Georgia Fly Fishing

Georgia is bordered on the south by Florida; on the east by the Atlantic Ocean and South Carolina; on the west by Alabama; and on the north by Tennessee and North Carolina. The northern part of the state is in the Blue Ridge Mountains, a mountain range in the mountain system of the Appalachians. The central piedmont extends from the foothills to the fall line, where the rivers cascade down in elevation to the continental coastal plain of the southern part of the state.

Nestled in the southernmost reaches of the Appalachians, course some of the finest trout streams in the southeast.

Chattahoochee River

chattahoochee-river-georgia
Chattahoochee

The Chattahoochee River below Buford Dam is not a native trout fishery; nor, is it considered a destination fishery. However, this artificially created fishery is the only trout water in the immediate Atlanta area. Running directly through the City of Atlanta, the ‘Hooch is a tailwater fishery that begins at Lake Sidney Lanier below Buford Dam. The Chattahoochee is better known as the ‘Hooch to locals. River temperatures range between 52 and 58 degrees the majority of the year between Buford Dam and Morgan Falls Dam, located further downstream in the Roswell area. During the Winter months, the “Upper ‘Hooch” water temperatures often drop into the 40’s resulting in very slow fishing except when the “shad hatch” is coming through Buford Dam. The area just below Buford Dam is predominantly a midge fishery requiring light tippets and very small flies. Any area that just received a fresh stocking will find eager fish willing to take almost anything thrown in their direction.

Claims of large numbers of “wild” Browns are greatly exaggerated as there is limited reproduction in the ‘Hooch. But there are good number of holdovers remaining from previous stockings. During low water years, in the limited number of gravel areas, natural reproduction of Browns does take place. Sadly, these areas are not protected in any way to further enhance the fishery.

Hatchery supported with abundant small Rainbows, the Chattahoochee River below Lake Lanier and Buford Dam is classified by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources as a year around trout fishery. Without hatchery support, trout fishing would be hard pressed to exist in the Chattahoochee below Buford Dam. Night fishing is not allowed on the ‘Hooch primarily for safety reasons. Water release schedules are set by the Corps of Army Engineers at Buford Dam and can vary daily. A phone number (770-945-1466) is available to check the daily water release schedule. Tables are available that predict the rise and fall of released water at any location on the river, as well as showing access points. The 48-mile stretch of river from Buford Dam to Standing Peachtree Creek is managed by the National Park Service.

Officially, the ‘Hooch is the southern most trout water in the United States. Very limited trout reproduction takes place in the Chattahoochee below Buford Dam (due to river siltation and lack of available habitat protection). This has been a hot subject of discussion and attempts at documentation in recent years. Very few large Browns are caught in the Upper ‘Hooch on an annual basis. An angler may fish for years before landing a Brown in the 18″ or greater range. The state record Brown however was caught on a spin fishing rig in the Upper ‘Hooch a few years ago which exceeded 18#’s. The larger previously stocked holdover Browns are there but they are very far and few between. Rainbows seldom reach any significant size due to the state supported put-and-take philosophy. SNIT’s (small nine inch trout) and fish up to 12-14″ are the predominant daily catch.

With the addition of a Delayed Harvest section located on the “Lower ‘Hooch” below Sope Creek near Morgan Falls Dam in the year 2000, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has created a Fall through Spring fishery that is single hook, catch and release only, between the dates of November 1 and May 14th. Heavy stocking of hatchery fish from the Buford Trout Hatchery just prior to November 1, continuing on throughout the delayed harvest period, is the only means of supporting this fishery. Hot Atlanta summer months raises the water temperatures below Morgan Falls to the point that trout can not survive unless they can find a cool underwater spring flowing into the river. Thus, anglers are permitted to harvest trout anytime after May 14 in the Delayed Harvest section.

Cohutta Wilderness Area

The Conasauga River system is the most westerly of the drainages that contain trout waters on public land in Georgia.

It also contains some of the most pristine and rugged lands in the Peach State. At the core of this trout fishery is the 34,000-acre Cohutta Wilderness Area, the largest federally mandated, roadless tract in the eastern United States. The wilderness area is located within the larger Cohutta Wilderness Management Area (WMA) that stretches across Fannin, Gilmer, and Murray counties and is managed by the state of Georgia. This preserve covers over 95,000 acres, making it the largest WMA in the state. The bulk of these managed lands is owned by the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Chattahoochee National Forest.

All of the trout streams in the river system that are on public land are located on the Cohutta WMA. From stream valleys at 1500 to 1800 feet above sea level, the surrounding Cohutta Mountains rise steeply to heights of over 4000 feet. This primitive land is populated by white-tailed deer, wild hogs, black bears, and a host of smaller animals. As would be expected, the wild and inaccessible nature of the area makes for some exciting trout-fishing opportunities.

To make the angling even more appealing, the fact that much of the water is difficult to reach means the creeks get only light fishing pressure. This is the domain of the angler who doesn’t mind walking a few miles to find wild, stream-bred rainbows and browns that are rarely accosted by fishermen.

Conasauga River

Conasauga Creek GA
Conasauga Creek

The Conasauga River is the most pristine major trout stream located in Georgia. In fact, several years back Trout magazine, the national publication of Trout Unlimited, named the Conasauga one of the top 100 trout streams in the United States. Rising in the southern portion of the Cohutta Wilderness Area, the stream attains the volume to be considered a large stream as it flows north to the Alaculsy Valley.

From its headwaters to the exit from the wilderness area, the Conasauga flows through a valley untouched by human activity for several decades. No buildings, agricultural fields, or even road crossings are located on this upper section of the river. As a result, even during periods of heavy rains when the river rises, the Conasauga very seldom is stained. On one weekend during a rainy April, I found the river out of its bank, flowing through the streamside trees. Yet, I still managed to catch several trout with dry flies from water that was only slightly discolored.

In all, there are roughly 15 miles of the Conasauga in the Cohutta Wilderness Area. These waters teem with wild rainbow trout and also produce some wild browns. Rainbows up to 20 inches turn up occasionally, and browns to 9 pounds have been recorded over the years.

Although the fish are plentiful, it does not follow that the fishing is easy. Another result of the natural setting of the river is that the water quality is excellent—and it is extremely clear. Especially during low-water periods in the summer and fall the flow appears transparent. It is possible to walk up on pools and find as many as a dozen fish visible. Of course, the trout can see you about as well as you can see them. One unguarded step along the creek bank sends them scurrying for cover.

To fish the Conasauga effectively requires a great deal of stealth and stalking. Fortunately, portions of the stream bed have plenty of large boulders that provide cover for the cautious angler. Except in the headwaters there is also adequate casting room available.

Although the Conasauga Valley is often crowded with hikers and backpackers during the spring through fall on weekends, very few of these will be anglers. Many of these campers have a spinning rod with them, but they seldom fish much and rarely with great success. Needless to say, the Conasauga is not a place for the novice angler. The fishing is challenging, but can be very rewarding to the fly caster.

The Conasauga is open to fishing under general trout regulations during the state season from the end of March to the end of October. During the rest of year only artificial lures may be used.

There are two stretches of water downstream of the wilderness area that are on Forest Service land and, thus, open to public fishing. By the time the river reaches this area it is beginning to become marginal trout water. There is also some private land on the river separating these tracts in the Alaculsy Valley. The only road access to the Conasauga is found in the valley via the road that is variously marked on maps as FS 16, County Road 103, or Old GA 2.

Further upstream in the wilderness area the only access to the Conasauga is via foot trails. The Conasauga River Trail parallels the stream through most of the wilderness. Its trailhead is located on FS 64 in Betty Gap. Along the length of the river, three other trails descend from the west off FS 17 to intersect the river trail. From south to north they are the Chestnut Lead (2.0 miles), Tearbritches Trail (4.0 miles and extremely steep), and Hickory Creek Trail (3.0 miles). Primitive camping is allowed all along the river.

Jacks River

jacks-river-georgia
Jacks River

The Jacks River is the major tributary of the Conasauga in the headwaters region, and, in fact, it is a slightly larger stream than the Conasauga. The two rivers flow parallel, with the Jacks on the east.

The Jacks is formed by its West and South forks that join near Dyer Mountain on U.S. Forest Service land within the Cohutta WMA, but upstream of the Wilderness Area. Both of these forks have populations of wild brown and rainbow trout, but are small and bushy creeks. Although possible, fly-casting is very tight on these headwaters.

After crossing a patch of privately held land below the junction of the two forks, the Jacks enters the Cohutta Wilderness Area as a medium-width stream. For the next 15 miles it descends a valley covered with poplar and hemlock trees, and the river gains much in size. Throughout the wilderness area the river presents wide-open water for the fly rodder.

The Jacks River rivals its sister stream, the Conasauga, in number of fish, and probably produces a larger average fish. Rainbows of 12 to 14 inches turn up regularly and browns up to 9 pounds have been caught as well. Of equal importance to the angler is the fact that trout of 9 to 11 inches are common. As in the case of the Conasauga, all the fish are wild, since no stocking has taken place on these waters since the 1960s.

A common pattern for fishing the Jacks throughout the season is to hit the deep slow pools in the early morning before the mist rises off the water. Probe these with a big size 8 or 10 weighted stone fly nymph. The rainbows usually attack the nymph viciously and an occasional brown will also show up. Once the sun burns off the mist, switch to dry flies like the Royal Wulff or Adams and hit the riffle areas between the pools. Using this pattern, up to 20 or 30 fish can be landed and released on a good day.

Access along the river is via the Jacks River Trail, which follows the bed of a turn-of-the-century railway used to haul timber out of the valley. In places the railroad cross ties are still visible sticking out of the trail, and bits of twisted cable and other ancient debris are also present. Near the midpoint of the trail the river drops over the extremely scenic, 60-foot Jacks River Falls.

This is one area that generally is crowded due to the number of campers present. Most are swimming or wading in the river rather than fishing. As with the Conasauga, a relatively small number of the people making the trek to the stream come for the fishing. The campsites around the falls are another area that the Forest Service identifies as threatened by overuse. A better choice is to camp either up- or downriver from this area and pay the falls a visit while fishing.

The Jacks River Trail begins at Dally Gap on FS 22, reaches the river at the mouth of Bear Branch, then continues downstream to the junction with the Conasauga River. The trail crosses the Jacks 44 times during this descent, with many crossings up to waist deep. The Hemp Top/Penitentiary Branch Trail, which also originates in Dally Gap, is a 6-mile trail that approaches the river from the east about a mile above the Jacks River Falls. Finally, the relatively level 3-mile Beech Bottom Trail runs from FS 62 in Tennessee, crosses the state boundary, and joins the river trail just upstream of the falls. This last trail is by far the easiest approach to the falls.

The only access by road to the Jacks is at its junction with the Conasauga on FS 16 or in the headwaters at a couple of points just off FS 64 on either the South or West forks.

Holly Creek

holly-creek-georgia
Holly Creek

Holly Creek is a medium to small stream located just on the southern edge of the Cohutta WMA. It has the distinction of being the only stream in the Cohuttas that receives regular stockings of hatchery trout.

Roughly two miles of the creek are on public land and the flow is paralleled by FS 18. In the lower section of the creek the road runs immediately beside the stream and some large deep pools attract plenty of bait casters and swimmers. This is the portion that is heavily stocked with catchable rainbows, browns, and occasional brook trout.

Upstream from this area, the creek leaves the road and courses through a ravine. Through here wild rainbows predominate. A small feeder stream, Emery Creek, will enter from the north about 0.25 mile above the road. Emery offers some tight fishing for abundant wild trout in the 6- to 8-inch range. Both Holly and Emery creeks are open to year-round fishing.

Although the road is still close to the stream through the ravine, it is high up the ridge. Further upstream, the creek and road come back together, but the headwaters of Holly Creek are on the south side of the road, outside the WMA and on private property.

After exiting the WMA at the lower boundary, Holly Creek quickly becomes marginal water as it runs through private lands to empty into the Conasauga, which has looped through Tennessee and is now flowing to the south.

 

Mountain Streams

Just a short drive from downtown Hiawassee, GA, you will find some of the best trout streams in the southeast. In the Appalachian mountain area of northeastern Georgia and western North Carolina flow many of the most productive wild trout waters in the U.S. These streams start in the high country and run through some of the only old growth forests left in this part of the country. A two or three day trip into these areas, equipped with a 6′ or 7′, 2 or 3 wt. fly rod can be extremely memorable and rewarding.

Most anglers are not aware that in the state of Georgia flow nearly 4,000 miles of trout waters, more than half of which lie in the Chattahoochee National Forest in northern Georgia. The streams are typically small, clear creeks, difficult to access, but loaded with deep pools and hungry trout.

Brook trout have been on the decline in Georgia streams for years and most streams are augmented from the stocking of rainbow trout. Most Georgia trout streams have special regulations.

Some of the finest trout waters in Georgia are Dicks, Noontootla and Waters Creeks, and the West Fork of the Chattooga, Jacks, Conasauga, Toccoa and the Chattahoochee Rivers.

Except for the Toccoa and Chattahoochee Rivers, both tailwaters, anglers can get by with ultra-light spinning gear or lightweight fly fishing rods and hip waders. An 8-foot, 4-weight would work on most Georgia streams although you could go shorter on the small creeks and larger on the tailwaters.

The Chatooga River

Thanks to the Rabun County Trout Unlimited chapter and the work they are doing in the area, this river is rapidly becoming an excellent brown trout fishery. The Chatooga River has everything the fly fishing enthusiast could dream of – starting at a trickle in the higher elevations and flowing into a crescendo of Class 4 rapids. This river is where the movie “Deliverance” was filmed!

The Hiwassee River

hiawassee-river-georgia
Hiawassee River

This is possibly the best river in the South. Its headwaters begin in the northeast Georgia mountains. Running through mostly private property in this area, it then flows into Lake Chatuge on the Georgia/North Carolina border. Flowing out of Lake Chatuge it becomes tailrace water that provides an excellent habitat for both trout and aquatic insects. As the river flows through North Carolina, it holds an excellent population of rainbows and some rather large brown trout. In April and May it is nothing to land 30 to 40 fish in a good afternoon. This time of the year is the season for magnificent caddis fly hatches. On the Hiwassee River you are as close as it gets to a western river in the South.

The Nantahala River

nantahala-river-georgia
Nantahala River

The Nantahala River in western North Carolina is one of the most scenic rivers in the U.S. It is habitat to an awesome number of very large rainbows and browns. This area has some of the largest stoneflies anywhere in the U.S. as well as the only green drake hatch in the area.

The Toccoa River

Toccoa River GA
Toccoa River

The upper reaches of the Toccoa River are made up of many small streams, one being the Noontula Creek. Here you will find the fishing to be difficult due to the downed trees in the creek, but aren’t challenges fun? This small stream has a good population of large, brown trout. It also offers a state trophy trout water area.

As the Noontula flows into the Toccoa River it becomes a larger, more fishable body of water. A few miles downstream it flows into Blue Ridge Lake. As it leaves Blue Ridge Lake, it becomes a large, tailrace river offering everything you can imagine for great trout fishing. The Toccoa River has some of the truly great hatches of blue wing olives and other mayflies. This river is a great place to fish from a single man float tube or pontoon craft as you see so much out West.

Cumberland Island

cumberland-island-georgia
Cumberland Island

One in a long string of barrier islands protecting the southeastern seaboard of the United States, 16 mile long and three mile wide Cumberland Island sprawls along the southern Georgia coast. St. Andrews Inlet, Georgia’s largest, lies to the north. St. Mary’s Inlet slices Cumberland Island from Amelia Island to the south. Cumberland Sound and thousands of acres of fertile salt marsh separates Cumberland from the Georgia mainland.

As you approach Cumberland Island from the mainland the expanse of this salt marsh impresses you with its size and subtle beauty. The island cloaks itself mostly with dense live oak forests, which blend into the dune and beach areas along the ocean side. Some of the dunes rise as much as 50 feet above sea level. Although the island has a long history of human settlement, today it is mostly uninhabited. Walking along the old roads you’ll get a true feeling of wilderness, especially when you see some of the plentiful wildlife the island supports.

In the 1500’s the Spanish released horses on Cumberland. There are still about 200 wild horses there today, roaming freely as they wish. It’s a strange feeling to be surf-casting off the beach and see (and hear!) these large beasts grazing along the dunes behind you.

Calusa Indians had settled on Cumberland at least 3,000 years ago, attracted by the rich fish and shellfish resources of the island, marshes, and surrounding waters. Many of their middens remain, composed primarily of oyster shells, and identifiable by the alkaline loving cedar trees which grow around them. Farming, logging, and other commercial activities on the island ended in 1972 when the National Park Service began administering it as a national seashore.

The Salt Marshes

Late one autumn afternoon, a spring tide begins to flood the grasses of the salt marsh. A fiddler crab leaves its burrow and climbs a cordgrass stem, searching in the leaf nodes for the bits of organic matter it uses as food. Intent upon its feeding, it fails to notice a redfish working its way through the flooded grasses. The redfish detects a bit of movement, and in an instant the hapless crab disappears into the redfish’s maw, its fate sealed by the crushers in the fish’s throat.

The salt marshes provide one of the most unique fly rod fisheries imaginable on spring tides during the late spring, summer, and early fall. Hungry redfish enter the flooding marsh searching for crabs. As they wallow through the grass, they can be sightfished. Although most any fly will work, crab patterns are the fly of choice. These fish average from six to eight pounds.

Redfish, seatrout, and flounder can all be caught in Cumberland Sound and the many tidal creeks that flow through the marsh. The water is loaded with sediment and is quite dark, so flies which push water or make some type of noise are preferred.

Those with a taste for blue crabs can catch them in the marsh, too. A fish head or a chicken back tied to a line and tossed into the water will attract the crabs. Slowly pull the line in until the crabs are in net range and scoop them up with a deft move. Five or six big ones, boiled in a little seawater, will make a gourmet appetizer for two people for most any meal.

These salt marshes on the western side of Cumberland Island (over 10,000 acres of them) are one of the most productive habitats on earth, with ten times the fertility of an equal area of cultivated wheat. The prodigious growth of Spartina grasses support a vast and commercially valuable fishery and shellfishery, as well as an incredibly diverse number of air-breathing vertebrates. Cumberland Island is on the Atlantic Flyway and from fall through spring the marshes are alive with migratory shorebirds. Dolphins, mink, raccoons, and other mammals are found here as well. Due to the exceptional fertility of this marsh an angler will find an exploration of this area well worth his time.

The Beaches

Schools of finger mullet stream along the beach, turning the water black as they head south in response to shorter days and cooling waters. Hungry predators follow- jack crevalle, king mackerel, redfish, sharks, and others. At frequent intervals hundreds of mullet leap skyward in terror, showering out of the water, trying to escape the death that lunges after them from below.

Sadly, (from an angler’s perspective, at least) the beach at Cumberland slopes rather gently. Consequently surf fishing there usually is not what it otherwise might be. During the mullet run though, the waters teem with fish. I’ve seen kingfish skyrocketing mullet within casting distance of the beach. Jacks are frequent catches. Redfish make up part of the catch, too. We got plenty of action from jacks with popping bugs and from reds with the various large streamers.

Cumberland’s beach runs the length of the island. The dunes lining the western side of the beach are incredibly beautiful, especially around sunrise and sunset. Already mentioned are the horses that graze on the beach, ignoring you while you fish or look for shells. The horses prefer the beach during the spring and early summer to take advantage of tender new growth sprouting from the dunes.

Other animals also use the beach. Various shorebirds including terns and black skimmers nest there. Loggerhead sea turtles also nest on Cumberland’s beaches. Wading birds feed in the surf. Ghost crab holes are common, and you will see plenty of raccoon tracks and maybe a marsh rabbit as you walk along.

Four hundred feet above the water’s surface an osprey soars, searching unceasingly for a fish with which to feed its young. It spies a school of mullet near the surface and pauses, gauging the wind and direction of the fish. Tucking its wings the bird stoops, accelerating until just before hitting the water it thrusts out its talons, crashing into the water with incredible force. Feet strike scales and talons close, trapping one of the mullet in a vise-like grip. The osprey struggles for a moment, trying to get airborne again before finally lifting with its prize. Slowly gaining altitude, it pauses to shake off some excess water before it heads back to its nest.

Extending seaward from Cumberland’s southern end like a long bony finger is the jetty that protects the ship channel running the length of Cumberland Sound. The submarines based at the Kings Bay Naval Station, located on the western side of the sound, need a deep channel for access to the Atlantic. In addition to providing egress for these subs, the jetty and channel serve as the finest kinds of fish attractors.

Seasons of Cumberland

Sheepshead, black drum, flounder, redfish, and seatrout all provide a year-round fishery around these rocks. The redfish are often big breeders and sometimes top 40 pounds. Most of the local anglers fish with shrimp or other bait around the rocks and often do quite well. Flycasters will need at least a 400 grain sinking line, a big fly, and a plentiful supply of perseverance here.

Fish move through on a seasonal basis, too. Big oceanic jacks show up during the summer and can top 40 pounds. Fly tackle provides maximum sport, although a large hookless popping plug may be needed to excite them into striking.

Tarpon patrol the jetty all summer long, with some fish exceeding 100 pounds. Only a few locals try for these fish, usually by using mullet for bait. I imagine that these fish could be chummed up, although I don’t know of anyone who has tried this here.

Spanish mackerel, bonito, and bluefish all show up at various times. The bonito are summer visitors, the blues prefer the cooler months, and the Spanish mackerel like the transition seasons. All of these species are excellent fly rod fare. There’s also excellent fishing offshore for kingfish, cobia, dolphin, and other species which I haven’t sampled. The island is big and I’ve yet to explore it all. I’ve never even visited St. Andrews Sound. Here the Cumberland, Satilla, and Little Satilla Rivers all join and empty into the Atlantic, forming the largest inlet in Georgia. You don’t need a Ph.D. in fisheries science to realize that an inlet like this will attract a lot of fish. Maybe you and I will meet up there.

Alex’s fish never slowed in its run. His line suddenly went slack. He told us that the fish was gone as he reeled in his line. The hook had just pulled out.

Alex wants to go back to Cumberland Island for that fish. I want to go back, too. Anyone who loves natural places and the beauty, respite, thrills, and memories they provide owes it to themselves to visit Georgia’s coastal gem- Cumberland Island.

Georgia Fly Fishing Articles & Resources

Fly Fishing West Georgia reports
www.flyfishga.com/report.htm

Georgia Outdoor News Fishing Section
Some useful articles and reports for various rivers, lakes and streams.
www.gon.com

georgiafishing.net
Fishing St Simons Island from Captain Mark Noble
www.georgiafishing.net

River Through Atlanta
More information about the trout fishery of the Chattahoochee from a local guide

About the Chattahoochee River

North Georgia Trout Online Message Board
Active forum for fly fishing and fishing reports in Georgia. NGTO is an electronic periodical dedicated to the sport of trout fishing and the conservation of trout habitat in North Georgia and the Southern Appalachians.
www.georgia-outdoors.com/ngto/index.html

The Fish Hawk
279 Buckhead Ave, Atlanta, GA 30305, 404-237-3473
www.thefishhawk.com

Unicoi Outfitters
7280 S. Main Street, Helen, Georgia 30545, (706) 878-3083
www.unicoioutfitters.com/

Reel Em In Guide Service
2490 Sharondale Dr. NE, Atlanta, Georgia 30305-3808, 404-412-0250
www.reeleminguideservice.com/

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