Wildcat Creek Trout: Back To Basics For North Georgia Rainbows
Sometimes your best bet is to leave the high-tech tackle at home and have a ball catching trout with crickets and corn.
With the 2005 trout season in full swing, you might be thinking about planning a trip to one of north Georgia’s many trout streams. If you like beautiful scenery, easy wading, and abundant trout, then you would be wise to load up the truck and head to Wildcat Creek just north of Helen in northeastern Georgia.
Located on the Lake Burton Wildlife Management Area about 30 minutes northeast of Helen, this beautiful mountain stream has some of the very best trout fishing that Georgia has to offer. Wildcat Creek has grown to almost legendary status in the angling community based in large part to its beauty, its healthy population of rainbows, and its ease of access. Unfortunately, Wildcat has also earned a bit of a reputation as being over-crowded, over-fished, and even a little trashy at times. This negative status is becoming a thing of the past, however, as I learned during a recent trip to the stream.
It had been years and years since I had last wet a line on Wildcat. As a 10-year-old boy completely obsessed with trout fishing, I spent many spring days flipping worms and corn under the mountain-laurel branches hanging over the banks of Wildcat Creek. Many unsuspecting rainbows fell prey to my Zebco 333 combo, and many happy family members filled themselves on fresh trout filets fried over a campfire. Camping and fishing at Wildcat Creek was like paradise to my 10-year-old soul.
It is 24 years later now, and I am still completely obsessed with trout fishing; only now I use a high-tech, graphite fly rod, I tie my own flies, and I rarely keep anything that I catch. Fly-fishing has become a challenging, yet highly rewarding skill and art for me; and I spend a great deal of my spare time exploring the mountain streams of the southern Appalachians, stalking the ever-elusive rainbows, browns, and brook trout that call these waters home. I have even given my 2-year-old daughter fly-casting lessons in our driveway, letting her get a feel for her hand-me-down fly rod that someday will be hers.
When this year’s trout season opened, it was with great expectations that I headed out to fish the creek that had been so good to me in the past. Long forgotten memories came back to me as my truck rumbled down the Forest Service road. Along the way, I passed two little boys, maybe 7- or 8-years-old, and they were both grinning from ear to ear, each holding onto a stringer full of rainbows with one hand and their spin-casters with the other. At the campgrounds, I saw families sitting around campfires enjoying each other’s company. I talked to a few fellows my age who all reported that the fishing was great, and that they had gotten their limits in a matter of a few hours.
With growing anticipation I strapped on my waders, rigged up my fly rod, and donned the bulging vest that must now weigh close to 20 pounds with all of the technical fly-fishing gadgets and equipment that I have gathered over the past decade. Downstream from where I parked, I saw a girl and her father leaving their hole, again with a stringer full of rainbows between them. “What are they hitting today?” I called out, and was told that they were having good luck with corn and Power Bait.
I hit the water and spent the next eight exhausting hours trying in vain to cast my flies without tangling my leader in the overhanging branches. I tried at least a dozen different flies. I tried dries like the Elk Hair Caddis and the Irresistible. I tried nymphs like the Prince and the Y2K, which are as close to guaranteed as you can get. I tried green Wooly Buggers, black Wooly Buggers, green Zonkers, and… well, you get the picture. I tried every trick I knew, casting upstream, casting downstream, “dapping” the fly on the surface of the water, literally everything I could think of to do.
In eight hours, I didn’t catch a single fish. Not one. I did get a bit of a sunburn, and a bit of a sore shoulder from casting like a maniac for the better part of a day. And everywhere I looked, I saw people having fun and catching fish. I saw a hawk, and I think I saw a snake, but I definitely didn’t see any rainbows of my own.
Then it dawned on me that my fishing tactics were not “in sync” with this particular stream. The pools and riffles here are perfect holding water for the rainbows, and there are definitely plenty of trout here. What I needed to do was get back to the basics; ditch the nine-foot fly rod for an ultra-light spinning rig and some split-shot and corn. I needed to get out of the waders and get my feet wet and remember what it was like when I was a kid. A good idea, I thought to myself. Too bad my spinning rod was collecting dust back at home in the basement
My personal challenges aside, Wildcat Creek has to be one of the best streams in north Georgia for beginners, youngsters, or those who like their fishing a little less demanding. Do not expect to find solitude, however, as this creek sees more fishing pressure than any other stream on the WMA. It certainly is not elbow-to-elbow by any means, but one must be careful not to impose on another angler’s run or hole.
According to Fisheries Biologist Lee Keefer with the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division (WRD), Wildcat Creek is destined to receive more than 50,000 stocked trout over the course of the season. The WRD is also implementing a new effort called the “Big Fish” program, which will add about 3,000 larger trout to the normal stocking. These fish will measure out around 12 to 14 inches, and they offer a little more challenge to the angler than the standard stocker.
Lee also pointed out that the mild winter has had an interesting effect on the rainbows at the Lake Burton Hatchery. He indicated that many of the fish have grown a little fatter and a little longer than they normally do during the course of a typical Georgia winter.
As far as Wildcat’s reputation for being littered and trashy, I have to point out that I saw very little of this sort of thing during my recent trip. I always make a habit of picking up whatever trash I see, and the trash pocket on my vest was no more full than it is when I fish other popular streams like Coopers Creek or Rock Creek. The WRD and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as volunteer groups like Trout Unlimited, have done a great job keeping the area as clean as possible given the number of people who fish and camp here during the season. According to Lee, the joint effort of the DNR and the Forest Service has just about wiped out the problem of littering on the WMA.
So, with that being said, what can one expect from Wildcat Creek? In general it is a classic north Georgia trout stream, with plenty of pools, riffles, and undercut banks for the rainbows to call home. Forest Service Road 26 follows Wildcat for most of its length, and thus access to the better pools is easy. Most of the best holes can be identified by the turnouts that have been carved by people parking between the gravel road and the stream.
On the stream, remember that because of the heavy fishing pressure Wildcat receives, it is very important to stalk these trout with care, as they are easily spooked. I have always had good hook-up rates when I fish downstream into pools below me. On this particular trip, I stayed out of the water as much as possible, and I even stayed crouched low in the stream, but I still had no success.
Remember also, that it takes a little while for newly stocked trout to adjust to their new surroundings. According to Lee, new stockers tend to develop a case of lock jaw, during which they don’t actively feed during the first 24 hours or so in the stream. After adequate time to get acclimated, they usually get hungry and begin feeding actively on the day after the stocking.
The entire seven-mile stretch of water upstream from the Forest Service check-in station is open to fishing and is public water. The section from the check-in station upstream to the first campground receives a great deal of the fishing pressure on Wildcat, but it also seems to hold most of the stream’s trout. About two miles after starting on FS 26, you will see one of Wildcat’s most popular attractions on your left. Known as Sliding Rock, this 30-foot waterfall creates an excellent pool for the rainbows, but unfortunately it can also be a popular attraction among campers and tourists who use the waterfall as a slide and swim in the pool. If you can beat the swimmers here during the summer months, you will have an excellent chance at catching a sizable rainbow cruising the pool looking for a meal.
If all of the pools seem to be too crowded and you want to get away for some solitude, you may want to try fishing the shoal areas and riffles between the pools. Often, these sections will hold some trout that have left the pools looking for some solitude of their own. Fish these whitewater areas as you would any other, letting your bait drift down with the current to a likely holding place.
Upstream from the first campsite, FS 26 begins to meander away from the stream, and this often means that the stream in that section does not get pounded as heavily as the more easily accessible sections. Here, a bit of a hike and a scramble down some steep banks can result in getting a pool full of unsuspecting trout all to yourself. When FS 26 rejoins the stream, there is about one more mile of fishable water before you reach the second campsite. There is less fishing pressure and more fishing elbow room on the upper reaches of Wildcat Creek.
As far as equipment and tactics go, take my advice and learn from my experience. Leave the fly rod at home and opt for a short, ultra-light spinning rod or baitcaster. I seriously considered paying a kid to let me use his battered, hand-me-down rod and reel so I would have a better shot at getting my bait where I wanted it to go. On this last trip I must have left at least $40 worth of flies dangling from the mountain laurel and hemlock branches that formed a canopy over my head. That being said, crickets, worms, corn, or Power Bait should have you covered as far as baits. Small spinners like a Rooster Tail or a Panther Martin would likewise be a good choice. Instead of trying to cast these spinners, simply drop them in front of you and feed out line until the spinner is downstream into a good run or pool and then retrieve it slowly.
Getting to Wildcat Creek is relatively simple. From downtown Helen, take Hwy 356 past Unicoi State Park until it dead-ends. Take a left onto Hwy 197 and continue for approximately eight miles. West Wildcat Creek Road will turn off on your left about 200 yards past the Wildcat Creek Fire Station. Once you turn on West Wildcat (FS 26), the check-in station will be on your right after about 300 yards or so. From here, FS 26 parallels the stream for almost seven miles, and there are plenty of good fishing spots along this stretch.
I have already made plans to return to Wildcat to redeem my ego and catch some of the plentiful rainbow trout. Only next time, I’m leaving the fancy stuff at home. Fifty-nine cents worth of corn, and I’ll be ready to go.
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