Toccoa Trout Tailwater Surprise
The Toccoa tailwater has some of the best insect hatches in the state, and what dwells beneath those rising trout will amaze you.
“Let’s pull up here and really fish this hole a minute,” said David Hulsey, manager of Unicoi Outfitters’ Blue Ridge fly shop, while leaning back on the oars to slow the drift boat and drop anchor. The anchor plopped quietly into the water and skidded to a halt as we slid up next to a swift riffle that tailed out into a deep, green hole, bounded from the bank by an enormous deadfall.
‘This is what brown-trout water should look like,’ I thought as I unhooked a heavy, brown, rubber-legged Woolly Bugger from an eyelet and pulled five or six lengths of line from the reel. The clear, cold water of the Toccoa River below the Blue Ridge Dam is pock-marked with these green holes. Below almost every swift run, the water is funneled or eddies out into green depths. Depths that could hold exactly what we were hunting, large carnivorous brown trout.
“They could be anywhere in here,” David said, pointing from the upstream root of the deadfall down into the hole where limbs branched out into a lure-eating, trout- hiding mass. There was sure to be a big brown lurking in that mess, and I wasn’t waiting to find out. Before another word of wisdom left David’s mouth, I plopped my streamer into the riffle, as tight as I could get it to the trunk of the deadfall, then watched and waited as the brass conehead behind the eye of the hook drug the fly down. It disappeared into green, and I waited a couple more seconds as the belly of my line pulled the bugger downstream into the heart of the hole.
‘Now,’ I thought, as I stripped in two quick arm-lengths of line. Halfway through the third pull, the line came to an abrupt and jarring halt. Then it pulled back, ripping with it about 10 feet of line I had piled up in front of me in the bow of the boat.
“Whoa! This is a good one,” I said, reeling up the last foot of line to get the fish on the reel. Then the fish slowed down, and I felt the rhythmic thud of his tail swishing as my rusty, old drag system clicked to feed him line.
“That’s a good one,” David agreed, without even a glimpse of the fish. “He’s a thumper. I can see his tail thumping on your rod. Don’t lose this one. If you lose him, you’re going to make me cry.”
That was exactly what I needed. My confidence plummeted as thoughts turned to years of neglecting my equipment, and the flimsy 5X tippet on the end of the fly line. I had faith in my trusty 5-weight rod, but all I could do was hold on, pray the reel didn’t seize up, take what he gave me and wait for the fish to tire.
David was ready with the net by the time the fish was ripe enough to turn. We had him just out of range of the net a couple of times before he spooked into another run at the sight of the boat. By this time, we had gotten a good look at him and knew what we were doing battle with. My arms began to tire, and there was a palpable feeling of relief when I finally got his head out of the water and turned him toward the boat. David reached out and netted the fish, then it was all high fives, whooping and hollering.
A 21-inch, hook-jawed male brown trout is not an uncommon catch on the 15 miles of trout-holding tailwater on the Toccoa River, but it is not an everyday occurrence. For me, a first-timer on this section of the river, it was a big surprise, because most of what you hear about the Toccoa tailwater is prolific insect hatches and multitudes of rising trout. There are a lot of all-to-willing fish that will suck down a dry fly without hesitation, but there are also some bottom-hugging brutes that will give you all the trout you can handle.
“It’s mostly stocked fish, but we do have a population of reproducing rainbows and browns. The DNR also stocks some fingerling brown trout. I guess that’s their way of making sure they stay in the river a while and get smarter,” David said. “There are some big resident browns, whether they’re holdovers or wild fish, and those guys feed on those stockers.”
David said there are plenty of fish caught in the 20-inch range, and three or four times a year lucky anglers hook into fish in the 24-inch range. There are some monster trout in this river, and the best time to catch them is when there’s a little stain on the water.
“If you get a little off-colored water, the thing to do is fish streamers,” David said. “The big browns use that stained water to stalk baitfish.”
A brown bugger with a brass cone- head and a little green flash tied into the tail took the big fish of the day, and it caught a few bows and browns in the 12-inch range, as well, but for numbers an olive bugger seemed to outproduce the brown fly. David fished an olive bugger with a split-shot about 6 to 8 inches up his leader to get it down, and he caught twice as many fish. We caught nine fish on the buggers, and they hit the fly dead drifted, with short jerky strips and with long, arm-length strips. One thing that did make a difference was a consistent retrieve.
“It seems like a consistent strip is more effective. I think they’re trying to time their strike to expend the least amount of energy possible,” David explained. “Erratic action doesn’t seem to do as well.”
These theories hold true for spin-fishermen, as well. A little stain on the water means it’s time to put the standard Panther Martins and Mepps spinners back in the box, and reach for the plugs. A 1-inch or longer Countdown Rapala can be deadly on large and small fish, but opt for the larger lure if you’re specifically targeting the big browns. Blue, gold, brown-trout and rainbow-trout colors are good ones to try. David also said a Yozuri Pin’s Minnow is a proven producer.
On his guide boats, David removes all but one of the hooks on these lures, both for the safety of the clients and for the safety of the fish, which he always releases.
“I suggest clipping the trebles down to one hook,” he said. “It’s easier to release the fish and to keep hooks out of the back of your head. If you’re not keeping fish, it’s a good idea to go ahead and remove them.”
For both clear and stained water, the optimal spinning gear for catching trout on the Toccoa is an ultra-light rod and reel, with 4- to 6-lb. test line to avoid spooking the fish. For the same reason, 5X tippet is about as heavy as you want to go if you’re fishing with a long rod.
Fly-rod anglers might even want to scale down to 6X tippet for low visibility and better drag-free drifts while fishing for rising fish during some of the Toccoa’s amazing hatches.
“We have some of the best insect activity. This river is arguably the best tailwater in the state,” David said. “I’ve been down here and seen 50 fish rising in a slick as far as you can see. The fish are there, they just take some catching.”
When we first launched at about 9 a.m. from Unicoi’s private launch 4 river miles north of Curtis Switch, it was overcast, but there were still a few large, dark midges coming off the water. In the middle of March the buzz was hatches of black caddis, and we hoped the sun would break through long enough for the caddis to start pop- ping off. Although there was no caddis hatch yet, David had me tie on a size 14 Elk Hair Caddis with a black body and a natural-colored, elk-hair wing. As a dropper, to entice sub-surface feeders, he suggested an 18-inch section of tip- pet to tie a size 16, beadhead, soft-hackle Pheasant Tail from the hook bend of my leading fly.
“There was a pretty good black caddis hatch yesterday, and they may still be looking for them,” he said.
To cover the bases, David tied on a couple of nymphs, a Lightning Bug and a new pattern he wanted to test. His plan was to search near the bottom of the water column while I fished near the surface so we could find the feeding fish.
As we floated down the river with David steering, I stood, wedging my legs in braces on the bow, and cast to each spot David pointed out. He knows every structure in the river and did an excellent job showing me. “Look, about 20 yards to your 10 o’clock, see the green water?” he would say, and I would do my best to hit the target. Then the flies would drift, and David would row to keep pace as I mended the line for long drifts.
At the first run we pulled up on to fish thoroughly, it was apparent the fish were looking up. I caught two fish on back-to-back casts from a riffle that dropped into a narrow run, both rain- bows in the 9-inch range, one on the dropper and one on the dry. I followed that up a little farther downstream with three more fish, two bows and the first brown of the day, all on the dropper.
“They’re definitely looking up,” David said. “That little Pheasant Tail seems to be the ticket.”
He tied on a similar dry-dropper rig and got in on the action. Combined, we lost count of the number of fish we caught. We probably missed twice as many as we brought to hand, though.
“You’ve got to be quick with the hook set,” David said. “These fish, as soon as they realize it’s made of metal, they’ll spit it out. They won’t hold onto it for more than a second.”
Still, even with fish taking the dry fly occasionally, we hadn’t seen the first caddis. I did, however, nab a bug out of the air as it flitted past my ear. I couldn’t identify it, so I showed it to David.
“That’s a midge,” David said. “We have the biggest midges. They’re bigger than any other midge anywhere I’ve ever been.”
I know what a midge looks like, but this bug had me guessing small stonefly because it was almost 1/4-inch long. Those big midges would provide for some good action later in the day.
Midges hatch throughout the year on the Toccoa tailwater, and a good midge-cluster pattern to try is a Griffith’s Gnat, David said. Late February through early March brings black-caddis hatches, and the gray caddis start popping off in late March or April. The gray-caddis hatches should be going on as you read this, and size 14 to 16 gray Elk Hair Caddis should do the trick.
The smaller fish can provide some steady and exciting surface action, and sometimes a bigger fish will come to the top.
“If you’re having a really good hatch it can get their attention, and you can get a good one on a dry,” David said. “But it has to be a pretty good hatch to bring them to the top.”
Sub-surface patterns to try right now are stonefly nymphs and blue- winged olive nymphs in sizes as small as 22. Pheasant Tail Nymphs and brightly colored egg patterns can also be deadly. The egg patterns are great, especially when there has been a recent stocking, as will be the case before opening day of trout season on March 29. The Toccoa tailwater is a year- round fishery, but it gets a fresh stocking before the season opens.
Along most of the tailwater’s 15 miles suitable for trout fishing, the river is bounded by private property, and access to some of the best water requires a small boat. A shallow-draft drift boat or inflatable pontoon are ideal, but the float can also be done in a canoe or kayak. Public access areas are located outside of Blue Ridge at the dam and less than 1/4 mile below the dam at Tammen Park. There is also public access to put in or take out at Curtis Switch and at Horseshoe Bend Park in McCaysville. Both the float from the dam to Curtis Switch and from Curtis Switch to Horseshoe Bend are about 7 river miles. David said to plan on spending about nine hours on the water if you want to fish hard on either of those floats. There are good sections of wadable shoals around all four of the access points.
One thing to keep in mind while planning a trip on the Toccoa tailwater is the water-release schedule. When the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) releases water from Lake Blue Ridge, the river can rise as much as 3 feet very quickly.
“We don’t book trips when they’re generating,” David said. “It’s much easier to fish when they’re not running the generator. The water comes up, and it can actually get pretty dangerous.”
TVA has information on the next day’s releases by 6 p.m. the day before. Check release schedules by calling the hotline at (800) 238-2264 or online at <lakeinfo.tva.gov>. It takes about two hours for the rising water to get from the dam to Curtis Switch and four hours to McCaysville. It takes about the same length of time for the water to fall at each location once TVA stops generating.
Later in the day, after dredging the holes with streamers, the allure of rising fish was too much to resist. All over the sections of slick water, trout were rising, leaving small concentric rings where they sipped bugs from the surface. David called for a Griffith’s Gnat. I went to my box, and pulled out the only one I had, a size 16.
David pointed out rises as we drifted, and I did my best to place my fly softly on the water at least a couple of yards upstream of each rise. Sure enough, every time I got the timing right and presented a good drift over a fish that had reset after its last rise, I got a hit. It was a blast. The anticipation and climax of catching rising fish on dries might be the apex of trout fishing. Most purists will tell you it is. But, on second thought, the bone-jar- ring smash and pull from a brutish brown trout is hard to beat. On the Toccoa tailwater, you can do it all in one day.
Gripping his tail lightly and cradling his belly with my left hand, I bent over the side of the boat and held the brown in the current, letting him catch his breath after the fight. As he regained strength, he flipped his tail once half-heartedly. With another swish of his tail, he swam free of my grasp and lumbered back into the green depths from where he came. To preserve a fantastic fishery, David pro- motes catch-and-release and releases all the fish he catches with clients.
Unicoi provides both wading and drift-boat trips on the Toccoa, as well as on other public and private waters. The guides can build a trip for anglers of any skill level, so all you need is a license. Call Unicoi at (706) 632-1880 or see the website www.unicoioutfitters.com.
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