March Trout On The Tallulah River

This stream is stocked before trout season begins.

Jonathan Thomas | March 7, 2005

With the long winter months behind us, it is time to dig the gear out of the basement and clean the reels, air out the waders, and make sure the fly and tackle boxes are well stocked. Stop by your favorite outfitter and make sure you pick up a new fishing license and trout stamp, call your fishing buddy and make sure he has all of his ducks in a row, load up the truck and head to the Tallulah River.

This little mountain stream in the northeast corner of the state has some of the best trout fishing Georgia has to offer. And if you can’t wait until the season opens, that’s OK, too. The true beauty of the Tallulah is that it is designated as a year-round stream, and it is one of the best places to catch rainbow trout during the dead of winter (note: since 2015, all Georgia trout streams are year-round).

No matter how you like to fish, or what type of trout you are after, or your patience level in dealing with large numbers of other anglers, the Tallulah River on the former Coleman River WMA has something to offer everybody. The Tallulah has always had a reputation for drawing quite a crowd on opening day, and there is a good reason for that. Although the land itself lost its designation as a WMA in the state budget cuts a few years back, most of the river is still on Forest Service land and is thus still easily accessible from roads that parallel the river.

The deeper, darker water along undercut banks that are shaded by vegetation are a great place to drift a fly, a red wiggler, crickets or corn when trout fishing on the Tallulah River.

The river itself is breathtakingly beautiful, running clear and cold with plenty of hiding places for trout behind rocks, in the deep pools and pockets that form downstream of faster-moving water, and under overhanging branches and undercut banks. Don’t let the tall-tales of anglers fishing elbow-to-elbow and the legends of Forest Service roads being reduced to parking lots scare you away. I am certain that these stories were introduced and have been perpetuated with the sole intention of keeping people from discovering somebody’s “secret” fishing hole.

According to WRD Fisheries biologist Lee Keefer, the Tallulah is no more crowded on opening day than Wildcat Creek, Coopers Creek, and Nimblewill Creek. Lee reported that the Fisheries Section plans to stock more than 50,000 rainbow trout this year in the Tallulah, and he added that there would probably be a small “sprinkling” of brown trout thrown into the mix as well. Most of these trout will run in the eight- to nine-inch range, but Lee also noted that the WRD is starting a new program this year that will increase your chances at a trophy rainbow.

According to Lee, about 6 percent of the trout destined for the Tallulah will be in the 12- to 14-inch range. I’m not great at math, but that means approximately 3,000 of these larger trout will be out there cruising the river. And while a 14-inch rainbow is by no means a monster trout, it offers a little more excitement than the standard nine-inch stocker!

The upper end of the public-access portion of the Tallulah River cascades through a narrow canyon. This stretch of water is filled with deadfalls, boulders and lots of deep pools that can hold less-pressured, bigger trout.

If you are after something a little more off the beaten path, the Tallulah also offers excellent access to some tributaries that hold wild trout. Mill Creek, Tate Branch, and Flat Branch Creek are well known for holding brook trout; and the Coleman River and Charlie’s Creek are known as being a great destination for some wild rainbow fishing. The trout on these streams usually run between six and eight inches, but what they lack in size they more than make up for in coloring and beauty.

So, with that being said, let’s take a look at what to expect from the three-mile stretch of the Tallulah that is open to the public.

After about a one-mile drive on Tallulah River Road (Forest Service Road 70), you will come to a parking lot on your left that is the site of the former WMA checking station. This spot marks the beginning of the public section of the Tallulah, and it also offers easy access to a great hole to start fishing. Here, two large boulders just upstream from the parking area slow the stream flow and create a deep pool that is a great place to find some rainbows lined up waiting for a meal to pass by. Remember that this hole sees a lot of pressure because of its ease of access, and be careful to stalk these trout with a bit of stealth so as not to spook them. Just downstream of this pool, the water moves a little faster and drops off a small, two-foot waterfall. The pool created by this small drop is also excellent holding water for these rainbows.

As you continue upstream for the next half mile, you will cover some of the best stretches of trout water on the Tallulah. From the first parking area to the Tallulah River campground, there are plenty of good pools and the water flow makes a few turns. The riffles and undercut banks created by these turns offer plenty of good holding places for some of the larger trout.

On a recent winter trip I was able to land seven rainbows in this half-mile stretch, and they were all beautifully colored and measured in the 11- to 13-inch range. The wading here is generally easy, although I was reminded of how important it is to wade carefully, a lesson that would have been much more welcome had it occurred in July. It all started when I saw a large rainbow rising to sip a fly at the head of the pool. With great enthusiasm I began the backcast with my flyrod, hoping to gently plop my parachute Adams just upstream of where I saw him rise. Before I knew what had hit me, I was up to my neck in freezing water, with my waders slowly filling up and my mind reeling to make sense of what was happening. One careless footstep and one slippery rock ruined an entire day of fishing but reminded me how important it is to respect the water… and bring a change of clothes.

The water upstream of the Tallulah River campground has a different feel to it, as the river veers away from the road and becomes a little more rugged. This stretch of water runs through a small gorge, making it much harder to access and providing quite a challenge. There are numerous deadfalls and boulders that create excellent pools, whitewater riffles and pocket water. This is a prime destination if you don’t mind a bit of a hike and a scramble. The difficulty of access in this section has quite a reward; you can fish for an entire morning without seeing another angler, and some of my largest Tallulah rainbows have come from these deep-canyon pools.

About two miles upstream from the Tallulah River campground, the water makes a hairpin turn, and the bank closest to the road is undercut a foot or so as a result. This overhanging ledge of earth provides the perfect holding spot for the rainbows, as they are safe from predators and have an excellent view of any food that might float by. Be sure to concentrate some effort casting to these trout, as this hole can be very rewarding.

Last spring, I was trying my best to coax a strike from a very finicky rainbow that called this bank home. After several refusals of various fly patterns, I looked in my flybox and tied on the largest grasshopper pattern that I had. I cast the hopper onto the bank, and gently twitched it off of the grass and into the water, just like Mother Nature would have done it. That proved to be too much for the big rainbow to resist, and he hammered the hopper with such ferocity that I almost missed setting the hook because it happened so fast. After a long fight and a lot of silent prayer that my 6x tippet would last through the battle, I was eventually able to wear him down and guide him into my net.

The rainbow measured 14 inches, and as I gently revived and released him, I couldn’t help but reflect on how he got to be so large. It came down to location. He was able to grow to such size because he was in a prime spot of trout real estate. He was big and strong because he had a good hole to call home, and he had a good hole to call home because he was big and strong.

About a half mile upstream of the hairpin turn you will come upon the Tate Branch campground. This marks the northernmost reaches of the public section of the Tallulah; in fact if you continue for just another mile you will be in North Carolina. I’m not sure, but I doubt that North Carolina game wardens would be interested in hearing arguments about why you don’t agree with their lack of a reciprocal agreement when it comes to Georgia fishing licenses and trout stamps!

As far as tactics and equipment go, there is no better advice that I can give than to tell you to go with whatever you are most comfortable with. Spincasting, baitcasting, fly casting, you will see it all on the Tallulah. For baitcasters, you can’t go wrong with worms, crickets, grasshoppers, Powerbait or corn. Spincasters will do equally well with lures such as the Mepps Aglia or Rooster Tails. If you are into fly fishing, you probably already have an arsenal of favorite patterns, but if you asked me to name 10 patterns that I would recommend for a beginner, it wouldn’t be too difficult.

For dry flies, one can catch trout on just about any river in Georgia at any time of year with an Adams, an elk hair caddis or a blue-winged olive. For subsurface nymphs, the same goes for the prince, the gold-ribbed hare’s ear, and the pheasant tail. Add in a black woolly bugger, an olive woolly bugger, a San Juan worm and a Y2K bug, and you have a collection of 10 flies that should cover any trout-fishing scenario you might come across.

Getting to the Tallulah is relatively easy. From downtown Clayton, travel about eight miles on Hwy 76 west and turn right on Persimmon Road. After about four miles, make a left on Tallulah River Road (marked with a brown Forest Service sign). The old check station parking area will be on your left. There are three excellent Forest Service campgrounds located along the river, but as Lee Keefer pointed out, “Don’t expect to get a spot if you arrive on opening day.”

Regardless of how you like to fish, how much of a crowd you like to fish with, or what type of fish you’re after, the Tallulah has something to offer everybody. Beautiful scenery, plenty of rainbows (and maybe even a shot at a brown or a brookie!) and four miles of clear mountain water make this a spring destination that you shouldn’t miss.

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