supports insect hatches that are much better than those of a typical tailwater.

Though fly anglers fool many big trout using nymph and streamer patterns, dry fly fishing is a real option here.

Sulfur mayflies and Pale Eastern Duns are the most significant hatches here. The two species are similar in appearance and are often collectively called “Sulphurs.” Both hatch sporadically from late spring to early fall.

Blue-winged olives are another major hatch, and they can appear anytime from November to early spring. Cinnamon Caddis and Little Black Caddis are also available in April.

Imitations of black fly larvae can work year-round, and using scuds and midges is a safe bet if there isn’t an active hatch in progress. Summer is a great time to fish terrestrials, particularly Japanese beetles beneath overhanging trees. 

There’s no bad time of year to fish the Watauga Tailwater, but spring and fall are arguably the best seasons. Spring brings a fresh influx of newly stocked trout, while fall is the season when big spawning brown trout stack up below the dam.

Upper Watauga River (North Carolina)

The upper Watauga River is quite different from the tailwater section below. The first 55 miles of the river in North Carolina (and another mile or so in Tennessee before the river enters Watauga Lake) are free-flowing and wild. 

Trout are abundant and represented by a mix of stocked and wild fish. Stocked trout still make up the majority, but wild trout, including some nice brookies, become more prevalent farther up toward the Watauga’s headwaters and small tributary streams. 

The tricky part of fishing the upper Watauga River is access. About 2 miles of the river between State Road 1557 and NC-105 and between State Road 1114 to NC-194, are open to the public and managed under North Carolina Delayed Harvest regulations.

However, most of the upper Watauga is on private property and accessible only by landowner permission. Several fly fishing guides operate in the area and provide guided trips on otherwise off-limits sections. 

Overall, the upper Watauga River offers solid numbers of modest-sized fish. Though not a trophy trout fishery, it does offer classic fly fishing conditions in a beautiful setting. The river averages about 40 feet wide throughout the Delayed Harvest section.

Insect hatches are diverse and abundant, with most of the typical Southern Appalachian species present. Blue-winged olives are the most consistent of the many mayfly species, hatching from February through June and again in October and early November.

Spring offers hatches of several other mayfly species: Blue Quills, Quill Gordons, Hendricksons, March Browns, Pale Evening Duns and Sulphurs, usually appearing in roughly that order from March to June.

Stoneflies, including Little Black Winter Stoneflies and Little Brown Winter Stoneflies, are important early in the season, followed by Giant Black Stoneflies and Golden Stoneflies later in spring. 

Keep an eye out for caddis flies, including Cinnamon Sedges and Spotted Sedges, in late spring and early summer, and don’t hesitate to throw terrestrials during the warmer months.

Warm Water Game Fish

Several species of warm water game fish also offer compelling angling opportunities on the Watauga River during all or part of the year. Reservoirs along the river also offer great opportunities to pursue these species:

Striped Bass

Boone Lake, the impoundment formed by the Watauga River and South Fork of the Holston River, is regularly stocked with striped bass. The lake is known to produce trophy stripers in the 50-pound class. 

Stripers can also be caught in the Watauga River above the reservoir in spring when they attempt a spawning run and in summer, when its relatively cool, oxygen-rich water attracts them. Live shad and herring typically catch the largest stripers. 

A few striped bass can make it all the way up to the tailwater below Wilbur Dam, but the best fishing is generally in the lower section of the river. Focus on the Watauga River Arm of Boone Lake above Devault Bend. 

Walleye

Watauga Lake has been stocked with walleye consistently since the 1980s, and is considered one of the best walleye lakes in Tennessee. The reservoir consistently offers opportunities to catch walleye weighing 7 to 8 pounds. 

Each spring, walleye from the lake undertake a spawning run-up tributaries, including the Elk and Watauga Rivers. The run begins in late winter as water temperatures warm to 50 degrees. 

Anglers catch walleye at the upper end of Watauga Lake and into the upper Watauga River from February into April, especially around current breaks, tributary mouths, and upper and lower ends of pools.

Live minnows are the ideal bait, along with jigs and minnow-imitating crankbaits.

Smallmouth Bass

Smallmouth Bass inhabit virtually all sections of the Watauga River, with the exception of the upper end of the river in the North Carolina Mountains. The river isn’t known as trophy smallmouth water, but it produces lots of healthy 12- to 18-inch fish. 

Throughout Tennessee’s portion of the Watauga River, smallmouth bass are most abundant in warmer, deeper areas with lots of rocky structure. They favor warmer water than trout, and the population gradually shifts from trout to bass as the river flows from Wilbur Dam toward Boone Lake.

Tube jigs, spinners and crankbaits are standard-issue smallmouth lures on the Watauga River, though fly anglers also have success with streamers and larger nymph flies.

Smallmouths are also very common in Watauga Lake, known to produce trophy-sized bass.

Planning Your Trip

The Watauga River flows through northwestern North Carolina and northeastern Tennessee, and the surrounding area offers plenty of amenities for anglers. Fishing guides operate on all publicly-accessible sections, and numerous shopping, dining and lodging options are nearby. 

Getting to the Watauga River

The Watauga River is easy to reach from any direction. The Tennessee portion flows through or near several small to mid-sized cities and towns. The largest is Elizabethton, a city of about 14,000 people with several miles of river frontage just off US-19E and TN-91.

North Carolina’s portion of the river is a bit more mountainous and remote but still quite accessible.

NC-105 runs alongside much of the Delayed Harvest Section, and US-321 is a convenient route to several areas farther downriver.

Watauga Tailwater Access

The TVA provides angler parking and access immediately below Wilbur Dam, which is a great place to fish the Watauga Tailwater.

There is another very popular angler access area at Siam Bridge on Wilbur Dam Road, and another a little farther down on Steel Bridge Road. 

There’s quite a bit of informal roadside access in the Hunter area, and the river is typically wadeable and walkable here. The Broad Street Bridge has a small parking area and a popular take-out point for float trips. 

Much of the riverfront is privately owned in Elizabethton, but there’s angler parking and access on Lovers Lane at the Old Bristol Highway Bridge. There is also abundant access at Elizabethton’s Riverside Park, though trout fishing can be hit-or-miss in this area. 

Continuing downriver, additional access points include the Blevins Boat Ramp, Watauga River Bluffs, the Wagner Road Ramp, and Winged Deer Park at the upper end of Boone Lake’s Watauga River arm.

Upper Watauga River Access

Some of the best access on the upper Watauga River is along NC-105. You’ll see several pull-offs and angler parking areas alongside the road, which provide access to the Delayed Harvest section. 

A little farther downriver, Valle Crucis Community Park includes a good stretch of public river frontage. Additional access sites include the Watauga Gorge River Access on Old Watauga River Road and the Lower Gorge River Access on Guy Ford Road.