Situated on the eastern border of the state, Georgia’s Chattooga River is a wild and scenic river that provides excellent opportunities for trout fishing away from others.
By Jimmy Jacobs
From the middle of the Chattooga River Trail just upstream of where it enters the Ellicott Rock Wilderness Area, I could plainly see the big brown trout below in the river. The fish was just upstream and lazily finning in the middle of a shallow, gravel flat at the foot of a big, deep pool. The trout was just upstream of my perch and looked to be at least 20 inches in length. Occasionally the brown would drift a few inches either left or right, and flare it gills as it sucked in a nymph and then return to its holding spot.
The late afternoon sun was angling in across the river from the west, so I’d need to be on the opposite bank if I hoped to see the brown while at water level. Retreating a short way back downstream to wade across the flow, I then crept up that shoreline until I could again see the lunker. Stepping gently into the water to avoid creating ripples, I kept my back pinned to streamside rhododendrons to break my outline and avoid sending a shadow over the water.
Stripping some line off the fly reel, I let it unfurl downstream. This was not a situation for throwing false casts out over the fish, unless I wanted to spook the brown. Finally, when enough line was out, I came forward with the rod, sending the dry fly with a nymph dropper to land about 15 feet upstream of the feeding fish. The rig settled gently on the surface and began drifting toward the big trout.
This scenario played out more than a decade ago, and to this day I believe that as the flies neared the wily old brown, he rolled on his side to wink at me before darting upstream into the dark, deep water of the big pool.
This is a fairly common story of big brown trout encountered on the Chattooga River, which just adds to the mystic of this mountain waterway that forms the border between Georgia and South Carolina.
Those waters also present anglers with four sections of water that have very different fisheries. On an encouraging note, the fishing in three of the four sections is now considered to be the best it’s been in the last four decades.
WHAT TO THROW
When fishing on the portions of the river that hold stocked fish, bait selections are not too difficult. These trout are not very sophisticated after having been pampered in the raceways of the hatchery.
However, they are not as susceptible to dry flies until they’ve been in the river for a while. For flycasters, tossing nymph patterns like the Prince, Hare’s Ears or Pheasant Tails usually attracts some strikes.
If trying a dry offering, attractor patterns like Royal Wulffs or Adams Parachutes are good choices. Getting a bit more realistic, Black Ants or Elk-hair Caddis are other good choices.
For spin fishing, a variety of lures have proven successful over the decades. Minnow imitators, such as Yozuri Pin Minnows or the original Rapala Minnow in either floating or down versions, are good options.
Any of the Rooster Tail or Panther Martin inline spinners and the Little Cleo spoons in silver or gold round out a good selection of offerings.
Bait fishermen do well with corn, but worms or crickets are better bets for wild fish or ones that have held over in the stream for a while.
As with any stream fishing, casting upstream most often is the best tactic, as trout always face into the current.
LOWER CHATTOOGA SECTION
The Lower Chattooga River runs from the U.S. Highway 76 upstream to the State Route 28 Bridge. This part of the river is better known for whitewater rafting than for fishing. However, the portion from SR 28 down to around Earls Ford does hold trout for some part of the year. By the time the river reaches Earls Ford the water gets too warm in summer to carry over any fish.
The Chattooga is stocked by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources at the upper end of this area in the Long Bottom Ford area, just downstream from the SR 28 bridge. Obviously, the best fishing on this portion of the river is in this area. The SCDNR normally releases brook, brown and rainbow trout in the river. Because the stockings have been more dependable and larger in number since South Carolina took over management of the Walhalla Fish Hatchery from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the local Chattooga River Trout Unlimited Chapter rates the trout fishing in the lower river as the best it’s ever been.
The best access for fishing from the SR 28 bridge downstream through Long Bottom is found off of Low Water Bridge Road, on the South Carolina side of the river. Parking is available along this road and primitive camping also is allowed.
Farther downstream, walk-in access is available at Earls Ford from both Georgia and South Carolina. This is an area that has some larger, holdover brown trout as well.
With better fishing for both stockers and wild fish farther north, the water along Low Water Bridge Road is the only part that attracts many anglers to this section of the Chattooga. Additionally, the Chattooga River Trail (with the Bartram Trail running on the same path upstream of Sandy Ford) offers hiking access on the Georgia side from a parking lot at the U.S. Highway 76 bridge all the way up to SR 28.
Sidebar: (Bartram) Bassin’ the Chattooga?
Although the Chattooga River’s fame is based on great trout fishing and whitewater paddling, the lower part of the river from Sandy Ford down to Lake Tugaloo also provides an interesting bass fishery.
If you ask locals what kind of bass they catch, the answers will range from redeyes, to shoal bass, to smallmouths. But according to Dr. Bud Freeman of the University of Georgia School of Ecology, the fish are actually Bartram bass. Although the International Game Fish Association presently considers them to be the same species as the Coosa redeye bass found in west Georgia, Dr. Freeman thinks otherwise and has been researching these fish for years. He coined the name Bartram in honor of naturalist William Bartram, who traveled through the Chattooga River region in the 1770s.
Though these fish resemble and act like redeyes and shoalies, Dr. Freeman is working to prove them to be genetically different. There definitely are variations in the appearance and habits of all three species.
Unlike either smallmouth or largemouth bass that usually come to the surface and even jump when hooked, when a Bartram takes the bait it heads for the bottom to put up a bulldog fight. — Jimmy Jacobs
This section of the Chattooga extends from the SR 28 bridge upstream for 2 1/2 miles to the mouth of Reed Creek, which enters from the Georgia side of the river. This is another part that is rated by the Chattooga River TU Chapter as excellent fishing due to the introduction of the delayed-harvest rules. Prior the rule change very little angling took place along here.
From Nov. 1 through May 14, the river is heavily stocked with brook, brown and rainbow trout. Angling is catch-and-release, with single-hook artificial lures allowed. On May 15 and running through the end of October the water reverts to general trout regulations allowing harvest and the use of natural baits.
Immediately after stocking, most any lure or fly can be successful, but as the fish get acclimatized to the stream they become pickier. Also, there are some larger holdover fish that can be tougher to fool. Among those are brown trout running up to around 18 inches.
Access to the DH section is by hiking only, with the exception of the stream just above the SR 28 bridge. On the South Carolina shore the Chattooga River and Bartram Trails continue on a shared path providing access to the water.
On the Georgia side an old gated forest road leaves SR 28 a couple of hundred yards west of the bridge and runs all the way up to Reed Creek.
BACK COUNTRY SECTION
The Back Country portion beginning at Reed Creek, is probably the least fished and toughest section to access. It is another part that is basically stocked via helicopters. Those fish are planted in the fall as fingerlings, allowing them to grow and get accustomed to their new home over the winter.
There is also some stocking using trucks at the head of this section at the bridge across the river at Burrells Ford. The Chattooga River TU Chapter has rated it as greatly improved.
“Nickelson Ford is accessed from the South Carolina side and is the prettiest spot I’ve fished in Georgia,” said J.D. Forrester of Buford. “It is spectacular.”
The ford is where the Bartram Trail splits off the Chattooga River Trail to leave the river. According to Forrester, fishing the area can be excellent if hit right, but can also be tough.
He adds that 75 to 80 percent of the action is from nymph fishing, with more stockers showing up down near the upper end of the DH section. Farther up the put-and-grow trout are more prevalent, until nearing Burrells Ford.
The Chattooga River Trail offers access through this entire section, with the Foothills Trail joining it and offering a walk-in option, just upstream of Big Bend Falls.
WILD TROUT SECTION
This final section of the river runs from the Burrells Ford bridge for 4 1/2 miles up to the North Carolina border at Ellicott Rock. Along this leg, the Chattooga River Trail provides access as it continues up the South Carolina shore.
No stocking is done in this stretch, with the majority of fish encountered being wild brown trout.
Even near the state border, the Chattooga is a fairly big stream, though it tends to run shallower than farther downstream. This is a good section for trying some dry flies, although tossing a Wooly Bugger or sculpin pattern streamer in the bigger pools might find some bigger fish.
Unfortunately, despite still being a great place for fishing, the local TU chapter rates it as not as good as in the past, based on the fact that since the Chattooga was name a federal wild and scenic river, this part of the stream has drawn hordes of hikers, campers, swimmer and anglers. As a result, the size of brown trout have declined, though the number of fish has remained relatively steady.
However, it’s worth noting that the starting point for that decline was as one of the premier brown trout fisheries in the eastern U.S. So, even in a diminished condition, the fishing can be very good.
Now licenses and trout permits from either Georgia or South Carolina allow fishing the Chattooga, but if anglers venture up a feeder creek they must have that state’s license. Also, the daily creel limit for trout on the Chattooga is only five fish per day, rather than Georgia’s regular statewide limit of eight.
With all the river has to offer, there is fishing to suit just about anyone’s whimsy. Wild or stocked, spinning or fly-casting, the fish and the angling on the Chattooga River can provide some memorable days on the water.