High Water on the Watauga

While attending last week’s Southeastern Outdoor Press Association conference in Johnson City, Tenn., I joined colleague and friend Alan Clemons (that’s him in the photo) for a couple of non-conference hours on the Watauga River.

The Watauga is a tailwater and a stocking supported trout fishery. A slice of the river runs through the town of Elizabethton and this is where we were fishing.

We arrived late afternoon to find the water low and the weather cloudy. In 10 minutes we’d donned waters, rigged rods and sloshed into the river. Alan headed upstream. I went downstream to where the river muscled itself through a deep hole then scattered across a long riffle. The path to the deep hole was mostly over exposed basketball size rocks that flatted in a small gravel spit within easy casting distance of where the water sluiced. It was here, in an eddy formed by a wide boulder, I paused to tied on a bead head wooly bugger and a small dropper. I glanced upstream. Clemons was standing mid river. We were the only fishermen on the water. This should have been a warning sign. When the locals know something you don’t, pay attention.

By the time I’d finished re-rigging and stepped forward to make a cast the current was strong enough to knock me to my knees. I was glad to be wearing a wading belt. I looked over my shoulder toward the bank. The rocky stream bed I’d crossed to reach this spot had vanished under the rapidly rising water.

Getting trapped in a fast rising tailwater is a foolish mistake but a surprisingly easy one to make. All that’s required are a couple of minutes of inattention. If you’re not familar with fishing a tailwater the water flow and river level is controlled at the dam. A river’s complexion can change from passive to aggressive with surprising suddeness.

Bu the time I’d struggled to the shore (after twice falling) the water was nearly chest deep where I’d been just moments before. I looked upstream. Alan was no where in sight.

I hurried upstream happy to find Clemons hugging the far bank, wading carefully against what was by now a strong, swirling current; still fishing but not being overly aggressive about it. A missed step could have caused real problems. We communicated via hand signals that we’d meet at the upstream bridge.

In the parking lot at the Marathon gasoline station we sat on the tailgate, feeling both relieved and a bit foolish, while a thunderstorm lash the parking lot.

“We both know better than to pull a stunt like that,” I finally said.
“Yea,” my friend agreed. “I know.”