June 11, 2004
Tackling the Toccoa River Trout is like fishing a couple of separate streams. Join the author in exploring the upper river and the tailwater below Blue Ridge Dam.
The North Georgia highlands near the town of Blue Ridge are the setting for what could be one of the best Georgia trout fishing stories ever told. "A Tale of Two Rivers" would be an appropriate title for this saga. What makes the story interesting, besides the fact that it deals with some of the Peach State's best trout fishing, is that if you look on a map, you see only one river. Talk to those familiar with the area, though, and you find that from an angler's perspective the stream in question has a split personality. Unlock the secrets to both, and you have enough trout fishing to last a lifetime.
The setting for the story is the Toccoa River. This river stretches nearly 60 miles from its headwaters on the Tennessee Valley Divide near the town of Suches to where it crosses the state line into Tennessee at McCaysville in Fannin County. Along the way, Blue Ridge Lake interrupts the river's flow. The lake is what gives the river its two different faces. Above the impoundment, the Toccoa resembles a typical North Georgia trout stream, albeit a large one. Below the lake, Blue Ridge Dam regulates the river's flow. The result is a typical tailwater fishery characterized by water more easily floated than waded, and rapid water level changes that dramatically affect the fishing. Let's examine both sections and what each has to offer the angler.
Although its extreme headwaters are in the Chattahoochee National Forest, most of the first 10 miles or so of the Toccoa River flows across private land. From the U.S. Forest Service's Deep Hole Recreation Area, which is near the village of Margret, downstream to Blue Ridge Lake, however, the river flows in and out of a patchwork of national forest lands. Even this early on its journey, the Toccoa is big water by trout stream standards.
Anglers can either wade or float the river. Wading is generally easy, and fishermen can use national forest land to reach the river. The combination of a good map of the area and a willingness to take a short hike pays off in plenty of unpressured water to fish. Good success can be had by wading the roadside access points, but walking a distance separates you from most of the competition.
For years, many anglers have preferred to float the river, but finding somewhere to take out was somewhat of a problem. In response, the Forest Service has completed the Toccoa River Canoe Trail, with several developed access points. The trail starts at the Deep Hole Recreation Area and flows 13.8 miles to the new take-out at the Sandy Bottoms access area. The Sandy Bottoms facility provides van and car parking, toilets and a ramp to the water's edge that is accessible to people with disabilities.
The upper Toccoa has two good day trips. The first is from Deep Hole to Sandy Bottoms or Dial crossroads, and the other is from there downstream to just above Blue Ridge Lake. The last good take-out above the lake is at a rapid known as Noontootla Boil. This is where Aska Road parallels the river for a half-mile or so. You can choose to finish your trip by running this Class II rapid or you can take out above it. The closer you get to the lake, though, the more the river becomes marginal trout water, especially in the heat of summer. The Shallowford Bridge area is generally considered the cutoff point for trout fishing.
Recently, a controversy has arisen over public access to a portion of the river a short distance downstream of the Deep Hole Recreation Area. According to information released by the Forest Service, a landowner has posted signs and stretched a cable across the river in an apparent attempt to deny public access to that portion of the river.
Georgia law regarding navigation rights and public access to small waterways is complex. Historically, when these types of issues have arisen in other parts of the state, it has taken years of court battles for the situation to sort itself out. Until the conflict is resolved, anglers should keep the issue in mind when planning any float trip to that part of the upper Toccoa.
Natural trout reproduction in the river itself is very limited, so most of the fish caught are stocked rainbows. Not only does the Toccoa receive its own stockings, but a few of its tributaries - namely Coopers and Rock creeks - are some of the most heavily stocked trout streams in Georgia. Trout wandering downstream into the Toccoa make good use of its abundant food supply, and quality fish are possible.
Wild browns and rainbows that have migrated out of the tributary streams are also possibilities and add extra interest to the angling. With all the fish the river receives, either directly or indirectly, it is not surprising that the angling is as good as it is.
Developed facilities on the upper Toccoa are fairly limited. The Deep Hole Recreation Area contains not only a paved canoe launch, but also a wooden fishing pier designed to allow physically challenged anglers access to the river. Especially during the summer, the upper Toccoa is popular with paddlers and tubers. Recreational use of the river is not so heavy that it is takes away from the fishing, though.
When float-fishing the Toccoa, you have to pick your spots or you will never reach the take-out before dark. Since the available access points dictate a long float, time constraints likely preclude thoroughly fishing every good-looking piece of water. The river alternates between sections - those that are wide, shallow and swift and those that are deep, still pools - so carrying two rods is a good idea if you have room. Rig one rod for a shallow presentation and one for deeper fishing. A 1/16-ounce in-line green spinner is a local favorite, and a small gold or silver jerkbait is also a good lure. A sinking jerkbait can be a good choice for reaching down into the deeper holes.
Fly casters find the upper Toccoa to their liking as well. The deep, slow-moving pools beg for the presentation of a dry fly when the mist is just beginning to burn off the water. Since major hatches are rare, an attractor pattern can serve you well. Use nymphs to comb the deeper water in search of bigger fish.
One great thing about the upper Toccoa for fly-fishers is plenty of casting room. Unlike most Georgia trout streams, which are narrow and overgrown with mountain laurel and rhododendron bushes just waiting to grab an errant back cast, the upper Toccoa has plenty of room, even for the neophyte fly-rodder. Easy wading, plenty of fish, and lots of casting space are the perfect ingredients for introducing a newcomer to the sport.
If fly-fishing or casting spinners isn't your favorite approach, nothing beats natural bait. Salmon eggs, corn, worms and crickets bumped slowly along the bottom of pools produce fish. An ultralight spinning or spincast outfit spooled with 4-pound-test monofilament, a small hook and a few BB-sized split shot are all the tackle you need to fill your stringer.
To reach the Deep Hole Recreation Area from Morganton, drive 14.6 miles south on State Route 60 to the entrance road on the right. Other access points can be reached by county roads branching off SR 60, or from Blue Ridge by traveling south on Aska Road.
Hop-scotching over Blue Ridge Lake, the lower Toccoa River is arguably the best tailwater trout fishery in Georgia. From Blue Ridge Dam to where the lower Toccoa crosses into Tennessee, the river offers about 15 miles of great trout fishing. This river is big water. Long, deep pools separated by rocky shoals make the flow perfect for floating. At high water, wading can be a problem. At low water, expect to do some dragging if you are in a canoe.
Historically, the Blue Ridge Dam tailwater suffered from poor water quality. During long periods without generation or during late summer and early fall, dissolved-oxygen levels would fall to marginal levels. In the mid-1990s the TVA addressed these problems by adding an oxygen-injection system and increasing the minimum flow constantly released from the dam. With these modifications, water quality has improved, and so has the fishing.
For a look at what the lower Toccoa has to offer, let's talk to one of its biggest fans, Metrella Brown of Unicoi Outfitters. Besides managing Unicoi's store in Blue Ridge, she has guided for several years on the outfitter's other private waters.
"The lower Toccoa is just a phenomenal dry-fly fishery," Brown said. "Spring, summer and on into fall, you just can't go wrong with a caddis. Dark, tan and olive are all good."
According to Metrella, dry flies aren't the only things that produce, though.
"For nymphing, a bead-head soft hackle is a good choice. The fish really seem to prefer soft hackles. I like Tellico Nymphs and Golden Stonefly Nymphs. Big streamers can be good too. But the rises on the Toccoa are so good, I just have a hard time putting down the dry flies and tying on a nymph or streamer. To me, the dry flies are so much more fun to fish.
"Probably 80 percent of our catch the last few years has been brown trout," Metrella said, "with rainbows making up the rest. Since the fish are stocked as fingerlings in the tailwater, they grow up wild. The colors are just spectacular on these fish. Too, since the fish have been in the river awhile and aren't just right off the stocking truck, the fish you catch aren't all carbon copies of each other. Most fish we catch range from 6 to 13 inches, with the occasional 15- to 17-inch fish thrown in. Of course, there is always the chance for a trophy too, especially a brown trout.
"The lower Toccoa flows across mostly private land," Metrella continued, "but there are three public access points. Blue Ridge Dam, Curtis Switch and the park in McCaysville are all good access points. The river has so many fish, any one of the three is just as good as the others."
Since public bank access is limited, the best way to fish the river is by floating. Metrella recommended a "pontoon boat" over the basic float tube. If you can get access to one, a drift boat is also ideal. Floating the river from the dam to Curtis Switch is a popular trip with anglers.
Regarding where and when to fish, you almost can't go wrong.
"The whole river is good," Metrella advised. "Pools, riffles . . . it doesn't matter - you are going to catch fish."
Brown prefers to fish falling water, but she always goes when she gets the chance, no matter what the water is doing.
"The fish go crazy at the dam about 15 minutes after the turbines shut off," Metrella said. "Be there when that happens, and you are in for a great trip. I have had really good luck fishing the dam in the evening with a No. 18 Adams after the turbines have quit for the day."
What the dam is doing is the No. 1 factor for fishing the lower Toccoa for several reasons. Not only does it affect the fish, but it is very important to anglers too.
"On the lower Toccoa, safety is No. 1," Metrella stressed. "There are no sirens on the river to warn you of imminent water releases, and you can't always go by the release schedule for the day. If you are in the water and feel the current picking up, no matter how slight, get to higher ground immediately. The water is on the way and will be on you in just minutes.
"I also recommend that you always keep your eye on a partially submerged rock or stick for a benchmark," Metrella related. "When the water first starts to creep up your marker, get out then; don't try to make a few more casts.
Anglers can check the release schedule for the next day by calling the TVA at 800-238-2264 after 4 p.m. Listen to the message, then press 4, 23 and # to get the release schedule for the following day. You shouldn't depend on the release schedule to be 100 percent accurate, though. Always keep your eye on the water level.
When you're fishing tailwaters like the lower Toccoa, it should go without saying that your PFD (life jacket) should be just as important a part of your gear as your fishing rod and landing net. Tailwaters can provide great fishing, but they also can be extremely dangerous.
"We have had many, many 100-plus-fish days on the Toccoa," Metrella noted. "It is just a phenomenal fishery. It has to be one of the top five trout fisheries in this region, and you could make the argument that it is No. 1."
Although the lower Toccoa is the hardcore trout angler's dream, casual anglers can join in on the fun too. Soaking natural bait around the dam is almost sure to produce with just a handful of simple tackle and a little patience. During low water periods, trout can often be seen working along the dam's concrete walls and are usually willing to take natural bait dropped right in front of their nose. Other access points farther downstream can also offer good bait-fishing, but the dam is a favorite with local anglers.
The lower Toccoa River is bounded on the west by SR 5 and on the east by SR 60. Several county roads that intersect these highways provide access to the river. Refer to a local road map to figure out how to reach those access points.
No matter which chapter of the Toccoa River story you choose to read first, whether it be the free-flowing upper river or the regulated lower river, one constant theme is plenty of trout available for the catching. Basic trout tactics are all that is required to tap into this great fishery.
The Toccoa River is designated as year-round trout water. However, all tributary streams, unless specifically listed as year-round water, are seasonal trout water. All anglers must have a valid Georgia Trout Stamp. Night-fishing is allowed, and any type of bait, natural or artificial, may be used. Trout may be harvested following standard Georgia creel limits. Consult the Georgia Sport Fishing Regulations pamphlet for more information.
For more information on the Toccoa River Canoe Trail, contact the Chattahoochee National Forest Supervisor's Office at (770) 297-3000. A Chattahoochee National Forest map, which is a great resource for finding public land fishing opportunities, is available for a nominal fee from the Web site, at www.fs.fed.us/conf/maps.htm.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Dallmier is a fisheries biologist with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division and works out of the Summerville office. He is a frequent contributor to Georgia Sportsman.
Dallmier has also authored the book FISHING GEORGIA, a FalconGuide Book to Fishing in the Peach State. Autographed copies can be purchased from the author for $21 (postage paid) by mailing a check to 90 Dogwood Hill, Menlo, GA 30731. For more information about the book, visit http://home.alltel.net/kevin90/ index.html on the Web.