3 Tailwater Rivers For Georgia Trout
Georgia’s tailwater trout fisheries don’t mimic those classic, high-energy riverways out West, but that’s not to say tailwater trout fishing doesn’t belong here. In fact, each of the three Georgia rivers with recognized tailwater trout fisheries hold features that make them each great fishing destinations.
The West is littered with rivers that support trout fishing. It’s part of the landscape in what is the most mountainous part of the country, where high-elevation streams support stocked and wild rainbow, brown, cutthroat and brook trout. But many of the West’s best trout fishing takes place on tailwater fisheries where the Bureau of Reclamation and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built large dams during and after World War II. Thereafter, lawsuits from conservationists and recreationists challenged these agencies, eventually mandating the stocking of trout in what became rich, cold-water environments incapable of supporting the indigenous fishes that once swam there. Western trout fishermen never looked back.
Similar construction of dams—including some in Georgia—also changed the face of warm-water fisheries in the East as late as the 1970s. Following the lead of Western power and conservation agencies, the corps, the Tennessee Valley Authority and many local power companies followed suit (in some cases, many years later) and still support trout fishing with stocking of rainbow, brown and brook trout in tailwaters big and small.
CHATTAHOOCHEE RIVER/BUFORD DAM
Its banks are muddy, eroded and developed where the Chattahoochee River runs through the northern Atlanta’s suburban landscape. And at times of heavy rainfall and prolonged discharge at Buford Dam, an uneducated angler sees nothing about the Chattahoochee tailwater that would call for casting bait, lures or flies for trout in that muddy mess.
But Georgia’s trout fishermen learned long ago the ‘Hooch is clean enough—and cold enough—to support not only tens of thousands of annually stocked rainbows, but that trout reproduce naturally there. After research showed that brown trout were reproducing in considerable numbers, DNR in 2005 ceased stocking brown trout. Rainbow trout stocking continues. Catches of browns in the river can produce fish longer than 20 inches, and anglers occasionally land huge browns of more than 10 pounds. In July 2014, the ‘Hooch produced the state-record brown trout, an amazing 20-lb., 14-oz. fish for angler Chad Doughty.
Between high-water periods, the tailwater below Lake Lanier grows remarkably clear and attracts anglers of all kinds to 15 public access sites along its banks and to float-fishing options between access sites. Trout fishing carries on, with seasonal restrictions, for nearly 50 miles downstream, from the Lanier dam all the way through the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area (CRNRA) and to the Paces Mill Unit in Vinings.
Along its way, the Chattahoochee can be divided into four sections:
Buford Dam to McGinnis Ferry Road: One friend of mine calls this “the trout tailwater of the South.” Runs, riffles and shoals feature gravel, granite and sand from Bowman’s Island, through Orrs Ferry and Settles Bridge units of the CRNRA to the McGinnis Ferry unit at McGinnis Ferry Road. It’s big water. Fishing is restricted to artificials only from Georgia Highway 20 downstream, and it’s fished very productively by fly anglers in drift boats, dead-drifting dry-dropper rigs and indicator rigs. Many arm their leaders with large stonefly patterns, like a black/brown Pat’s Rubberlegs, followed by an assortment of small nymphs or soft-hackle patterns.
Be prepared, too, with a rod rigged for dry-fly fishing. Caddisflies often come off the water here, and an olive, tan or black elk-hair Caddisfly can make for a great afternoon of taking trout on top.
Spin-tackle fishermen collect in their tackle boxes the usual spoons and spinners in bright colors (combinations of white, yellow, orange, silver) with silver blades, and dark colors (brown, black, green and copper) with gold blades. Some anglers drift small Trout Magnet jigs deep under foam bobbers.
If you toss spoons and crankbaits, consider upping your tackle to include 7-foot rods and 8-lb. lines. This stretch of the Chattahoochee is known for a standing population of wild brown trout that grow to trophy proportions. The state record caught in 2014 was landed by Chad Doughty in the waters immediately downstream from Buford Dam in Suwanee. Work both types of lures in large models, fished deep and with “purpose.” Use the rod tip to add that “broken” action to the lure’s otherwise tight and flashy side-to-side swimming.
McGinnis Ferry to Jones Bridge: This “pond water” stretch of the Chattahoochee is flat and slow. Few shoals mark its 13-mile long course. Access sites are at the McGinnis Ferry, Suwanee Creek, Abbott’s Bridge, Medlock Bridge and Jones Bridge units.
Because anglers are restricted to artificial lures/flies only downstream to the Medlock Bridge boat ramp, fishermen here often cast streamers, spoons, spinners and crankbaits around the stumps and logpiles that mark much of the riverbank. Because riverbank access is muddy and messy, many anglers float this stretch, putting in at McGinnis Ferry or Abbott’s Bridge and floating through to Medlock Bridge. A few short shoals mark the river and often hold good numbers of fish. Fishing with bait is allowed beyond Medlock Bridge, but anglers beyond the park boundary will have to float the rest of this stretch to test their luck. There is no public bank access until the Jones Bridge unit.
Jones Bridge to Island Ford/Chattahoochee River Park: Flanked by public land on both its banks in the city of John’s Creek, the Chattahoochee River at Jones Bridge is tailor-made for public access. Much of its run here for 2 miles offers wide stretches of wadable water that works its way through several small channels, around boulders and across gravel, while still offering up a fine put-in site for a long, summer’s day (9-10 hours) float-fishing the next 12 miles to Chattahoochee River Park on Azalea Drive.
That downstream run reveals shoals, runs, riffles and pools and a boulder garden at Island Ford that seems to gather a lot of the trout stocked at Island Ford and from the last of the year-round stocking sites a couple miles downstream at Chattahoochee River Park. The park’s boat ramp marks the upper end of Bull Sluice Lake, created by Morgan Falls Dam. Day fishermen find this ramp a great place to launch jonboats and small bass boats for motoring up and down the river’s deep channel, commonly catching a full-day’s stringer of rainbows at this popular catch-and-keep site on the edge of the city of Roswell. Spinners, spoons and small crankbaits all take their share of the 9- to 12-inch trout that are stocked heavily year-round.
Learn more about daily water release times and volume at Buford Dam by calling 770.945.1466, or visit the corps Hydropower Generating Schedule website at spatialdata.sam.usace.army.mil/hydropower.
Seasonal/Delayed Harvest: Some 35 miles downstream from Buford Dam, the much smaller Morgan Falls Dam in Roswell marks the river’s trout fishing with seasonal opportunity downstream. Action over the next 9 1/2 miles suffers from high water temperatures from late spring through October. Morgan Falls Park joins Johnson Ferry, Cochran Shoals, Palisades and Paces Mill units among the downstream CRNRA access points. Action is best from November through June, particularly in the delayed harvest section (Nov. 1 – May 14) from Sope Creek downstream to US Highway 41/Cobb Parkway.
Any common method of trout fishing produces catches, but many anglers report mixed results. That could be a matter of when stocking takes place and reports of local fishing abuses. Anglers in this section during the delayed-harvest segment of the season must release all trout immediately upon landing.
TOCCOA RIVER/BLUE RIDGE DAM
More than 20 years ago, Georgia fishing author Jimmy Jacobs told me the Toccoa River tailwater “holds a trout behind every rock.” A few years later, I “discovered” the riverway’s trout fishing on my own after rigging out a drift boat for my guided fly-fishing services (ReelAnglingAdventures.com).
In 2004, the Toccoa River tailwater downstream from Blue Ridge Dam proved itself to my guide team to be the incredible trout fishery Jacobs alluded it was for both fly anglers and spinning-tackle fishermen. It still is… with some personal reservation and some history.
About 10 years ago, the DNR documented 85% fewer trout in the river after warm-water releases were discharged in late summer and early fall from Blue Ridge Dam. The releases were the result of a maintenance program performed on the dam’s infrastructure. Despite DNR’s best attempts to re-establish a strong fishery with heavy stockings and hopes for re-establishing a holdover population of large trout, average catch numbers just haven’t seemed to be the same since. Before the die-off, daily catch counts among two anglers commonly pushed to 50 fish or better.
Nonetheless, from March through October, no trout fishery in Georgia can produce better dry-fly fishing than the Toccoa tailwater. Following seasonal hatch patterns common across the north Georgia mountains, the bugs coming off the river during those warm months progress from small winter stoneflies; to the mayflies—March Browns and Hendricksons, to Sulphurs and Cahills; eventually to various large stonefly patterns like Stimulators and Golden Stones. Blue-winged Olives and various shades of Caddisflies mix up the offerings throughout those warm months, too. Oftentimes, any of those patterns are matched with a “dropper” fly—nymphs like the Pheasant Tail, Hare’s Ear, WD-40, olive Caddis pupae, and green Copper John—swinging off 6 to 8 feet of 6X tippet tied to the dry fly.
Come fall, large terrestrials in grasshopper, cicada and cricket patterns replace the small dries, and a dropper fly underneath it helps locate those fish grazing in the deep pockets and slots.
Streamers always draw their share of action, too, through the warm months. Buggers, Sculpins and Muddlers all see fish chasing the flies when pulled past boulders and logs, across the bottom tier of the river’s ancient fish traps, through deep-green lanes, and “jigged” along the bottom of the riffles.
Eventually, the growing cold water of winter shuts down all but the midge activity on the surface, and the fishing transitions into drifting a selection of small nymphs and junk flies under indicators—San Juan Worms, Y2Ks and other bright, egg-like fly patterns.
When January and February rolls around, the temperature of the discharge at Blue Ridge Dam often falls into the low 40s. That’s when drifts with large stonefly patterns and Wooly Buggers in size 8 to 12, and the assorted junk flies, need to be presented slow in deep slots, along eddy lines and in pools on slow, deep water.
Bait-fishing aside, anglers who tap the Toccoa tailwater with spinning tackle do very well, too. A common arsenal of lures includes spinners and spoons in 1/6- to 1/4-oz. sizes; jigs in 1/16- to 1/8-oz. sizes; and small crankbaits not more than 4 inches long. Brand names are many, but colors and action are more important to consider.
Flash accounts for a lot of the success found by hard-tackle anglers: gold, copper and silver blades on spinners, for instance, and spoons in the same shades. The best spoons wiggle in sharp, tight patterns. Spinners should be retrieved in staggered actions—stop-and-go, even a jigging-like action as the lure tumbles downstream. Jigs are best fished in a tight, quick jigging action close to the river bottom. And a crankbait can be snapped with the rod tip to add that “broken” action to the lure’s otherwise tight side-to-side swimming.
The Toccoa flows cold for 15 miles from beneath Blue Ridge Dam. Four public-access sites—Tammen Park in Blue Ridge, the TVA’s North River Road site downstream from Curtis Switch Road, and Horseshoe Bend Park and McCayesville City Park in McCayesville—provide local wading options and boat ramps for extended floats. The Blue Ridge Dam powerhouse flow schedule can be viewed online by selecting “Blue Ridge” at TVA.gov/Environment/Lake-Levels; or call 800.238.2264 for the latest flow schedule.
SAVANNAH RIVER/HARTWELL DAM
From a technical standpoint, the Savannah River below Hartwell dam is a tailwater fishery, but trout fishing here is admittedly not much of a riverway challenge and is much like fishing from the bank of a lake. More than 13,000 trout—browns and rainbows—are annually stocked here during the stocking season, from March through June, through a program shared by Georgia and South Carolina wildlife agencies.
Catch-and-keep fishing is clearly the norm in the slightly more than mile-stretch of the Savannah’s “trout water,” bounded by Georgia and South Carolina. You’re not going to wade here; posted signs warn to “stay off the rocks” along the riverbank, and the river is generally deep. Some anglers choose to float in personal, inflatable boats and tubes, but boating trips are nearly out of the question because the current falls out quickly as the flow backs up into Lake Russell. Those who do boat the river for trout put in at the Smith-McGee boat ramp, just a few miles downstream in Lake Russell. And a buoy line prohibits boating into the first quarter-mile of the flow below the dam, leaving all the best trout water (where flows are strong) available only to shore-bound anglers who walk the shoreline downstream from the buoy line or along the Georgia River Recreation Area and pier on the Georgia shoreline at the dam.
A selection of 1/8- to 1/4-oz. lures can keep an angler casting and catching where the water is moving. Consider a selection of spoons—Kastmaster, Phoebe and Little Cleo—and spinners like a Roostertail, Mepp’s, Panther Martin. Use bright combinations of white, yellow, orange and silver, with silver blades. For dark colors try brown, black, green and copper with gold blades. Some anglers drift small Trout Magnet jigs deep under foam bobbers. Ultralight tackle armed with 4-lb. line makes the fishing effective and the catching fun.
A minute-long, loud horn alerts anglers to the impending and quick rise in the river below the dam. Leave the riverbank quickly whenever the horn sounds. The Hartwell power generation schedule recording is available by calling toll free 888.893.0678. The schedule is recorded daily and is subject to change at any time.
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