Tennessee’s Watauga River Boasting Loads of Rainbows & Browns

By: Chris Shaffer

Last week’s wintry conditions didn’t do any favors for trout anglers in East Tennessee. Icy roads, snow, wind and inclement weather marked many of the region’s top tailwater fisheries through midweek, ironically when we were in town to film Pautzke Outdoors on the Watauga River near Johnson City. We planned to float the Watauga Wednesday and South Holston Thursday and stuck with the plan despite conditions.

The Watauga fished ok through midweek. Action picked up as the barometer stabilized Thursday and Friday. Meanwhile, Wednesday was a different story. While many fresh planters were eager to grab baits, the core of the holdover rainbows and browns remained dormant, although a few larger trout did show towards the end of the day.


For those familiar with the Watauga it’s loaded with trout. Lots of planters clog much of the public access areas, while bigger trout are everywhere, too, yet harder to catch simply because the smaller fish are more aggressive. Those smaller fish hammered us through the first portion of our day. The first two hours were dominated by hook ups with a dozen 10-inch rainbows that destroyed Gold Label and our new Pink Shrimp and Chartreuse Garlic Balls O Fire salmon eggs. Meanwhile, no trout greater than 12 inches bit.

An obvious reflection of a shaky barometer, trout weren’t following their traditional paths. We noticed many seemingly frustrated anglers. It’s not that trout weren’t biting, because we fielded many bites and what would have been easy limits of pan size rainbows. However, the larger fish we flew in for were being stubborn.


Fortunately, as late afternoon arrived browns started to feed. We caught three browns in one hole (all 12-15 inches) on Yellow Jacket and Chartreuse Garlic salmon eggs by simply drifting eggs under a float on a single salmon egg hook. Even though the water wasn’t gin clear we used four-pound test as we didn’t want to give the trout an excuse not to feed.


The Watauga is blessed with an endless amount of trout holding water. However, most of the success came on the edge of current lines, in larger pools, around breaks and any water that wasn’t terribly fast or slow. The largest trout we caught, an 18-inch rainbow, came on a Pink Fire Dye worm. We soaked a night crawler in Pink Fire Dye, which literally turned the worm pink. The added attraction worked on a few rainbows.


Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the Watauga at its best. Meanwhile, we did land roughly 18 trout while filming Pautzke Outdoors, most of which were rainbows and a few browns in a half-day trip. Considering it was our first time to this fabled system I’d consider it a success.


As the weather improves the Watauga will stand tall as one of Tennessee’s premier trout fisheries. Meanwhile, as pressure stabilizes, temperatures warm and spring arrives fishing pressure resumes. When it does come prepared with different color worms and several colors of salmon eggs. It didn’t take long to learn that after we caught a few trout on Gold Label the bite stopped until we switched to Pink Shrimp or Yellow Jackets. Be prepared with choices and these fish will respond.


Editor’s Note: When in town to fish the Watauga, Team Pautzke recommends eating dinner at Tupelo Honey in Johnson City and lunch at Ridgewood BBQ in Bluff City where you should order the BBQ Plate with half beef and half pork. For more info on the Watauga River and it’s regulations please visit http://tn.gov/twra/article/stocked-trout.