The idea for the trip started while my friend Dan and I were working the Fly Fishing Show in Edison NJ. While we were stuck inside the large convention center we cooked up an idea for a spur of the moment trip down south. This was a trip that we had wanted to do for a long time but never were able to make it happen. We needed a third person on the trip in order to fill the back seat of the drift boat so Dan and I got a group text going with our friend Brien. By some miracle, we were all able to take a few days of work with short notice and the trip was on!
I loaded up the MLO rental camper, a lifted 3rd Gen Toyota Tacoma with a Four Wheel Camper Fleet, which comfortably sleeps three. With my rod vaults, fishing gear and RO skiff (which we have lovingly named "Dolla store Dip)" loaded up, I headed west to Harrisburg to grab Dan and Brien. The camper was full to the brim with fly boxes, waders, and coolers. The MLO GTS suspension equipped Tacoma paired with the firestone airbags/daystar cradles is the perfect combo for the Fleet Camper and was riding great, but with that extra weight packed in to the Four Wheel Camper, we decided to air up the firestone air bags for a little better ride. Now that the MLO Tacoma was sitting level and the load was fully supported, we were ready for the 7 hour drive ahead of us.
The ride to Bristol, Tennessee flew by as we cruised down I-81 doing a cool 70 mph, with boat in tow. We were a little nervous at first since none of us had driven a vehicle with a small house on the back before. Our nerves were settled a few minutes into the drive when we realized that the rig drove level and the load was fully supported. It actually drove better than my Tacoma did when it was stock.
Once we got to our destination, we stopped by Dan’s Dad’s airplane hanger where we picked up his old Toyota 4runner, named Delores. With well over 200,000 miles on the clock, worn out suspension, a rusted frame (that resembles Swiss cheese), and a cracked windshield; she was the quintessential Trout bum rig. Delores would serve as our shuttle rig for the weekend, running us up and down the river to aid in our self service floats.
Since we had a shortened day of fishing after our journey, we decided to hit the river on foot. The river is a tailwater which means its flows are dictated by a dam. The Tennessee Valley Water Authority fairly consistently release about 2000 cfs into the river on the weekends from 6am until 12pm. This means that the water level gradually drops from noon until the next day, making floating the afternoon not an option. By the time we finally got to the river, there was a dry fly hatch going off. This was something that we did not expect and found ourselves unprepared. I dug around in my fly box for a dry fly and found an old elk hair caddis jammed in the corner. I promptly tied it on, even though it looked nothing like what was hatching off the water. My ill preparedness surprisingly resulted in the first fish of the trip, a small but beautiful brown trout. We preceded to stick a few more on dries and decided to get ourselves prepared for the two days of floating ahead.
We stopped in the South Holston River Fly Shop to talk to the owner and get some information on the river. The "Dolla Store Dip" is not built for white water, unlike a high or low side drift boat, our boat had extremely low sides. I was the designated rower of our crew, so I asked the owner what he thought. He said, "You will be fine, you will take on water but if you can row you’ll be fine…"
Excited for the adventure ahead we went to stock up on supplies for the weekend of camping. We decided to go out for dinner and Dan suggested Ridgewood BBQ. We got there fairly early and were surprised to already find a massive line of people waiting outside to be served. After filling up on BBQ we went to set up camp and get a fire going.
Since we had already popped up the Fleet Four Wheel Camper top and deployed the Eezi-Awn Bat 270 degree awning, setup was a breeze. As seasoned tent campers, we didn’t know what to do with all the extra time we had. So we promptly got a campfire going, hung up our waders to dry and cracked a few beers while reminiscing on the days dry fly fishing. Excited for the days ahead and weary from our travels we retired to our mobile mountain escape. The morning started with some freshly ground cowboy coffee and we were off! We hooked the drift boat up to old Delores and headed to the put in. The take-out was just up the street from Dan’s place so we didn’t need to shuttle in the morning. We got a bit of a late start but that was ok, as we avoided the traffic jam of guide boats launching in the morning, we had the old drift boat in the water by 8:30.
Since we were rowing unfamiliar waters I hopped on the sticks for the morning. Immediately it was clear that this was big brown trout water. The bottom structure was a unique blend of shale, sand and spring creek like water cress. Needless to say, it looked fishy. Our suspicions were confirmed when Brien spooked a 2 foot brown trout within the first 100 meters of the float. Unlike the guide boats who were anchored up and nymphing with clients, we were throwing streamers (Meat) and needed to keep moving to ride the release back to the take out.
As we came up on the first rapid, I hopped back on the oars. Although my boat did not have a forward splash shield, we improvised and tucked my waterproof Fishpond bag up front so we didn’t take on too much water. This worked flawlessly and we only took on a little water on the first and largest rapid.
We anchored up after to collect our thoughts and take a little break for lunch. On the menu, were hotdogs courtesy of the jet boil. A mediocre meal that never tasted so good as the weather was cold and windy. After another round of cowboy coffee, we were fueled for the second half of the day.
As we continued down the river, many smaller brown trout were scooped into the net, but not the stump donkeys we were after. We ended the day down near Dans place and ran up to the camper to break down camp and grab Delores. The pop top went down in no time and the awning was tucked away within minutes. We switched the trailer back over to the camper and pulled the boat out from under a bridge.
We drove up the hill from the launch to Dan’s place up the hill and set camp back up in a few minutes. We were relaxing by a big fire, cold beers in our hands, in no time. Around 10 it started raining so we retreated to the camper. We discussed a game plan for the next day as we had a float as well as a 9 hour drive back home ahead of us. I told Brien and Dan that if we put at least one big fish in the boat I would be happy. I didn’t care who caught it, I just wanted to see a big buttery South Holsten Brown trout with my own eyes. We decided to put in at the same location and take out at the midway point which we passed at around 12:30 the previous day.
Since I rowed the majority of the previous day and we were a little more comfortable with the river, I was able to do a lot of fishing the last day. Brien, a more confident rower, was able to take on one of the two bigger sections of water. I tried a number of white streamer patterns as suggested by the fly shop owner. This method produced many smaller fish, so I soon switched to a larger Drunk and Disorderly Fly I had tied with a yellow theme. This change in fly pattern was rewarded when we came upon a deeper section of water where all the guides were anchored up nymphing. With a fast sinking line I cast the D'n'D into a deep pool where it disappeared into the clear green water. A few strips in I feel heavy pressure and see a silvery fish flashing sub surface. This was clearly a large fish, but I knew it wasn't what I wanted. When the fish rolled, I was pissed. It was a rainbow trout. We landed the fish and got a few hero shots on the bank near a farm and then sent her back to grow a little more.
The rest of the day was spent hoping for another big fish to come out of the wood work and scare the crap out of one of us stripping our streamers off the bank. We were unsuccessful in this pursuit but did have a great rest of the day, enjoying the warm sunny weather that had evaded us the rest of the trip. As we pulled into the take out the weekends memories all flashed through my head and I just wished I had one more day down there. After packing up the MLO camper we were on the road taking shifts between tanks of gas. All in all, it was a great adventure that the three of us will remember forever.
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