By Nathaniel H. Axtell
Any trout fisherman who’s spent time on the water in the Southern Appalachians knows that our sport is skyrocketing in popularity. Ironically, the very qualities that draw anglers to mountain streams in record numbers — natural beauty, healthy fish populations, and the opportunity for solitude — are becoming harder to come by with every new fisherman who wades into the sport.
The National Survey for Recreation and the Environment found that almost 9 million people fished in the Southern Appalachians in 1992. Fishing pressure has risen sharply since then, thanks in part to a famous fly-fishing movie that came out the same year. Today, on mountain rivers such as the Watauga, Hiwassee, and Davidson, many prime pools resemble combat zones on weekends.
The phenomenal growth of fishing — particularly fly-fishing, the fastest growing segment of angling — has its good and bad aspects. The good, of course, is that more people are finding connections with the natural world, something we desperately need in a technology-driven world alienated from nature. If a few more people immerse themselves in mayfly hatches, riffles, and trout biology, that’s more people who have a stake in protecting the resource, right?
But there are many downsides to the growth, including greater fish mortality from improper handling, trampling of spawning beds, and overcrowded rivers. Often, weekend warriors uneducated about angling ethics make life miserable for their fellow fisherfolk by crowding their space or spooking fish. It’s enough to make even a die-hard trout angler consider hanging up his waders.
One alternative to the crowds is to buy some time on private water, which almost guarantees you’ll find some pools to call your own for an afternoon. Except the vast majority of anglers can’t afford to drop $100-$300 a pop for their own bucolic beat. Nor is privatizing fishing the American way.
There are, however, a few places in the mountains where the Average Joe can feel like he is fishing private water, without the big price tag. One of those places is Dukes
Creek, at the Smithgall Woods Conservation Area in Helen, Georgia. Operated by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Dukes Creek is managed under strict regulations to provide both a quality fishing experience and healthy populations of large trout, all within a hour’s drive of downtown Atlanta.
Fishing at Dukes Creek is by reservation only and is limited to a small group of anglers daily. During the off-season, from November through February, only 15 anglers are allowed on the water daily and the sessions are full-day (8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) From March 1 until October, 30 half-day sessions (sun-up to noon and 2 p.m. until sunset) are available on a first come, first come basis. Fishing is only allowed on Wednesday, Saturdays, and Sundays.
There are several miles of fishable water at Dukes Creek, so the maximum 15 anglers can spread out and find solitude, if they choose. Dukes is broken into four distinct segments: Section 1 begins outside the Visitor’s Center and runs upstream to a covered pavilion overlooking the stream. It is by the far the most popular, because of its proximity to the V.C. and because it fishes like a typical Appalachian freestoner, with classic pool-and-riffle structure.
Section 2 begins downstream of GA Alt. 75, and includes a mile of clearly marked private water that is off-limits. The creek levels out here, but local expert Mitchel Barrett claims it’s a great area to fish when summer rains have brought things up and stained the water. Starting below a concrete ford at the tail end of Section 2, Section 3 is known for its deep holes and big holdover browns. The lowermost segment, Section 4, also holds some big browns and is only lightly fished due to its inaccessibility.
All fish caught must be released, only artificial lures are allowed, and every hook in your possession must be barbless. If you think you might have a barb somewhere in your box, better leave it at home: Georgia’s game wardens will inspect your entire fly collection if they stop you and you’ll be fined $55 per barb! But if you follow the rules, Dukes Creek offers some of the most exciting angling in the region for the money. The only cost: a $2 parking pass.
That’s not to say the fishing is easy. Because it’s a catch-and-release stream, Dukes is home to some monster fish, but they’ve also seen every manner of fur-and-feather fakery drift past them in their tenure. “It’s a very moody-type stream,” said Hamp Cross, a Dukes Creek regular who guides for Unicoi Outfitters in Helen. “It depends a lot on the fishing pressure. If you’re the first person to the pools in the morning, it’s really good. But if it’s been trampled by people, it’s going to be tough fishing.”
Still, with a proper presentation and the right fly, it’s very possible to hook a fish in the 18- to 20-inch range. The biggest trout caught to date was an obese rainbow measuring 29 inches! Georgia’s DNR stocks fingerlings in the stream once a year, to augment the population of fat holdovers, and Cross says there’s good natural reproduction as well. “If you go in May or June and throw a yellow Humpy, you’ll catch lots of smaller fish, in the 6- to 12-inch range,” he said.
Fly selection is not terribly critical here, except when fish are keying in on specific hatches. Spring brings decent emergences of sulfurs, Hendricksons, and blue-winged olives, but caddisflies make up the bulk of the drift; a small elk-hair caddis with a hare’s ear or caddis pupa dropper is a good starting point. Summer is terrestrial time, with inchworms, ants, and beetles providing good sport into late fall, after which Glo-Bugs, San Juan worms, and midge imitations take over.
If there’s a downside to the progressive regulations on Dukes Creek, it’s that you have to take what you can get, and reservations are not always easy to come by. A case in point: my fishing partner, Steve, and I recently made a reservation weeks in advance for a Saturday in early March. The long-range forecast looked good: overcast, with temperatures in the low 50s. Perfect midging weather, yet cold enough to keep the crowds at bay.
Only when the day arrived, a low front moved through and dropped several inches of cold, steady rain on the Chattahoochee River drainage. When we started fishing, the creek had come up a little and was off-color. We managed to catch a few smaller rainbows in a deep pool in Section 1 before the stream became a roaring torrent of Yoo-Hoo-colored runoff.
“Should have seen it last week,” said “Yukon Mike,” a visiting angler from Anchorage, Alaska, as the three of us sought shelter from the deluge under one of Smithgall’s covered pavilions. “It was so low, their backs were sticking out of the water.” He claimed to have caught 27 trout, mostly on egg patterns.
High, off-color water is usually good for fishing on Dukes, since it mobilizes a lot of aquatic food and hides your presence from spooky fish. Barrett says woolly buggers and other streamers can fool big rainbows and browns during such times. But this was too much of a good thing. Steve and I were the only anglers that afternoon to bring trout to hand.
As we walked back down the road to the Visitor’s Center, a flock of juncos whirled through the misting rain in front of us, flashing their white tail feathers at us as they dove into a grove of hemlocks. Smithgall Woods is a sanctuary for more than crowd-weary fishermen; the 5,555 acres of oak, maple, and pine forest was designated a state Heritage Reserve by former Governor Zell Miller, protecting it from development in perpetuity.
The person we really have to thank for this special place and its unique angling opportunities is Charles Smithgall Jr., an Atlanta businessman who bought up 78 tracts to create his own private retreat. In 1994, the Nature Conservancy helped arrange a gift/purchase arrangement, whereby Smithgall got paid half of the land’s appraised value and the state got itself a first-rate park. Today, hikers, bikers, hunters, and fishermen owe Smithgall a great debt.
Dukes Creek may indeed be a model for how heavily-pressured trout streams will be managed in the future. Wooden steps lead down to the most popular pools, preventing soil compaction and erosion (which sends sediment into streams, choking aquatic life.) The three-day angling schedule gives trout populations time to rest and feed, and the DNR actively promotes angling ethics and proper release practices.
In 1989, Dukes Creek was named by Trout Unlimited members as one of the “Top 100 Trout Streams” in the United States. In 1999, it was featured in a Falcon Press book, America’s 100 Best Trout Streams, in which author John Ross wrote, “Fishing here is like visiting your rich uncle’s estate.” And if those accolades don’t impress you, just check out the photos of satisfied customers releasing huge trout on the bulletin board at the Visitor’s Center.
If you’d like to fish Dukes Creek, call 706/ 878-3087 for a reservation, but don’t plan on getting your first choice. The guides at Unicoi Outfitters in Helen (706/878-3083) are first-rate and can make a first-timer’s experience much more enjoyable.
Smithgall Woods offers activities for non-fishing spouses, too, including nature trails, wildlife viewing, and hiking and biking trails. Mr. Smithgall’s former lodge, a favorite spot for corporate retreats and family reunions, and a series of guest cabins are available for rent at a premium price. Those of lesser means can camp in a host of private or public campgrounds nearby.