The importance of opening day of the trout season may have diminished for anglers in our state, but the mystique of the event is still strong. Let's head north for some adventure! (March 2006)
The small streams of the Peach State's Blue Ridge Mountains offer some incredible scenery and pristine angling. Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.
One of the appeals of trout fishing in the southern highlands was always opening day of the season. Through the winter months, time at the tying vise or fiddling with dormant equipment could assuage slightly the void created by incarceration indoors. Those activities could also manage to keep at bay the memories of forays from the previous summer and fall. A slip in that discipline, however, ran the risk of sending one plunging into reminisced revelries, which only lengthened the calendar's intolerable creep.
But with the arrival of the short but frigid days of late February on into March, the added anticipation of that opening day kept alive the faint trout-angling pulse in many cabin-bound men. Finally, as the singular event drew near, the sense of anticipation built to such a fever pitch that it demanded clear, cold waters to stand in while stalking trout.
You might note a touch of nostalgia in this reference to the beginning of trout season. In fact, here in my native Georgia, much of the impact of that new beginning has dissipated. For the most part, opening day has fallen victim to successful management of our coldwater-angling resources. Here and in most of the Southern states, trout fishermen now enjoy being able to target larger fish year-round in major tailwater trout fisheries, or in the very popular streams managed under delayed-harvest regulations. These latter fisheries are usually found on streams that offer only marginal trout habitat in warmer months, but provide conditions the fish thrive in during the colder fall through spring.
Finally, the tailwaters and delayed-harvest waters have taken enough pressure off the mountain streams that harbor wild trout to let many of them remain open throughout the year. Though some creeks and rivers are still managed under seasonal regulations, Southern trout fishermen are no longer confined indoors during the cooler months. Their collective angling itch does not have to fester through the winter while awaiting the beginning of the season. Unfortunately, this newfound freedom has removed much of the mystique of opening day.
It was against this factual backdrop that early one April morning, I found myself shuffling up the sand-and-rock bed of Bear Den Creek. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains a bit north of Georgia's neo-alpine tourism village of Helen, this ribbon of crystalline water adheres to seasonal trout rules as it courses through the Chattahoochee National Forest. Only a small stream by any standard, its water harbors wild rainbow and -- if you labor far enough up into the mountains -- a vestige population of Southern Appalachian brook trout.
As I climbed rocks and bullied past rhododendron limbs shaded by stately hemlock and tulip poplar trees, the creek demanded rollcasts or extreme caution where any back cast was possible. As a water for wild trout in North Georgia, Bear Den is not exceptional. The trout it holds, in potholes and tiny plunge pools, rarely attain lengths of 10 inches, with 6 or 7 inches the norm.
Colorful though they may be with their blue and crimson markings, these rainbows are not enough to lure many anglers to the stream. In fact, I was probably the first to trek up that tiny creek in the week or so since the trout season opened.
But on this day, Bear Den Creek proved a magical place. The new buds just beginning to appear, mixed with the evergreen of the hemlocks and rhododendron, to be occasionally nudged by gentle winds. The sun's rays picked their way through the maze of overhead limbs to bathe the carpet of last year's decaying leaf litter and ricochet off the stream's surface. All the while, water tumbling over rocks provided a soundtrack for the pristine scenery. All of this could easily have been found on dozens of other small creeks throughout the region. But when the trout joined in the performance, the magic began.
For perhaps two hours, a No. 14 Parachute Adams plopped on the surface where the churning bubbles of shoals and cascades began to fade into the body of small pools drew instant attention from trout hiding below. Sometimes they rose slowly to sip the insect imitation from the surface film but more often, rocketed from the turbulent water to smack at their supposed morsel. These rainbows, between 8 and 9 inches each, seemed stamped from a cookie cutter, their sides blazing with vivid colors attained only in a cold mountain stream.
Pushing farther upstream, my count of these natural jewels rose to 10, then 15, and then surpassed 20. Along the way, I skirted the last remnant of civilization -- a wooden sign on the streamside trail announcing the edge of the Mark Trail Wilderness Area. Finally, when my catch numbered 30 taken and released, I rested on a rock overlooking a small waterfall, basking in the fresh smell of new greenery, the rush of the water and the true magic of spring trout fishing.
It's just such conditions that assure me that opening day can never completely lose its special appeal. It falls at a period of generally fine weather affecting areas of great beauty, and at a time when the trout are often hungry and careless. That my quarries were diminutive failed to lessen their value.
As with many situations in life, a seemingly unrelated circumstance added the final touch to this unique morning. The location in the Mark Trail Wilderness Area created a special connection. A couple of years earlier, I had accepted an invitation to drive from Atlanta over to Covington and spend an afternoon with Charlie Elliott. At the time, the self-effacing 92-year-old outdoorsman had long since crossed from being the dean of Southern outdoor writers into the realm of legend. From his days as a forester both out West and here in his home state, he had risen to head the state's old Georgia Game and Fish Commission twice, before pursuing a 50-year career as a field editor for Outdoor Life magazine. During that span, he hunted big game across several continents and fished around the world.
The tales of his outdoor exploits were populated with a cast of characters who were often mythical in stature. He bass-fished with his cousin Bobby Jones, of golf fame.
Another of his sporting companions over the years was Ed Dodd, who originated the syndicated comic strip "Mark Trail." More than once, Dodd confided that his fictional woodsman was loosely based on his friend Charlie Elliott.
As we sat in Elliott's study, the veteran outdoorsman spun yarns about trekking through the Georgia mountains during the 1930s and '40s, trout fishing a
nd turkey hunting with Arthur Woody, the "barefoot ranger" who virtually single-handedly patrolled what would become the Chattahoochee National Forest. And true to his nickname, Woody made those rounds without benefit of footwear.
Elliott's narrative eventually turned to his other love: the pursuit of bobwhite quail. For that passion, he was blessed with an exceptional mentor in Robert Woodruff, better known as "The Boss" to the staff of the Coca-Cola empire, and owner of 29,000-acre Ichauway Plantation near Albany. For three decades, Elliott hobnobbed with celebrities and royalty while following on horseback the pointers and setters ranging through the plantation's wiregrass and longleaf pines. During his days in the field, several generations of the region's fledgling hunters and fishermen came of age.
Those experiences also provided the fodder for the more than 20 books that Elliott eventually authored. To listen to his firsthand accounts shoved ajar the door to that faded world for an afternoon. Eventually, I felt compelled to ask him if he had more writing planned.
"The last thing I'll ever do on this Earth," he assured me, "is drag myself across this office floor, reach up to the typewriter and hit the wrong key."
During the hours we whiled away in his formal office, our conversation wandered onto the subject of fishing the Georgia mountains. We shared anecdotes of favorite pools and memorable casts, especially on the Conasauga and Jacks rivers in northwest Georgia's Cohutta Mountains. Our stories were separated by half a century, but in both versions the waters were clear, the trout painted with sparkling colors, and the same breezes ruffled the surrounding leaves.
Now sitting on a moss-covered rock, beside the babbling water and shaded by the forest canopy, I have the sense that I'm still in Charlie Elliott's office. Only it's now the more expansive, informal portion where he learned the stories, before he sat down to type them.
It was in early May, not long after the opening of the first trout season of the new millennium, when I heard that "Mr. Charlie," as he had come to be known, had moved on to another plane, leaving his beloved earthly mountains, waters and pine flatlands to the rest of us to shepherd.
We outdoorsmen seem compelled to share tales of our adventures. Yet recounting them to indulgent acquaintances is very often just throwing words against a stone wall, only to watch them shatter and tumble earthward. Simply put, the listener needs a frame of reference to truly understand and appreciate such a story. The quality of the friends to whom a fish tale is presented diminishes or elevates its value. Charlie Elliott would have lent an approving ear to my revelries of the morning's fishing action, listening with a smile and twinkle in his eye.
The high mountains and broad rivers of the West have been described as the cathedrals of trout fishing in America. That would seem to make this shaded valley of Bear Den Creek in which I rest more a personal chapel. If the scale is diminished, the glory is the same. Too bad Mr. Charlie is not on hand to share my rock pulpit and hear my testimony.
Then again, perhaps I'm wrong about his absence. The sound I assume is the rattle of wind-blown leaves may actually be the muffled mirth of an approving chuckle shared between Charlie Elliott and Mark Trail as they peek through the rhododendron at the angler splayed out on a rock beside the stream, musing on the many ingredients that create the magic of their mountains in the springtime.