Tennessee’s trout rivers and lakes are among the best in the country. The warm weather allows trout to enjoy a generous growing season, resulting in numerous trophy-sized fish coming from rivers in the Volunteer State. Some of my most exciting and rewarding fishing trips have taken place on these waters, chasing Tennessee’s wild brown trout and other species.
In this article, we’ll discuss the top trout fishing rivers and lakes in Tennessee, along with some helpful information anglers can use for both fly fishing and using a spinning reel.
Trout Species in Tennessee
Brown trout are one of the most prevalent species found in the rivers and lakes of the state of Tennessee. Many of the state’s rivers have water that’s cool enough on a year-round basis to support wild brown trout, especially in the higher elevation of the eastern Tennessee mountains. Brown trout often grow to be well over 10 pounds in optimal conditions in Tennessee’s waters.
Rainbow trout are perhaps as common as brown trout throughout most of Tennessee. Rainbows are more commonly found in the state’s trout fishing lakes than other species, and anglers typically find them in just about any fast-moving river or stream. The Tennessee state record rainbow trout currently stands as an 18-pound, 8-ounce giant.
Brook trout are not quite as common as rainbow trout or brown trout, but they can be found in sizable populations throughout much of the Volunteer State. Brook trout are commonly referred to as “brookies” or “brooks” and are usually found in smaller streams that are situated at elevations that exceed 3,000 feet. Most of the streams and rivers in Tennessee are not able to support wild brook trout, but they are one of the more abundant trout species in East Tennessee.
The Best Trout Fishing Rivers in Tennessee
South Holston River
The South Holston River in Eastern Tennessee is a 23-mile trout fishing mecca and is one of my favorite places to catch trophy-sized trout. This river has a large population of brown trout, rainbow trout, and brook trout. Anglers from all over the world flock to the South Holston River beginning in November when the annual spawning season kicks in.
In my experience, fishing is best around the South Holston dam, especially when water is released, and the cold temperatures stir the trout into feeding. Fly fishing is especially popular on the South Holston River, and the top lures are usually midges, mayflies, and caddisflies. The water along the South Fork Holston River is very clear, which means anglers will have to be stealthy if they want to catch any of the larger-sized trout species.
The Little River is arguably the best place to catch trout in Tennessee despite the fact that it is merely a large stream that winds its way through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. This is certainly one of the more scenic fishing rivers on our list, and the Little River is often a popular destination for vacation-goers in East Tennessee.
The Little River is one of the more popular fly fishing locations in this part of the state, and there are plenty of remote pockets where anglers can catch brook trout native to the area. This waterway is also a great place to introduce kids to the sport of fishing, as there are numerous smaller trout that will bite wax worms, crickets, and even corn rigged with a bobber. Fly fishing enthusiasts typically stick to elk hair caddis or prince nymphs when casting around the Little River.
The Clinch River is another waterway in eastern Tennessee that makes a strong case for being the top fly fishing river in Tennessee. This river stretches for more than 300 miles just south of Knoxville and offers plenty of trout fishing opportunities for anglers of all skill levels.
The Clinch River boasts a huge population of rainbow trout and brown trout, with anglers reporting that some sections feature a good number of wild brook trout and even cutthroats, thanks to the state’s stocking programs. My best experience fishing on the Clinch River took place in the winter on a guided float trip where we caught a number of brown trout.
The Hiwassee River flows to the north out of Georgia and features some of the most scenic waters in the entire state of Tennessee. This river flows for nearly 150 miles up into North Carolina and is teeming with rainbow trout and brown trout. Tennessee has designated the Hiwassee as an official State Scenic River, but the fishing is usually better than the view along this waterway.
Most anglers will opt for a float trip along the Hiwassee River to cover more water. Small crankbaits and rooster tails tend to be a great choice to catch the bigger trout and smallmouth bass lurking in these waters. You can fish most of this river with dry flies, nymphs, and streamers to catch trophy trout throughout most of the year.
One of my all-time favorite trout fisheries in Tennessee is Abrams Creek. This waterway is nestled in the beauty of Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is packed with wild trout species. Abrams Creek is only a short distance away from Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg, and many of the nearby streams in this area are stocked by the Gatlinburg Trout Fishing TWRA.
You can access Abrams Creek from Cades Cove on the north side, but I prefer to camp at Abrams Creek Campground along the southern side. Abrams Creek features some larger pools where rainbow trout will stack up along the section near the Abrams Falls Trailhead. Some of the biggest rainbow trout can be found just beneath the falls, feeding on the many insects and other creatures that make their way into the water.
The Watauga River is one of the top trophy trout fishing rivers in Tennessee and is well-known as one of the best fly fishing destinations in the southeastern United States. This river is situated in east Tennessee just outside of Johnson City and feeds Watauga Lake and Wilbur Lake.
There are huge rainbow trout and brown trout in the Watauga River, and my favorite spot to launch is the Blevins Boat Ramp. This is an ideal waterway to fly fish or use a spinning combo and launch a kayak or small boat to cover as much water as possible. Some of the best fly fishing lures to use on this river include black caddis and blue-winged olive flies.
Little Pigeon River
We could probably place the Little Pigeon River higher on our list, but there’s no denying this is one of the best trout fishing rivers in Tennessee. Most anglers agree that the western section of the Little Pigeon River is best as it sits at a high elevation and offers cold water to sustain trout populations throughout the year.
The Little Pigeon River is my favorite stream to catch brook trout, as there are certainly plentiful numbers in these waters. Some of the western portion of the Little Pigeon River is very narrow, and it may be best to use an ultralight spinning combo to fish certain pockets. This river is another one to keep in mind when visiting Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, especially during the spring and summer when the state stocks trout.
The Elk River is one of the best trout waterways along the southern part of the state, where Tennessee joins Alabama. The Elk River flows for about 190 miles from Tennessee in a southwestern direction into Alabama and features cool water that is capable of sustaining brown trout and rainbow trout populations.
This is one of my favorite places to visit in middle Tennessee. The river is a bit less pressured than the nearby Caney Fork River, and midges work very well on the Elk River. Fishing is best just below the dam, where you can float roughly 10 miles to Ferris Creek Bridge. This section is perfect for kayak fishing, and my go-to lures are Adams and caddis flies.
The Tellico River is a tributary of the Little Tennessee River and is one of the best trout fishing destinations in this part of the state. The Tellico River is home to monster brown trout, as well as rainbow trout, and fly fishing anglers flock to this area during the late fall when the spawn begins.
My favorite sections of the Tellico River are the northern section and Bald Creek, where some of the biggest brown trout are often found. The river is stocked with brown and rainbow trout during the spring and summer. Stick to a Tellico fly for the best chance of catching any wild trout.
Caney Fork River
The Caney Fork River is another outstanding trout fishing location in Tennessee. Float trips are recommended here due to the depth and speed of the water, especially when the dam is releasing water. The Caney Fork River is roughly 140 miles of water flowing northwest into the Cumberland River.
This river is well-known for big brown trout and decent-sized rainbow trout. Larger flies tend to work very well here for browns, and rainbow trout eat insects that resemble a midge.
The Best Trout Fishing Lakes in Tennessee
Watauga Lake is formed by the Watauga River and features some of the best opportunities to catch trophy-sized rainbow trout in Tennessee. Watauga Lake is about 6,500 acres, and the water here is very clear, which makes it easy for rainbows to grow to immense sizes.
This lake has produced some of the state’s record trout, and it’s not uncommon to catch rainbow trout and brown trout weighing in excess of 10 pounds, especially during the rainbow trout spawn. Anglers can fish around the edges, but you’ll have better luck fishing from a boat or kayak in Watauga Lake.
Tims Ford Lake
Tims Ford Lake is a 10,700-acre reservoir operated and maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority. This lake is another great trout fishing location as it is fed by a number of small streams, and the Tims Ford Dam sits along the Elk River, creating the reservoir.
This lake is home to abundant numbers of rainbow, brown, and brook trout. Fly fishing is popular here, as well as using spinning combos. The state has been stocking Tims Ford Lake for the past 5 years, making it one of the best trout fishing lakes in terms of sheer numbers.
South Holston Lake
South Holston Lake is a reservoir formed by the South Holston River in northern Tennessee near Virginia. South Holston Lake is home to sizable populations of trout species, as well as various black bass species like largemouth bass and smallmouth bass.
Anglers on this 7,500-acre lake typically catch giant lake trout and rainbows throughout the year using deep diving crankbaits and rooster tails. The state routinely stocks brown trout and rainbow trout during the summer as the warmer waters sometimes make it tough for trout to survive in the more shallow parts of the lake.
Lake Graham is known as an outstanding trout fishing waterway in Tennessee. This reservoir is somewhat small at around 500 acres, but the trout caught here are anything but small.
Fishing for trout in Lake Graham usually involves using a small spoon or even fishing with minnows during the winter. The state stocks trout here in the winter to provide anglers with enough fish to keep their interest until the warmer months.
Reelfoot Lake is relatively small but has garnered a big reputation for producing large trout in recent years. This 15,000-acre lake is located in northwestern Tennessee and is home to plenty of trout, as well as bass, crappie and catfish.
There is no size limit on trout in Reelfoot Lake, but the trout creel limit is 7 fish per day. The state usually stocks many thousands of rainbow trout in Reelfoot Lake each year, and trout fishing is best here in the winter when the cold water temperatures make trout more active.
Tennessee Trout Fishing Rules and Regulations
According to the state laws in Tennessee, anglers can only keep rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout that are above 14 inches in length. Brown trout must be above 24 inches before they can be harvested. There are specific size limits for certain rivers and lakes, so be sure to check and verify the size limit before you take your trip.
When it comes to trout creel limit in Tennessee, be sure to check on the specific guidelines and laws for the particular river or lake you plan to fish. Some lakes and rivers require different size and creel limits than the overall state limits. In most cases, anglers can only keep 1 brown trout per day but are allowed to keep as many as 7 rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout each day.