The Story Of Arthur Woody And His Trout

The Barefoot Ranger is forever famous for bringing deer back to the mountains, but many don’t know he also brought trout.

Duncan Dobie | May 18, 2017

Ask just about anyone in the Peach State who is even remotely familiar with the name Arthur Woody (1884-1946) about what this man did during his long career as a forest ranger, and most people will answer, “He’s the man who brought deer back to the mountains.” Although he is best remembered for restoring deer to the mountain region, one of the least publicized aspects of his extraordinary career in conservation and one that is every bit as important is his visionary trout-stocking program.

His work in introducing non-native rainbow and brown trout to the mountains, and in restoring native brook populations, is nothing short of amazing. Thanks to his hard work and determination, by the time Ranger Woody began to gain notoriety for his successful deer program in the late 1930s, trout fishing in his beloved Blue Ridge WMA had been a popular outdoor activity among Georgia sportsmen for well over a decade.

Arthur Loved His Specks

For a man of the mountains, Arthur Woody had an unusual affinity for water and the creatures that swam in that water. Although it’s likely he never saw a beach or an ocean during his lifetime, he loved to swim in the lake he built behind his house, and he swam in it often. That love of swimming almost cost him his life toward the end of his career in 1944 after he suffered a stroke at age 60 while swimming across Woody Lake, as he often did whenever the weather permitted.

During his 30-plus-year career with the Forest Service, Ranger Woody was instrumental in the construction of four lakes in the Suches area, and he did much to clean up and improve many of the mountain streams and rivers that flowed through his district after the heavy logging operations of the early 20th century left behind vast areas of eroding mountainsides and streams filled with silt and debris. He grew up stalking native brook trout and other fish species in some of those very streams. To his way of thinking, a mountain stream or river without trout was like a dark summer night in the South without fireflies. Thanks to his efforts nearly 100 years ago, a number of those streams are today considered to be legendary trout waters.

No sooner had Arthur Woody been promoted to the rank of “forest ranger” in 1918, he began to try to sell his superiors on the idea of restoring the fish and wildlife species that had once been so abundant in the mountain region. This was nearly 10 years before he bought his first fawns in 1927, which marked a new beginning for deer in the mountains. From 1927 to 1940, Ranger Woody’s deer herd grew from a few dozen animals to an estimated population of 2,000.

During its early years, the primary focus of the Forest Service was to reclaim the land and restore the forests that had been so badly exploited. Preventing forest fires, and fighting fires after they had started, was also a top priority. These tasks were challenging at best, and the Forest Service had its hands full simply trying to accomplish its goal without expanding into other areas.

Ranger Woody clearly understood that he had been hired to reclaim the land and restore the forests. He attacked his job with a passion, but his vision for reclaiming the forests was much broader in scope than that of his employer. He strongly felt that no forests could ever be complete without containing the fish and wildlife species that he had known and loved as a boy. Deer and bears had all but been exterminated from the north Georgia mountain region by 1900. Wild turkeys were on a steep decline, and the native brook trout that he loved so much were becoming increasingly rare.

So what did he do? He took matters into his own hands. One of his favorite mottos was: “Do what needs to be done, and ask permission later.” Using his own money and his own resources, he set in motion a plan for procuring and releasing an unknown quantity of non-native rainbow trout from a fish hatchery in Denver, Colorado into some of the local streams in his beloved Rock Creek Refuge (later to become Blue Ridge WMA). In all likelihood, the Forest Service was probably aware of what he was doing, and he probably had the blessings of his superiors. As long as he carried out his normal duties, his superiors couldn’t find fault with any extracurricular activities.

The first shipments of rainbow trout made the cross-country trip by rail. They arrived in Gainesville in large wooden barrels. Ranger Woody and his son Clyne met the train and loaded the barrels onto a truck. Clyne later recalled that he and his father hauled the barrels of fish by truck to the foot of Black Mountain and transferred them over to a horse-drawn wagon. From there the history-making trout splashed their way along Grassy Gap Road, across Grassy Gap, and over to the game refuge, a strenuous trip to say the least. It’s a wonder they survived! This was before the road from Stonepile Gap to Suches was completed over Woody Gap. Automobile travel across the mountains was very difficult in those days because very few improved roads existed in the area. The best way to reach Suches from Dahlonega was by way of the Grassy Gap Road route, but it was a grueling journey, and one that automobiles often failed to complete. Strained engines often overheated on some of the steep uphill grades, and brakes often burned up trying to navigate some of the dangerous downhill grades.

With the help of several hired individuals, Ranger Woody and Clyne placed the trout in Noontootly Creek (today known as Noontootla Creek), Smith Creek, Little Rock Creek, Cooper Creek and the Toccoa River, (now regarded as one of the best trout rivers in Georgia). Apparently the fish thrived in their new home. Thus began a very primitive trout-stocking program that the Ranger continued to improve upon for the next two decades.

Ranger Woody continued ordering rainbow trout from Colorado, and he also ordered several shipments of non-native brown trout from a hatchery in Washington State. He built his first fish-rearing enclosures on land he owned next to the game refuge on Rock Creek. Within a year or two, he began ordering brook trout fingerlings and fry from sources believed to be in New York State or New England.

The invasion of the Civilian Conservation Corps, often called “Roosevelt’s Tree Army” but known locally as the CCC boys, to Camp Woody in Suches and several other nearby camps in 1933 proved to be one of great benefit to all of Ranger Woody’s conservation projects—including his fish-stocking efforts. Suddenly he had a small army of willing and able-bodied young men to carry out dozens of projects, including the labor-intensive job of hauling heavy fish canisters and barrels to remote streams and releasing those fish safely into the water. The CCC boys also built special fish ponds and small dams in streams and did much to improve trout habitat across the area in and around Rock Creek Refuge.

Ranger Woody continued to order rainbow and brown trout throughout the 1920s. Realizing just how important trout and deer were to the mountain region, the Forest Service finally got on board with Ranger Woody’s fish and deer-stocking programs in the early 1930s. As some of the local lakes and state parks were developed in the early 1930s, pike, musky and other lake species were also brought in and released. Trout fishing in Rock Creek Refuge and other nearby areas became very popular with Georgia sportsmen long before the first deer hunt was held in 1940.

Fishing Was A Lifelong Passion

Ranger Woody loved his mountain trout. In fact, he loved to fish for bass, bream and anything else that might be found in a mountain lake or stream. In a December 1940 article written in Outdoor Georgia magazine titled Deer Hunt by Jim McGraw, which described the first deer hunt of modern times held in the Blue Ridge WMA a month earlier in November, the author made the following observation:

“Every trout fisherman in the Southeast knows the creeks Noontootly, Jones, Montgomery, Mill, Rock Creek, and Rock Creek Lake in the refuge. Many thousands of rainbow and native trout (brook trout) have been released in those streams and in the lake. Each year, trout fishermen eagerly await the announcement of open dates on those streams. They flock to Rock Creek Lake throughout the weekends of summer. In countless deep pools on those creeks, the trout have grown wise and huge and hungry, and only an expert fisherman can take them on flies or other artificial lures. Fifteen years of management have made this wildlife area one of the most popular trout havens in the state.”

There was nothing in the world Ranger Woody enjoyed more than stealing away from a hectic work schedule for an hour or two whenever time permitted and sitting along a peaceful trout stream trying to outsmart one his “pet” trout with a fly rod. Sometimes he would improvise and use a cane pole. He found much consolation and solace in fishing for his beloved “specks,” his nickname for the native brook trout that had come close to being wiped out in the mountain region.

Fly fishing up and down the Appalachians for native brook trout has been a popular outdoor pastime since America was founded, especially in places like the Catskill Mountains in New York and the Adirondacks in New England. Rainbow trout from the western U.S. were introduced to the northern Appalachians in the late 1870s, and brown trout from Europe were brought in a short time later. Both species immediately became a popular game fish.

In the Appalachians, where brook trout are the only native species, Ranger Woody must have been aware of how popular the non-native rainbow and brook trout were in some of the northern states. This, and the fact that native brookies were becoming increasingly rare due to over-fishing and the logging operations that had taken place over the past few decades, may have well influenced his decision to introduce rainbow and brown trout.

In his classic book, “Whose Woods These Are, the Story of the National Forests,” published in 1962, author Michael Frome reflects on the man who at first appearance might come across to some as an uneducated backwoods country bumpkin, but in truth was a visionary man who understood human nature and knew how to use psychology on people better than most trained professionals.

“For almost 25 years, he never went south of Gainesville, the outpost of the mountains. Once friends suggested he go to Florida for his health. ‘Me go down there and drink wiggle-tail water?’ And then, with a sense of home and place a man like him would feel, ‘What’s the use to live if it can’t be right here?’ He loved his home country, and he knew every bit of it. Brook trout, which he called specks, were his favorite fish. ‘I know the big trout by name,’ he said, ‘and if I’m smart, I can get them on a hook.’

“As a ranger, Woody considered game and fish equally important as timber. His homily on this subject to young foresters who trained under him was, ‘We should look to the forests as a source of good as well as wood. I wonder, what would Carl Alwin Schenck, the Prussian Forestmeister, have thought of this rough-hewn mountaineer who refused to wear a uniform or to measure forestry in terms of lumber profit?

“Yet his philosophy prevailed on one of the largest ranger districts in the Forest System. Operations were not always in strict accord with prescribed methodology. He ignored rules and regulations and requests for written reports. After all, Woody defined an expert as ‘an average boy away from home.’ But his district excelled in fire prevention, timber management and game protection.”

During the late 1920s, Ranger Woody befriended a young forester fresh out of the University of Georgia forestry school named Charles Elliott. Being 20 years the Ranger’s junior, Charlie was immediately taken with the hard-working man who was involved in so many important conservation issues. Like Ranger Woody, Charlie had aspirations to become an avid turkey hunter and trout fisherman, and the two men hit it off at once. Ranger Woody became one of Charlie’s most beloved mentors. Charlie initially worked for the Georgia Forestry Commission, and his job placed him in the mountain forests working closely with Ranger Woody. One of his early projects from 1929 to 1931 was laying out the proposed section of the Appalachian Trail that would traverse Blood and Black mountains in Ranger Woody’s district. He and Ranger Woody had considerable influence on the location of the trail.

In later years, Charlie worked with the Georgia Parks Department, the U.S. Forest Service and the Georgia Game and Fish Commission, working closely with Ranger Woody on numerous historic projects. Charlie became director of the Game and Fish Commission in the early 1940s. Working from the state level, he and Ranger Woody were very instrumental in the formation of an unprecedented agreement between the state of Georgia and the Forest Service in which the fish and wildlife resources on Ranger Woody’s beloved Rock Creek Refuge would be managed by the state, while all forest issues would be managed by the Forest Service. As a result of this agreement, Georgia’s first official wildlife management area—the Blue Ridge WMA mentioned earlier—came into existence in 1936. This was a dream come true for Ranger Woody. Now, after years of prodding his superiors, his beloved refuge was truly the wildlife reserve he had always dreamed of. The partnership was so successful that three more WMAs were quickly established in the mountain region, and many more followed in subsequent years. Soon, other states began to follow the Georgia example.

Realizing the need for a modern trout-raising facility, the Forest Service constructed the Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery on Rock Creek in 1937. Today, the historic hatchery is operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Its primary focus is aimed at raising rainbow trout, but the hatchery also raises brown and brook trout.

By 1940, Ranger Woody’s thriving deer herd had grown to several thousand animals as previously mentioned. That fall, state officials scheduled Georgia’s first deer hunt of modern times. The hunt was a media sensation, and Ranger Woody became an overnight celebrity. Numerous stories were written about him in newspapers and magazines. As director of the Game and Fish Commission, Charlie Elliott wrote a number of heartfelt stories about his mentor and about the success of Ranger Woody’s deer program. Sadly, the Ranger’s health began to fail in 1944 after he suffered the stroke mentioned at the beginning of this story. He died in June 1946 as a result of heart and kidney disease. Always a dedicated friend, Charlie spoke at the Ranger’s memorial service and served as pallbearer.

Several years after Ranger Woody’s death in 1946, Charlie Elliott became the Southeastern Field Editor for Outdoor Life magazine. For two decades, he and Ranger Woody had worked closely together on numerous historical and ground-breaking conservation projects in the mountains of north Georgia. But writing was always his passion, and by his own admission, he was never cut out to be a government bureaucrat. From 1950 to his retirement in the early 1990s, Charlie wrote dozens of stories for Outdoor Life. During the 1970s and 80s, his passion for turkey hunting earned him the respected title “the Old Professor.” Among the 20 some-odd books he wrote, several were devoted to his favorite game bird. As a young man in his mid-20s, his very first gobbler had been killed on some private land recommended to him by Ranger Woody near Rock Creek Refuge.

Charlie Elliott easily could have written a book about his beloved friend and mentor Ranger Arthur Woody, but for some reason he never did. During his nearly 40 years with Outdoor Life, he traveled to all corners of North America on hunting and fishing trips, and the iconic stories he wrote about his adventures endeared him to countless thousands of outdoorsmen nationwide.

Charlie was also an avid fly fisherman all his life, another skill he learned as a young man while working in the mountains with Ranger Woody.

Today rainbow and brown trout dominate most north Georgia streams, while native brook trout are only found in certain areas in much fewer numbers.

“Scientific Fishing” with Ranger Woody: A Young Girl’s Unforgettable Fish Fry

“As mentioned, Papa took me around with him quite a bit and we often went fishing together,” Jean McNey recalled. “He originally had built a fish rearing pond on the hill behind our house. He raised trout in it and later put them out in the streams. By the time I came along, he had built a small pond we called Edmondson Pond near Rock Creek in the game reserve and stocked it with trout, as well. Later the Forest Service took it over. Then he built two more ponds on some land he owned on Little Rock Creek (below Rock Creek Lake). That was the beginning of the trout hatchery that is still there today.

“As a little girl, I remember we would go up there to do what he always called some ‘scientific fishing’ to find out how much the fish had grown. Technically, we were breaking the law because trout season was not open. But Papa would wink at me and say, ‘This is the only way I can find how much these fish have grown.’ Then he would smile broadly.

“He never abused the law or took advantage of his position, but in situations like this there were more than enough fish to go around, and everyone who participated had a great time. The game warden would often bait my hook for me. I remember getting so excited catching those trout. Later on we would have a cookout and eat what we had caught.

“One time about 20 Forest Service workers and some of their family members had a big fishing party at Edmondson Pond. I got so excited about ‘shagging’ trout that I waded out into the pool with a pair of white shoes on! We later built a fire, cooked the fish and stuffed ourselves. Everyone had a great time in spite of the fact that one very self-righteous Pennsylvania Dutch wife of an assistant ranger declared that ‘her George would never eat any of those fish!’ I guess it was beneath her. As things turned out, however, George couldn’t get enough. He must have eaten at least eight of those delicious trout!”

It was only natural that after most of the streams had been depleted, he would make it an important priority to replenish the area’s waterways with those beautiful fish in some of the familiar haunts he had known as a boy.

Clyde Harkins, who went to work with the CCC in 1940 and knew Ranger Woody well, caught a few native brook trout growing up in the headwaters of Cooper’s Creek headwaters, but by then most of the streams had only rough fish, species no one wanted for food.

“Most of the trout were gone by the time I was old enough to catch them,” Clyde said.

As one of his jobs with the CCC, Clyde worked in some of the local streams and building trout ponds and pools, a job he dearly loved doing.

“I know the big trout by name,” he said, “and I’ll have to be smart to get ’em on a hook.”

Timeline: Ranger Woody’s Trout

• 1918: Arthur Woody is appointed to the position of Georgia’s second official forest ranger by the U.S. Forest Service. Almost immediately, he began restocking rainbow and brown trout, purchased from out West. He stocked the trout in his beloved Rock Creek Refuge (later to become Blue Ridge WMA).

• Early 1920s: Woody built fish-rearing pools in Rock Creek Lake on property he owned next to the refuge and continued stocking efforts throughout 1920s. Began building fish-rearing ponds in Woody Lake behind his house after lake was built in the mid-1930s.

• Early 1930s: The U.S. Forest Service begins to back fish stocking and deer stocking program. Ranger Woody’s primitive wooden fish-rearing pools built in the 1920s are modernized, and a much larger facility is built from stone and concrete by the CCC boys. In 1936, the U.S. Forest Service opens the Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery.

• Mid 1930s: CCC Boys helped improve creek habitat and stock fish by the thousands.

• 1937: Pittman Robertson Act signed into law; made funds available for wildlife management. Made federal funds available for fish and game and was “beginning of scientific management,” according to Jack Crockford.

Duncan Dobie’s Arthur Woody Book

“Arthur Woody and the Legend of the Barefoot Ranger” tells the true-life story of the man who brought deer back to the north Georgia mountains. As a U.S. Forest Service Ranger, Arthur Woody was a conservation visionary. In addition to personally buying and bringing the first deer fawns back to the mountains, Woody single-handedly introduced rainbow and brown trout to the mountain region. He also was instrumental in the success of the nation’s first Wildlife Management Area, an area now known as Blue Ridge WMA. The 512-page book includes 180 vintage photos. It retails for $34.95. For information, contact Duncan Dobie at [email protected] or call (770) 973-8049.

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1 Comment

  1. walleyejoe on May 22, 2017 at 10:10 pm

    The sacrifice, and the time spent by Ranger Arthur Woody to care enough to populate the cold water streams in Northeast Georgia has made it possible for those of us to treasure the moments of silent solitude wading a stream and to witness a trout chasing a lure or fly. These are endangered moments that cannot be replaced.

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