March 09, 2023
By Karl Ekberg
A warm afternoon breeze was blowing from the South, and we were concerned that this might not be the best evening to find hatching Sulphurs. Still, we forged ahead through an area that sees little foot traffic, and found our way to the river after 30 minutes of hiking.
We chose a long, beautiful riffle that rolled into a long glide and back eddy on the far side of the river. It was absolutely perfect for hatching insects, and for trout waiting in ambush. We sat streamside waiting for the sun to settle behind the trees, and talked about our strategy for the evening. We planned to swing nymphs and soft-hackle emergers in tandem prior to the hatch, and then make long casts with dry flies to rising fish. It was a plan we’d used before, and that had produced many memorable evenings.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, a cool breeze arrived out of the northwest. The air temperature dropped slightly, and a few small dimples dotted the surface of the back eddy. The fish were now on the move, and our plan of attack began to unfold.
The first few fish were browns and rainbows in the 10- to 14-inch range. Then the hatch turned off, as did the fish, much to our disappointment. After 15 minutes, a microburst of bugs popped up, and the fishing was momentarily great, until the Sulphurs hit the pause button yet again.
We stopped fishing, and waited for another possible burst of bugs to bring the trout back up and enliven our evening. Many thoughts can wander through your mind while you’re awaiting the hatch—but you never expect a watery explosion that sounds like a bowling ball falling from the sky and into the river. Much to our surprise, on the edge of the back eddy, a female osprey popped out of the water with an enormous trout in her talons.
The rainbow trout’s great weight—the fish must have been over 20 inches—caused the bird great difficulty as she struggled to shake off the river water and get herself airborne again. But at last she hauled the trout out and glided directly past us at eye level, almost as if to say, “Should have been a little quicker.”
The hatch did start again, and we caught many more fish on dry flies until total darkness set in, but all of that seemed less important than witnessing that raw display of nature directly in front of us on the Wild & Scenic Chattooga River in South Carolina.
The Chattooga River carves its way more than 50 miles from the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina to Lake Tugaloo (or Bull Sluice Lake, as the locals call it) in South Carolina, and is fed by cold springs and mountain streams that rise on the high slopes of North America’s oldest mountain range. The cold water in this rugged, mountainous region makes the Chattooga one of the best trout streams in the South.
The Chattooga has many different personalities and characteristics, depending on where you fish it. Most people divide the river into five main sections, most of which are accessible through public and National Forest lands. If you are driving to the river, there are four bridge crossings—one in North Carolina, and the lower three, which cross the river and the state boundary between South Carolina and Georgia.
The Ellicott Rock Wilderness surrounds the northern section of the Chattooga River within South Carolina and up into North Carolina. The wilderness area spans portions of three states and is managed by the United States Forest Service in the Sumter, Nantahala, and Chattahoochee national forests of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia. It was designated by Congress in 1975 as part of the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Ellicott’s Rock itself is a survey marker bearing the inscription “N-G,” which Major Andrew Ellicott marked in 1811 as the boundary between North Carolina and Georgia. Ellicott’s survey was intended to stop the ongoing boundary disputes and armed conflicts between the two states—previously the state line had not been precisely established.
In 1813, two years after Ellicott’s survey, commissioners representing North Carolina and South Carolina marked a different large rock along the Chattooga River with the inscription “Lat 35 AD 1813 NC + SC” as the tri-state junction where the South Carolina and North Carolina state lines join. Both these markers remain in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness today, although they may be tough to find and would require a great deal of hiking.
The Chattooga River became a federally designated Wild & Scenic River in 1974. The designation includes about 57 miles of the river’s course from the mountains of North Carolina through the Ellicott Rock Wilderness. The Wild & Scenic section covers a river corridor of 15,432 acres. With its congressional recognition as Wild & Scenic, the Chattooga River became known as the “crown jewel” of the Southeast, and it was the first river east of the Mississippi to be so designated. Today, the Chattooga remains one of the longest free-flowing rivers in the entire region. Access to the Ellicott Rock Wilderness in South Carolina is upriver from the Chattooga River trailhead at Burrells Ford bridge.
In the upper river, moving with stealth and casting with precision is the name of the game, as the trout here are notorious for being shy and wary. Although stocked fish do occasionally make their way upriver, there is no stocking above the Burrells Ford bridge. Most of the fish here are wild.
These trout typically inspect your fly carefully, but at times, with thoughtful presentations and a little luck, these often large Chattooga browns will take a dry fly. Many fly fishers have returned with their tails between their legs after long days chasing these big fish on the upper stretches.
Streamer fishing in the upper reaches can be very productive. Large brown trout roam the immense pools, and you can sometimes spot individual fish from some of the vistas along the upper Chattooga River Trail.
The Chattooga is also home to a 2.2-mile section of “delayed-harvest” water, which begins immediately upstream of Russell bridge on South Carolina Highway 28. The special regulations are in effect from November 1 through May 14. During this time, the river is catch-and-release only.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the U.S. Forest Service partner to helicopter trout into this backcountry area every November. South Carolina’s Walhalla State Fish Hatchery raises thousands of trout, which range from 10 to more than 20 inches, for one of the greatest fly-fishing
events in the Southeast. This portion of the river gets trophy-size brook trout, rainbows with shoulders, and big, buttery brown trout. The stocking continues throughout the delayed-harvest season.
Access to the delayed-harvest area is along the Chattooga River Trail, which runs the entire length of the river in South Carolina from the Highway 28 bridge all the way to the Burrells Ford bridge and then into the Ellicott Rock Wilderness. The river hiking is easy to moderate in most areas along the upper river, although some stretches are more difficult.
There are two backcountry access points between the Highway 28 bridge and the Burrells Ford bridge. You can access the river on foot from Lick Log Falls, or by walking or four-wheel-drive on the Big Bend Trail. The Big Bend Trail offers a strenuous hike down to the river.
Throughout this backcountry area, there are plenty of primitive camping spots right along the river. Overnight through trips with camping along the river offer great weekend and multi-day opportunities. The whole backcountry area is filled with excellent riffles, pools, and deep runs, and most of them hold exceptional trout.
Burrells Ford Campground is an excellent primitive camping area right on the river, and it’s only a five-minute hike from the parking area located 2 miles off of South Carolina Highway 107 on Burrells Ford Road. From here, you can take the Chattooga River Trail heading south toward Big Bend, or north (upriver) into the Ellicott Rock Wilderness.
Both the campground and the bridge areas are regular stocking points for the nearby Walhalla Fish Hatchery. South of the campground, stocking via helicopter helps replenish large fish, and you will also likely find some wild stream-bred trout as well.
Beautiful high ridges embrace the river south of the campground, and hiking along the river trail is moderate to strenuous. Long runs, riffles, and some plunge pools characterize the Chattooga in the top end of the backcountry area.
Cycle of Hatches
The Chattooga is host to all the major Eastern hatches, and from the late winter through spring it can be a dry-fly-fishing paradise. Early to midwinter fishing with tandem nymph rigs can be very productive, with heavy stonefly anchors and small droppers in sizes 18 to 24. The river is clear at this time of year, and that means long, thin leaders to drop your nymphs to the river bottom quickly. The hatches and the dry-fly fishing get started with early winter stoneflies, and they come at a time when most of the country’s trout rivers are covered in snow and ice, or closed to fishing altogether.
Quill Gordons (Epeorus pleuralis) grace the river in late February and early March as the spring sunshine warms the water. They are the first major spring mayfly hatch. As the water of the Chattooga continues to warm up after the three-month winter, there is an explosion in mid-March of Brachycentrus caddis, followed by Hendricksons, March Browns, and Cahills. In May, the Chattooga hosts hatches of Sulphurs and Green Drakes, as well as Golden Stoneflies and Yellow Sallies.
The full circle of this hatch cycle means that many of the hatches are overlapping. You can choose to match the hatch on the Chattooga, but the variety of insects tends to keep the trout here open-minded, and they are rarely focused on just one insect.
Most hatches in the late spring happen during cool evenings. The river’s early evening hatches are magnificent and will bring great numbers of fish to the surface. Careful presentations will reward you with numerous fish. Stay until dark to experience the best fishing. A headlamp—or at least a flashlight—is a definite must on afternoon treks to the river.
When things heat up in early June, aquatic insect hatches go quiet, although you can find fish with terrestrial patterns such as hoppers, beetles, ants, and attractor patterns including Red Leg Hoppers and Chubby Chernobyls. On the upper river, the most effective strategy often involves using these big drys as strike indicators in a hopper/dropper setup, with a size 18 or smaller tungsten bead dropper nymph. Focus on early morning. And of course, during hot periods when water temperatures reach into the high 60s, stop fishing altogether, or head to the lower river to target warmwater fish.
In September, the water begins to cool off during the night, and good trout fishing returns, with water temperatures in the mid-50s. Fall brings hatches of October Caddis, one of the largest aquatic insects of the year and certainly the largest of the fall season. When they appear, the trout almost instantly start looking up. Along with these big caddis, some Blue-winged Olives, midges, and a fall cohort of small Light Cahills often appear as well. Calm, overcast fall days can produce the best hatches.
Water levels can be low in the fall, so use long leaders, walk quietly, and approach the likely holding water with a stealthy strategy in mind. Any splashy or messy movements or presentations will often send the trout back into their deeper summer retreats.
Downriver from the Highway 28 bridge access, there is seasonally excellent trout fishing, but the trout populations start to dwindle. Warm summer temperatures, combined with low water in some years, sometimes have a negative effect on these trout, which lack the thermal refuges available to the trout in the upper river.
From the Highway 28 bridge south to the Highway 76 bridge, there are numerous access points, starting with the Highway 28 boat launch, the Low Water Bridge (the bridge is underwater), and Earl’s Ford. Whitewater rafting and kayaking start to get heavy from Earl’s Ford heading south, as there are Class IV and V rapids, and several rafting companies take advantage of them.
Bass and panfish thrive in the lower tier of the river, and are always eager to hit topwater flies. Bartram’s Bass (Micropterus coosae), a relative of the smallmouth bass, is a native fish that occurs only in the Savannah River Basin, including the lower Chattooga River. These rare bass—formerly known as redeye bass—wander as far north in the Chattooga as the Lick Log area. June through September is the season when you’ll have the most success fishing for them, as well as redbreast sunfish, which are probably the prettiest fish in the Chattooga. These tropical-colored fish are vibrant orange to red with a coral blue mask, and they love surface flies. Bring poppers, terrestrials, and small streamers for a great summertime wet-wading expedition below the Highway 28 bridge.
From Earl’s Ford south to the Highway 76 bridge, access points are limited, and most require a moderate hike to fish, but those who enjoy summer hikes will be rewarded with solitude, picturesque mountain views, and many fish willing to take topwater flies. Large back eddies and long runs make up the areas for targeting these fish in the lower stretches of the river. And an occasional swim to cool off makes a great day in the Southern Appalachians.
Gear & Lodging
Most Chattooga regulars use 3- to 5-weight rods. A 9- to 11-foot rod can help make mending and lifting line easier, and help you guide your line up and over rocks and other obstructions. A good weight-forward floating line is all you’re likely to use. In the fall, streamer fishing can be good for aggressive browns, but the water is often low and there’s rarely a need for a sinking line. A long leader and some split-shot are all you need.
The Chattooga fishes very well throughout the winter, and there are usually just one or two snow events. You’ll need waders of course, and also an effective layering strategy, as you’re likely to get very warm hiking to and from the river, then get chilled standing in cold water.
Temperatures through the winter months can range from the low 20s to the mid-60s on occasional days, and the abundant Blue-winged Olives and Early Winter Stoneflies often get the fish feeding heavily. In the spring, mountain laurel and rhododendron blooms add to the beauty along the banks of the river, and you can expect temperature swings from the low 40s up to 70 degrees. When the trees are in blossom, you’ll find magnificent fishing on the Chattooga.
By the time June rolls around, you can leave your waders at home. The mornings in these mountains can still be chilly, but daytime highs of 85 degrees and higher are the norm, and wet wading in the Chattooga is very comfortable. Riverside lodging is a hammock or tent within the Wild & Scenic boundaries of this river, as there is very little development and the river has not changed much since the 1970s. It’s only grown wilder.
You can find local accommodations in Mountain Rest and Walhalla, South Carolina, including Airbnb facilities and motels. Oconee State Park has camping, as well as 13 rustic, fully furnished cabins with screened porches, air conditioning, and all the amenities. The Cherry Hill Recreation Area in Sumter National Forest has camping facilities with flush toilets and hot showers, and it’s within walking distance from Big Bend Trail. The closest proper hotels are in Seneca, South Carolina, which is a 20-minute drive away.
Most of the Airbnb accommodations, and especially the state park, require months of advance planning for reservations, as the popular months fill up quickly.
A freshwater fishing license is required to fish in South Carolina. You can buy the license online before you arrive at dnr.sc.gov. An out-of-state license costs $11 for 14 days, or $35 for the whole season.
Karl Ekberg and Karen Maddox own and operate Chattooga River Fly Shop (chattoogariverflyshop.com) in Mountain Rest, South Carolina, offering full- and half-day guided trips on the Chattooga and Chauga rivers.