Destination: Tennessee and the Caney Fork River

By Troy Basso

As I netted the final Caney Fork Rainbow Trout of the day, in near total darkness, I wondered if anyone realized what a positive impact the TVA has had on coldwater fishing in Tennessee. In 1933 President Roosevelt, as part of his New Deal initiative, signed a bill creating the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA was created to help fill the demand for hydroelectric power in the Tennessee Valley. Dams were built and thus rivers called “tailwaters or “tailraces” were formed. These rivers are supplied a steady flow of coldwater drawn from the bottoms of numerous lakes. The water flows through the hydroelectric generators and is discharged into the tailwaters, creating a prime habitat for both Rainbow and Brown Trout.

This river, a tail water of Center Hill Lake, is currently managed by the TWRA and provides some of the finest trout fishing that Tennessee has to offer. Although most of the time these rivers look like gently rolling waters they can very quickly change to fast moving very dangerous watersheds. In order to fish the Caney Fork one has to first understand what happens when the TVA has the generators on. Once the generators come on they start forcing a large volume of water into the river. This causes the river to gain speed and rise very rapidly during generation. Prior to fishing the river you must consult the generation schedule put out by the TVA. This can be accessed at the TVA website. A wading fisherman does not want to get caught in the water during generation; a boat is usually rather safe. If you’re going to wade fish the Caney Fork it would be advisable to drop in and visit Jim Mauries at FLYSOUTH, Nashville’s premier fly fishing resource. They can help you in choosing a good window to fish. The water does not instantly take over the river so you can fish certain areas longer than others when generation is happening.

Regulations

There are two species of trout in the Caney Fork, the Rainbow and the Brown. Rainbow Trout have no minimum length but there is a daily limit of seven fish. Of the seven only two can be brown trout. Rainbow trout are plentiful on the Caney with some real brutes caught every year.

Brown trout regulations are a little different. There is an 18-inch minimum length limit on Brown Trout in addition to the daily limit of two. The Brown Trout regulations have been in place since the onset of the 2004 season. This simple regulation has had a very positive impact on the quality of Brown’s caught in this fishery. License requirements are a Tennessee fishing license and a trout stamp. Unfortunately Tennessee does not offer a one day license for the non-resident, as does Kentucky but that’s another discussion. The cost for a non-resident is 16.50 for a three-day all fish license or 50.50 for a ten-day all fish license. Licenses can be purchased online at the TWRA website or by calling (888) 814-8972. There is a 3.45 charge to use your credit card in addition to the license cost. In personal experience the phone system takes a lot of time but the web-based system operates rather well.

Access Points

There are three primary public access points in the river, the dam at Center hill, Happy Hollow, and Betty’s Island. If you’re planning on floating the river there is boat access at all three locations. Floating from the Dam to Happy hollow is about 6 miles and will take the fisherman 5 to 8 hours depending on how much you stop to fish. When the generators turn on the water levels at happy are not affected for an hour. So if the generators come on at 7 you won’t see the water until around 8. The float from Happy Hollow to Betty’s Island is about 3 miles and is a good half-day float. During generation water takes about three hours to get to Betty’s. There are plenty of wade able water accessible at all three locations. Along the river there are other access point but you need to insure you’re not trespassing on private property before you park or your vehicle might get towed, thus ruining a fine day on the water.

Fishing Methods

Although you will see plenty of bait or power bait anglers on the river, especially at the damn, don’t overlook the fly rod or the spinning gear. If you are a Fly Fishing aficionado make sure you bring along some sow bugs and scuds. Also don’t over look the “big nasties” for a crack at the bigger fish. Large streamers like wooly buggers are great when thrown at the numerous trees and logs on the river.

If spin fishing is your forte then try inline spinners like Mepps or rooster tails in the 1/8 ounce range. Three go to colors for the Caney are white, black, and olive. Don’t be afraid to try some small crank baits in the deeper runs as they produce a respectable amount of fish on the river. Stay with a quality line in the four-pound range. Anything larger will reduce your number of hook ups, the clear monofilament by Stren works well for me.

Although bait fishing is a legal method of fishing the Caney there is really no reason to do it. This river is quality tail water that readily offers fish on flies, spinners and crank baits. Don’t forget that this fishery didn’t get to its current level by accident. There are regulations and following them will help insure the future of the river. If you observe people taking more than the legal limit you can call 800-241-0767. Information such as the individual’s name, if possible, a good description will do though, vehicle tag number or description, nature and location of the offense will greatly assists the TWRA in apprehending wildlife poachers. If your after a trophy and manage to catch one please consider a fiberglass replica rather than having the actual fish mounted. Fiberglass runs about the same price as an actual mount, and allows the better fish to live to fight another day. All you need for a replica is a photo, preferably both sides, length, and three girth measurements.

River Etiquette

If you’re not familiar with fishing smaller rivers a crash course in river etiquette might be in order. First and foremost please take out anything you bring onto the river. There are several groups that spend countless hours on this river keeping it clean. Trout Unlimited has done good things for this fishery and would appreciate your help in keeping it clean. Be careful not to crowd other angler and this river is smaller than your western trout water. Most of all remember this river system is dependant of fisherman and their information. Report any odd sightings like a pool of dead fish. Please if you choose to keep some fish for the table don’t clean them on the shoreline unless you carry out your carcasses. The local people don’t like to have their family dogs come home smelling like three-day-old fish guts anymore than you would.

Guided Fishing Trips

If a guided trip is more up your alley or you only have one day and want a good chance at catching fish you can contact Jim, 615-251-6199, at Fly South for information on booking a trip. They also rent gear if you don’t have the things you need.

If and when you do take the trip to the Caney Fork do not forget your camera. This river is one of the most scenic in the state. It is home to an abundance of wildlife and you will see them at some point. Deer, Turkey, Ducks and a host of small game will be your company on the river.