With the blooming of dogwoods and wild azaleas in the Georgia mountains, it is time to start thinking seriously about catching some trout. Here are a handful of places you might want to check out this year.
By Jeff Samsel
The steady rain hitting my tin office roof makes a sweeter sound than any symphony could ever play. The rain is nowhere near enough to make up for three years of drought; however, it, along with several other rainfalls that have come of late, offers signs that the dry spell may be breaking.
"Trout fishermen can join fisheries biologists in praying for good winter rains," Jeff Durniak said late last fall, adding, "We need good rains to recharge our streams - especially our wild trout streams."
Durniak, the fisheries supervisor over northeast Georgia for the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD) and an avid trout fisherman, noted that while the WRD does all that it can to provide anglers with the best possible opportunities, the conditions that nature brings definitely impact what biologists are able to do.
Durniak believes that fish sizes could be a little off in wild trout waters because of the dry summers, but he doesn't expect much long-term impact. He also doesn't expect the drought to significantly affect fishing for hatchery-raised trout. The WRD stocked roughly 1 million catchable-sized fish this year, just as they did last year, providing a lot of opportunities for a lot of fishermen.
Durniak noted that roughly 75 percent of the fish would be stocked prior to July 4 to take advantage of the best available habitat.
"We have been putting more emphasis on early stocking to provide the best fishing," he said. "There is no use stocking fish when stream conditions are so bad that the fish won't bite well, and in some cases won't even survive."
A portion of the scenic Chattooga River is now managed as a delayed-harvest trout stream. Photo by Jeff Samsel
Among the most heavily stocked waters in the state are Georgia's delayed-harvest streams, where only catch-and-release fishing with single-hook artificial lures is permitted from Nov. 1 through though May 14. This year, a fourth stream section was added to this very popular program. Two and a half miles of the Chattooga River along the Georgia/South Carolina border are now classified as delayed-harvest waters.
"This is just another opportunity for fishermen to really learn the art and science of trout fishing," Durniak said.
Because of the high numbers of fish that are always available during the catch-and-release period, delayed-harvest streams are extremely popular destinations for introducing newcomers to trout fishing or to new methods, especially fly-fishing.
Durniak pointed out that all of the streams in the program are different from one another in character and that they are widespread geographically.
"Smith Creek is a very small stream, and the Chattahoochee is a big tailwater. The Chattooga is simply a beautiful mountain river."
Another change in the regulations made last year was that approximately 40 stream sections were reclassified from seasonal to year 'round. The number of year-round streams has increased a couple of times in recent years as trout fishermen have become increasingly interested in winter fishing.
Picking the best trout streams in Georgia is almost like picking the prettiest colors. Some fishermen like easy access to fast action and good opportunities to take home limits of trout. Other fishermen prefer solitude, remote settings and the challenge of fooling cagey wild trout. Those things acknowledged, some waters do provide more opportunities than others and offer especially good fishing prospects. Let's look at a few of those.
CHATTOOGA RIVER The addition of a delayed-harvest section catapults the Chattooga to the top of the list of streams that offer extra-good fishing prospects. The Chattooga has a little bit of everything now. One section supports wild trout only, with beautiful brown trout being the main attraction. The section below that is heavily stocked and is a good place in which to catch a limit, while farther down is a long, remote section stocked only with fingerling brown trout. These small fish are stocked using a helicopter, creating a semi-wild fishery that produces some huge browns.
The area around the Georgia/South Carolina (Ga./S.C.) Highway 28 bridge, which marks the lower end of the new delayed-harvest section, used to get lightly stocked. The water gets pretty warm in the summer, however, and this section really offers better redeye bass habitat than trout water. That makes it ideal for delayed-harvest designation, because this large free-flowing section of river offers wonderful trout habitat through the cool months.
The delayed-harvest section begins at the mouth of Reed Creek and runs to the Ga./S.C. 28 bridge. All vehicle access is from the bridge or from a small parking area on the South Carolina side of the river. A combination of trails and old gated roads provide pretty good foot access up the river on both sides.
To reach the other parts of the Chattooga Burrells Ford Bridge, about 10 miles upstream of the Ga./S.C. 28 bridge, is the jump-off point. Trails on the South Carolina side follow the river upstream from Burrells Ford all the way to the North Carolina border, and downstream all the way to Ga./S.C. 28. The best wild trout fishing is found upstream of Burrells Ford. The biggest browns are often caught in the 3-mile section from Burrells Ford downstream to Big Bend Falls.
Stocking of catchable-sized fish takes place at the bridge and just downstream beside the Burrells Ford Campground. While the stocked section isn't very long, the river is pretty large at this point and can handle a fair amount of fishing pressure.
Making the Chattooga stand out from many Southern Appalachian trout streams, it supports good insect life and produces some heavy hatches during the spring. Flyfishermen should plan their trips for the afternoon and carry a good assortment of dry flies.
A reciprocal licensing agreement between Georgia and South Carolina allows anglers properly licensed by either state to fish on either side of the river. The agreement does not include tributaries, and no such agreement exists with North Carolina.
CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER Georgia's longest river, the Chattahoochee also offers more trout fishing opportunity (and more variety) than any other stream in the state. Opportunities range from wild brook trout fishing in tiny
tumbling headwaters to fishing often-dirty waters in the broad lower tailwater section near downtown Marietta.
The upper Chattahoochee offers several miles of wild-trout-dominated waters on wildlife management area (WMA) lands, and heavily stocked waters at the lower end of the Chattahoochee WMA and through Helen. Downstream of Buford Dam, which impounds Lake Lanier, the Hooch offers 48 miles of trout waters, which extend into Atlanta.
Beyond providing an enormous amount of opportunity, the Chattahoochee produces some of the biggest trout in Georgia. In fact, it produced the biggest on record. In November 2001, the tailwater portion produced the current state-record brown trout (18 pounds, 6.72 ounces), and Chattahoochee regulars know that there are a fair number of holdover trout up to about 20 inches in the tailwater.
The best-known portion of the upper Chattahoochee is the stretch that runs right through Helen. Wading is easy and access is good all through town, and fish are stocked regularly from early spring through mid-summer.
A few miles upstream, a wilder portion of stream still gets a fair number of stocked trout at the lower end of the Chattahoochee WMA. Farther up the river, where all access is by foot, wild trout predominate. Upstream of the Upper Chattahoochee River Campground and a small barrier waterfall, a very tiny river supports a solid population of Southern Appalachian brook trout.
Downstream of Lake Lanier, the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area provides outstanding access to the entire tailwater. Numerous tracts, which are spread all along the corridor, provide great access for wading and floating various sections of the river.
Among the most popular shoals for wading when the river is low are those accessible from the Bowmans Island, Jones Bridge, Island Ford, Cochran Shoals and Palisades units of the recreation area. Cochran Shoal and Palisades are in the delayed-harvest section.
The WRD stocks 400,000 trout in the tailwater section of the Chattahoochee annually, including 50,000 fish that are stocked during the winter in five miles of delayed-harvest waters and 100,000 rainbow and brown fingerlings that are stocked through the lower tailwater. In addition, WRD research has documented that approximately 15 percent of the brown trout and 1 percent of the rainbows in the upper tailwater come from natural reproduction.
Anglers fishing the Chattahoochee tailwater need to be aware of several factors. First, the water level rises quickly when power is generated, especially in the upper tailwater. Second (and related to the first), life jackets must be worn at all times by all river users upstream of Georgia Highway 20. Third, only artificial lures may be used between Ga. 20 and the Medlock Bridge Unit boat ramp. Fourth, delayed-harvest regulations apply from the mouth of Sope Creek to the U.S. Highway 41 bridge.
TOCCOA RIVER The Toccoa River, like the Chattahoochee, has a very productive tailwater section. Access is far more restricted, however, as most of the land that borders the Blue Ridge Dam tailwater is privately owned. There is some public access immediately downstream of the dam, plus a couple rights of way scattered here and there and a county park several miles downstream. In between, fishing access is by floating.
From the base of Blue Ridge Dam, a couple hundred yards of river are fairly easy to wade on low water, and this area gets stocked with a fair number of trout. On high water, anglers fish with bait and lures from the banks in the same area. Downstream of the dam and traveling north, trout waters extend roughly 15 miles to the Tennessee border. The best access downstream is in a park right in McCaysville.
Upstream of Lake Blue Ridge, the free-flowing portion of the Toccoa winds through a mix of Forest Service lands and private holdings. It is a great river to fish from a canoe, however, and scattered areas of public access do offer good wading and even bank-fishing prospects.
The most popular single area along the Toccoa River and the easiest place to access good fishing is at the U.S. Forest Service's Deep Hole Recreation Area. Located on the inside of a big bend in the river, which forms the namesake "deep hole," the recreation area offers very good bank access to heavily stocked waters.
Deep Hole is also one of seven access points mapped out as part of the Toccoa River Canoe Trail, which extends over 17 miles of the river. A brochure that lays out the trail and its access points is available from the Toccoa Ranger Station office of the U.S. Forest Service by calling (706) 632-3031. The Toccoa River drops just enough to provide great shoal habitat and nice pools for trout. Canoeing is generally easy, although there is some Class II whitewater mixed in.
From Deep Hole downstream, the Toccoa is big water by Georgia trout stream standards, and big-water tactics tend to work best. At Deep Hole, most anglers work from the banks with corn, worms or other natural baits. Downstream, in-line spinners and minnow-imitating plugs offer good bets. For flyfishermen, a black Woolly Bugger is often tough to top.
CONASAUGA RIVER Rising in the Cohutta Wilderness Area and running more than a dozen miles through the 42,000-acre roadless area, the Conasauga River is without question Georgia's most pristine major trout stream. Even the Jacks River, which runs parallel to the Conasauga through the Cohutta Wilderness, doesn't stay nearly as clear as the Conasauga, because some of its tributaries are not within the wilderness.
The Conasauga supports a very good population of wild rainbow and brown trout. Small rainbows predominate, as they do in most wild trout waters in this part of the country, but both species grow to large sizes in the Conasauga. In addition, several tributary creeks within the wilderness support good brook trout populations.
There's no easy way to get to most of the Conasauga, but that is part of its appeal. All access is by foot, and the best way to fish the river is on a backpacking trip. The Conasauga River Trail parallels the entire wilderness section of the river, and several shorter trails run from the edge of the wilderness to various points along the river and its adjacent trail. The connector trails all begin outside the river gorge and are extremely steep and rugged.
At the river, things don't get much easier. Waters that rival Rocky Mountain streams in clarity make for very fussy trout. They aren't terribly picky about fly patterns necessarily, as the stream isn't overly fertile, but presentations must be perfect and approaches stealthy. A traditional dry fly, like the Royal Wulff, with a small nymph fished as a dropper beneath it, offers as good a bet as anything.
The Conasauga River is open year 'round. From November through the end of March, only artificial lures may be used. During regular trout season, natural baits are also permitted.
LAKE BURTON Lake Burton's big bro
wn trout are beginning to get the attention of Georgia trout fishermen. Stocked in the lake to provide a bonus fishery and to help control a burgeoning population of non-native blueback herring, the brown trout have done extremely well in the lake. Many of the fish, which were stocked by the thousands in 2000 and 2001, now weigh more than 5 pounds.
Finding brown trout in Lake Burton, which covers 2,775 acres on the Tallulah River, typically begins with finding the herring. The trout follow the herring all over the lake. During spring, when herring spawn, the baitfish and the trout are around rocky main-lake points. Minnow-imitating plugs with silver sides and blue or green backs offer good bets this time of the year.
As spring gives way to summer, the baitfish and the brown trout move toward the deeper lower end of the lake. Once the lake stratifies, most fish stay between Billy Goat Island and Burton Dam and hold in the 20- to 30-foot depth range, which is the only place where they find suitable water temperatures and dissolved oxygen levels through the summer.
Live herring are the bait of choice for summer fishing, but trout also take shiners or other large bait-shop minnows. Most fishermen put the baitfish on down-lines, set 20 to 30 feet deep, and drift or slow-troll. At night, the fish move shallower to feed, often attracted to fishermen's lights.
Anglers who favor the artificial approach can catch these trout in a variety of ways. The most efficient method is controlled-depth trolling, with spoons fished on downriggers. Vertically jigging spoons is another good approach, as is casting baitfish-imitating "swim baits" and working them slowly at the right depths.
BEFORE YOU GO The Georgia WRD's Web site, www.georgiawildlife.com, is a fabulous resource for making trout fishing plans. The Web site offers complete regulations for all trout waters, county-by-county trout maps and annual forecasts for lakes, including Lake Burton, and major rivers, including the Chattahoochee.
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