Dukes Creek: Trophy Trout On Public Water

A guide to catching that trout-of-a-lifetime this October.

Joe DiPietro | September 28, 2012

Landon Williams, of Dahlonega, plays an enormous Dukes Creek trout. Dukes Creek, which runs through Smithgall Woods State Park in White County, is like a private trophy-trout fishery on public land and without the expensive price tag.

If you’re one of the many Georgia trout anglers whose ideas of Peach State trophy trout streams involve private water, fat trout, pricey guides and hefty access fees, it’s time to think again.

Dukes Creek, in the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area near Helen, blows those assumptions out of the water with plentiful trophy rainbow and brown trout, with only a valid fishing license and trout stamp, a free reservation and a $5 daily parking fee required to fish for them.

In more than a decade fishing for trout in the north Georgia mountains and more than five years guiding the area, this trout-obsessed outdoor writer has probably driven past Dukes Creek a hundred times on the way to other fishing haunts.

The truth is, I, like many other trout fishermen, thought the fish at Dukes must have been too heavily pressured and were even harder to catch than the trout in private trophy waters. After just one recent day at Dukes—and a few hundred on private trophy streams as a guide—I was shocked by how much less pressure Dukes fish receive than the typical pay-to-play operation and also by how gorgeous the fish at Dukes are.

Fishing the creek is restricted to 15 anglers in the morning and 15 in the afternoon each Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. Between those days, the creek is closed to all public fishing. As a result of the limited number of anglers per day, free reservations are recommended and available by calling the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area office.

Like nearly all trophy waters anywhere, Dukes is restricted to catch-and-release fishing only, with artificial lures with barbless hooks. While this regulation leads to most folks fly fishing Dukes, it’s not off limits to spin-fishermen who follow the same lure restrictions.

It’s worth noting that even possession of a barbed hook can result in pretty stiff fines at Dukes, and the regulations are strictly enforced.

For specific details on if an artificial lure fits the definitions of the law, contact the park office by phone or in person before fishing.

Simply put, I was blown away at the quality of the fish and the fishing at Dukes Creek. It was nothing like I expected.

In part, it was due to the fact that I’d wrangled a pair of the best and most dedicated fishermen on Dukes Creek, Landon Williams, of Dahlonega, and Kelly Calvo, of Athens, to show me around.

All this praise is not to say that Dukes hasn’t earned its reputation as being a tough place to fish for beginners and even regulars like Landon and Kelly.

“I literally had my tail handed to me the first time I fished here,” Kelly said. “I didn’t think a fish existed here the first time.”

Landon told of a different first experience.

Landon caught this nice brown trout in September. The fish come much bigger than this at Dukes, but it takes stealth, persistence and luck to catch the giants.

“I did pretty well my first time here, but that was because (WRD Fisheries Biologist) Jeff Durniak showed me how to do it that first day,” he said.

There’s also the simple fact that there are lots of fish in the 20-inch range and some closer to 30 inches all over the stream. And even big fish that must be released didn’t get that size by being stupid. Add to that the approximate 4-mile length of the Dukes trophy-managed section, and the stream can easily take a long time to learn.

The trophy water stretch is broken into four separate sections, and anglers are typically restricted to one or two for an entire day.

Throughout the stretch of creek is everything a trout fisherman might expect, big drops with deep pools, long flat stretches, riffles and runs along with man-made stream improvements here and there.

As a result, every little detail, from stealth to presentation to gear and fly/lure selection, matters in how you fish for the trout at Dukes Creek.

The day I met Landon and Kelly on the creek, it was apparent after walking a mile or so past them in the creek without spotting them from the road following right alongside it, that stealth is paramount on Dukes. And more importantly, successful anglers dress for it.

When I did finally spot Landon and Kelly, I found Landon tucked behind a boulder in a camo t-shirt wet wading and Kelly in gray wading gear along a gray rockface.

“Stealth is really one of the most important things for us,” Kelly said. “Our version of stealth is a bit more ridiculous than most people’s.”

I was snapping a few pictures from a distance, having not even made my way out into creek yet, when I saw Kelly rare back his fly-rod and set the hook on a good fish.

I scrambled toward Kelly as he battled the big fish in little water. In short order, the hefty fish erupted, threw the fly back at Kelly and went on about its business.

“That happens here,” Kelly said. “I’d like to think it’s just the barbless hook thing, but these fish are tough!”

After repairing any damaged portion of leader, Kelly proceeded to cast right back into the hole he had been fishing. Meanwhile, Landon remained tucked behind a rock, pegging away at the top portion of the hole.

“I like to try to conceal myself behind things,” Landon said.

Both guys were fishing nymphs deep, without strike indicators. Because the holes were so small, thanks to late summer water levels being low, the length of their drifts were short to say the least. So, using the proper amount of split-shot was critical.

“You want to use enough to get it right down to them,” Landon said. “But, you’ve also got to be careful not to use too much. It really depends on water level and color.”

The rig they were fishing included a bigger nymph, like a stonefly or a mohair leech, in size 12 to 8 tied above a smaller nymph, like a pheasant tail, zebra midge or soft-hackle, in size 16 to 20.

The applied tactic is known by several names, but perhaps the most common is called “high-sticking.” Where an angler fishes without any strike indicator and holds the rod high enough to see or feel each hit. It’s not the easiest fly-fishing tactic to master, but it will definitely improve catch rates if practiced and applied correctly, not just at Dukes, but anywhere trout swim.

High-sticking nymphs will work well this month, and can be particularly good in the winter, too.

It was Landon’s turn next, and he buried a hook in the jaw of a nice rainbow. After going airborne several times, Landon finally subdued the fish in his net, held it for a few quick photos and let it go.

I was surprised to see Landon and Kelly both go right back to fishing the same hole each had just caught fish out of, as that’s not usually a good strategy on the private trophy waters I’ve worked. Usually, one fish per hole will scare the rest of the fish from eating anything again that day.

“I’m very persistent,” Kelly said. “If I know there’s fish there, I’ll stay with it until they eat. Sometimes I think after they get spooked, they just need 10 or 15 minutes to settle down before they’ll bite again. It’s kind of like you become part of the natural surroundings to them if you give them time to settle back down.”

With aerobatics like this, one might conclude that Dukes Creek trout have learned the best way to throw a barbless hook.

Landon added, “There are sometimes we’ll sit and fish a hole for an hour before we ever get a hit. That waiting can be worth it when you consider how big some of these fish are.”

Changing flies is another trick to repeatedly fooling fish in the same hole at Dukes.

“A lot of the time just changing one of your flies will get a fish to bite again,” Landon said.

Kelly said, “It’s like they just want to see something different. Sometimes it’s just flashy versus natural or big versus small.”

Over the next hour or so I witnessed both Landon and Kelly connect with and/or land several more fish. All fish brought to the net were rainbows and browns in the 14- to 17-inch range, and those lost were naturally larger in an angler’s mind. Either way, it was shaping up into one fine morning.

Then Kelly and Landon decided to move on to other holes. I stuck with Landon, and we made our way upstream to another deep hole below a small drop in the stream. Landon eased across to the far bank and did all but crawl into position before laying his rod out alongside himself to begin roll-casting his nymph rig.

On his third drift, Landon hooked up with a rainbow of about 13 inches.

“Most of the fish anyone new to fishing here is going to catch will be like this one,” Landon said.

With time and patience, though, that average size will increase.

After just a few more drifts, Landon buttoned-up with what was clearly a better fish, and I watched, grinning ear-to-ear, as he carefully fought a heavy-bodied brown trout to the net. The fish was just gaining its fall colors and, like the leaves on the trees, is sure to be even more brilliant in October.

Showing the persistence a good Dukes angler must have, Landon kept on drifting the same hole. Fortunately for him it paid off. A truly beastly fish took Landon’s fly and made one strong run toward an obstruction, turned abruptly, ran right toward Landon and was gone.

Both of us stopped, dropped our jaws and could do nothing more than giggle and make guesses as to the true proportions of the fish.

Gear questions like rod length and weight are really more of a personal preference than anything else. However, Landon said he wouldn’t fish Duke’s with anything less than a 4-weight rod.

“I really like a 6-weight rod because it gives me a little more power to steer the big fish from rocks and rootballs,” Kelly said.

Both anglers said they like long tapered leaders up to 12-feet long with tippet portions ranging from 4-lb. test and up depending on water conditions.

“Generally, the less weight and lighter tippets the better when you fish low, clear water,” Landon said. “But that’s not to say we’ve never caught fish on 8-lb. mono, either. But that’s when the water is high and stained from rain.”

Lightweight spinning gear with matching 6- to 7-foot rods and 6-lb.-test line would also work well for those wanting to try it.

“Basically, you want to fish what the water conditions will allow you to get away with and still catch fish,” Landon said.

After regaining composure after Landon’s big fish, we made off downstream to find Kelly before the end of our half-day session. Nearing the park’s visitor’s center, we found Kelly working a small undercut bank beneath a tree. As we dropped into the creek near him, Kelly said, “Just in time,” and lifted a rainbow of about 20 inches from the water.

“Go ahead Landon, your turn,” Kelly said.

Kelly Calvo, of Athens, shows off an average Dukes Creek rainbow trout.

After a couple drifts, the water exploded, and Landon was hooked-up to another very big trout. The fish took to tailwalking and then nearly leaped onto a rock before doing away with Landon’s fly.

“I definitely don’t land ’em all here,” Landon said. “But they’re a heck of a lot of fun either way.”

Considering both Landon and Kelly have caught several fish longer than 25 inches, losing a trophy is a little more easy to handle than it might be for those looking for their first trophy trout. Over the next hour, both anglers lost several monstrous fish and landed a few big fish out of what would be called a small to tiny hole at most.

As a guide, it’s usually satisfying enough for me to just watch folks catch plenty of fish. But I’ve got to admit, I really, really wish I’d gotten a reservation and could have fished that day with Landon and Kelly. Not that I didn’t enjoy watching them tear up big trout, but I sure did find myself dying to fight one by the end of the day. No doubt, I will be booking reservations soon!

If you plan to go, just remember to be stealthy, be persistent and pay attention to your gear and presentation. Apply those things, a little time and a little luck, and you’re sure to get a picture of yourself with a dandy, public-water trophy trout. As any experienced Dukes Creek angler like Landon and Kelly will tell you, you’ve got to put in some time to figure the fish out. But, even though the fish here are tough, they’re certainly not uncatchable.

For more information on fishing Dukes Creek, or for reservations, call the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area visitors center at (706) 878-2087.

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