Toccoa Tailwater Trophy Trout Hunting

Trout fishing typically involves tiny offerings and delicate presentations, but you’ll have to go big and ugly to hook into one of the river’s brutes.

Joe DiPietro | October 1, 2008

For most trout anglers, catching colorful little fish on the rushing waters of the Toccoa River tailwater is enough to constitute a fine day of fishing. For others, it’s just not enough. The deep holes, cold water and plentiful forage below Blue Ridge Dam combine to create optimal conditions for growing monstrous trout, and a few local anglers have found the secret to making these hefty fish bite. The old saying goes, “Big fish eat big bait,” and that certainly holds true on this river.

John Mauldin holds a 27-inch brown caught on a fly during the primetime fall fishing on the Toccoa River tailwater.

After growing tired of catching the average 9- to 12-inch stocked trout, Flies & Fletching guide Justin Murphy now targets only trophy trout in the Toccoa’s icy waters. In June, Justin looked on as his 13-year-old son, Austin Smith, caught the river-record brown trout, an 11.8-lb., 28-inch beast, and luckily for Georgia anglers, Justin is ready to share those tactics just when prime-time for the big’ uns is right around the corner.

Todd Fox, co-owner of Flies & Fletching in Blue Ridge, will tell you that from early October through early April, trout move into spawning pat- terns, offering anglers a good shot at a trophy fish. With the big browns get- ting more active in the fall and lunker rainbows turning more voracious in the early spring, the coldest months of the year can make for some of the best fishing on the tailwater. However, these big fish require skill and stealth to fool, and even more tact to land.

“They don’t get over 24 inches by being stupid,” Todd joked.

The origin, movements, patterns, and locations of the increasing numbers of trophy trout showing up in the river has yet to be officially deter- mined. Among fishermen, area guides and DNR officials, one thing is for sure — there seems to be a healthy, stable population of trophy trout in the tailwater. In the last year, many big fish were caught throughout the 13-mile stretch from the dam downstream to the McCaysville area. Many of them came from public access areas.

A big tailrace trout blows up on Todd Fox’s streamer as Chris Albrecht mans the oars. Fall is one of the best times to catch monster trout, and the Flies & Fletching co-owners specialize in putting clients on the big ones using fly rods or spinning gear.

Spinning It

By putting a spinning rod to work, Justin has landed more than a dozen browns and rainbows in the 18- to 28- inch range recently, along with countless stocked fish. Not to mention the river record, which his son caught from shore at a public access point.

Justin usually fishes along the public access points when he’s not guiding. He uses spinning gear and fishes with techniques learned while catching huge trout on Arkansas’ White, Little Red and North Fork rivers. From shore, Justin has caught trophy fish, during both high- and low-water conditions, by targeting the edges of the river. Terminal tackle for Justin includes an assortment of floating and diving plugs and large spinners. He fishes with a 20-lb. test braided line that has the diameter of 6-lb. mono. Justin prefers a 6 1/2-foot, medium-heavy spinning rod with a matching reel.

“You’ve got to have a good drag system, no matter what,” he said. Justin says he always uses a snap- swivel to avoid line twist, to change lures rapidly and to improve the action of the lure. He’ll keep switching plugs until he finds the one the fish want. But, fishing for the trophy fish is no easy task, and it takes plenty of time and effort.

“I may go out 20 times and not catch one big one, but when I do, it’ll be worth it,” Justin said. “And, anyone who thinks you can’t catch the smaller trout on big lures is wrong.”

Justin prefers plugs in brown- and rainbow-trout patterns, followed by conventional gold and silver patterns.

Whether you’re fishing with a fly rod or conventional tackle, minnow imitations are always a good bet when targeting big, carnivorous trout. Spin fishermen should pack a selection of floating and suspending Rapalas in different sizes and colors.

“What is really neat is to see how people look at you when you tie a plug on that’s half the size of the average trout they’re out here to catch,” Justin said. “That just goes to show you how aggressive these fish are.”

While fishing with Justin, he and I lost count of the number of average- size fish we caught and released. We brought many trout to hand, including an 18-inch rainbow, fooled by a gold F5 Rapala.

An important tip for anglers fishing with plugs is to crush or file off the barbs. Another option is to remove the treble hooks and replace them with size 10 to 6 single hooks.

“You’ll still hook plenty of fish,” Justin said.

“Filing the barbs back actually makes the hookset into a big fish easier; it’s a lot safer, and its not as hard on the fish,” said Mike Maginn, Blue Ridge Trout Unlimited Chapter president.

While the tailwater is open year-round under general trout regulations, almost every guide recommends artificial lures with barbless hooks, regard- less of the tackle and gear used.

On The Fly

A lifetime fly-fisherman, Todd loves to chase trophy trout on the tail- water.

“Nothing beats that ‘swoosh’ of a giant trout,” Todd said.

Todd’s fly outfit for trophy trout hunting is a 9- to 10-foot, 5- to 7- weight, medium-action rod with a large-arbor reel, spooled with sink-tip line for high flows and weight-forward floating line for normal conditions.

“A mixture of Clousers and other minnow imitations are what I use the most for the big boys,” Todd said. “They really seem to like it if you add a bit of chartreuse or orange to the fly — something to give it a little flash.”

For fly fishermen, streamers like Clousers (far right) work well, but if the fish are looking up, try a big hopper pattern (top left).

Todd also fishes dry-fly tactics when the fish start to rise.

“They don’t get big eating bugs, but the big ones do eat the little fish that eat the bugs, and they sometimes key in on tiny surface flies, too,” he said.

During my trips with Todd, Justin and Flies & Fletching co-owner Chris Albrecht, we all brought nice fish to the drift boat. We put in at the dam and floated downstream to the public take- out at Curtis Switch. Along the way, we caught and released many average fish, mostly on size 10 to 6 Clousers, conventional and rubber-legged Wooly Buggers. Other flies and lures that rep- resent a large meal work, too.

After several average-size fish, things got going when Todd reared back his fly-rod and buried a white- and-chartreuse Clouser into the jaw of a trout. We all instantly knew he had a good fish on. After the rush of a big fish set in, Todd worked to carefully maneuver the fish on a light tippet back to the boat. Chris jumped in the water and gently netted a 23-inch rainbow. After getting a quick picture with the fish, we watched it swim away.

“These fish are big and fight hard on light lines and tippets and therefore expend lots of energy,” Todd said. “Extra measures need to be taken to ensure that they are resuscitated and able to swim off to fight another day.”

Toccoa River Public Access

The public-access points on the Toccoa tailwater, starting from the dam at Lake Blue Ridge and heading downstream in order are: Tammen Park in Blue Ridge, off Hwy 515; the TVA takeout at Curtis Switch, off Curtis Switch Road; Ron Henry Horseshoe Bend Park, off River Road in McCaysville; and the City of McCaysville Park, off East Tennessee Avenue.

The stretch of river between the dam and Tammen Park, and the Horseshoe Bend Park area both provide long, wadeable and floatable sections of well-managed, stocked public water. A number of larger trout can be found hiding out in surprising places in those public sections of the river. Directions to all of the public access points can be easily found on the Internet or on local maps.

A word of warning: trying to paddle, float or wade during high water can be very dangerous due to the force of water discharged from the dam at Lake Blue Ridge. During generation, the flow is nearly 10 times stronger than at normal water levels.

The predicted generation schedule for the Blue Ridge Dam can be found at the TVA’s website, or by calling (800) 238-2264. Unscheduled releases can and will hap- pen any time, without warning, and personal flotation devices are required when floating or boating. If the dam begins generating at noon, the water won’t rise at Curtis Switch until about two hours and 15 minutes later and nearly four hours later at Horseshoe Bend. It’s advised to get out of the water in plenty of time before the rise.

When floating or paddling, it’s also best to respect landowner rights.

“We very rarely have problems, but if a landowner comes out and asks us to move, we politely move on downstream,” Todd said. “You never know; there may be a bigger fish in the next hole.”

The Future Of The Toccoa

All differences in gear, techniques and tackle aside, which sometimes seem to divide trout fishermen, there is the possibility that special regulations, aimed at improving the trophy-trout population in the Toccoa, may be put in place. However, it will take unity, according to Wayne Probst, WRD region 1 fisheries supervisor.

“All stakeholders must come together and find a common ground before any special regulations could ever be implemented,” he said.

The Blue Ridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited recently presented a proposal asking DNR to consider establishing special regulations on the tailwater. The types of special regulations that could be implemented on the river are wide and varied, Wayne said.

A slot-limit option would allow anglers to keep a limit of trout, with one or two fish per limit being longer than a certain length. Another option would be to select a portion of the river to manage as catch-and-release only. The options go on and on, and they could be very simple or very complex, with the possibility of barbless-hook regulations or fly-fishing-only sections.

“I’d like to preserve the rights of the traditional people who like to keep fish, while protecting some length- class of fish,” Wayne said.

Before asking the DNR, the TU chapter sent surveys and letters to landowners along the river. Nearly all of the responses were positive, according the chapter’s Vice President Jay Campbell.

“The landowners themselves appear to be very much behind special regulations,” Jay said. “It’s never going to be a real, blue-ribbon, trophy stream without special regulations.”

WRD Fisheries Biologist John Damer is the man on the water researching the river’s ability to sustain a trophy fishery. He began last year looking at the survival and growth rates of stocked fish. Next year, a tagging program and more extensive electrofishing surveys should provide more data. Until then, both Wayne and John are cautious about speculating whether or not the trophy trout in the Toccoa are holdover fish, publicly or privately stocked fish, pellet-fed fish or stream- bred fish.

The biggest fish John found through electro-shocking this year was a brown that measured 26 inches and weighed 8.5 pounds.

“For the most part, we have seen a fishery that is dominated by rainbows, with good numbers of browns and a few brookies mixed in,” John said.

Todd, Chris, Justin and Jay say they think the trophy trout in the Toccoa are a combination of stocked fish and stream-bred fish.

Wayne said he agrees there is some natural reproduction occurring in the river, but also said, “I’m not certain that the natural reproduction alone is good enough to maintain the quality of fishery we’re seeing right now.”

The bottom line remains — despite where the fish are coming from, “The Toccoa is truly a trophy trout stream, and measures need to be taken in order to protect the resources within,” Todd said.


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