As I entered Patrick Fulkrod’s comfortable ClackaCraft drift boat, I could tell he was as eager to get on the Watauga River as I was.
“They really aren’t generating that much water right now,” Fulkrod said. “Let’s go further upstream and do a little wade fishing until the river level rises.”
The Watauga River flows out of western North Carolina into northeast Tennessee to where a pair of dams form clean, mountain lakes. Below the lakes is a special trout fishery for browns and rainbows, maintained all year by cold tailrace water released from the dams. The area is about an hour from Asheville, North Carolina.
We made our way upstream about a hundred yards from the put in on the Watauga Tailwater, and as Fulkrod secured the boat, I climbed out and made a few casts. I had fished for about 10 minutes, but my pattern didn’t seem to be drawing the attention of any trout.
Fulkrod is an Orvis-endorsed guide who owns Mountain Sports based in Bristol, Virginia. He checked my pattern to make sure the depth was set right, then went upstream himself and made a few casts to prospect where the trout might be hiding. I again made a few casts but didn’t get a bump. I was about to give Fulkrod a hard time about the inactive fish, but his rod was bent over nearly double. He gave me a knowing look, and a smile nearly the size of his drift boat stretched across his face.
Fulkrod landed a few more dandy browns, and then as the water levels began rising, we reentered his drift boat. Fulkrod pulled on the oars and got us upstream, and then we began our downstream drift. My first strike came as I was carefully watching my pattern making its way past a large bridge piling. The bridge itself was no longer in use, but the concrete support columns were still in good shape and buried several feet below the river’s surface. These columns, of course, make perfect structure for baitfish and other aquatic creatures. I thought I could see the shadows of trout or some other type of reasonably sized fish swimming below. They seemed to be darting in and around the columns well beneath the surface of the river. Occasionally I would see what I thought was a pretty good size trout, but even with sunglasses it was hard to make out what creatures swam below.
“Don’t give him any slack in the line,” Fulkrod said. “He’ll use that against you and spit the hook if you give him half a chance.”
I kept my line tight and was rewarded with a feisty brown trout, which I carefully released after a quick picture.
Water level fluctuations on the Watauga River can be quite substantial to say the least, and changes can be seemingly sudden because of the water volume released upstream from the dam. Tailrace fisheries—rivers with dams that control their flows—like the Watauga River take a great deal of time to get to know. As a result, good guides like Fulkrod put thousands of hours on the river discovering exactly where the trout prefer to stay and feed.
“Sometimes these trout will be in the back eddies and other times they’ll be behind rocks or near structure in the river. Since the river levels are constantly changing, the fish are always on the move,” Fulkrod said.
I’d spent the night before in a place called Meredith Valley Cabins, which was located directly beside the banks of Watauga River. The riverside cabin was extremely comfortable and looked like it came straight out of an L.L. Bean catalog. In fact the cabin was so nice; I thought it was a shame my wife wasn’t with me, because she would have loved the place. I’ve found over the years my chances to fish more or longer are much better if my wife likes where we are staying. Had she come along for this trip, I think I could have fished all week.
Like many anglers that visit this famous river, I used the town of Elizabethton, Tennessee http://www.tourcartercounty.com/, as my base of operations. The town is located in northwestern Tennessee and is easily accessed off of Interstate 26. The only down side to visiting Elizabethton is figuring out what you have time to do. Between the beautiful trails you can hike and the places you can camp, not to mention visiting the state parks and historic buildings, there are lots of recreational options.
As fun as all those recreational choices may have been, I came to Elizabethton so I could fish with my friend and well-known guide, Patrick Fulkrod. Fulkrod is a pretty young guide to be so well known and well respected, but don’t let that young face and boyish charm fool you. Fulkrod has worked for many years as a professional fly fishing guide. He’s a stone-cold professional when it comes to landing fish on the Watauga and other nearby rivers. In fact, Fulkrod was selected in 2013 as the Orvis Endorsed Fly Fishing Guide of the Year. This is no small feat, though Fulkrod is loath to blow his own horn. He’d much rather put his clients on big trout and let that do the talking for him.
As I finally got the hang of things, after a bit of coaching from Fulkrod, I began to anticipate when I would get a strike. I’d cast my pattern upstream, mend it into the current where it would take it past a hungry trout, then wait for the take. When all was said and done, I landed more than two dozen fish that day and only came off the water when driven off by a storm. I had a great time landing brown trout with Fulkrod, and given the comfortable cabin I stayed in, perhaps bringing my wife with me back next time would be a good idea. I can’t think of a better way a fly angler could spend his week than chasing browns on the Watauga River.
Editor’s Note: Beau Beasley is an author of multiple guide books and a member of Local 2068. He retired in May of 2015 as a Captain with Fairfax County Fire and Rescue, where he served for 30 years. We hope he has many more fishing trips ahead of him.
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