Find, Fish For Wild Trout In Georgia
“You climb like a mountain goat.”
That’s what I’ve been told by anglers who have shared the treks I make in spring, summer and fall into —and out of—some of Georgia’s best wild trout streams. You’ve got to put in the effort to fish what I believe are the best trout streams in Georgia, those thinnest blue lines that trace across the maps of our mountainlands that are not only wild in the taking of trout, but it takes a walk in the wild, too, in getting to those trout.
THE SHORT LIST
Want to make it easy on yourself? Go ahead. Wild trout swim in the Chattooga River, Chattahoochee River, Toccoa River, Tallulah River. Those large waterways, where so many Georgia trout anglers fish, do support wild trout. These fishes’ ancestors came from the generations of trout stocked in those same waters for decades, and the water quality is well protected by state agencies.
But the wild trout in these waters are caught swimming among thousands of hatchery-raised rainbows and browns—sometimes, even brook trout —slipped by federal and state agencies every year into the rivers and streams where public access is easy and because public access is easy.
Foremost on the wild trout fishing list for ease of access is, perhaps, the Chattahoochee River downstream from Buford Dam. For 30 miles or more, wild brown trout grow plentiful from the dam downstream into the suburb of Roswell, with public parks, landings and hiking areas well placed along its length. And individual wild browns in the Hooch can be rather large, as they might be in any tailwater trout fishery. On July 27, 2014, Chad Doughty, of Winder, landed the 20-lb., 14-oz. state-record brown in the Hooch, just downstream from Buford Dam. Many more double-digit browns have been landed along the river’s length, but it’s the overall number, the thousands of browns caught year-round, that reveal the river’s thriving population of wild browns. Moreover, the wild browns of the Chattahoochee River were recognized and dubbed as such when DNR stopped stocking browns in the river in 2008 following confirmation of widespread successful spawning of browns. Doughty’s fish likely was a wild trout.
Finding wild trout on the Toccoa River in Fannin and Union counties is a mixed-bag experience, too. From its headwaters to the tailwater stretch below Blue Ridge Dam, DNR stocks high numbers of trout that are clearly more abundant in the river than wild trout. Yet wild rainbows and browns can appear in a day’s catch on both the upper and lower Toccoa. Public access is limited, making float trips the best access to the most fish.
Trout fishing in the Tallulah River in Rabun County is much the same as the Toccoa. Wild trout are abundant in some tributaries, but wild trout in the river are scattered in one of the most heavily stocked trout streams in Georgia where roadside access is remarkably easy.
In its upper reach in Georgia, just more than 3 miles of the Chattooga River stretches upstream from Burrell’s Ford to the Georgia-North Carolina-South Carolina border in Ellicott Rock Wilderness. The Chattooga River Trail traces the river’s run, providing great foot access to a fine fishery filled with wild brown and rainbow trout. Burrell’s Ford is the highest stocking point on the Georgia stretch of Chattooga River and receives a large share of rainbows every year. Upstream, anglers can expect to catch both wild and stocked trout, with wild trout growing more dominant as the distance grows upstream from Burrell’s Ford.
But that’s a short list, when you choose your wild-trout waters by access made easy by federal facilities and resources supported by the US Forest Service, the DNR, the Tennessee Valley Authority and the National Park Service. Fishing the Chattooga River, the Chattahoochee River, the Toccoa River and the Tallulah River is often dominated by the lure and bait angler, but fly-fishermen, too, from novice to expert, share the excitement found in searching these waters for the wild brown and rainbow trout found there.
THE LONG LIST
Dozens more wild trout streams tumble through the north Georgia mountains, but it takes some work to find them and skill to fish them. A large contingency of trout fishermen argue the best—certainly the most abundant —wild trout waters in Georgia are those that aren’t easy to access, despite how easy they can be to find if you know how to find them.
Pull out any high-quality topographical map—digital or paper—of Georgia and draw a line from Toccoa to Dahlonega to Ellijay to Chatsworth. North of that line lies a great expanse of the Chattahoochee National Forest, the stronghold for Georgia’s wild trout—browns, rainbows and brookies—that live in the pools, riffles and plunges found along many (but not all) of the thin blue lines that trace the creeks and streams of the forestland. Nestled into these federal lands are state wildlife management areas, large expanses of forest managed by DNR to benefit wildlife and fisheries and improve recreation access. Specifically, fisheries and wildlife biologists and technicians work by agreement with the US Forest Service to improve/enhance/maintain the wildlife habitat and the headwater streams in the WMAs that carry clear, clean, cold water that supports wild brown, rainbow and brook trout.
Each of these trout species hold certain value for anglers in search of Georgia’s wild trout. Both brown and rainbow trout are “exotic” fishes, neither is a native of Georgia’s streams. Brown trout are indigenous to eastern Europe and the British Isles and are the most elusive among the three. Rainbow trout are indigenous to the Pacific coast of North America and represent some of the most historic trout fishing waters in the world. But both species were stocked repeatedly in many high-elevation streams of the Appalachian Mountains to replace the indigenous brook trout where they were wiped out by the logging practices of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
All three species are now found throughout the highland watersheds of north Georgia. Catching all three in a single day—more desirably, from a single stream—is a personal accomplishment many anglers call the “Appalachian slam.” But few streams hold all three species. The so-called “brook trout streams” typically hold only brook trout in stream corridors cut-off from rainbows and browns, usually by a barrier waterfall that prevents those trout from leaving the lower elevations of a stream where they dominate those fisheries.
Native brook trout have long held their place in the southern Appalachian Mountains, but their current range is considerably smaller than their historical range. For several decades following the destructive logging operations, stocking rainbows and browns in former brook trout streams once seemed the best practice for restoring the trout streams. Cost was among the factors, as brook trout are the most difficult trout to raise and transport. The practice was stopped, however, before all brook trout streams were “invaded” by the rainbows and browns. Many Georgia trout fishermen consider catching wild brook trout the pinnacle accomplishment in their angling experiences.
From the deep wilderness of Cohutta WMA in the west to the rugged mountainlands of Warwoman WMA in the east, individual anglers seek Georgia’s wild trout in these and seven more WMAs: Rich Mountain, Coopers Creek, Blue Ridge, Chestatee, Chattahoochee, Smithgall Woods and Swallow Creek. These watersheds create the Jacks, Conasauga, Toccoa, Chattahoochee, Chattooga and Chestatee rivers. Beyond these lands, headwater segments of the Tallulah Rivers also hold wild trout.
Maps of each WMA are readily available from private and public resources, and a series of interactive maps are found online at georgiawildlife.com/AllWMAs. The maps display the streams in these watersheds, but that’s only the beginning of the work that must be put into finding Georgia’s wild trout streams. Many of the streams on these maps grow too small or too warm during the year to support trout. Others are clearly stocked trout streams that are listed in the Georgia Sportfishing Regulations guide and online at eregulations.com/georgia/fishing. You’ll need to research online and on foot to determine each stream’s viability.
Don’t expect a lot of help locating Georgia’s wild trout streams from other anglers, perhaps not even the fisheries folks at DNR. Call it what you will, but open conversation about these streams is discouraged and downright frowned upon online. Friends might share a trip to a stream. Fishing guides might show their clients these streams. Fisheries techs might confirm your stream suspicions. But few anglers will tell you how to reach these streams, fearing increased impact upon what they believe are sacred waters.
Georgia’s wild trout waters are, indeed, significant resources to protect. The environments are fragile and increased foot pressure along a stream corridor impacts the land, the water and the trout. However, none of these streams on public lands are off-limits to fishermen, and you’ll need to put in your own time to discover the best entry and exit points. Some are remote. Some are trail-side. Some are nearly roadside. WMA maps are great resources for beginning your exploration at any level.
Expect a hike… up and down some of the steepest landscape Georgia holds. Many wild trout streams lay at the bottom of a ravine or maybe a gorge and can flow for many miles. Some are hundreds of feet below road grades. Expect a jungle… as deep, dark stands of rhododendrons, mountain laurel, hemlocks, hardwoods and pines likely shroud the streams. Expect to crawl… around, through, over and under laydowns, waterfalls, chutes and granite outcroppings common to Appalachian trout waters. Put in the legwork. Drive for miles. You’ll learn how the ridges and valleys, trail heads and open woods work together to create good—not necessarily obvious—access to these streams.
Once you arrive on any of Georgia’s wild trout waters, you’ll need to put your best fishing skills forward. Expect frustration. You’ll fish some of the smallest, clearest trout streams cluttered with obstructions and challenges like you’ve never encountered before.
Leave the spinning gear behind. Fly-fishing will greatly enhance your success, as will your stealth at streamside and in the water. The trout in these streams feed nearly exclusively on both water-borne and terrestrial insects. Mayflies, caddisflies, stoneflies, beetles, ants, moths, worms, caterpillars and more make up their diet, and each of these are most abundant in the warm months. Consider fly patterns for each of these types of insects, but “buggy” flies of any pattern will often catch these sometimes opportunistic feeders.
And let ’em go to provide the thrill you just enjoyed for another angler. Georgia’s wild trout streams are open year-round, and fishing can be good in wintertime, too.
In any case, the fly-fisherman who stealthfully delivers these and other flies that simulate local and abundant insects are those who will discover the satisfaction in catching wild trout that might never exceed 10 inches long.
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