This stream in the northeast corner of the state is a longtime mainstay of the area's coldwater fishing. But those conditions are anything but static. Here's what's going on there today. (May 2008)
The Rabun County TU chapter is fighting hard to keep scenes like this from occurring on the upper Chattooga River.
Photo by Kevin Dallmier.
Designated by Congress as a Wild and Scenic River for its outstanding scenery and its value in terms of recreation, wildlife, geology and culture, the Chattooga River offers five-star trout fishing in a truly primitive setting. Since access to those sections of the river that offer the best trout fishing has been an on-your-own-two-feet proposition, the upper Chattooga is a favorite of gone-native anglers looking for solitude and stream-bred trout in wild conditions.
The river begins its journey high in the North Carolina Appalachians and travels a rugged 50 miles before ending in the still waters of Lake Tugalo. For much of its course, the Chattooga forms the state line between South Carolina and Georgia.
The entire watershed was heavily logged around the beginning of the 20th century, which brought serious erosion to the river valley. The U.S. government started purchasing land soon after the logging and began reforestation, along with erosion and fire control.
In the 1920s, the Georgia Power Company began to purchase most of the remaining private land along the main stream up to 14 miles above the State Route 28 crossing, with plans to construct several hydroelectric impoundments. Fortunately, those plans were eventually abandoned.
During the Great Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps worked to restore and protect the watershed, including constructing the nearby Wahalla Fish Hatchery in South Carolina. The states that shared the river managed it as a trout fishery from Ellicott Rock down to the U.S. Highway 76 bridge. The fishery was outstanding as long as the water stayed cool, with high catch rates of large trout in a backcountry setting.
Movie buffs may have scouted the Chattooga River and not even realized it. The movie Deliverance was filmed on the lower Chattooga, and that section remains as rough and remote as it was when film crews had to use rafts to get on location three decades ago.
The river is split into several management sections. The upper section from Ellicott Rock to SR 28 is of most interest to anglers. Ellicott Rock, the boulder that marks the point where Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina all meet, is named for Andrew Ellicott, an early 18th-century surveyor assigned the job of surveying this rugged area of Southern Appalachia. This stretch holds the best trout water on the whole Chattooga. Downstream of SR 28, the river becomes marginal trout water, and redeye bass are much more common.
As things currently stand, boating is prohibited above the SR 28 bridge, giving anglers an oasis from the heavy whitewater rafting pressure the river receives. Since this area upstream has the best fishing, and the area downstream of the highway the better white water, this management approach has worked well over the years. The section of river above SR 28 can be further divided into distinct areas in terms of angling potential. Burrells Ford breaks the upper river into two sections -- wild trout fishing north of the ford and stocked waters to the south.
May is a great month for fishing the Chattooga. The cold downpours of spring have begun to taper off, and the mountains are abloom with new life. Unlike many Southern trout streams, the Chattooga supports good numbers of insects, and produces some heavy hatches during the spring. Flyfishermen should plan their trips to try to be there when the hatch is on and the trout are in a feeding mood.
Some important hatches to consider this time of year are those of the mayflies. The Light Cahill mayfly is very common in Chattooga trout diets, and other mayflies such as the Sulphur, Green Drake and March Brown are also present. Expect to find the best hatches early and late in the day.
A box stocked with patterns in sizes No. 12 to 16 along the lines of Light Cahills, Parachute Adams and tan Elk Hair Caddis should cover most of the bases. A Gold-Ribbed Hare's Ear nymph belongs in any North Georgia flyfisherman's box. Other possibilities include big streamers like a Woolly Bugger or Matuka.
For conventional gear, try small spinners like a white Rooster Tail or Panther Martin. Small plugs that imitate a minnow or crayfish are also a good choice for big brown trout.
Even upstream of Burrells Ford, the Chattooga River is "big water" if judged by Georgia trout fishing standards. This section is 50 to 60 feet wide in most places, with shoals separated by long, deep pools. This area is predominantly a wild brown trout fishery with heavy, stream-reared browns a real possibility. Anglers wading this section should have no problem if they use common sense. A short hike around rough areas should put you back into wadeable water.
One area that has great fishing, but that is to be approached with respect, is "Rock Gorge," downstream of Burrells Ford and a short distance upstream of the intersection of the Bartram Trail and the Chattooga Foothills Trail. The deep pools in the gorge hold some of the biggest browns, but strong rapids, undercut rocks, dropoffs, and dead-end wading paths are common there.
Never go into this area alone. In fact, sharing the day with a partner is really a good idea for fishing any of the Chattooga. Not only do you have someone to share the experience with, but you also may end up saving each other's lives.
The best time to fish for the Chattooga's big brown trout is first and last light. Browns are much more nocturnal than are rainbow trout, and since night-fishing is prohibited, low-light periods are the next best option. Overcast days are also good, with the fish feeding off and on throughout the day.
A good time to be on the river during the summer is right after a light rain when the water is just starting to dirty. The stained water makes the trout a little less wary, and bites may come quicker. Once the water truly muddies, though, fishing is tough.
With stocked rainbows supplementing the fishery, the easiest fishing in the summer is at Burrells Ford, but it also is the most crowded. A short walk, however, usually outdistances most casual anglers, and gives you some space. There's plenty of room for fly-casting, so this is a good area for novices to hone their skills.
Downstream of Burrells Ford to the SR 28 bridge the river widens to almost 10
0 feet, and rainbows are the more abundant species. Stocked fish make up more of the catch, since natural reproduction is limited in this area. Since the area downstream is inaccessible to stocking trucks, helicopters are used to drop subadult fish into the river.
Within this section of the Chattooga is a delayed-harvest area from the SR 28 bridge upstream to the mouth of Reed Creek, which enters from the Georgia shore. Under this management strategy the fishing is catch-and-release only from Nov. 1 through May 14. Anglers are restricted to artificial single-hook lures. During the remainder of the year, the stream is open to harvest under standard regulations.
Delayed-harvest streams are stocked throughout the year, with the goal being high catch rates during the closed season, while allowing for harvest during the remainder of the year.
A NEW CHALLENGE
Although the upper Chattooga has remained a place of solitude for eons thanks to its remote location and the Wild and Scenic River designation, that solitude is now being tested. The U.S. Forest Service, responsible for managing the area as part of the Chattahoochee and Sumter National Forests has been under pressure from whitewater boating groups to lift the longstanding boating ban on the river upstream of SR 28.
The proposal has been opposed by many groups, but for none does it strike closer to home than for the Rabun County Trout Unlimited Chapter. In cooperation with the Georgia Trout Unlimited Council, the Rabun County anglers have actively opposed the idea, issuing a position statement that sums up the issue for trout anglers.
Doug Adams, an officer of the Rabun TU chapter, has been heavily involved in this issue from the beginning. "I have fly-fished the Chattooga since 1955," he said. "I fish the Chattooga North Fork 40 to 60 times each year, walking in from 30 minutes to one and a half hours before beginning to fish. I enjoy the backcountry solitude experience, and the challenge of fly-fishing for trout in beautiful surroundings. The Chattooga is a special place. It is remote, wild, spectacular, serene, rugged, beautiful, and natural. No car horns, no diesel fumes, no cell phones -- just the sounds of birds, wind and water. And it has a good variety of great fly-fishing."
Regarding the current threat to his home river, Doug explained the situation. "The Forest Service is responding to the decision on the appeal of the 2004 Sumter National Forest Plan," he noted. "American Whitewater, an organization composed of boaters, filed the appeal to try to get boating allowed upstream of the Highway 28 bridge. The Rabun TU Chapter is only one of many organizations that oppose this proposal. From the very beginning, user conflicts were a problem on the Chattooga. The river had become wildly popular with boaters through Deliverance fame, and a 1973 Sports Afield article extolled both the boating and the quality trout fishing the river offered. With the sharp rise in the number of users, conflicts were common and often confrontational.
"The 1974 Wild and Scenic River Designation and subsequent planning for the area provided a workable compromise. The designation ended the stocking below Highway 28 since the stocking points fell within in the quarter-mile protection corridor, and boaters were restricted from using the river above Highway 28.
"The issue is not simply a few environmentally-friendly boaters disturbing a few highly sensitive local anglers," Adams emphasized. "If that were so, there would not be the diversity of groups opposed to the proposal and seeking to retain the solitude of the upper river. For anglers however, the issue is simple: Each time an angler encounters a boater coming downstream toward him, he has to reel in his line, move out of the way, and wait for the boater to paddle past. The angler's rhythm has been disrupted. The boat and the paddling commotion have probably spooked the trout he was seeking. The angler either has to wait for some period of time and hope the trout calm down and begin feeding again, or move on and search for other trout that have not been spooked.
"And since boaters space themselves, about the time the trout calm down, here comes another boater! The intrusion and frustration the angler experiences is not unlike the experience of having a discourteous angler jump in just upstream and start fishing. Either one can lead to a confrontation."
So where does the situation stand? In late 2007, an Environmental Assessment of Recreational Uses was released followed by a 45-day public comment period. The Forest Service will use this information to develop a final plan for the upper Chattooga. Anglers and other interested parties have had many opportunities to comment the last several years as the process ground along. Many interested anglers have provided input into the issue, but when it comes to these types of issues, the more voices the better. Anglers should continue to follow the issue closely and provide comment whenever the opportunity arises.
Beyond the route of the formal approach lie other avenues for informing people on the issue. "Throughout this process I have met many individual boaters, and most seem to be nice people who appear genuinely interested in conservation," Adams resumed. "I invite them to come visit the Chattooga North Fork back country on foot to experience the wildness, remoteness and solitude. They can boat on the lower Chattooga, the West Fork-Overflow headwaters, and on several of the Chattooga's tributaries. This should offer them the best of both Chattooga experiences and maintain the North Fork of the Chattooga in its unique wild and scenic state. I hope that in the future we can all work together to continue improving water quality and to protect and preserve a very special wild place for future generations."
If you decide to give the Chattooga a try, here are some things to keep in mind: Primitive camping is permitted anywhere in the Chattooga River corridor not otherwise posted as closed to camping. Campsites must be at least a quarter-mile from a road and 50 feet from any trail or stream or the river.
A semideveloped campground is available at Burrells Ford on the South Carolina side. The campground is a short walk from the parking area and offers several good flat places to pitch a tent. Some campsites have lantern posts and picnic tables. Both a hand pump for water and pit toilets are available. The campground is open year 'round.
Another option is the Forest Service Cherry Hill Campground off South Carolina State Route 107. Following the trail two and eight-tenths miles from the trailhead near the campground puts you on the river.
To reach Burrells Ford, from U.S. Highway 441 in Clayton, take Warwoman Road east for 14 miles to Georgia SR 28. Turn right and drive one and eight-tenths miles to gravel Forest Service Road 646 on the left. Follow this road to the parking area on the right just before the river bridge. To get to the campground parking, cross the bridge into South Carolina and the parking area is up the hill on the right.