The Magic of Tailwaters


Time on the Holston River with Fish Knoxville guide Gavin Greeley and High Adventure Company’ s John Burrell proves heaven can often be found right in your own backyard 

There is a special beauty in watching an accomplished fly fisherman, the flawless rhythm of each cast creating a perfect loop in the line as the fly is delivered to the fish about a foot above the water, falling softly to its destination below. There is a deep connection between the fisherman, the guide, and the fish, an intensity that renders even a summer rainstorm falling overhead almost unnoticeable. The scene is so mesmerizing to watch that as John raised his rod to set the hook I could almost feel the weight of the smooth cork handle in my hand as his fish fought. Moments like these renew the spirit. Although there is joy in catching the fish yourself, there is equal joy in watching your friend land what just might be the fish of a lifetime.

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This water is not new to me, per se, just this stretch of the river. As a young man, I spent countless hours on the South Fork of the Holston River, upstream from here and downriver of the large earthfill dam that embays South Holston Lake. During that time there was very little development and a lot of world-class trout fishing. Thinking back, the amount of time I spent on that river is not unlike the addiction that our youth have to electronics; I just couldn’t get enough. I wish with all my heart that our youth would get out on the water and experience this wonder. It truly is life-changing.

So consider yourself warned: once you experience the magic of tailwater trout fishing, you might find yourself not being able to get enough.

Jimmy Chiarella

My last trip down that upper section of the river was with my father before he passed. Shortly after putting on, we rounded the bend into the Morrell deep hole, and at the far end I swore I saw an angel floating over the water holding a fly rod, a white glow all around her. Wanting to be sure I wasn’t losing my mind, I said, “Hey Dad, do you see that down at the far end of the pool?” He sat there for a minute, I suspect as puzzled as I was. As we soon found out, it was not the goddess of tailwater trout we were witnessing, but rather a bride in her wedding dress standing in the front of a drift boat, casting away. Dad looked back at me and said, “You don’t see that every day!”

What a wonderful place to get married if you are as in love with fly fishing as you are with your new partner. On the riverbank beside the bride was a beautiful statue of a jumping trout next to a gazebo and casting platform. Rumor has it the property is owned by Warren Buffet. Who knows for sure, but if true he is not the only celebrity to adorn the banks of the river. Actor Brad Pitt also owns land along this tailwater. It is undoubtedly one of the Southeast’s great fisheries for trout.

Jimmy Chiarella
2021 Cityview Magazine, Inc.

Back to present day. Despite my fondness for the South Holston River, I had never fished this section of the Holston below Cherokee dam. So, when friend John Burrell of The High Adventure Company called to discuss putting together a trip, I was all in. As it so happened, friend and photographer Jimmy Chiarella was in town. Jimmy is by far the best photographer I have ever known. A second boat would offer the opportunity to not only see John and my son, Troupe, fishing together, but also capture some world-class art.

Everything was set except the guide. That’s where Gavin Greeley of Fish Knoxville came in. Gavin is a story all to himself. He moved from California to Montana at 16 years old, headed down to the local outfitter, and announced he wanted to be a guide. I suppose the owner wasn’t sure so he issued a challenge to the young man: fish 60 hours a week for six months, write down every fish you catch, where you caught them, and on what fly, and then come back and we will talk. For Gavin, it was game on. Six months later he walked back in with his journals and confidently announced he wanted the first trip of the day. Since then, Gavin has guided in six states. He became one of the youngest head guides in the history of Vail Valley. The rest, as they say, is history.

Jimmy Chiarella

His company, Fish Knoxville, which Chris Goodwin started back in 2002, is the only charter company I am aware of that targets all 13 species of fish on any of the area waters, from brook trout in the Great Smoky Mountains to giant 40-pound stripers on Watts Bar Lake in Kingston. With 16 years of experience, Gavin knows where the fish are.

My son Troupe didn’t need any encouragement as he gathered up our gear. We were off for what would turn out to be a memorable adventure. One of the great things about tailwater fishing in the summertime is the cool temperature of the water, a result of the waters coming from the bottom of the lakes. At times, a low fog will rise, swirling with the current, creating an ethereal beauty. 

Just upstream of the first small riffle, John hooked on to a nice rainbow and the day was in full motion. From that point on, we were on fish for hours, so consistently that we forgot lunch till late in the day. This section of the Holston has great trout on the first half and good smallmouth bass on the second half. Targeting multiple species on a single trip makes for a heck of time, but add on friends who are exceptional sportsmen, and there’s nothing like it.

Jimmy Chiarella
Jimmy Chiarella

Fishing with Gavin in particular proved to be quite the adventure, and day two on the river proved that well. By mid-morning he had figured out the pattern, and we were catching both rainbows and browns on dry flies for the second day. What a blast! It wasn’t until late in day two as we rowed through a deep slow pool that his fish sense kicked in. Gavin was suddenly pulling heavily on the oars to propel us upstream saying he had seen a sturgeon. Sure enough, there it was, visible through the clear water about 10 feet down. It was a big fish, clearly more than 48 inches in length. We worked around the pool, and although we didn’t catch that one I did land one about 36 inches long and got a nice photo before the release.

What a great experience, working with Jimmy to photograph my son with two world-class guides on day one and seeing dry fly action and catching a sturgeon on day two. 

If you are interested in learning about trout fishing and would like to hire a guide, check out the resources on our website. I can heartily endorse both of these men as experts in the field of hunting and fishing adventures of any type you care to choose, and sometimes those adventures can be right in your backyard. 

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