By Nathaniel H. Axtell
If you look at any map of Georgia — even a broad-scale travel atlas — it appears that the Peach State is one big spaghetti platter of roads. Virtually the entire northern tier of the state is crisscrossed by highways, ranging from one-lane gravel paths to six-lane racetracks pouring out of Atlanta.
Then you notice a lone chunk of national forest land north of Ellijay that is virtually roadless. If you look a little bit closer, you notice that two sizable streams — the Conasauga and the Jacks rivers — emanate from this unroaded tract. For a trout fisherman who hates the crowds and trash that road access brings, this island of green calls for a visit.
Its name? The Cohutta-Big Frog, the largest contiguous tract of wilderness in the East. With a combined acreage of 45,059 acres, these two wild areas comprise some of the last large, unroaded places in the southern Appalachians. In other words, the perfect place to immerse yourself in wildness and wild trout, without the combat fishing that surrounds many fisheries.
Drawn by the promise of crowd-free angling, Steve Novak and I left Asheville in early April bound for the Cohutta’s largest stream, the Jacks. As we drove past Waynesville, thick cumulus clouds sprinkled snow on the highest peaks of the Smokies, dropping occasional ice pellets on the truck’s windshield. “Good thing we’re heading down in elevation,” Steve said, gazing up at the spectacle.
The Jacks begins at roughly 2,578 feet in the Cohutta Mountains near Dally Gap and drops to less than 1,000 feet downstream in Alaculsy Valley. This makes it perfect for an early spring fishing trip. We had planned to hike the Jacks River Trail down from the gap, but heavy rains had brought the river up and we were warned that rising water could prevent us from crossing some of the trail’s 42 fords.
“Even if you just get a good spring rain, it can get high enough to make it tough to cross,” Jimmy Jacobs had told me on the phone. Jacobs is a Georgia native and the author of Trout Fishing In North Georgia, a guidebook that ranks the Jacks as one of the premier backcountry fishing destinations in the East. “The best fishing is from the falls upstream, so you could try going in at Beech Bottom.”
That proved to be good advice. The Beech Bottom Trail is considered one of the easiest ways to access the Cohutta’s interior, dropping roughly 4 miles down an old roadbed to a level floodplain where Beech Creek meets the Jacks. It wasn’t a cakewalk under the weight of 60 pounds of backpacking and fishing gear, but the whole purpose of ‘troutpacking’ is to suffer: the farther in you go, the less fishing pressure and (theoretically, at least) the better the fishing.
Not that the Cohutta is an unpeopled paradise. To the contrary — the Forest Service estimates about 100,000 people visit the area each year, making it the most heavily used wilderness area in the southern Appalachians. But as Jacobs told me, “Most time you’re not going to have a lot of fishing pressure. It’s mostly backpackers or people dayhiking to see the falls.”
It took us only about two hours to hike in to Beech Bottom. We passed three backpackers and a large group of horse riders that were on their way out, but by the time we reached the banks of the Jacks we had the place entirely to ourselves. If you want the same peace and quiet, go on a weekday when rain is forecasted, as we did. The shoulder seasons of early spring and late fall are the best times to avoid crowds.
The river looked a little high from all the showers, but it was crystal clear and eminently fishable. The roadless nature of the Jacks drainage keeps the river unpolluted from silt and high in insect activity. Within minutes of arriving, our tent flies were dotted with midges, caddisflies and big golden stoneflies. We anxiously threw up the tents and cook tarp, rigged up our fly rods, and headed upstream with Steve’s trusty fishing dog, Willy.
In his classic book Even Brook Trout Get The Blues, writer John Gierach describes the typical black lab on a fishing excursion: “The worst wade ahead and trash the water and try to retrieve the fish, while the best sit on the bank emitting a pitiful, high-pitched whine all day.” Willy, however, bests the best. He actually locates fish for us, like some kind of cadaver-sniffing dog that can find corpses underwater. He creeps along the bank, smelling the water, and when he stops, you can just about follow his snout to a trout.
Some might consider this unsporting, but we still have to present our flies without spooking the trout and we still have to float our fur-and-feather facsimiles through their feeding lanes naturally. Even then, what we’re offering might not be what’s on their menu du jour.
Fortunately, there was a healthy hatch of Epeorus pleuralis mayflies coming off as we reached the first pool and Willy went on point. I drifted a #12 Quill Gordon dry through the run and was soon fast to a fiesty 9-inch rainbow, which jumped twice before yielding to my hand. Willy smiled smugly from the bank as if to say, “Told you so.”
According to Jacobs and other Jacks regulars, the Cohutta’s wild rainbow and browns aren’t too particular about what flies they’ll take. Attractor patterns like Royal Wulffs, Irresistibles, and Trudes will work under most conditions, especially in broken water, while nymph imitations such as Pheasant Tails, Hare’s Ears, and Princes are good for times when there are no hatching insects. Still, these fish aren’t pushovers and the clarity of the water makes long, fine leaders (9- to 11-feet tapering down to 5X or 6X) a must.
We moved upriver to a large pool where Steve cast his Adams Irresistible into the swift-moving current. There was a silvery flash, and suddenly his rod tip bent under the weight of a heavy fish. Then, just as quickly, the rainbow was off and Steve was reeling up to inspect the curly remains of his fluorocarbon tippet. “That one would’ve gone 12 or 13 inches,” I said. A few pools later, another good rainbow broke me off in a twisting leap from the water.
After catching about six nice trout apiece, we were losing daylight, so we hiked back down the old railroad grade to camp. Several times, I tripped over old wooden railroad ties in the dark, the remains of the Jacks River line that began hauling timber downstream in 1929, before the Depression hit and halted things for awhile. The railroads were dismantled in 1937, but their legacy is written boldly across the landscape: rusty iron cables half swallowed by tree growth, dynamite drills in rock faces, and ragged stumps sprouting from eroded soils.
We eschewed a campfire that night because there was no dead wood to be found; the area had been picked clean and nimrod campers had even hacked down some live (green) trees on the periphery of camp. We sat under the cook tarp in the fading light, watching the reflection of white serviceberry blooms shimmering on the river’s surface. Despite the logging, the crowds of uneducated campers, nature endured — but how much more abuse could it take?
After a stormy night of thunder, lightning and hard rain, we awoke at dawn to a steady drizzle thumping on our rain flies. We both lay in our tents, waiting for it to let up, but when it didn’t abate by noon, I climbed out and dashed under the cook tarp to put on my waders and rain jacket. Steve soon followed suit, grumbling about the leak in his waders. “Cold!” he yelped, pulling on the clammy nylon. Hot oatmeal and coffee soon warmed him up, though, and we set off to fish.
We hiked up a mile or so and dropped down a steep bank to the water. On my first cast, I hooked a 9-inch rainbow on a Royal Wulff in a long riffle colored green by algae-covered rocks. I was fishing a Prince nymph dropper off the back of the fly, a tandem rig designed to cover both top and bottom simultaneously, but the next mile of fishing brought no strikes. “That dropper doing anything?” Steve asked at one point.
“Nothing except messing up my loops,” I replied. At that instant, my Wulff bobbed under and I set the hook on a nice 10-inch brown trout. Message received, I thought: keep fishing the combo. Steve then proceeded to hook two 9-inch rainbows in a row on his Adam Irresistible, portending better fishing ahead. The rain was keeping the hatches to a minimum, but we picked up a dozen more fish in the next mile or so, most of them holding in the seams where fast and slow current collided.
By late afternoon, we’d worked our way upstream a piece and decided to head back to dry off and drink some coffee. But when we climbed up the steep bank to what we thought was the Jacks River Trail, it led off in an odd direction. We hiked up and down a stretch of trail, staring at the map and checking and rechecking our compass reading. “This doesn’t make sense,” Steve said. We were completely turned around — not lost, mind you, but definitely confused.
Finally, we decided to trust the compass and within a half-mile we were back to where we’d dropped down to the river that morning. What had seemed like a three-mile fish was more like a mile, and what seemed like away from the river was really towards it. “Feels like we just stepped out of a portal into another dimension,” Steve joked. Moral of the story? Always trust your compass, even when it seems wrong.
The next morning, we awoke to blue skies and pileated woodpeckers whooping in the canopy. I rigged up, Steve climbed into his soggy waders, and we were off for another day of fishing. We had not seen another angler in three days. I had decided to dredge the bottom with nymphs all day, in hopes of hooking one of the larger trout that had eluded us. Within an hour, I’d hooked three 9-inch rainbows in quick succession on a Fox Squirrel nymph, but still no brutes.
The rain had raised the water levels a little, so Steve and I targeted the eddies and slower current along the banks. The hunch paid off: Steve hooked a stout 11-inch rainbow in about two inches of water on the side of a swift run. It ran downstream, shaking its head like a playful puppy tugging on a sock. Steve rock-hopped after it, keeping his rod high but giving the fish line.
When the fish was sufficiently tired, Steve led it into a sandy eddy in the shade and revived it by holding it face-first in the cold current. Its gills pulsed with oxygen, its fins idling, until a ripple of energy coursed through its salmon-hued flanks and off it shot. “Beautiful!” Steve said, washing his hand off in the water. We couldn’t think of a better ending, so we broke down our rods and hiked back to camp. On the way, we stopped to admire some cut-leaved toothwort and rue-anemone blooming along the trail. Spring had finally arrived.
Want to go? Check out Tim Homan’s fine book, Hiking Trails of North Georgia for trail descriptions and Jimmy Jacob’s excellent guide,Trout Fishing In North Georgia for fishing advice. The Chattachoochee National Forest sells a topo map of the area (“Cohutta-Big Frog Wilderness”); call 706/695-6736. If you go, please practice Leave No Trace (visit www.LNT.org for details.)