September 04, 2021
North Georgia’s Toccoa River begins its northbound journey starting as many icy trickles in rhododendron-tangled hollows high up in the Chattahoochee National Forest. Step-across tributaries containing remnant Southern Appalachian-strain brook trout gather strength and size, flowing many miles before ultimately forming rainbow and brown trout habitat. eventually they fill the reservoir known as Lake Blue Ridge.
Lake Blue Ridge near the beautiful little mountain town of the same name is a thriving smallmouth bass and walleye fishery. Large trout also live in the depths, and rainbows make sporadic early spring runs up the river just before marauding smallmouths from the lake move upriver to take advantage of the baitfish and crayfish populations.
The big earthen Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) Blue Ridge Dam creates a medium-size tailwater, with both wild and stocked rainbow and brown trout. Some of these reach very large size, even though most fish run around 10 to 14 inches. For fly fishers, there is an abundance of opportunity. Whether you like backcountry hike-in solitude, combat fishing, wade fishing the scenic upper river, or floating the tailwater in a drift boat, this river system has it all.
The upper Toccoa River, which is the main source of water for Lake Blue Ridge, is an exceedingly beautiful piece of trout water. Large towering trees and huge rock outcroppings line the banks of this medium-size river, giving it the feel of a Northwest steelhead stream. The best wading is near the Sandy Bottoms Canoe Launch on Old Dial Road. This is on national forest land, and the road parallels the river for 2 miles to the lower boundary, providing good access.
The river at Sandy Bottoms is artificials-only, catch-and-release fishing from November 1 through May 1, and monthly stocking provides many uneducated fish for beginners. The river is wide and powerful here, with some big ledgerock and deep holes just begging for a big streamer. There are both trout and smallmouth bass here, so don’t be afraid to try some big articulated patterns to mimic the resident sculpin population.
A few lake-run fish move through here in the early spring, so don’t be surprised by a reel screamer every now and then if you are there at the right time. On one cool rainy day in February a few winters ago, I had a float trip on the upper Toccoa with two streamer-loving guys. We slipped the boat in and were catching a few smaller rainbows in the first couple of miles, then the guy in the back let out a string of expletives that would make a sailor blush. He had a big fish follow his fly right to the boat, but no take. I immediately backrowed upstream and dropped the anchor. We sat there about five minutes and then drifted the boat into position for another shot. The fish took on the first cast, and turned out to be a powerful rainbow of about 23 inches. We continued downriver and caught four more lake-run fish pushing 24 inches that evening, which is exceptional for the Toccoa. We had hit it just right. The small run of fish from the lake doesn’t last more than about two weeks, so timing is critical. It’s usually February, but I’ve hit it in mid-March too.
This piece of water is also excellent for trout Spey tackle, which helps access areas that are tougher to wade and fish. Large ledgerocks and deep holes are the norm here. The river is best for wading when the flow is 350 cubic feet per second (cfs) or below. From 350 cfs to about 700 cfs, I prefer to float it in a drift boat or raft. In flows above 700 cfs, you’re no longer fishing effectively—it’s just a fast boat ride. The water flow reading for the Upper Toccoa is available on the Valley Stream Flow section of tva.com or at usgs.gov.
The lower tailwater section of the Toccoa River below Blue Ridge Dam is actually within the city limits of Blue Ridge, Georgia. Cold water from the bottom of the lake provides 15 miles of fly-fishing paradise for floating fly fishers. If you wade the river, use tva.com and be familiar with the river flow and forecast. Don’t get into the water if you aren’t sure when the river will rise.
The first public access point is directly below the dam, where there is a deep hole holding everything from trout to walleyes to large- and smallmouth bass. Olive-and-white or chartreuse-and-white Clouser Minnows can produce some surprises.
The grass and weeds right below the deep water can hold a lot of fish, and this is where you should keep an eye out for rising trout. Most of the time, it’s a midge hatch that brings the fish to the surface. A simple Griffith’s Gnat and accurate casting will do the trick on top, and a Black Zebra Midge is deadly as a dropper under a dry fly.
The next access downstream is Tammen Park. There is a boat ramp here to launch drift boats and rafts, and about a half mile of water to wade. At Tammen Park you can still look upstream and see the dam, and some of the best fishing is near and under the Route 515 bridge. The river here has produced hundreds of fish, and sometimes big fish, for me over the years. There is a massive black caddis (Brachycentrus) hatch on the Toccoa River, usually around the last week of February, and from Tammen Park downstream is the best stretch to take advantage of it. Swinging a black soft-hackle seems to be the best producer at this time of year.
The TVA Curtis Switch Park is the next public access point, about 7 river miles or a full day float downstream from the dam. Between Tammen Park and Curtis Switch, there is some great dry-fly fishing when the generators are off. Sulphur fishing is usually really good here in May, with heavy hatches and trout on the surface almost every day. Sulphur Parachutes in size 16 or 18 will do the deed. If you don’t have a boat, Curtis Switch Park gives you about a mile of nice riffles to wade fish. My favorite run is just down from the boat ramp around the little rock island. It takes about two hours for water released from the dam to get here, so plan accordingly.
Ron Henry Horseshoe Bend Park near McCaysville, Georgia, is about 7 river miles downstream from Curtis Switch. It’s a good full-day float. Horseshoe Bend, an easy-to-wade area, has a boat launch and about another mile of nice riffle and run water to fish. May through September, it’s also the home of Pickin’ in the Park, so you might get treated to some free music under the park pavilions.
A tan Elk-hair Caddis with a Prince or small Copper John dropper will always catch some rainbows or browns, but the river between Curtis Switch and Horseshoe Bend Park can be a streamer chucker’s dream. Some of the wild browns, in particular, reach very large sizes due to the abundant baitfish and plentiful small stocked trout. In this tailwater, small flies catch many small fish, but the old adage “big flies catch big fish” is a good rule to live by.
Chocklett’s Rainbow Game Changers, olive Sculpzillas, and olive Kiwi Muddlers (#4) are always good choices. When the water is high and dirty, a #4 white Polar Changer is awesome too. This tailwater is perfect for trout Spey and a blast for swinging soft-hackles or big streamers. You don’t have to use tiny tailwater flies here, but you can. The Toccoa has something for everyone, no matter what type of fly fisher you are. You can blue-line the tiny tributaries, chuck streamers for the trophy of a lifetime, or you can match the hatch on the tailwater for exceptional emergences of midges, Sulphurs, and black caddis. The choice is up to you.
Exploring the Tributaries
Southern summers are famous for hot, humid days followed by almost daily evening thunderstorms in the mountains. Those heavy deluges provide just enough cool water for our high-elevation trout to make it through the heat of an August day in the southern Appalachians. The Toccoa River’s gin-clear tributaries flow mostly northward, with many trees shading them from the glaring summer sun. Nighttime lows in the summer can dip into the high 50s where the tributaries begin, providing a continuous supply of cold water for these creeks. The Toccoa has three main tributaries with great public access.
Coopers Creek located off Hwy 60 near Suches, Georgia, is a small stream of exceptional beauty. Huge trees and boulders line the banks of this creek, making the surrounding forest look like something out of a Harry Potter movie. There is a hidden stand of massive old growth virgin timber in this watershed. Only a few folks know this place. My wife Becky showed it to me one summer morning while we were fly fishing for wild rainbows.
Coopers Creek contains both brightly colored wild and stocked rainbows and browns. It’s a great place for beginners to learn the ins and outs of small-stream fishing. Trout are stocked in the lower reaches of the creek almost weekly during the spring and summer, and it can be crowded on holidays and weekends. If you are willing to do a little bushwhacking, finding trout and solitude is not that hard.
The pull-outs along the road are numerous, and usually a trail leads to a good run or pool along Coopers Creek. A 7- or 8-foot, 3- or 4-weight fly rod usually fills the bill here, along with a few high-riding drys such as #12-14 Stimulators or Elk-hair Caddis. Prince Nymphs and Pheasant Tails are also productive. For newly stocked trout, junk food such as Y2K Bugs and San Juan Worms seem to attract more attention.
Rock Creek also flows off the high mountains near Suches. The Chattahoochee Forest National Fish Hatchery is here, and takes advantage of the cold water of the stream for its trout-rearing operation. The hatchery stocks lots of trout through the spring and summer, and most pull-offs along Rock Creek Road are near holes deep enough to hold lots of fish.
The newly stocked fish will destroy your favorite egg pattern, San Juan Worm, or Prince Nymph. A Hare’s-ear Nymph swung as a dropper under a big Yellow Stimulator is a killer option. Bring a short 6- or 7-foot, 2- or 3-weight rod in addition to a good roll cast. This small creek is overgrown, and you won’t be casting far. There are also wild fish in Rock Creek, but you need to hike away from the road to find them.
Noontootla Creek in the Blue Ridge Wildlife Management Area is as about as nice as a Georgia freestone can get. Forest Service Road 58 follows the entire stream, from the lower boundary all the way to the top of the mountain. At this elevation, a series of tiny trickles come together to form the main stream of the creek. The Appalachian Trail crosses the creek here on wooden footbridges at the Three Forks junction. There is a parking area at Three Forks, and small tributaries that beg to be explored with high-riding dry flies like Thunderheads, Yellow Palmers, and Yallarhammers, which are classic Smoky Mountain patterns. Other old Peach State patterns—which were circulating through the old, dented Perrine fly boxes of my youth—include Gray Squirrel and Rough Creek Caddis drys. These are all high-floating dry flies and they’re easy to see in the sometimes dim light of these deep ravines and rhododendron-lined creeks.
Brown, rainbow, and brook trout thrive in Noontootla Creek. This stream is seldom unfishable due to rain or flooding. Almost every pull-out on the gravel road leads to a nice run or plunge pool. By fishing and walking the creek from your vehicle all the way upstream to the next pull-out, you’ll get away from the road and into the best fishing. Some of the more inaccessible areas will take many hours to fish through properly.
There are some large fish for a small creek. One of the larger browns I’ve caught was in one of the tributaries of the “Toot,” as locals affectionately call it. Only about two runs up from the junction pool, I used a bow-and-arrow cast to flick an Adams dry fly into some dark water at the head of a plunge pool. The fly hadn’t even started floating downstream yet when I saw a big buttery golden head come up out of the water and inhale my fly. I almost forgot to set the hook, I was so stunned by the size of the fish. Immediately the fish turned downstream and blew by me as I struggled to get out of the way.
The trout made it to the main stream and made a left turn, with me still in tow dodging bushes and logs on the way. There was a small gravel bar at the mouth of the creek, and I made up some ground in the deeper junction pool. The big brown bottomed out right there and dogged for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, I was able to get my tiny net under part of him, and he was a solid 22 inches. Normally we don’t see fish like that in our small creeks, but that big dude was an exception!
The fishing regulations on this stream are artificial lures, catch-and-release only, which provides time for the fish to reach full maturity. In the north Georgia mountains we have approximately 4,000 miles of trout streams. About half of those creek miles are cool enough for the trout to make it through the summer and survive without having to migrate upstream looking for cooler water, and only about 100 miles have any sort of protective regulations, so the catch-and-release section of the Noontootla is a very special place for Georgia fly fishers looking for big, wild trout. Downstream of the national forest boundary, Noontootla Creek flows through private property, so don’t be tempted to fish farther downstream.
David Hulsey and his wife Becky operate the Blue Ridge Fly Fishing School (hulseyflyfishing.com).