By Andrew Knight
Photos by Andrew Knight
Nestled in the far southwestern tip of Virginia, the South Fork of the Holston River is a magical place for trout anglers searching for trophy brown and rainbow trout in a freestone river. While the South Fork of the Holston River often gets overlooked by the more celebrated Holston River down the road in Tennessee, anglers should not underestimate the potential of the South Fork and its home to some of the biggest wild trout in the state.
The South Fork of the Holston is easily accessible at the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources’ (DWR) Buller Fish Cultural Station located in Marion, Virginia, and this stretch features two special regulation sections (below and above the dam on Buller’s property). Before venturing out to this section of the river, I had heard many exhilarating stories from friends and trout junkies who had landed some of the biggest fish of their Virginia careers in these waters. Having heightened expectations before fishing new water can lead to serious disappointment, but I can attest that the South Fork lived up to the hype!
Before trekking four hours from Richmond to Marion, Virginia, I did my research and learned a lot about the type of fishing I would be doing on the South Fork thanks to DWR’s report. The video shows the results of DWR’s annual fish population survey at the Buller Hatchery and provides evidence of just how big the brown and rainbow trout can get in this section of the river.
With cooler air and water temperatures making way into the region this time of the year, I knew I would be fishing deep with nymphs and small midges in order to have success. I personally love fishing big stonefly nymphs with rubber legs (i.e. Pat’s Rubber Legs or Girdle Bugs in size four or six) above a small, red zebra midge in size 18 or 20 in the winter months here in Virginia. I gave my traditional setup a go and placed an adjustable indicator high above my flies to make sure they were getting down deep where the fish hold in colder water. I was fortunate to have a 55-degree sunny day when I visited the South Fork and no sign of any anglers in the parking lot when I arrived.
My plan of action for the day was to start above the Buller Hatchery dam and fish up the four-mile section of special regulation water. A convenient fishing trail follows the river upstream, so maneuvering through each section was not a problem. I worked each section of runs and riffles up from the dam and was surprised to have very little action. I noticed a few fish rising to small blue-winged olives near the banks of small runs, but I could not attract any takes with small dry flies tied on. I switched back to my nymph rig for most of the morning but found the heavier nymph rig was difficult to fish effectively with such low water levels, and I ended up spooking a few fish from under rocks as I moved up the river.
As the afternoon approached, I was beginning to grow wary of landing a trophy fish and any fish at this point, so I decided to give one last-ditch effort in the Buller Fish Hatchery section of the river below the dam. I carefully worked downstream throwing my favorite nymphs and even some large, articulated streamers, but continued to have no success. With time running out, I stumbled upon a section of the river that featured a deep pool below a fast rapid.
Sitting a few yards past the rapid, I noticed about eight larger trout grouped together subtlety feeding below the water’s surface. The deepest part of the run looked to be at least eight feet deep, and every few moments a handful of larger fish would appear at the bottom. I also noticed one massive trout stationary in the deep section, and I decided to spend all my energy and focus on getting this fish to take one of my nymphs.
As I drifted my nymphs in front of the fish, I was frustrated to find the fish uninterested. Switching methods, I pulled out my biggest streamer and furiously stripped the minnow back and forth in front of the trout. Still, I had no luck! While I hesitated to put back on my nymphs, I decided that maybe some extra weight could get the flies down faster and more effectively to startle the trout into biting. I added the biggest split shot in my pack and landed a cast five feet in front of the trout. With my eyes hyperfocused on the trout, I saw its head move to the left and toward my fly.
Before I knew it, my indicator was sinking, and the hook was set. The fish shot upstream and just about pulled the rod out of my hand. After a few hard runs around the submerged trees and toward the bottom of the deep pool, I hoisted the fish sideways and scooped it up into my net!
The trout exceeded my expectations and truly shocked me with its size, bright orange and yellow colors, and distinct hooked jaw. I tried my best at getting a photo of this giant brown, but my selfie camera and solo nature of the trip limited its true potential.
While the South Fork of the Holston may be a bit more challenging than advertised, its small waters breed big trout that can truly take you by surprise and give you an unforgettable moment of your trout fishing career. I feel fortunate to be surrounded by such pristine waters and look forward to hearing about the next great adventure on the trophy section of the South Fork!
A Richmond native, Andrew is passionate about fishing throughout all of Virginia and previously worked as a fly-fishing guide at the A Bar A Ranch in Wyoming. He also runs the @rvajamesriverfish Instagram account that promotes fishing on the James River in the Richmond area.