Scale down steep rock faces to uncover the best wild rainbows in the South.
Boulder-jumbled and rhododendron-tangled, the mountainside looks daunting. Faced with a 15-foot river-wide drop, though, my buddy and I realize we have no other option. We’ll have to scale the steep slope to bypass the rapid and then find our way back down to the river.
We grumble a bit as we start up the mountainside, grabbing branches and roots we hope will hold us, ducking beneath bushes and keeping watch for yellowjacket nests. In truth, we delight in the obstacles. The rugged and remote terrain keeps river use light, and the abundant trout see few other anglers’ offerings. In an hour of fishing, we’ve already caught and released a half-dozen brilliant wild rainbows, mostly on Rebel Teeny Wee-Crawfish, and we’ve at least had a follower in virtually every pool fished. Even better, we’ve seen no other people.
Georgia’s West Fork of the Chattooga River, located in the northeast corner of the state and part of the Chattooga National Wild and Scenic River corridor, forms at the confluence of three tumbling creeks, all pouring over waterfalls to complete their runs. The first half mile of the West Fork cuts a gorge that defies Peach State stereotypes of peanut fields or Atlanta suburbs. Alternating between rapids and deep runs, the river drops a few hundred feet through a granite canyon in its upper reaches.
All access to the gorge is by foot. The mile-long Three Forks Trail actually stops short of the point where the forks join to form the river. From there an unofficial path that resembles a long-abandoned deer trail leads to a creek crossing, traversing a ridge before descending to the river. Downstream of the gorge, river access is from a bridge along a Forest Service road more than one and a half miles away.
Gorges throughout Southern Appalachia hide tumbling trout streams, which most anglers bypass for easily accessible and heavily stocked waters. Wild rainbows abound in swift runs through many gorges. Browns, big ones at that, lurk in deep pools formed by crashing rapids.
Accessing and moving through gorges typically requires long hikes, tenuous stream crossings and repeated climbs. In stark contrast, gear needs and fishing tactics are simple. I carry a micro spinning outfit, a couple of small stowable boxes of lures, something to munch on and jugs of water. I leave my waders behind, but always wear felt-bottomed wading boots.
Try drifting a Tellico Nymph or stonefly imitation through the bottoms of pools or strip an Olive Woolly Bugger. More often, I spin-fish, throwing Rebel Crawfish, sinking minnow plugs or grubs on leadheads. River gorge trout baits need to handle well in swift water and get down at least 5 or 6 feet.
Remove the treble hooks from all plugs and replace the back hook with a slightly larger single hook. Beyond making plugs legal on waters where only single-hook artificial lures are allowed, single hooks keep plugs from fouling, and I believe I hook and land a higher percentage of fish with them.
Great Southern gorges range from short sections of relatively unknown rivers like the West Fork to notorious chasms such as North Carolina’s Linville Gorge. Miles of beautiful trout water support oodles of feisty wild rainbows.