February 2007 Cannon’s Creel

The Ole Rabunite tells us why the boating ban should remain on the pristine upper Chattooga River.

David Cannon | January 30, 2007

David Cannon

If you’ve never taken the time to read this department from start to finish, I beg you to do it this time, just this once, before you turn the page to read all about the intellectuals featured in this month’s Hall of Shame.

I’m pleading with you because one of America’s 100 Best Trout Streams (as named by Trout Unlimited) could soon lose its identity as a unique and special place for those seeking an unparalleled experience.

The stream I’m speaking of is the Wild and Scenic Chattooga River (as designated by Congress in 1974), and more specifically the upper 21 miles upstream of the Hwy 28 bridge.

What allows this section to retain its unique qualities is its zoning. Some 30 years ago, after numerous instances of “user conflict” and the explosion in popularity of this area after the movie Deliverance, the U.S. Forest Service zoned it for foot travel only. That designation is now being challenged.

I took part in Chattooga River user trials on January 5 and 6, when four pairs of anglers fished different stretches while 10 boaters floated through. I decided I would like to use this space to further educate you, the reader, as to why this issue is so important. But, since we have The Ole Rabunite and his 50-plus years of experience on this river at our disposal, let’s listen to what he has to say.

“Why shouldn’t boaters be granted access to the section of the Chattooga River upstream of the Hwy 28 Bridge?

“Let me tell a story. Visualize it’s a Saturday in April (a few years in the future) and the river is running full, up four inches from a brief shower in Cashiers last night. The weather is warm and some schools are on spring break. In the 12 miles of backcountry between Burrell’s Ford and Hwy 28, a mama black bear has brought her two cubs to feed in the riparian area near Salt Trough. In the Boulevard, a bobcat stalks a rabbit. An osprey patrols the Rocky Gorge for trout to feed her nestlings in a tall dead hemlock next to the river.

“A Boy Scout troop from Clayton is backpack camping, fishing and swimming at the Sims Fields. Another seven camps with varying numbers of backpackers are scattered along the trail beside the river. An elderly couple from Rabun Gap has hiked to the Nugget to view, identify and photograph wildflowers. There are a couple of dozen day-hikers with picnic lunches moving through the backcountry.

“A trio of dedicated birders from New York has hiked into The Steps hoping to spot a Swainson’s Warbler. A university professor and two grad students from Knoxville have hiked off-trail to the Square Turn area searching for a reported colony of the federally endangered small whorled begonia. At streamside they sit quietly for 45 minutes watching a pair of minks searching shallow waters for crawfish. Two wildlife photographers from Asheville are at Big Bend Falls where they have encountered a litter of otter pups with their mother teaching them how to fish the plunge pool.

“About 70 backcountry anglers, most of whom fish in pairs or alone, have entered the 12 miles of river by hiking in. Most are in the first two miles at either end; the rest are scattered in between. Some live within an hour of the river, but many came from Atlanta, Greenville and Athens. A few have traveled from as far away as St. Petersburg, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. For some, it is the first visit to this beautiful and spectacular stream.

“By hiking along the trail system, all of these visitors and small groups have spaced themselves along the river to achieve their personal envelopes of solitude. This separation also provides the anglers the opportunity to fish for trout that have not recently been disturbed by others. The caddis flies are hatching, and some of the larger trout are beginning to feed on emergers.

“Two boaters, one from Asheville and another from Atlanta, rendezvous at the Hwy 28 river access site at 9:30 a.m. and drop off a vehicle. They travel to Burrell’s Ford, where about 45 vehicles are already parked, and put their boats in under the bridge. As they leave the congestion of the bridge, one boater’s paddle tangles and breaks the spinning line of a “put-and-take” angler. Insults are hurled back and forth, then a fist-size rock splashes near one of the boats. As the boaters speed down-river, one tells the other, ‘This place is like a circus! These people have no respect for the river.’

“Finally, the boaters leave civilization behind and enter the solitude of the Chattooga’s North Fork backcountry, excited about being on a seldom-running creek. At 4 p.m. they take out at Hwy 28, load up and drive back to Burrell’s Ford, still pumped up with memories of the challenges they met and overcame at Big Bend Falls, the Sims Shoals, the Big’un Hole and the Rocky Gorge. As they drive home, they reflect on their years of struggles with the Forest Service concerning Chattooga River management issues. They are proud of the roles they played in opening this area for year-round unrestricted private boating.

“They are oblivious to what they left behind in their wakes. For 12 miles they shattered the solitude of almost every person and creature they encountered, even though each encounter lasted only a few seconds.

“At the Big Step, the Swainson’s warbler spooked as the boaters ran the chute. At Big Bend Falls, as the boaters found a ‘play spot,’ the otter family left and the photographers didn’t get their shots. As the boats approached Salt Trough, the startled mama bear hustled her cubs back up the same slope from which they came. Most of the Boy Scouts thought it was cool watching the boaters run the Sims Shoals a few times, but were disappointed after trying to catch trout for a merit-badge requirement. When the boaters came out of the Rocky Gorge, they scared off the bobcat. As they came around the Square Turn, the minks scurried under root wads. At the head of the Long Pool, a mile up the delayed-harvest section, an 83-year-old angler had spotted a rising brown trout and was stalking what would’ve been the biggest trout of his life when the boaters torpedoed right through the sweet spot.

“On this day, just two boaters disturbed over 50 anglers as they passed through every sweet spot for 12 miles, putting down the trout anywhere from several minutes to a few hours. Some anglers had to move out of the way and reel in. Most backcountry visitors experienced a negative reaction to their brief encounter with the two boaters, reactions known to Forest Service planners as user conflicts.

“Back in 1976, Forest Service planners had the proper solution for preventing user conflicts and protecting resources. Maintaining the zoning upstream of the Hwy 28 Bridge for foot travel only is still the proper solution today.

“Boaters say, ‘An unjustified ban on boating is not zoning, it is illegal and discriminatory management.’ Two-thirds of the Chattooga is zoned to allow boating, including the West Fork, which contains almost half of the headwaters. Zoning of conflicting uses is good stewardship, not discrimination. Stewardship includes the protection of the aesthetic values of natural resources, the proper regard for the rights of others to solitude and the responsibility of preserving those values intact for future generations.”

If you’ve never been to this area, it’s easy to imagine this place as just another river. But it’s not.

The upper Chattooga is a unique place for many reasons. There are no open roads paralleling it, no powerlines crossing overhead and no boats of any kind floating it. There are few access points that can only be reached on foot. It’s the one river where an angler, hiker or wildlife photographer can enjoy their type of use without the chance of encountering a bright yellow kayak. In short, it’s a place that, save the few small foot trails, looks as if humans aren’t a part of the equation — a true rarity in the eastern United States.

It’s also unique because it’s just big enough to allow a fly angler to cast without obstruction. But, it’s not big enough for a boater to pass an angler without interfering with his or her use.

In fact, GON Publisher Steve Burch may have put it best in a 2003 editorial… “For anglers like me, it is simply a special place. For boaters like me, it is simply another place.”

To get involved, contact Project Coordinator John Cleeves via e-mail at [email protected] and tell him
you are in favor of zoning.

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