The Chattooga River, already legendary for its trout fishing, got even better this season through heavy stocking and some special regulations.
Trout have been heavily stocked in the delayed-harvest section of the Chattooga River, presenting a great opportunity for catch-and-release angling through May 14. Photo by Jeff Samsel
By Jeff Samsel
Somewhere along the way I realized I had lost count of my trout. Like most fishermen, I typically start the day keeping mental track of my success, even if only subconsciously. When the action heats up, however, or I really get caught up in the action or the setting, the mental clicker often quits functioning.
Standing waist deep in the Chattooga River and casting across a run that easily would have floated my hat had I walked farther into it, I realized that I didn't even know how many trout my buddy and I had caught from that particular spot. We did agree that it was the most the two of us had ever pulled from a single pool - and we fish together for trout a lot.
We also didn't know just how big two of the fish we had hooked were. We saw them both - his, just before it broke his line and mine before it shook its head just the wrong way (or right way, depending on your perspective) and came unhooked. Both were notably bigger than any of our other trout, which were up to about 14 inches long. One was well over 20 inches, and we believe it was a brown trout.
We were fishing the new delayed-harvest section of the Chattooga River and were somewhere around the midpoint of the 2 1/2-mile-long stretch of water. We had begun the day right at the state Highway 28 bridge, which marks the lower boundary of the specially regulated waters, and had worked our way gradually upstream. Action had heated up as the sun had warmed the day.
"Delayed harvest," as the name suggests, delays the harvest of trout. Fish are heavily stocked from fall through midspring and only catch-and-release fishing is permitted during that period. Anglers are also restricted to the use of single-hook artificial lures during the catch-and-release period, which makes it far easier to release trout in good condition.
On May 15, the "harvest" period begins. From that day through the end of October, fishermen may keep up to eight trout daily, with no minimum size. The special tackle requirements are also removed at that time, and anglers can use all baits and techniques that are otherwise legal for trout fishing.
The delayed-harvest concept was introduced to the Southern Appalachian region in North Carolina during the early 1990s, and the program quickly became very popular. Fly-fishermen and other anglers who enjoy fishing with lures and who don't mind releasing fish, love the delay period because the fish are always there. Trout are still trout, so they don't always cooperate, but fishermen can have confidence they are casting among plenty of fish in delayed-harvest waters.
For that reason, delayed-harvest waters offer fabulous conditions for teaching anglers to trout fish or to fly-fish. The same streams also serve as fine destinations for practicing nymph or dry-fly presentations or seeing how trout will react to various lures under different conditions. More importantly, high numbers of trout in a stream simply make for fun fishing.
When the delay period ends, a completely different group of fishermen steps in, and they too love the opportunity that delayed-harvest waters offer. By the time the streams open for harvest, most have very high densities of trout in them, and anglers who prefer fishing with natural offerings and want trout to take home, enjoy near certainty that they will bring home a limit. On large rivers that have limited access, like the Chattooga, good numbers of trout remain in the river well into the harvest season, even without additional stockings.
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission initially put four streams under delayed-harvest regulations, with a three-month delay period in the spring. Showing just how popular the program has been, it now encompasses 20 stream stretches in North Carolina and their delay period now runs from Oct. 1 to the first Saturday in June.
The delayed-harvest program has since been introduced and wholeheartedly embraced by fishermen in Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia. This year, South Carolina added a delayed-harvest opportunity in a joint effort with the state of Georgia on the Chattooga River. In addition, the portion of Cheohee Creek that runs though the Piedmont Forestry Center property has been placed under delayed-harvest regulations.
Ideal waters for delayed-harvest management offer very good trout habitat through the cool months but not through the summer. They don't lend themselves to heavy summer stocking because they become too warm or run too low to support many fish through the summer.
The delayed-harvest management scheme takes advantage of such a stream's trout habitat when it is at its best. The harvest, which comes just prior to when conditions would begin to deteriorate, actually allows for the very high stocking rates during the delay period.
Most delayed-harvest waters in North Carolina and Georgia were marginal put-and-take waters that received only a token number of trout under traditional management plans. Now the same waters are among the most popular streams in the region through winter and spring and the hottest spots around when the harvest opens every year.
The lower Chattooga fits the delayed-harvest mold perfectly. The entire section selected offers fabulous big-river trout habitat through the cool months and even supports some huge wild and semi-wild brown trout. This section has never received many trout or much serious attention from trout fishermen, however, because it gets quite warm for trout waters during the summer.
The Chattooga, which rises high in the North Carolina mountains, runs 40 miles along the South Carolina/ Georgia border before backing into the impounded waters of Lake Tugalo. Free flowing from its headwaters all the way to the lake and undeveloped along it shores throughout the South Carolina/Georgia portion, the Chattooga is a National Wild and Scenic River.
Downstream of Highway 28, the Chattooga enjoys national fame as a white-water paddling destination. Upstream, it stands among the region's jewels for wild and semi-wild brown trout offerings. With the exception of a few small private tracts just downstream of Highway 28, the entire river corridor from the North Carolina line south lies within the Chattahoochee or Sumter National Forest.
The Chattooga's best wild trout fishing is found between the North Carolina border and the Burrells Ford bridge, which is about 10 miles upstream of the Highwa
y 28 bridge. Most of the semi-wild browns, which are helicopter stocked as fingerlings each fall, are within the first four or five miles downstream of Burrells Ford. The habitat and forage base through that section are terrific for adult brown trout, but spawning conditions are marginal.
Because of the Chattooga's legendary upstream offerings, South Carolina and Georgia trout fishermen were thrilled by the establishment of the delayed-harvest section. Many anglers had eyed this section, knowing it didn't hold many trout but also seeing the beautiful water and having confidence that it would produce the same types of hatches as the upper river does.
The Chattooga is a large trout river by the time it reaches the delayed-harvest section. Two or three fishermen can comfortably fish upstream together and still have plenty of water to fish. When the fish are in the big pools, in fact, a fisherman could easily spend an afternoon fishing just one or two pools. Some pools are a couple hundred yards long and far deeper than I would want to fully discover.
The river is generally mild through the delayed-harvest section. It drops enough to create beautiful shoals and long, deep rocky runs, but there are big drops and fierce currents that characterize other parts of the river. Getting up and down the river is not too difficult at normal water levels. However, shoals are slick and diagonal in places and some spots require deep wading.
Water levels are an important consideration on the Chattooga because it is free flowing. It will commonly rise a foot or more after a day of rain and become swift and dangerous. Water levels up about 1.8 feet on the U.S. Highway 76 gauge allow for fairly comfortable wading. Water levels are available from the U.S. Geological Survey water level Web site at http://waterdata.usgs.gov/sc/nwis/rt.
If the level is higher than 1.8 feet, fishermen will have to pick and choose their entry points. If the water level is much over 2 feet, the Chattooga is probably best avoided until it runs down a little. The good news is that it goes down almost as quickly as it comes up, unless there have been several days of heavy rains.
At any level, anglers will come to spots that they cannot get through and will either have to backtrack and cross the river or get out and climb around that spot. Banks are thick with mountain laurel and often somewhat steep; however, sheer bluffs don't front most holes, so it is usually possible to get out and go around a tough spot.
The Chattooga River Trail parallels the entire delayed-harvest section on the South Carolina side, which aids the access enormously. The trail is often a couple hundred yards from the river and often well up the ridge, but it typically can be reached from the river.
Anglers who don't want to start right at the bridge or who want to move around other anglers can walk a ways upriver by the trail and then find a place where they can get back down to the water. Of course, for anglers who fish upstream all day, having a trail to hike back along is mighty nice.
The Chattooga lends itself beautifully to fly-fishing throughout the delayed-harvest section. Most sections have enough current to facilitate good drifts of nymphs or dry flies, but currents are rarely really strong or overly complicated (again, assuming normal water levels). In addition, the river's large size allows plenty of room for backcasts, which is somewhat rare on Southeastern trout streams.
The Chattooga does run extremely clear more often than not, and at times its trout can get quite finicky. It also supports far better and more diverse aquatic insect populations than do most mountain streams in this area, and when specific hatches come off, the Chattooga's trout can get extra demanding.
If nothing specific is coming off, the best overall fly-fishing approaches on the Chattooga are probably to fish attractor-type dry flies with small nymphs as droppers or to fish beadhead nymphs right along the bottom. Anglers who want to focus on big trout in hopes of hooking one of the river's jumbo browns do well to tie on a weighted Woolly Bugger or other big weighted streamer and fish it slowly in the deep water.
Whatever tactics they opt for, long-rod fishermen need to carry a good selection of flies on the Chattooga and experiment quite a bit. With dry flies, it's obviously important to be able to match the hatch when something specific is coming off. Nymphs also call for experimentation, though, as trout often might not touch a Hare's Ear one day but will jump all over a Prince Nymph (or vice versa).
A 9-foot, 5-weight works well for fishing this section of the Chattooga. Occasionally, it can be awkward to slip a long rod through the mountain laurel to get around a deep hole, but the opportunity to make longer casts and better mends in a big river easily makes up for that. A 9-foot 5X leader is good for starters, but anglers should bring tippet material in a variety of sizes so they are equipped to fish midges or Muddlers, according to what they see on the stream.
It's important to note that "single-hook artificials only" does not mean "fly-fishing only." While the Chattooga does make a fine fly-fishing destination, it is also a fun place to fish with an ultralight rod and spinners, spoons, plugs or jigs. On our first trip to the delayed-harvest section, my friend and I caught most of our fish on Excalibur Ghost Minnows and Rebel Teeny Deep Wee-Crawfish. I brought fly and spinning rods and a hard tube so I could fish both, but the spinning gear served me better that day.
For in-line spinners, the trebles can simply be snipped to a single point with wire cutters. However, most plugs and some other lures have trebles that are too small to leave much hook using that approach. I always remove both trebles and replace the back one with a No. 4 or No. 6 bait-style hook.
A couple of cautions about lures are worth noting. First, soft-plastic baits that have any type of scent or flavor in them or in their packaging are NOT legal as artificial lures. Also, natural baits or lures that have more than one hook point cannot be possessed on the stream, even if the angler is not fishing with them. Anglers must carry boxes that contain only legal lures when they fish during the delay period.
Once the harvest period begins, the best approaches for catching fish change with regulations. The same tactics that worked all spring will continue to work. However, the most efficient way to find the fastest action and bring home a limit of trout is to bring a cage of crickets, can of corn or carton of worms and fish natural offerings on simple split shot rigs.
Of course, for anglers who specifically hope to tangle with one of the Chattooga's big legendary brown trout, the best possible approach is probably to capture some crawfish from the stream or buy some spring lizards and fish those in the deepest, darkest runs in the river.
Access to the delayed-harvest section begins at the Highway 28 bridge. The best parking is on the South Carolina side in a small lot on the north side of the road that ends at a gate. The old fire roa
d blocked by that gate connects with the Chattooga River Trail. Anglers can also park near the bridge on the Georgia side and access the river directly.
BEFORE YOU GO A reciprocal licensing agreement between Georgia and South Carolina allows anglers properly licensed by either state to fish the Chattooga from the stream or from either bank. Tributary streams are not covered by the agreement.
In the delayed-harvest section, which extends from the mouth of Reed Creek to the state Highway 28 bridge, only single-hook artificial lures may be used or possessed and all trout caught must be released from Nov. 1 through May 14. From May 15 through Oct. 31, anglers may keep eight trout, with no special bait restrictions.
Unicoi Outfitters in Helen, Georgia, is permitted to guide fishermen on the Chattooga River, and some of their guides are life-long Chattooga River anglers. For information or to book a trip, give them a call at (706) 878-3083 or log onto www.unicoioutfitters.com.
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