Rabun County… Georgia’s Special Corner

These Clayton natives have a mission to highlight and share this outdoor treasure.

David Cannon | June 2, 2024

Wading downstream to see how Austin Carpenter and Zac Chapman were faring on their home waters of the Chattooga River, camera in hand, I rounded a bend to see Austin fly casting to the far bank of the river with the expertise of someone far beyond his 20-something age would typically command. Just downriver of him, Zac was fighting a leaping rainbow. It was quite the scene. My mind went to countless conversations I’ve had with people all around the U.S. who are surprised to hear that here in Georgia, in the heart of the Deep South, we have ample opportunities to catch both stocked—and wild—trout 12 months out of the year, some 4,000 miles of Peach State trout water, in fact.

I recall that when my family moved me from Texas to Georgia as a kid, a new classmate of mine asked, “Did you have cactus in your yard?” I wasn’t old enough to understand the mental images conjured in the minds of most people when different states are mentioned, but since we had come from suburban Dallas—which could almost be described as a flatter Atlanta —I laughed and told her we didn’t have a single cactus. Likewise, it seems that when I’m outside of Georgia and tell someone I live there, the common picture that people imagine Georgia to be is a vague, hot Southern landscape dominated by row crops interrupted by the occasional muddy river. We certainly have plenty of that, but one way to get a quick look at any state is to explore each corner of it and see how different each corner is from the others. In that exercise, Georgia is as varied, I would argue, as any state in the nation.

Starting in our southeastern corner and working clockwise, we have the blackwater rivers of the coastal plain that meander to brackish waters that ultimately meet a beautiful Atlantic coast, its marshes and barrier islands with white sand beaches and giant live oaks and Spanish moss swaying from their branches.

A trip to our southwestern corner largely reinforces that previously mentioned stereotypical image of Georgia with countless acres of ag land watered by center-pivots and, of course, the joining of two great rivers—the Chattahoochee and the Flint—in the bass-lake-of-your-dreams waterscape known as Lake Seminole.

Our northwestern corner is home to the unexpected marvel of Cloudland Canyon, and with its green, rolling landscape meeting the plateau-like hills of Southern Appalachia, it’s simultaneously reminiscent of western Kentucky and the Ozarks of Arkansas.

And then there’s the northeastern corner: Rabun County, a peninsula of north Georgia bordered by both Carolinas, and a paradise for the outdoorsman, or just anyone who loves the outdoors. My oldest memories of this place aren’t that old—just two decades removed from the present. But they include wading out of a river toward the truck in the dark, each step lit by headlamp. And of meeting old-timers, now gone, but who had loved this corner so much that they prioritized a life there over the appeal of fancy jobs and lofty career goals in Atlanta, which would afford them something money or prestige couldn’t buy: the ability to sneak onto a stream or into the woods after work whenever they pleased.

That mix of memories and thoughts of friends present and past frequent my mind each time I’m in that special corner, which is often, but never often enough. And it was no different on my most recent trip there, where I met Austin, who manages Shady Creek Expeditions, a fine fly shop, retail store and guide service in downtown Clayton, and Zac, head guide at Shady Creek. Both are Rabun County natives. Joining us was my lifelong friend and a first-timer in Rabun County waters, Jonathan Burrell.

Together, the four of us fished a fine, late-spring day on the section of the Chattooga downstream of the Highway 28 bridge, then ventured upstream to finish the day catching and releasing stocked trout in the delayed harvest section. Fishing was a little tougher than what would normally be expected under such conditions—air temps in the 70s and water temps nearing 60 degrees, with the sporadic appearance of various caddis and mayflies dancing above the surface—but we still managed to land several browns, rainbows and brook trout as a foursome.

Austin was part of the founding group of Rabun County residents who worked to open Shady Creek Expeditions alongside his friend Trey McFalls and Trey’s family in May 2022—the same month that Austin and his wife Courtney welcomed their first daughter, Layla, into the world. Austin talked to me about his love for chasing shoal bass closer to my neck of the woods in middle Georgia and how that love carried over to the smaller and harder-to-find Bartram’s bass in select Rabun County flows.

Austin Carpenter and Zac Chapman in front of downtown Clayton’s new fly fishing central.

In addition to Shady Creek guiding anglers on the more classic trout waters in their area like the Chattooga and Tallulah and the tributaries that feed them, they also branch out and pursue Bartram’s in their area during the warmer months.

As a small business owner myself, I love hearing about people like Austin and his teammates in Shady Creek who decided to take a risk and go after their passions in introducing people to various outdoor pursuits and various corners of their dream-like corner of Georgia. Since Rabun County is approximately 80% public land—about 60% U.S. Forest Service land and about 20% State Parks—which is by far the highest proportion of any county in the state, securing the proper permitting to guide on such lands was crucial and no small feat to achieve during the COVID years.

Their initial plan was to open just an outfitting business, but they realized that in order to go all-in full-time, running the outfitting service out of a retail space that offered outdoor apparel and gear would allow them to have revenue coming in as they worked to grow the awareness of their outfitting service in the market. Austin spoke about their involvement with the Rabun Chapter of Trout Unlimited and other local partnerships they are proud to have, but Austin spoke most passionately about the work they regularly do with veterans of our armed services who, most deservedly, should enjoy some “cold-water therapy” under the guidance of a local expert like Austin’s team of guides.

Time and time again, though, the topic of conversation kept turning back to his native Rabun County.

“Clayton is certainly developing and growing, and we wanted to be a part of that,” Austin told me, “but you can drive 15 or 20 minutes from downtown and experience the vastness of all the public land here. The cool thing is that everyone in our shop is local, graduated from Rabun County High School. So we know we can provide the people we take out on the water with true local expertise.”

He said their overarching desire for the outfitting business is to continue to be versatile enough to meet whatever expectations their clients have, whether it’s checking a Bartram’s bass off the Georgia Black Bass List, fooling a wild brown, bluelining for native brook trout or learning a new technique like Euro nymphing.

The retail shop that is HQ for the outfitter service is also first-class and has a welcoming staff, and the store is complete with brands like Duck Head, Duck Camp, Marshwear, AFTCO, Winston Fly Rods, custom-made local knives and a great selection of flies and tackle.

As Austin and the team at Shady Creek look to the future, it’s as simple as sharing their corner with the rest of us.

“I wouldn’t say that I completely understood how lucky I was to grow up here until I got older,” Austin said. “But I also knew I never wanted to leave it.”

As Jonathan and I turned the truck back toward the flat lands that we call home, my own thoughts of not wanting to leave Rabun County were drowned out by Jonathan, who, prior to this trip had yet to catch a trout on the fly rod, kept reflecting to the end of our day as the last light slipped out of the Chattooga valley and a brown kept rising under a leafy branch. After many attempts, Jonathan finally got his dry fly in the right current and kept it drifting naturally enough for the brown to rise. After a strong fight, he brought it to hand and noted that it was slightly longer than his forearm, then enjoyed that same moment that caused old timers to move their families there, that causes busy middle-aged guys like me to make the journey northeast, and that causes Rabun County natives to ignore the call of supposedly-greener pastures elsewhere.

It’s quite the corner.

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