American Fly Fishing

Paying Your Dues
By Beau Beasley

My fly hit the back end of the pool, where I’d hoped it would, and even I was a bit surprised by my accuracy. I thought for sure I’d hang it up in the heavy rhododendrons, which seemed to flank every side of the trout stream I was fishing on a surreal misty morning in Georgia.
   A large trout left the deeper end of the pool and slowly, deliberately ascended to inspect the fly. My heart quickened as the broad-shouldered trout gained interest and closed the distance between its spot in the pool and my offering—and I made a concerted effort to hold a pending case of buck fever at bay. The fish, every bit of 22 inches, made a bolt for my fly. Then, at the last possible second, it stopped abruptly and carefully examined the forgery. Apparently unimpressed, the trout drifted away and lazily returned to its sunken lair without so much as a backward glance.
   My two fishing partners, Alan Folger and Jimmy Harris, tried valiantly not to laugh at me. “Welcome to my world,” said Harris finally, in his baritone Southern drawl. Folger piled on: “Hey, what did you think I was gonna do, Beau? Take you fishing to some stream full of dumb stockers? Not a chance!”
   “This is no way to treat an out-of-town guest,” I retorted. “I can get skunked at home.”
   They laughed good-naturedly as we made our way up to the next pool.
   Folger is the coordinator of Trout Unlimited’s Veterans Service Partnership, which partners TU chapters with Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing (PHWFF) and other veterans service organizations in an effort to get wounded veterans on a stream. In so doing, volunteers meet veterans, veterans reconnect with nature, and wounded warriors receive the therapeutic benefits of the quiet sport of fly fishing. Earlier in the summer Folger had invited me to River*ence, an annual veteran-honoring event in the fall that the local Georgia Council of TU supports alongside PHWFF, local businesses, and area fishing guides.
   Himself a Vietnam-era Air Force veteran, Folger knows that the peace that fly fishing offers can meet the needs of many of his fellow veterans, who are struggling with a host of problems, ranging from traumatic brain injuries to post-traumatic stress disorder to profound depression. Folger’s ambitious goal is to connect every TU chapter in the country with some sort of veterans group so that more of our veterans can experience the serenity of the stream.
   My harsh introduction to the finer points of Georgia trout fishing this particular morning came courtesy of Dukes Creek—unusual in Georgia not only because it holds enormous trout, but because it flows across state-owned land with easy public access. The creek runs for approximately 5 miles, seldom widening to more than 12 feet across, and is flanked by national forest lands, which protects it from overdevelopment.
   Dukes Creek is in the middle of Smithgall Woods State Park, a forested preserve exceeding 5,000 acres. The state acquired the property when conservationist businessman Charles A. Smithgall, Jr., sold the parcel to Georgia for half its value in 1994. Requirements of the sale state that the preserve must be maintained in its natural setting and remain accessible to the general public. State officials had the good sense to make it a catch-and-release-only stream, and fly anglers have been flocking here ever since.
   Take note, however: this fishery is not for the faint of heart. The water here is gin clear, and the trout are exceptionally keen at picking out flies and patterns like mine that just aren’t up to snuff.
   Dukes Creek has four distinct sections, each of which presents its own special challenges. Section one, at the top of the creek, is a classic mountain trout stream, presenting many opportunities for anglers to fish the various plunge pools. The trick here is managing to keep your flies out of the branches of the ubiquitous rhododendrons. Section one calls for accurate roll casting, quiet wading, and good pattern presentation on every cast.
   Section two skirts old farmland and is much flatter than section one. Though it flanks the access road, that’s where the easy part stops. This reach lacks plunge pools but offers much deeper runs and broad, winding bends.
   Section three marks a return to mountainous terrain, complete with remnants of gold-mining operations that thrived here in the late 1820s. The river was actually dynamited in the hopes of finding gold, and if you look carefully you can see where it took on a moonscape appearance. The river has made a great comeback, with no lasting ill effects from mining.
   Section four also has tight cover, and because it lacks direct road access, it sees much less angling pressure. This last section is not known for large numbers of fish, but what it lacks in numbers it makes up for in lunker trout. You could conceivably land a 2-foot-long trout here; the trick is getting such a fish to bite in the first place.
   To keep the fish from being overstressed by angling pressure, Dukes Creek fishing is limited to Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays—and then by reservation only. The Georgia Department of Natural Resources issues passes at the Smithgall Woods visitor center, open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with the park gates opening at 7 a.m. From October 1 until March 31, anglers may fish throughout the day during one of the three open days. From April 1 to September 30, anglers may only fish half days, from 7:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. or 1:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and on-site buses provide shuttle service from the parking lot to the river. Only 15 anglers are allowed on the stream at any one time, and they must choose between reserving a morning or an afternoon slot. Those who opt to come early may get a second chance at the river if there are no-shows in the afternoon.
   Cabins are available for rent at Smithgall Woods, and are popular for corporate retreats because of the bucolic setting. The preserve also plays host to family picnics and even weddings, and day-trippers enjoy the many hiking and mountain biking trails. Guests who rent cabins can fish any day of the week at no additional charge.
   Apparently I’m not the only first-timer to be snubbed by Dukes Creek trout—but my experienced friends have tips to help newbies increase their chances of hooking up. “The first thing is what not to do,” says Harris. “When it rains, don’t cancel your trip. In fact, if you haven’t got a reservation made for that day, you should call immediately.” 
   According to Harris, many fair-weather anglers simply don’t show up if it rains. Their loss can become your gain. Because Dukes Creek is a typical mountain trout stream, its substrate is mostly rock; the stream may get dingy in the rain, but it doesn’t really get muddy. This discolored water is actually a huge advantage to anglers: it’s much harder for the trout to see in this environment, and thus they are
less wary.
   They are also much more inclined to go after streamers. Fly anglers will rightly use small subsurface patterns when fishing in clear water, but size 4 streamers can be fished aggressively with a 1X leader during high-water events. While these trout normally sip smaller flies with caution, they won’t hesitate to slam a streamer pattern that they believe to be an unlucky baitfish. The key to success, then, is paying close attention and keeping in contact with the fly through proper line management. If your quarry feels even the slightest hint of a hook before you can set your strike, you’ll be standing on the shore with hurt feelings and a broken leader, wondering what just happened.
   “The second most common mistake made here,” insists Harris, “is lack of stealth. Uninformed anglers walk up to a good section of river like they’re on a bass stream and start flogging the water. These fish are very smart, and since the water is normally crystal clear, you must be careful in your approach.”
   Improve your odds by wearing dark, drab clothing and wading
very carefully.
   If you’re not getting bites, don’t be afraid to go small. “I wouldn’t fish anything larger than a size 18 here most days,” says Harris. “And don’t get caught up in fishing for big fish. Just enjoy yourself and understand that you have to put in your time here.”
   John Cross, fishing manager at Unicoi Outfitters, agrees: “The fish on Dukes Creek see lots of anglers and lots of standard patterns. They’ll often strike something that appears different. Go-to patterns like Rainbow Warriors and Zebra Midges work, but small flies with thoraxes tied in different colors are also often successful.”
   These patterns are tied with dubbing in purple, yellow, green, pink, or burgundy. Larger nymphs—like a Pat’s Rubber Leg, size 10—fished deep with a size 20 Micro Mayfly trailing about 15 inches behind the lead pattern can pay big dividends.
   I tried nearly all day to tempt the behemoth trout on Dukes Creek, but to no avail. Finally, I gave up altogether and waved Harris onto the stream to show me how it was done. In 10 minutes he was into a fish and landed a dandy rainbow that stretched to about 18 inches. Folger was all smiles, but graciously avoided taking another dig. Harris took our congratulations in style, and in typical Harris fashion brushed off our compliments.
   “Boys, I’ve been fishing for nearly 40 years,” he said. “In that amount of time, even a hard-headed guy like me can learn a few things about fly fishing a tough place like this. Like I said, you have to put in your time here, because there are no shortcuts on
Dukes Creek.”


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