“The dam is bare, and immobile, and lonely, just standing there. Norris Dam is what it should be: finished, unromantic and working.”
A TWRA officer once confided in me that the devil dances in the gravel lot at Peach Orchard Access after dark on summer nights. This time of year don’t nobody dance along the banks of the Clinch River except for a few hardheaded fools chasing imagined glory dredged from the swift currents belched from the belly of Norris Dam. It’s not that our Southern Appalachian winters are overly harsh. They’re not. It’s just that the same humidity, which thrills the devil in July remains long after the kudzu has been rolled up to reveal all of East Tennessee’s warts and scars, and it chills you to the bones on the short January days that descend upon us like an epidemic. What’s worse, the hills surrounding the Clinch River valley in Anderson County reach skyward and grab any eastern-bound weather front and wring it of its contents making humidity a bona fide fact in the form of precipitation, which lingers for months on end.
A scant six miles upstream from the devil’s dance floor at the Peach Orchard ramp, Norris Dam sits in silent occupation; a cold-water factory built on the back of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The first project of TVA, construction on Norris Dam began in October of 1933 and was completed some 886 days later as concrete evidence of Weber’s central tenant. Norris’ linear façade sits in stark contrast to the natural lines of the surrounding hills. Its speckled and streaked surface now resemble the belly of a shoat hog laid out in an early spring sun. Trapped behind the concrete is a catchment area of 2,912 square miles with a capacity of over 2,552,000 acre-ft. Some 3,000-odd souls were displaced by the rising waters, which covered one of the most fertile valleys in the area, a fact which still finds its way into our conversation nearly 100 years later. At 265 feet high, Norris is not the tallest of the regions’ many dams, but it is sufficiently deep to churn out a conveyor belt of oxygen-infused water, which is chilled year-round to a near constant 50 degrees by the darkness lurking at the bottom of Norris lake.
I grew up fishing the Clinch and have seen it in every season and color. Perhaps due to this intimacy I have always viewed the Clinch as the most manufactured of TVA’s Southern tailwater fisheries. At low flows, the Clinch consists of ten miles of pools interspersed by perpendicular monolithic shoals. It is nearly devoid of any resemblance to the freestone rivers one typically associates with prime trout waters, and as such can test the abilities of even the most seasoned angler. It may also be the most productive water you’ve ever fished, depending on the day, and that’s what keeps you returning for more. If the Clinch had a more constant flow it would arguably be the best tailwater fishery in the country. Unfortunately for us tortured souls, TVA isn’t in the business of growing fish and the river ebbs and flows with the vagaries of the valley’s power demands. While bucolic in nature when off, at full pull, with both turbines turning, the steady relentlessness of the flow belies its industrial origin. And at 8,350 cubic feet per second, it’s a fool’s game to even attempt to chase trout, particularly with a fly rod.
Fools and optimists still abound in East Tennessee. On cold, dreary January days they make their ways to the edge of the Clinch in twos and threes, emerging from trucks with hippopotamus-colored bags slung over shoulders and overflowing with monumental yellow boxes and bottles of bonded whiskey. Tin sleds are loaded in the muffled silence of the swollen river and a routine set about in order to pay penance for the sins lying in the darkness upstream. On most days even well placed offerings go unnoticed and so the whiskey serves as a condolence, and to ease tired shoulders and sore elbows. Every so often, however, golden absolution is ripped from the slipstream and the river becomes whole again in the exuberance of the moment.