Small Stream Magic For Wild Georgia Trout

For wild and native trout, Georgia anglers venture beyond the pressured and heavily stocked areas to find jump-across ribbons of trout water gold.

Bob Borgwat | April 2, 2023

There are miles of smaller Georgia streams where trout aren’t stocked. Instead, wild trout like this brown are sought by anglers willing to put in the extra effort.

“Bigger is better!” It’s a common phrase in many circles, and that turn of words might be heard most where fishing takes place… but maybe not in the circles of Georgia fly-fishermen who target trout on Peach State waters.

When you join the fold of fly-fishermen who chase trout in Georgia, more often than not, your targets are going to be the typical “stocker” rainbow—a 9- to 12-inch fish raised in a hatchery and moved to a stream or river for nearly immediate removal by the cadre of trout fishermen of every persuasion.

Representative waters for trout fishing in Georgia commonly include many heavily stocked, easy-to-reach public waters, including the large-scale tailwater on the Chattahoochee River, pouring out from beneath Buford Dam  at Lake Lanier in the north-Atlanta suburbs; and the Toccoa River flowing cold and (mostly) clear from beneath Blue Ridge Dam on the outskirts of the tourist-heavy town of Blue Ridge.

Both destinations host hundreds (thousands) of trout fishermen year-round who weigh heavily upon the fishing impacts that affect angler success and sanity along the many river miles that support the local trout fisheries. Public access sites for bank fishing and wade fishing are adequate on the Chattahoochee but crowded on the Toccoa, and the public boat ramps on both rivers are busy with anglers launching drift boats, jonboats, float tubes, kayaks and canoes to escape the access-site crowds.

How do you up your game when fly-fishing for Georgia trout? You plan a spring or early summer trip to the north Georgia mountains for a day, a weekend, a week or longer, and you plan on casting small dry flies and nymph patterns on the small, wild-trout creeks and streams that lace through highland counties from Fannin County  in the west to Rabun County in the east. These are the smallest, jump-across streams that tumble noisily through forestlands filled with colorful mountain laurel, tangles of rhododendrons, tall-standing white pines and hardwood forests that demonstrate the resilience of many species of trees nearly wiped out a century ago by rampant logging.

Many of these streams lost their native trout populations of brook trout when the abundant hardwood forests were routed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Silt in the water, and sunlight on the water, drove water quality to unhealthy standards for the brook trout—the only trout species in the United States native to waters east of the Mississippi River.

Where water quality remained good, according to facts recorded by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, both rainbow and brown trout were introduced into Georgia streams in the 1880s and have been stocked for more than a century, oftentimes replacing the lost brook trout or joining brook trout in their remaining habitat where those “exotic” species outpaced and displaced the native brookies until they were gone. Today, native brook trout are found only where a waterfall acts as a barrier to the rainbow and brown trout downstream.

As a result of stocking, natural reproduction of brown and rainbow trout now occurs in many Georgia trout streams, while protected populations of wild brook trout thrive in the most remote waters. Because the brown and rainbow trout have naturally reproduced for many years, DNR wildlife biologists classify them as naturalized species. Trout belong to the Salmon family. They require continuously flowing, well-oxygenated (above 6 milligrams per liter), and cold water less than 72 degrees to survive. Approximately 2,800 miles of Georgia’s 5,400 miles of trout streams support wild-trout populations where trout reproduce. About 142 miles of streams support the native brook trout.

And all of those waters are a sight to see and a treasure to fish with the most-productive method of fishing on small Georgia trout streams… fly-fishing!

In north-central Georgia, Fannin County rises as the official “Trout Capital of Georgia,” home to two primary watersheds that arguably hold the state’s finest wild-trout populations: the watershed of the Conasauga and Jacks rivers in Fannin, Gilmer and Murray counties; and the Toccoa River watershed in Union and Fannin counties. These rivers are often seen from a roadside, but they gather miles of tributary streams off the beaten path, tumbling clear and cold through thickets, gorges and woodlands; cascading over waterfalls and through log jams; gliding across glades and pools; and spilling through plunges and chutes.

Georgia’s cadre of fly-fishermen who target trout spend much of their time in these watersheds.

Conasauga and Jacks Rivers (Fannin/Murray/Gilmer counties) — A remarkable watershed comprised of more than two-dozen designated trout streams rises in the Cohutta Wilderness Area, a 40,000-acre tract of high mountain ridges and deep valleys and gorges—one of the most pristine areas of the Georgia mountains. Access to the wilderness area is on foot and horseback, resulting in generally light fishing pressure where the Conasauga and Jacks rivers flow with incredibly pure and crystal-clear water that teems with wild rainbows and some wild browns.

The Jacks River is wild and remote, but it’s no jump-across ribbon of trout water. Deep in the Cohutta Wilderness, the Jacks offers fly anglers plenty of room to cast.

“The rainbows in the Conasauga usually are susceptible to dry flies, or dry-dropper rigs,” says longtime Georgia fly-fisherman Jimmy Jacobs, who wrote Fly Fishing for Peach State Trout, an expansive book that explores the creeks and rivers open to public angling in the Georgia high-country.

“In the late summer and fall, browns of 12 to 16 inches occasionally fall victim to large streamers,” Jimmy said.

Use forest roads 64, 68, 17 and Murray County Road 392 to reach access points from the west along the upper end of the Conasauga River. From the south, anglers hike in on the Conasauga River Trail at Betty’s Gap. The best fishing is found from the mouth of Rough Creek downstream.

About 8 miles east, the Jacks River generally parallels the Conasauga, separated only by Rough Ridge. Many of the popular fishing sites measure 60 to 80 feet across, offering a lot of space for fly-casting.

Access the upper end of the Jacks River watershed on Fannin County Road 187. Its west end is approached in the Alaculsy Valley of Tennessee and Forest Service Road 62. Hiking in and out, numerous water crossings should be expected with a few tough grades thrown in for fun.

“The best fishing begins at Horseshoe Bend, roughly 3 1/2 miles below Jacks River Falls. Also, the Jacks is the only feeder stream in the upper reaches of the Conasauga drainage that is exempt from the fall and winter artificial-lure-only regulations,” Jacobs points out.

Accommodations in and near to the Conasuaga-Jacks rivers area include primitive camping, private campgrounds and the usual array of motels and RV parks in Chatsworth, Ellijay and Blue Ridge.

Toccoa River (Union/Fannin counties) — A rim of ridges and peaks swing east from the southwest side of Fannin County before curving north, then turning sharply west. This “bowl” collects the tributaries of the Toccoa River, a heralded trout stream of modest proportions above and below Lake Blue Ridge. This collection of trout streams notably includes Noontootla Creek, Rock Creek and Coopers Creek, three very different trout streams but each with a number of tributaries that hold wild rainbows, browns and brook trout.

For nearly 8 miles, Noontootla Creek on the rim’s southern side tumbles quickly alongside Forest Road 58 through thickets, over falls and plunge, and gliding into pools. The stream saw its last stocking of trout in the mid-1960s and holds a strong—but stubbornly hard to catch—population of wild rainbows and browns. The impressive local fishing restrictions include a 16-inch minimum length limit and artificial lures/flies only. The restrictions may give anglers hope and promise, but fish of that length are few and far between.

A few of Noontootla’s tributaries are accessible via adjacent Forest Service roads. The Appalachian Trail crosses the stream at Three Forks, where the trail leaves Stover Creek behind it to the west and follows Long Creek eastward. Browns, rainbows and brookies populate Noontootla’s tributaries in varying degrees of density.

Rock Creek’s popularity among catch-and-keep anglers keeps the stocking truck busy, rolling out of the Chattahoochee National Forest Fish Hatchery that bounds both sides of the stream in this narrow valley. Separated by just a ridge from Noontootla Creek, Rock Creek follows Forest Road 69 for most of its length and leads to access points for its tributaries that hold wild trout. Hiking and an adventurous spirit takes anglers through “rhododendron hell” on these streams that hold wild rainbows, browns and brookies for the most ambitious.

Coopers Creek is the longest high-country tributary to the Toccoa River. It heads up at the spillway of Lake Winfield Scott on GA Highway 180 north of Suches in Union County. It meets the Toccoa River about 10 miles downstream after collecting several rough-and-tumble tributaries that require hikes to reach and ambition to fly-fish. Along the way the most promising wild-trout waters of Coopers Creek are accessed via Forest Road 33.

Two roadside access sites lead anglers into the Coopers Creek Scenic Area, and the reward for those who can only hike into this “middle section” is what many anglers say is the prettiest trout water in the state.

“The creek is rougher and less accessible,” Jacobs says, “and wild trout become the norm.” Some of its tributaries hold waterfalls that (as a barrier to downstream fish) protect standing populations of brook trout from the rainbows and browns.

Improved campsites are available at Coopers Creek National Recreation Area on Coopers Creek Road, north of GA Highway 60. Primitive camping is widespread across the Coopers Creek and Blue Ridge WMAs. Rental cabins are plentiful throughout the watershed, and branded motels are located in Blue Ridge, Blairsville and Dahlonega.

Fly-fishing these streams is technical and tactical, but it is easy to learn and accomplish. Book a trip with a local guide on the big water of the Chattahoochee, Chattooga or Toccoa rivers and learn your basic skills of back-casting and roll-casting. You’ll need little more physical skill than that, not counting the bouldering prowess needed to scale small waterfalls, the athletic build to climb over log jams and step through deadfalls, and the lung capacity to huff-and-puff your way up steep inclines that could be hundreds of feet long. Really. The physical side of these forays is often the hardest side of the outing.

Then, get technical: Learn about the bugs, the real ones and the fake ones… the caddisflies, the mayflies, the stoneflies and the simple fly patterns that mimic these bugs. Learn where the insects live, how they emerge from the water, how they return to the water, and how, when and where trout will likely feed on them. And know that the knowledge you bring to the water will only grow with the knowledge you gain on the water with keen observation of the environment around you.

It’s easy to assemble a small arsenal of effective flies. Top dry-fly patterns include Elk-hair  Caddisflies (olive and tan), Stimulators (yellow), the reliable Adams and the classic Blue-Winged Olive. Spread your size selection from 12 to 18.

Nymphs are just as simple. Start with go-getters: caddisfly patterns such as the bead-headed Poopah (olive); Z-wing Caddis (olive, white), and Rollers (olive, white). Add a small selection of nothing-fancy mayfly nymphs: Copper John (green, red, natural), Flash-back Pheasant Tail; Bird’s Nest (tan); and Hare’s Ear (tan, black). Cover sizes 12-18 in each.

Fortunately, the small trophies of Georgia’s back-wood streams often feed opportunistically—in other words, they eat (or try to eat) most anything that looks like a bug! And sometimes the fly pattern itself is not as important as putting the fly in the right place.

Trout everywhere rest and feed in the same places—current seams, the edge of eddies, boulder fields, sweeps, plunges and tailouts—despite the size of the water where they live. Use technical observation to recognize these lairs in small scale, and place your flies accordingly. Use stealth when the casts are close. Creep. Hide behind a tree. Crouch behind a rock. Stand at the base of a waterfall and fish the pool above it. Use distance-casting whenever possible, because when you get close, you’re likely to spook these fish that have but one thing to worry about: Predators above the waterline, whether that’s you or a bird.

Still more wild-trout gems are collected in watersheds in other places across north Georgia, notably the Hiwassee River in Towns County and the Chattooga River in Rabun County. Finding the best wild-trout streams in each watershed is a matter of research, map reading, road running and trial-and-error exploration.

DNR offers a publication titled Trout Streams of Georgia, a comprehensive map of all streams classified as trout streams in Georgia, and it clearly paints a picture of the abundance of the state’s trout streams and their relationship to their larger watersheds. The road network is detailed enough to direct anglers to most streams, which are depicted in three colors that signify fishing factors and restrictions. Stocked streams are marked in yellow, so those that might hold wild trout are the remaining majority of the state’s trout streams, many classified as such based only on high water quality. However, water temperature and other factors play into a successful wild-trout fishery and many of these streams likely hold few if any trout.

Get your Trout Streams of Georgia map by request from DNR fisheries biologist Sarah Baker at [email protected]; or by stopping by the DNR Region 2 office at 2150 Dawsonville Highway, Gainesville, GA 30501; or from the GDNR Burton Trout Hatchery, 3695 Highway 197 N, Clarkesville GA 30523.

For your copy of Fly Fishing for Peach State Trout by Jimmy Jacobs, go to the Jimmy Jacobs Outdoor Adventures Bookstore at

The satisfaction of fooling a wild trout in tight, technical fly-rodding conditions is not in the size of the fish. There’s depth and beauty to this type of trout fishing.

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