How We Fish The Clinch

Steve Thompson & whopper

Steve Thompson, above, caught this 21-inch brown trout on the Clinch in March 2013.

Many anglers who have fished the premier trout waters of the United States consider the Clinch River tailwater one of the finest trout fisheries in the country.

For fly anglers, it is a challenging river to fish. The clear, shallow, slow-moving Clinch demands a stealthy approach, delicate presentation, small flies and drag-free drifts. It is very much like fishing a spring creek, but this one is more than 75 yards wide! To consistently catch its wild, wary rainbow and brown trout requires concentration, careful execution and patience.

The Clinch tailwater is 13 miles long, flowing from Norris Dam, at River Mile 80, to the Highway 61 Bridge near Clinton, Tenn., at River Mile 67. The upper reaches of Melton Hill Reservoir extend to the Highway 61 Bridge, where the Clinch changes from river to slack water. (To see a tailwater map, click here; for a Google Earth view, click here.)

Norris Dam, TVA’s first dam, impounds Norris Reservoir. The 285-foot-tall dam was completed in 1936 and rainbow trout were stocked in the tailwater in 1937. Norris is an enormous reservoir, nearly 50 miles long with more than 800 miles of shoreline encompassing 30,000 acres and a huge volume of cold water. This cold water is released through two turbines to provide electric power and cooling water for TVA coal-fired and nuclear steam plants located downstream on Melton Hill and Watts Bar reservoirs.

If you believe there is much more to fishing than catching fish, you’ll find fishing on the Clinch to be extremely rewarding. The valley of the Clinch is a beautiful, pastoral setting of pastures, wooded ridges and limestone escarpments. The riverbanks are lined with huge sycamores and silver maples. Spring and late summer wildflowers are spectacular. The valley supports a rich mix of birds and animmals—river otters, blue heron rookeries, nesting ospreys, beaver and wood ducks.

Unlike large Western tailwaters such as the Big Horn and Missouri, the Clinch has a minimum flow of only a little over 200 cubic feet per second (cfs). At low flow when turbines are off, the river consists of a series of long pools separated by intermittent ledges and occasional shoals—similar to the Little Red, White and Norfork tailwaters in Arkansas.

At first glance, Clinch pools appear very shallow with no flow. Upon closer inspection, the angler finds that the pools have extensive areas where depths reach 8 feet and there is a definite flow. The seemingly smooth surface is webbed with subtle surface currents that interfere with drag-free drifts. Often, the inexperienced fisher will not be able to detect a bad drift.

Rainbows comprise 80% to 90% of the catch, nearly all robust, wild, quality fish averaging 11 or 12 inches long. Fish in the 14- to 16-inch range are common and on most days anglers can reasonably expect to hook a fish or two in the 18- to 22-inch range. It is not uncommon for a skilled angler to land a half dozen fish over 18 inches during the sulfur emergence in spring.

The state has found that fingerling trout have much higher survival rates in the Clinch than do catchable hatchery fish. Annual survival rates for rainbow and brown trout fingerlings (4 to 5 inches) stocked in 1996 were 52% and 26% respectively. Fingerlings grow at a rate of over one-half inch per month. Well over 100,000 fingerlings are stocked annually during spring and summer. A few thousand catchables are also stocked during this period. Natural mortality is more significant than fishing pressure.

Although rainbows comprise more than 80% of the catch, browns also do well in the river. The Tennessee state record brown, 28 pounds 12 ounces, was taken from the Clinch in the late 1980s. Browns over 30 pounds have been electroshocked or found dead by anglers. Spin fishermen float the river in boats during one- and two-generator flows in pursuit of these big trophy browns. Rainbows over 10 pounds have been caught. The Clinch also contains assorted rough fish, and spin fishers take walleye and striped bass.

TVA has done pioneering tailwater enhancement work on the Clinch to address low flow and dissolved oxygen (DO) problems. Until the early 1980s, the Clinch tailwater was a mediocre trout fishery, severely affected by low minimum flows and low DO. To remedy these issues, TVA established its Reservoir Improvement Release Program in 1981.

A regulating weir dam was installed in 1984 about a mile below Norris Dam to ensure a minimum flow of 200 cfs below the weir. This enhanced flow provides more habitat for aquatic macroinvertebrates, the primary trout food base. At the same time, TVA reengineered the turbines at the dam to aerate the water flowing through them. Growth rates and health of the trout in the Clinch have been significantly enhanced with these improvements.

To increase the abundance of large trout, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) in 2008 introduced a slot limit, or protected length range, for the entire tailwater. Under TWRA rules, anglers must release all trout 14 to 20 inches long; only one trout more than 20 inches long can be kept each day. No gear restrictions are in effect. The effects of the slot limit are to be evaluated this year (2013), when the current management plan expires.

For more information about trout fishing regulations and licenses, please click here.