Allen Gillespie has a lot of schoolin’, as he constantly reminds us. I do dig his writing though…just don’t tell him.




By Allen Gillespie
Photos: Phil Savage   (other photos courtesy of the Library of Congress)
Southern Culture On the Fly
Issue NO. 6: Winter 2013

“The dam is bare, and immobile, and lonely, just standing there. Norris Dam is what it should be: finished, unromantic and working.”  –  Ernie Pyle

A TWRA officer once confided in me that the devil dances in the gravel lot at Peach Orchard Access after dark on summer nights. This time of year don’t nobody dance along the banks of the Clinch River except for a few hardheaded fools chasing imagined glory dredged from the swift currents belched from the belly of Norris Dam. It’s not that our Southern Appalachian winters are overly harsh, they’re not. It’s just that the same humidity, which thrills the devil in July remains long after the kudzu has been rolled up to reveal all of East Tennessee’s warts and scars, and it chills you to the bones on the short January days that descend upon us like an epidemic. What’s worse, the hills surrounding the Clinch River valley in Anderson County reach skyward and grab any eastern bound weather front and wring it of its contents making humidity a bona fide fact in the form of precipitation, which lingers for months on end.

A scant six miles upstream from the devil’s dance floor at the Peach Orchard ramp, Norris Dam sits in silent occupation; a coldwater factory built on the back of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The first project of TVA, construction on Norris Dam began in October of 1933 and was completed some 886 days later as concrete evidence of Weber’s central tenant. Norris’ linear façade sits in stark contrast to the natural lines of the surrounding hills. Its speckled and streaked surface now resemble the belly of a shoat hog laid out in an early spring sun. Trapped behind the concrete is a catchment area of 2,912 square miles with a capacity of over 2,552,000 acre-ft. Some 3,000-odd souls were displaced by the rising waters, which covered one of the most fertile valleys in the area, a fact which still finds its way into our conversation nearly 100 years later. At 265 feet high, Norris is not the tallest of the regions’ many dams, but it is sufficiently deep to churn out a conveyor belt of oxygen-infused water, which is chilled year-round to a near constant 50 degrees by the darkness lurking at the bottom of Norris lake.

I grew up fishing the Clinch and have seen it in every season and color. Perhaps due to this intimacy I have always viewed the Clinch as the most manufactured of TVA’s Southern tailwater fisheries. At low flows, the Clinch consists of ten miles of pools interspersed by perpendicular monolithic shoals. It is nearly devoid of any resemblance to the freestone rivers one typically associates with prime trout waters, and as such can test the abilities of even the most seasoned angler. It may also be the most productive water you’ve ever fished, depending on the day, and that’s what keeps you returning for more.  If the Clinch had a more constant flow it would arguably be the best tailwater fishery in the country. Unfortunately for us tortured souls, TVA isn’t in the business of growing fish and the river ebbs and flows with the vagaries of the valley’s power demands. While bucolic in nature when off, at full pull, with both turbines turning, the steady relentlessness of the flow belies its industrial origin. And at 8,350 cubic feet per second, it’s a fool’s game to even attempt to chase trout, particularly with a fly rod.

Fools and optimists still abound in East Tennessee. On cold, dreary January days they make their ways to the edge of the Clinch in twos and threes, emerging from trucks with hippopotamus-colored bags slung over shoulders and overflowing with monumental yellow boxes and bottles of bonded whiskey. Tin sleds are loaded in the muffled silence of the swollen river and a routine set about in order to pay penance for the sins lying in the darkness upstream. On most days even well placed offerings go unnoticed and so the whiskey serves as a condolence, and to ease tired shoulders and sore elbows. Every so often, however, golden absolution is ripped from the slipstream and the river becomes whole again in the exuberance of the moment.


If you know Allen Gillespie, then the title is pretty self-explanatory. All truth aside though, Knoxville might just be the best smallmouth fishery in the South, and is always on our itinerary this time of year.

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By Allen Gillespie
Photos: Steve Seinberg and Allen Gillespie
Southern Culture On the Fly
Issue NO. 5: Fall 2012

“Thou source of all my bliss and all my woe,that found me poor at first, and keep me so.” – Oliver Goldsmith

Like your first shot of corn from a jar, the take from a substantial riverine smallmouth has the ability to freeze time.  During that brief interlude, the savage force of the fish’s grab plants a seed in the recesses of your mind, which will ultimately sprout and grow to possess all of the qualities of a high-grade addiction.

This is in part due to the fact that a smallmouth’s fight is rivaled in freshwater only by their anadromous cousin, the steelhead. And just like steelhead fishing, it is the later reflection, far from the river, which haunts you and twists your mind sufficiently to cause a serious case of the night sweats. The only cure is the journey back to the river to seek another taste. Hence the addiction.

Knoxville, tucked neatly in the bosom of southern Appalachia, lies at the southern extreme of the smallmouth’s natal range. Like Afghanistan is to poppies or Bolivia to coca, East Tennessee is ground zero for the southern smallmouth. The region’s longer growing season coupled with TVA’s Franken-water laboratory of habitats combine to cook lunker smallmouth in batches of varying grades, which have included the current world record fish (11lbs 15oz).

A purest within a subset of gentlemen anglers, I prefer to chase the species in their lotic habitats due to the riverine effects on the species phenotype, which results in an ornery disposition not found in their lake brethren. My preferences aside, stillwater anglers need not despair since the hundreds of acres of water in the numerous reservoirs that ring the Knoxville area are prime waters. In fact, in many cases the potamodromous species divides its time between the area’s interconnected lentic and lotic habitats depending upon the season.

My southern home is blessed with a longer fishing season for smallmouth than anywhere else on the planet. A typical Knoxville basshole gets his first itch for a fresh fix in early March when water temperatures begin to approach 60 degrees. From this point on, the fishing can be fantastic as post-spawn bass drop back off their beds into primary tributaries and put on their feedbags.

With the arrival of the dog days of summer, however, the smallmouth frequently affect a crepuscular crankiness that limits the better fishing to the early morning and late evening hours necessitating not only a pre-work fix, but also a post-work one for the junkies among us.

As the first hints of browning on the foliage begin to show in late August and early September, serious anglers are in full-blown addict mode, in a perpetual search for the next monster to ease their pain. All too frequently obligations and responsibilities are eschewed for the chance at one more taste as the anticipation of the fall feeding frenzy makes the need that much more poignant, as by early October there is no better time to be on the water chasing trophy smallmouth.

By early fall, the occasional angler has long since shifted focus to football or hunting. The rivers are devoid of any boat traffic and the big bass begin to sense the change in the air and switch back to a persistent diel activity pattern, feeding throughout the waning daylight hours. The big fish you’ve targeted through the summer months are more obliging. In anticipation of the colder weather, they’re no longer content to merely inspect your offerings, instead compelled to destroy nearly all properly presented flies upon entry into their watery world.

With a little luck, and favorable weather conditions, Knoxville’s primary tailwater fisheries’ season can stretch well into the later part of November. This, of course, leaves only three months to wait before the season is back yet again. Scant weeks on the one hand.

Yet on the other—a long cold winter before the junkie can score his next fix.