Stalking Smith Creek Trout
Georgia’s trophy trout stream at Unicoi State Park.
Quick! Which north Georgia public trout stream gives you the best chance to catch a trout bigger than 16 inches on any given day?
If you answered Dukes Creek or Waters Creek, then you need to try fishing Smith Creek at Unicoi State Park. The mile-long section of Smith Creek downstream of Unicoi Lake’s dam is producing some big rainbows and browns, thanks to a new catch-and-release management program begun by the state last November.
My fishing partner, Ken Duke, and I fly-fished this section of Smith Creek twice in April and during those two trips we set the hook on six trout that were 16 inches or bigger.
We didn’t land all of them. In fact, four of the six were farther away from the net when they broke the line or threw the hook than they were when they struck our flies — they simply stripped line until the hook popped loose, broke the line, or tore free on submerged logs.
But the two big fish we netted convinced me that Smith Creek has joined a short list of the top trout waters in Georgia. One, a 16-inch brown, nailed a mosquito Ken was fishing dry. The other, a rainbow a shade under 20 inches, picked up a No. 12 hopper I was fishing behind a split shot. We also caught 17 other trout between eight and 12 inches long.
If you are a fly fisherman and this kind of action appeals to you, then you’d better hurry. The catch-and-release portion of this program continues through May 14; on May 15, Smith Creek will open to bait fishermen under general regulations and fishermen may keep eight fish per day.
I strongly recommend that if you want to fish this stream with a fly for big trout, you either do it before May 15 or wait until November, when the creek will be restocked with brood trout and once again will fall under artificial-only, catch-and-release regulations. Although these fish have seen a great deal of fly fishing pressure, most have never seen live bait, and crickets and worms will rapidly reduce the number of fish in the creek.
On the other hand, if you don’t mind large crowds, you might consider giving these fish a shot as soon as it is legal to do so. The large numbers of trout planted in the creek probably keep the amount of natural food low, so from May 15 through the first week of June or so, I expect that these fish will react well to just about any live bait.
Until May 15, fly fishermen and other anglers using single-hook, artificial lures face a more challenging situation. Stream surveys show that on average, every fish in the creek has not only seen literally thousands of flies, but has been caught more than three times.
The trout seem to have adapted to the pressure in a number of ways, and these adaptations are good to keep in mind while you fish the creek. For example, on my first April trip to Smith Creek, I set the hook on 24 trout. However, 13 of the fish that struck quickly pulled free, and in every fish that I landed, the hook was barely in the front edge of the fish’s mouth. I think the fish are extremely cautious in taking a fly, and they are literally “testing” flies by nipping at the tails to see if they are real.
Because of these subtle strikes, your best bet is to set the hook normally, and then avoid putting much pressure on the trout, especially if the fish is big. The big rainbows that I hooked and tried to pressure came to the surface and rolled on the line. If they were well-hooked, the line broke; if they were lightly hooked, the fly popped free. You’ll have better luck with both the big and the small trout if you assume from the first that they are barely hooked and play them accordingly. In particular, let the bigger fish go where they want for at least the first 15 seconds or so. These fish are in very good shape, so you can’t really turn them anyway.
The special management section of Smith Creek can be divided into three sections. The upper section, closest to the parking lot, has the highest percentage of shallow runs and smaller holes. We caught fewer fish here than in the other two sections of the creek and we hooked none of our bigger fish here.
The middle section of the creek pools up very well and is the most open section of the creek. It’s classic small-stream trout water and I’m convinced that there are big trout in every one of the larger holes in this section. This middle section was where we got most of our strikes from most of the big trout, but it can also be a frustrating piece of water. At one point we worked a hole for nearly an hour, fishing for two trout 20 inches or larger that were actively feeding on everything but our flies. As one Smith Creek regular that I met at streamside put it, “There’s fish in some of these holes that’ll make you talk to yourself.”
Something else I noticed on both trips; none of our better fish came out of small pools or holding areas. They were all in deeper holes, and they all struck in the portion of the hole downstream from the deepest part of the pool. We caught enough smaller trout in the riffle areas to keep us interested in fishing between the holes, but I think the best fish are in places where they can rest in slow water, use the depth as cover, and have plenty of time to take a good look at a fly before they strike.
The lower third of the creek is brushy and falls faster as it heads through a ravine. This section also has deep pools and many fishermen who regularly fish Smith Creek concentrate intensely on this section. Conditions are tight, so fishing is a little more difficult, but that may simply mean fewer fishermen fish it as hard. Eventually, you will see the park boundary, which is marked by a small sign strung across the water, and at this point the path along the creek also stops.
I hooked few fish in this creek while I was standing in the water. Eventually I quit wading unless it was absolutely necessary, because the trout may have begun to associate the sight of fishermen’s legs stumbling around the hole with getting caught.
A typical strategy for fishing pressured streams is to downsize your gear, but I wouldn’t go much below 6-lb. test on your leader in this creek. There are a number of big rainbows in Smith Creek with broken strands of 4X tippet hanging out of their mouths.
Downsizing your flies can work. Sometimes in the late afternoon small mosquitoes and other tiny flies hatch, and if you notice fish feeding on the surface, I’d try the smallest mosquito imitation you have. If that doesn’t work, try a small black fly.
Most of our fish were caught on nymphs or terrestrials fished wet, and a little bigger offering than usual seemed to help. I saw no stone flies, caddis larvae, or any large aquatic insects at all anywhere on the creek, but a brown or black stone fly fished slow and deep through the larger holes might be a good bet.
In early April on an overcast day a grasshopper fly worked well, but the fish showed almost no interest in it on another trip on a brighter day. Terrestrials in general would be a good place to start, though, just because the fish are probably seeing more of them this time of year, and because most fly fishermen reach for imitations of aquatic insects before terrestrials.
Remember, on a nice weekend, 40 fly fishermen fish this creek every day. Try looking through your fly box for something a bit different from what the first 39 guys were using.
However, if you have confidence in the traditional nymphs — caddis imitations, hare’s ear, prince nymphs, or pheasant tails — I’d work them slowly and carefully. Almost every strike I’ve had at Smith Creek has come on either one of the first three casts I made into a hole, or on the 50th cast after several minutes of running the same fly through the same places. These trout may be so used to being fished over that they don’t necessarily stop feeding when they see a fake fly. If you can get the drift just right, you can fool them with a fly that didn’t fool them the first few dozen times they saw it.
We noticed that the trout began feeding more actively from around 10:45 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and then again around 3:00 p.m.
One final thing fly fishermen should consider: All winter, these trout receive supplemental feedings because the creek’s natural food production is too low to support the high numbers of trout. But in early May, some time before the bait opener, the feeding program will be discontinued in anticipation that the catch-and-release regulations will reduce the fish population. Some of those fish might be getting a little more hungry than usual during the final week of the catch-and-release program.
Smith Creek’s Delayed-Harvest Management Strategy
The experimental trout management program at Smith Creek divides the the 1999 fishing year into two parts. Starting in November, the creek is heavily stocked — this year for 1999 the initial stocking was 2,500 catchable-sized trout and 200 large brook trout. Periodic restocking takes place during the rest of the year. There is a trout feeding program at Smith Creek because the creek can’t support such a large number of trout with natural food production. From November 1 – May 14, 1999, the fishing is limited to single hooks, artificial lures only, with a catch-and-release requirement. A free fishing permit must be secured a the Unicoi State Park lodge office. A $2 parking pass is required.
According to Angie Loggins, Unicoi State Park superintendent, fishermen have responded favorably to the “delayed harvest” program. On a typical weekday, 10 to 20 fishermen will try their luck, and on weekends as many as 40 fishermen per day secure fishing permits.
Stream surveys show that in March, for example, 561 anglers obtained permits. Of those, 40 percent returned catch surveys. The total catch reported was 1,474 trout.
Some anglers have wondered why, given the success of the catch-and-release program, that it isn’t continued year-round. WRD Fisheries biologist Lee Keefer says that water temperature and stream flow are the reasons.
“Smith Creek will get marginal (as trout water) in July, August and September,” he said. “Its ability to hold trout decreases so much that if we tried to keep big fish in there, the odds are that we’d lose them.”
The split winter and summer regulations, a management method that has worked well in North Carolina and Virginia, allows Fisheries to maximize the quality of fishing in the cooler months and still provide anglers who like to take something home for the frying pan a chance to fish for big fish during part of the year.
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