Chattanooga is no stranger to fishing. After all, a river does run through it. One needn’t look far to find crappie enthusiasts and smallmouth fanatics. Bass boats ply the river in search of trophy-sized largemouth and rumors persist of man-sized catfish lurking beneath the Walnut Street Bridge.
Along with the electrification of the South in the 1930’s, the Tennessee Valley Authority tamed the once unpredictable Tennessee River and in doing so, created a fisherman’s paradise. Anglers cast their lines with baitcasters, spinning rigs, and increasingly, with fly rods.
Unlike bait or spin fishing where the rod is used to sling a weighted lure or bait, the fly fisherman casts a weighted line—the fly is essentially weightless—to his quarry. The well executed fly cast is graceful and elegant and as much a pleasure to watch as it is to execute. The allure of fly fishing is seductive but can often seem unapproachable to the neophyte. The sport was once considered to be the domain of mature, well-heeled gentlemen—who still make up a sizable portion of the demographic—but these days fly fishing attracts a diverse range of practitioners. People of all ages are taking up the sport and while it continues to attract traditional outdoorsmen, fly fishing has become the purview of hikers, climbers and paddlers who are already drawn to the trails, cliffs and streams of our area.
“Huge numbers of climbers and backpackers are getting into fly fishing. It’s certainly not just a bunch of stodgy old guys anymore. The neat thing is that you have everybody now. You have the older gentlemen doing their thing—and rocking it. But then they are coming in and sitting down at the fly-tying vice next to a 24-year old girl who’s just learning and a 32-year old guy joined by a college kid, and everything in between. You are definitely seeing a lot of barriers and boundaries broken” says Chris Loizeaux, co-owner of ℹ️ Blue Ridge Fly Fishing’s North Chattanooga location.
Indeed, aspiring fly anglers are skewing younger—and many are females. While women who fly fish are still a minority—counting for about 30 percent of total participants—they are the fastest growing demographic in the sport.
Alexis Probasco of Lookout Mountain discovered fly fishing on a guided trip in Jackson Hole, Wyoming with her husband, Scott, in the 1990’s and was smitten. And while Probasco doesn’t discount the thrill of landing those big Rocky Mountain rainbow trout, there’s another aspect that’s difficult to ignore. “I really enjoy it because it’s a wonderful opportunity to unplug-from iPhones and social media” and to soak in the quietude of a mountain stream. Fishing is a family affair for the Probascos.
Daughter Kate is a particularly avid fisherman.
The Probascos own property in Wyoming and love to avail themselves of the great trout fishing there. Alexis relishes the opportunity to fish with family friend and Wyoming native Jenna Jellison, a former collegiate basketball player who is no slouch with a fly rod herself.
“The thing I love most about fly fishing is the serenity and peace that it brings into my life. You cannot stress, or worry, or even think about anything else when you’re out there on the water. Life is so hectic sometimes, but fly fishing is nothing but pure joy for me. Even on the days where I might get skunked or I only catch one or two all day, those days are still better than any other day” says Jellison.
If the sight of a woman angler ever raised eyebrows in what was once perceived as a man’s pastime, Jellison says gender is not much of an issue now. “In an area like this where women tend to hunt and fish from a young age, I think it sets more of a tone for equality with outdoor sports. My mom can fly fish and fix or build practically anything. I’ve been lucky enough to have a strong woman in my life, who can be the most beautiful woman in the room but also could out-fish and out-hunt half the men in the room and be just ‘one of the guys.’”
And lest one think that women in fly fishing are a new phenomenon, consider Joan Wulff, a champion fly caster whose prowess with a fly rod is rivaled only by her passion for sharing the art of the cast.
Nearing ninety years old, Wulff still operates the Wulff School of Fly Fishing—one of the most highly esteemed schools in the country located in New York—and is decidedly old-school about what to call a female angler. “Just call me a fisherman; we all know what that is.”
With the abundance of fishable waters literally in the middle of town here in Chattanooga, one might be contented to pick up a fly rod and hone their skills almost on their front doorstep. While many of the fish species in Chickamauga Lake, the Tennessee River, and their tributaries can be caught on the fly, smallmouth and redeye bass in particular seem tailor-made for fly fishing. Many associate fly fishing with trout, and rightfully so…there are few finer fish than trout to catch or no more elegant (some would say inefficient) ways than fly fishing to catch them.
Anglers have to range a bit further afield to get their trout fix. Fortunately, a two hour drive puts them within range of some very fine trout waters. While our area may not have quite the fly fishing cachet of the famous trout rivers of the Northeast or west of the Rockies, the mountains of East Tennessee, Northwest Georgia, and Western North Carolina—a half day’s drive at most—hold enough stream miles to occupy an angler for a lifetime.
The Tellico River and its tributaries in the ℹ️ Cherokee National Forest in Monroe County is probably the top trout river in Tennessee. It is heavily stocked and yields trophy–sized fish. The delayed harvest season is catch and release only, insuring lots of large fish.
The Hiwassee offers big river fishing similar to what one might encounter west of the Rocky Mountains. The state heavily stocks it with rainbow, brown, and brook trout. The fishing can be great but challenging and wading can be treacherous depending on TVA’s power production schedule and whether water is being released at the Apalachia Dam. Larger rivers like the Holston and the Clinch offer opportunities for driftboat fishing through all but the hottest days of the year.
ℹ️ The Great Smoky Mountains National Park boasts around 2900 miles of streams within the park boundaries—twenty percent of those sustain trout populations. Rainbow and Brown trout—first transplanted by loggers in the early nineteen hundreds—are well established and sustain wild populations. The Southern Appalachian brook trout, the only trout species native to the Southeast, once filled southern mountain streams until they began to be outcompeted by browns and rainbows, relegating them to small, high elevation streams. To catch native brookies often involves following the small blue lines on the map.
The journey is often as rewarding as the catching. Though usually much smaller than rainbows and browns, the native brook trout—like the park itself—could have been lost forever to logging and development. The pristine surroundings make up for the smaller trout.
With such a varied watershed in our veritable back yard—most of it teeming with some sort of fish to stalk—it may be difficult to resist the temptation to grab a fly rod and hang the “gone fishing” sign on the door.