The Watauga: A River Reborn

By Tom Adkinson | Photo credits: Rafting photos are by High Mountain Expeditions; All others photos are by Tom Adkinson

Once a polluted mess, the Watauga River has been reborn into a recreational paradise for fishing, whitewater rafting, and boating.

For a river that once was dead – as in dead-as-a-doornail dead – the Watauga River in Upper East Tennessee is a lively place these days.

Trout fishermen adore it. Families scream with delight on intermediate-level whitewater rafting trips. Scientists speak glowingly of it, with one saying the Watauga’s revival is “one of Tennessee’s greatest environmental success stories.”

The Watauga is a beautiful, medium-sized Appalachian River. Tennessee can thank North Carolina for sending the river west off of Grandfather Mountain and into the Volunteer State. Two Tennessee Valley Authority hydroelectric dams interrupt its flow, and the second of those dams – the Wilbur Dam – helps create the fun for rafters and trout fishermen.

Just upriver from Elizabethton, Tennessee, the Wilbur Dam’s main purpose is to generate electricity, but it also creates conditions for abundant outdoor recreation. The dam is east of Johnson City and south of Bristol.

When TVA sends water coursing through the dam’s turbines, about 5.5 miles of whitewater are the result. Furthermore, the water coming off the bottom of Wilbur Lake is cold, which makes trout happy for more miles farther downstream. The Watauga flows about 17 twisting miles below Wilbur Dam until it reaches Boone Lake.

An environmental mess no longer
Looking at the Watauga now, it’s difficult to imagine it once was a polluted mess. In one sense, the river was a casualty of World War II, far from the fighting front. A nylon plant and a rayon plant built in the 1920s and 1930s became important to the war effort, and pollution from the plants killed everything – the fish, the insects the fish ate, certainly the desire to wade, swim or boat on the river.

David McKinney, now chief of biological diversity and environmental services for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), was with the Tennessee Department of Health and Environment’s Division of Water Pollution Control in the 1980s. He paints a grim picture of what the rayon and nylon plants did to the river.

“Long before (serious) pollution controls, the river was devoid of all life,” McKinney says matter-of-factly.

The cleanup effort proved to be a watershed moment (pun intended). Instead of the prevailing theory of simply reducing the volume of pollutants in a river, the idea of ozone infusion and aeration to neutralize pollutants’ toxicity was suggested. It worked – and it set a precedent the federal Environmental Protection Agency adopted.

“When the toxicity was removed, the river immediately began to recover. The benthic community (life at the river bottom) took off. Once there were insects, the trout thrived,” he says.

“I remember when the first fish were put out. A year later, we electroshocked with no expectation of success. Not only had the trout survived, they had thrived,” McKinney says.

A wet and wild water roller coaster
Seeing flotillas of yellow rafts below Wilbur Dam tells you it’s whitewater rafting season, and that keeps Matt Leonard, river manager for High Mountain Expeditions in nearby Banner Elk, North Carolina, busy.

His trips utilize from six to 20 rafts for a 5.5-mile run down the river. Leonard describes the Watauga as “a great intermediate introductory river” with lots of variety. It starts in a deep mountain gorge and proceeds into more open, pastoral land.

“It offers mostly Class I and Class II rapids, but there’s a solid Class III rapid called the Anaconda about 1.5 miles into the trip,” Leonard says, noting that he takes rafters as young as age 3.

Each raft has a guide and carries from four to eight people. One-person inflatable kayaks are an option for Watauga fun.

You can meet Leonard at the High Mountain Expeditions office in Banner Elk and let him drive you 45 minutes to the river, or you can meet at the river if you’re already in Tennessee. Every rafting trip starts with a shore lunch just above Wilbur Dam. About three hours later, after the opportunity to exit your raft and leap into the river off an overhanging rock, your trip ends on Broad Street in downtown Elizabethton.

High Mountain Expeditions and two other river outfitters stay busy from Memorial Day through Labor Day with daily trips. Leonard, who has been a river guide for 18 years, also offers Saturday trips in September before autumn’s chill discourages clients.

Chasing the wily trout
Jason Reep is on the river even more than Leonard because Reep runs East Tennessee Fly Fishing, a guide service chasing brown trout that reproduce naturally in the Watauga and the roughly 40,000 keeper-sized rainbows that TWRA stocks annually. Unlike Leonard’s clients who want to get wet, Reep’s clients stay dry in a classic drift boat with a paint job resembling a brook trout.

Reep, one of the first three or four guides on the Watauga back in the early 1990s, reports he’s on the river about 150 days a year
“There are perhaps 30 full-time guides now, and about a thousand on weekends,” he says with a wink. They all work the Watauga and the South Holston River, which is only about 45 minutes away. Fishermen – and fisherwomen – come from all over.

“The Watauga has become a destination river for trout anglers in the South. I even hear about people who go out West and rave about the scenery there but like the fishing better on the Watauga,” says Bart Carter, regional fisheries coordinator for TWRA.

Reep particularly enjoys telling about one client from England.

“He couldn’t believe that just anybody could buy a license and go fish on a river,” Reep says, noting how lucky Americans are to have accessible outdoor recreation.

A popular half-day trip Reep offers covers about five miles, starting at Hunter Bridge in Elizabethton and ending at Lovers Lane. Along the way, the Doe River flows into the Watauga, but it doesn’t appreciably change the stream’s size. A bit farther downstream, TWRA maintains a 2.6-mile “Quality Trout Zone” with a possession limit of two fish 14 inches or longer caught on artificial lures.

The Watauga is fishable all year, although Reep says volume drops after Thanksgiving, only to revive as warm spring days come along. As a trout guide, Reep knows his aquatic insects, and he looks ahead to a particular event each spring.

“There’s usually a big caddis fly hatch around Mother’s Day. You can barely open your mouth without eating a caddis fly then,” he says.

Riverside lodging
Multiple motel/hotel choices are available in Elizabethton and Johnson City, but thoroughly enjoying the Watauga means staying near the water. Here are two popular destinations.

Bee Cliff Cabins is a collection of 14 furnished cabins (the largest has four bedrooms), and the river is in guests’ backyard.

Watauga River Lodge is geared toward fishermen and faces the Watauga’s “Quality Trout Zone.” The main cabin has three one-bedroom suites with separate entrances; Tom’s Cabin is a one-bedroom stand-alone structure; and the nearby Range Cabin, built in 1861, has two bedrooms.

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.