Public-Water Trophy Trout On Dukes And Waters Creeks

Georgia's two state-managed trophy streams, Dukes Creek and Waters Creek, are great rain or shine, but both require stealth and skill.

David Cannon | April 27, 2006

Richie Santiago with a 21-inch Waters Creek rainbow that he caught in a narrow pool in Waters Creek.

Do you like to hunt? Odds are, if you’re reading this right now then you are probably a loyal GON reader. So, the answer to that question is most likely a “yes.” Do you like to fish? Same answer as the first? That’s what I thought.

Now, have you ever done both at the same time? No, I’m not talking about that time you strapped your .30/30 to your baitcaster. I mean, have you ever crawled on your hands and knees through rhododendron branches and rocks and briars on the banks of a creek less than 20-feet wide just to stay out of a trout’s line of vision? If not, you should spend some time getting to know our two state-managed trophy-trout streams; Dukes Creek and Waters Creek.

The trophy-managed section of Dukes Creek is located in the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area which is about three miles west of Helen on Alternate 75. The 5,555 acres of land that the creek meanders through was acquired by the state in 1994 through a gift-purchase from local media tycoon and conservationist Charles Smithgall Jr. The two-plus miles of trophy water allows up to 30 anglers per day, or 15 for each of two sessions, on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays throughout the spring, summer and fall. The winter season, however, is limited to only 15 anglers per day who can take advantage of one all-day session.

Dukes’ counterpart, Waters Creek, is a seasonal stream that runs through the Chestatee WMA near Turner’s Corner. With a little more than four miles of water to cover, it’s easy to use every second from the time the creek opens for fishing at 6:30 a.m. until closing time at 6:30 p.m. (or 7:30 p.m. Eastern Daylight Savings Time) working different sections.

Waters Creek was once regarded as the premier trophy stream in the state, even yielding our state-record brook trout which was a now unimaginable five-plus pounder. But, the creek went through a tough period where poaching and other factors decreased the quality of the fishery.

But, thanks to groups such as NGTO and Trout Unlimited, Waters is now the focus of several stream-improvement projects every year and has greatly benefited from such attention. There is already a work day scheduled for September 16 that will be led by Michael Pinion.

As far as stream size and fishing tactics used to be successful, and the level of difficulty, these two creeks are almost one in the same. Although Waters is probably a little more challenging because of its obvious lack of deep, dark pools. This forces the resident rainbows and browns into the more vulnerable position of shallow runs if they can’t find an undercut bank or a fallen tree to hide under.

Daniel Rabern (left) and Patrick Gorman are all smiles while releasing a 24-inch monster brown trout back into Dukes Creek.

In order to be successful at either stream, it is imperative to possess several skill sets.

First, you must not be seen. This is where the true hunter will really shine. Both of these streams require you to wear either dark-colored or even camouflaged clothing. It’s not actually in the regulations, but it probably should be, because if you decide to wear your white Braves cap and a yellow T-shirt, you might as well dress up like a clown, walk on stilts and blow an air horn. These substantial salmonids that call Dukes and Waters home are not only big and smart, but also extremely spooky. If they see anything that looks even slightly out of place, they’re gone.

Second, you have to take the time to really scout out the different runs and pools. Both Dukes and Waters are absolutely loaded with roots and submerged logs, and near those structures are where the fish feel the safest. So, you have to know where you can and can’t drift your flies. Or if you can’t drift a fly through a particular run at all, is there a different angle of approach that can be taken?

“Expect to not catch many fish on your first couple of trips to Dukes or Waters,” said WRD Fisheries Region Supervisor and fly-fishing addict Jeff Durniak. Jeff calls this “payin’ your dues.”

“Don’t expect to catch fish in a run you don’t know, but make mental notes of where to hit on your next trip. Really memorize the stream.”

Finding casting lanes on both streams, if you can find any at all, can prove frustrating for even the most experienced caster. Because of the narrow breadth of both creeks, the angler almost always finds himself under a thick canopy, requiring either sidearm or roll casting almost exclusively. A word to the wise: bring extra flies!

When it comes down to actually fishing these streams, the similarities are very apparent. Note “Shine Taylor’s Top Five Dukes Creek Flies” on page 92 and “Richie Santiago’s Top Five Waters Creek Flies” on this page.

Shine and Richie have never fished together, yet their fly selections are pretty similar; small and natural or big and ugly with almost nothing in between.

Since both creeks are fairly narrow and a perfect dead-drift is usually a must in fooling the large, heedful trout, high-stick nymphing is the preferred technique of choice.

“When high sticking, shorten up your leader to around seven feet or so and add an extra piece of shot,” says Shine Taylor, a Dukes regular and UGA Entomology grad student. “Get close and hold on.”

It’s also important to be patient and thoroughly work each hole and run that you fish. While fishing Waters Creek with Richie Santiago, I watched as he spent about three hours thoroughly working only two different holes, of which neither were larger than a small car. He would drift a fly through six or seven times, and if he didn’t get a strike, he’d tie on something new and repeat the process.

Out of the two holes that he worked, he landed a 15-incher, two 19-inchers, a 20-incher and an amazing 21-inch male rainbow, so his patience definitely paid off.

Dukes and Waters also have split personalities in the ways you can fish them based on rain or shine. Because they are both smaller, almost headwater creeks, it doesn’t take long for the water to clear up and recede even after a hard rain.

Most of the time the water is low and clear which means your leader should be long and light, and your fly selection should consist of smaller sizes. Ten- to 12-foot leaders up to 6X or 7X become necessary to keep from spooking fish. And flies all the way up to size 22 are usually what it will take to seduce a cautious trout into striking.

The “Mr. Hyde” of both streams shows his face when the clouds empty and the water turns the color of Georgia red clay.

“Remember, high and dirty equals big and ugly,” Jeff said. This means the fly selection will be exactly the opposite of when the water is low and clear. “Big and ugly” can mean tying on a large, flashy wooly-bugger, a San Juan Worm, or a Muddler Minnow.

Most would-be anglers would feel the rain, see the color of the stream and head back to the vehicle. But Dukes and Waters regulars know better.

“This is when the larger fish feel more comfortable to get out and feed,” Jeff said. “Neither stream can really get too muddy.”

“If it rains, get out there and fish,” Shine adds. “Some of our best days last spring were due to stained water where we could get in close and use big flies and heavier tippets.”

Also, take for example a good friend of mine, Adam Atcheson, who toughed out a rainy day at Dukes last May and was rewarded by hauling a 25-1/2 inch brown out of the murky water and into his net. By the way, it was his first time holding a fly rod.

As far as regulations go, both creeks must be fished with barbless artificial lures. And, in Waters Creek, those artificial lures can only have a single barbless hook.  Treble-hooks are allowed on Dukes, however.  It should also be noted that you are not allowed to even be in possession of a barbed hook while on either stream, even if you aren’t fishing with it.

The regulations for both streams, although similar, vary slightly. One major difference is the harvest for both creeks. Dukes is catch-and-release only with no harvest at any time. Waters Creek has a creel limit of one fish per day that must be a rainbow or brown 22 inches or larger or a brookie 18 inches or larger. An individual may only harvest a maximum of three fish per season, as well.  By the way, if you land a brookie over 18 inches at Waters, give me a call.  I want a picture.  They haven’t stocked brooks in Waters, or anywhere in Georgia, for years, so it would have to be one old holdover.

As mentioned before, Dukes Creek can be fished by reservation only. Waters Creek does not require reservations on its days of operation, which can lead to overcrowding of some of the holes and runs closer to the check-in station. But a short hike upstream can usually separate you from most of other visitors.

There are also a couple of regulations that pertain to equipment on Waters Creek that are not required on Dukes. For example, landing nets at Waters can be no longer than two feet. And the regulation that really increases the difficulty at Waters is that no droppers are allowed. That’s right, only one barbless fly can be used at a time. For those of us used to tying on two or three different flies at a time, this makes you really have to think before tying on your lone offering.  You’ll also need to have your WMA license on you at Waters Creek, although it’s not necessary at Dukes.

So, which stream is better, you may be asking?

Well, since he is a student at North Georgia College and State University in Dahlonega, Richie has great access to both Waters and Dukes and fishes both on a regular basis. So I thought he would be a great person to ask this question to.

“I head to one or the other almost every Wednesday if I don’t have too much studying to do, or if I just don’t feel like studying,” Richie said.
As Richie was removing the hook from his last fish of the day, the 21- inch male rainbow, I said, “Richie, since you get to fish both creeks a pretty good amount, which one do you like better?”

As he was reviving the trophy rainbow in a slow current near a deep bend, he looked up with a big grin and answered, “Today I like Waters.”

Shine Taylor (center) holds a “typical” Dukes Creek rainbow with good friends Joe Pierzchajlo (left) and Ben Reeves (right).

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