An avid fly fisherman for the past 50 years, Mike Adams has fished some of the best rivers and streams an outdoorsman could ask for. He’s weathered the most relentless elements and traversed the most difficult terrain on the continent—all on his quest to find the best fly fishing in the country.

And strangely enough, that’s what brings him to Northeast Tennessee.

“I spent 18 years living (and fishing) out in Wyoming and Arizona,” he says. “And then, everyone out there started talking about Tennessee water.”

So he did what any hardcore fisherman would do. He packed up his belongings and moved to the Tri-Cities.

“The fishing on South Holston and Watauga Rivers is as good as you’ll find anywhere,” he says. “You can fish both rivers on high water and low water, essentially making it 4 different rivers in 2 waterways. And the insect life is incredible. The streams are rich in crawfish and baitfish, and gives the fish a wider variety of food 12 months a year.”

And then, with a word, Adams hits on Northeast Tennessee’s claim to big fish—that one word that sparks images of trophy trout in the minds of fisherman. That one word that can send even a beginner home with a stringer full of lunkers.

“Tailwaters,” he says, like a proud prospector sharing his most lucrative secret.

But it’s really no secret at all. Fact is, people around Northeast Tennessee have heard of those magical tailwaters for years. But it takes a seasoned expert like Adams to show why they’re so conducive to world-class fishing.

“’Tailwaters’ just means ‘the water flowing down from the dam.’ And since that water comes from the bottom of the lake, it’s a good deal colder than the rest of it. Trout are a cold-water species. They love the cold water coming off the dam.”

“Trout basically want three things: comfort, concealment, and food,” he says.

So if the cold water makes them comfortable, and, the natural Appalachian landscape provides more than enough concealment, what’s so special about the food they eat?

“It all boils down to water quality,” Adams says proudly. “Better water quality means more insect life. And more insects means more for the fish to eat.”

Then, Adams goes on to describe the difference between caddis and mayfly, what dry-fly means, the intricate details of an insect’s life cycle, and all sorts of things I didn’t completely understand. But not to worry, Adams says, it’s all part of the experience. And whether you’re a beginner or expert, there’s always something new to learn.

That’s why he created Mike Adams Outfitters, a service to guide and teach prospective fly fishermen on the South Holston and Watauga Rivers.

And if you want to learn to fly fish, but don’t have the equipment, don’t worry! Mike will furnish everything you’d possibly need, from flies and equipment to a boat, waders, and cold-weather gear. He’ll even provide lunch.

Even though “prime conditions” run from April to mid-November, you can fish year-round. Average start time is 8:30am, unless it’s during the winter, when trips start around 11am.

And if it turns out that fly-fishing is your kind of sport, Mike knows a great outfitter in Johnson City who’ll hook you up with all the equipment you could possibly need (Mahoney’s on Sunset Drive).

“Fly fishing puts a lot of things together,” he says. “If you’re a backpacker you can hike into a mountain stream, take some photographs. It’s for people who love nature, who love the flora and fauna, and diverse terrain. It’s an artform.”

And his affection for fly fishing parallels his answer to my last question:

“What do you like about living in Northeast Tennessee?”

“I love the scenery, love the people. I love the way of life, it just all goes together. I enjoy everything this area offers…it’s got what I want.”

Well said, Mike. Well said.


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