January Chattooga Trout

January Chattooga Trout

The Chattooga River on Georgia's northeast border has a reputation as a good winter fishing destination. Has that changed? Join the author as she explores the river.

By Dottie Head

Georgia's Chattooga River is a real stress-buster. It's one of those places your mind drifts to on a really lousy day at work when you need a vacation from reality. You imagine standing waist-deep at the edge of a deep pool while each cast gracefully falls exactly where you want it. You see the fish rising to the fly and feel that familiar tug on the line.

The mountains are high, the air is clear; the river tumbles and twists, and the other anglers are nowhere to be seen. Your blood pressure and stress levels begin falling at the mere thought of this little slice of heaven on the Georgia/South Carolina border.

Ask most Georgians about the Chattooga River and they probably start imitating a banjo and talking about the 1970s box office sensation Deliverance. However, Georgia trout fishermen conjure up a more idyllic set of images when asked about the Chattooga, which is one of Georgia's best year-round trout fishing destinations.

On a typical summer day, the parking lots will be full and there will often be hordes of anglers competing for fish. Winter fishing is another matter. The crowds are gone, the river is starkly beautiful robed in its winter garb, and on warmer days the fish are often biting. Thanks to the new delayed-harvest regulations that went into effect in November 2002, you stand a better than average chance of catching a nice-sized fish and leaving with some memories to help weather even the toughest days on the job.

According to Lee Keefer, a fisheries biologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources' Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), the Chattooga River is a great winter fishing destination.

"The Chattooga is definitely a blue-ribbon stream," Keefer notes.

Photo by Tom Evans

In its unstocked areas, it's just about as good as wild streams get in Georgia, ranking right up there with the Jacks and Conasauga rivers or Noontootla Creek with regard to high-quality Appalachian trout fishing in a wilderness setting.

"It's really a function of size," says Keefer. "Most Georgia trout streams are smaller and the fish can't get as big. But when you've got a large stream like the Chattooga, you get some really good-sized fish. We've seen them up to 27 inches on the Chattooga, whereas on a typical Georgia trout stream a 12- to 14-inch fish is about as large as you ever see."

Designated by Congress in 1974 as a Wild and Scenic River, the Chattooga has its headwaters in the Appalachians of North Carolina, then travels 50 scenic miles along the Georgia/South Carolina border before flowing into Lake Tugaloo.

The upper section of the river is popular with anglers and hikers, while the lower section of the river boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in the Southeast. Fortunately for anglers, the upper section of the river consists primarily of large pools separated by shallow shoals and manageable rapids. As long as common sense is employed, anglers are very safe wading in the upper reaches of the river.

Trout fishermen find the waters above the Georgia Highway 28 bridge up to Ellicott Rock to be of the most interest, since the river below this point tends to be primarily redeye bass territory. Another reason to be interested in Ellicott Rock is that it is the boundary between Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina. Anglers fishing above this marker must have a North Carolina fishing license. South of the marker (located at water level on the river), either a Georgia or a South Carolina fishing license will keep you in good standing with the conservation officers.

The entire length of the Chattooga is designated as year-round trout water. Between Burrells Ford and Georgia Highway 28, the Chattooga can be as much as 100 feet wide with ample room for casting out some serious line. North of Burrells Ford, the river narrows a bit, but there is still plenty of room for casting.

Of special interest to winter trout anglers should be the newly designated delayed-harvest stretch of the Chattooga that extends from the Georgia Highway 28 bridge north to Reed Creek. The delayed-harvest period runs from Nov. 1 through May 14 of each year. During the delayed-harvest period, anglers must observe catch-and-release only and may only use single-hook artificial lures. Throughout the delayed-harvest season, the river is stocked with a mix of regular stockers of about 9 inches and some larger fish, up to 12 to 14 inches.

The WRD is excited about the new delayed-harvest stretch on the Chattooga for a number of reasons.

"We're trying to spread out the delayed-harvest streams geographically, and this is the farthest north and east that we have," Keefer says. "This is South Carolina's first delayed-harvest stream, so they are eager to see how well it catches on with their anglers."

Throughout the year, the stretch of river from the Georgia Highway 28 bridge up to Burrells Ford is the most popular section of the river with most anglers. Fishermen encounter a nice mix of wild and stocked fish. The South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resource Department stocks this area with catchable trout throughout the trout season. In addition, the Georgia WRD and South Carolina stock a total of 40,000 fingerling trout in the fall of each year using helicopters.

There are several access points to the water, with the most popular being at Burrells Ford. From the parking areas, there are well-traveled trails running along both the Georgia and South Carolina sides. The farther away you hike from the parking lots, the less likely you are to encounter other anglers.

Another popular area to access the Chattooga is from the Cherry Hill Recreation Area on the South Carolina side of the river. A short road leads into the area and anglers can hike into the river. Primitive camping is available at several areas along the river, and camping for a day or two gives you the best chance to sample all that this unique river has to offer.

North of Burrells Ford is primarily a wild brown trout fishery, though anglers may encounter a few stocked rainbow trout that made their way up the river. This area is especially attractive to flyfishermen. According to Keefer, the brown trout in this area are exceptionally wary and they do not bite as readily as a rainbow trout under the same conditions.

The weather is the key consideration when planning a winter fishing trip on the Chattooga. The best scenario is a good warm day when it's been warm for a day or two prior to your

trip. A little bit of light rain can also be a good thing, but it should be only enough to discolor the water a bit and not so much that the river is muddy. Anglers who are specifically targeting the wild browns on the river may have their best chance early in the morning or late in the evening, especially on days that are overcast.

For January fishing, try slowly drifting a weighted nymph along the bottom of the river's deeper pools. Fishing a No. 8 or No. 10 gold or black stonefly nymph is a good bet, or try dropping down to a No. 12 or No. 14 beadhead Gold-ribbed Hare's Ear.

"Fish slow and deep and try several different patterns to see what is working on that particular day," suggests Keefer. "People put too much effort into worrying about what fly to fish with, when a few general flies will usually work. As long as the fly is about the right size and the right color, it's generally more about presentation and timing than anything else."

Keefer cautions anglers to pay special attention to the water levels when fishing the Chattooga, especially during the winter months. A visit to the U.S. Geological Survey Web site (www.waterdata.usgs.gov/ga/nwis/rt) is a prudent start to any fishing trip on the Chattooga or other Georgia rivers.

Anglers may obtain information on Chattooga River access, camping, hiking, rafting and other recreational opportunities from the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service produces an excellent map of the river, available for $4 from their Gainesville office or online at www.fs.fed.us/conf/maporder.htm.

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