The lower Toccoa River’s waters flow from the depths of Lake Blue Ridge in north Georgia, creating a cold, clear tailrace river that has long sustained an outstanding trout fishery for a 15-mile stretch all the way to McCaysville.
My long-time fishing buddy, George Montecino, and I have avidly fished the lower Toccoa River since the summer of 2007. Whether we launched George’s Gheenoe at one of the public access areas to enjoy a nice long float to another access downstream or simply waded into the river at one of the access points, we’ve always enjoyed the diversity offered by this beautiful Georgia gem.
Public Access Points
In the river’s 15 miles of trout waters there are four public access points and one public boat ramp. The first public access is directly below the Blue Ridge Dam on the north side of the river. Take Highway 515 north past Blue Ridge to North River Road and make a right. Follow North River Road to the parking lot at the base of the dam. Located here is a public parking area and concrete steps leading down to the water’s edge.
The bank on this side of the river has large rip-rap. While limited wading is possible here, it is not recommended due to the rapid rise in the water when the TVA releases water from the dam.
To launch a small boat, canoe or to enter with a float tube, they must be carried down the concrete steps to the water. Just downstream on the south side of the river is the second public access point.
Tammen Park is just off Highway 515 on the right before you get to the bridge that crosses the river. There is plenty of parking here, and wade access is down the bank on the south side of the river. The wading here is thigh- and waist-deep water in rocky shoals and sandy bottom. The angler can wade a good distance upstream and downstream to some shallower shoals just beyond the bridge. Pay attention to rapidly rising water since there is no release alarm at the dam, and TVA doesn’t always follow its own release schedule.
The third access point is about 7 miles downstream at the TVA Curtis Switch Park. This is a small parking area located at the corner of North Toccoa River Road and Curtis Switch Road. Here you will find a short run of wadable shoals from the bridge over the river down to an Old Indian fish trap downstream of the parking area. It is possible to wade upstream of the bridge to some slower, waist-deep water before the shoals begin. This is a popular spot for those floating the river to put in or take out. The float from the dam down to Curtis Switch is about eight hours. Float time depends largely on how often you stop to wade the rocky shoals and how long you spend at each.
The fourth access for the public is at Horseshoe Bend Park. The park is a large public park with ample parking, pavilions, playground and a small boat ramp at the far end of the park. It is just south of McCaysville off River Road.
The entire length of the river at the park is excellent wadable water and offers easy access to some beautiful waters. Because of its easy access, it is popular for tubing and fishing, but for those of us willing to wade to the far side of the river and work the deep water at the far side bank, a good day can be had here. This is also an excellent take-out point for floating the river. There is a ramp located at the far end of the park where a small craft can easily be loaded. The distance from Curtis Switch to Horseshoe Bend Park is about 6 miles, and the float time is about six hours.
Variety Of Gear Can Be Used
While our favorite fishing techniques vary from casting small spinners on ultra-light gear to fly fishing with a variety of dry flies, nymphs and streamers, there has rarely been a trip that didn’t yield our share of tight lines and high fives, along with the occasional dinner of fresh trout over the grill’s hot coals.
The lower Toccoa is a river that receives up to 20,000 trout stocked annually by DNR at locations throughout its trout habitat. On occasion, the DNR will go above and beyond to spread the trout along the river’s diverse habitat rather than simply dumping large numbers of trout at one of the regular stocking locations. This provides a better opportunity for the trout to acclimate to the river and offers a higher percentage of trout that transition from the typical stocky fish to a trout that becomes more “wild,” feeding on the river’s many natural aquatic insects.
The river’s 15 miles of designated trout water also provides a wide range in types of water that can be fished. From long sections of knee-deep, rocky shoals to deep slow sections that many call “frog water,” a trout angler’s method of fishing the varied types of water changes as well.
Catch Them Chillin’
Trout are opportunistic feeders. Without going into a long explanation about how much energy a trout expends pursuing a meal, suffice it to say that a trout will lay on the couch, so to speak, waiting for a meal to drift by that can be had by jumping quickly off the couch to grab the meal and retreat right back to it to chill. That couch is any water that is slower than the main flow of the river, commonly referred to as eddies or pocket water. Slow water will be created by a large rock or boulder, a fallen tree at the river’s edge or an undercut bank. Eddies occur on both the upstream side and the downstream side of any obstruction in the river’s flow. Anywhere that a trout can get out of the river’s fast-flowing water and minimize the energy it burns while waiting for a meal to drift by is a place where the angler wants to present his offering.
For the spin fisherman, there are several methods that can see great success. Using light or ultra-light rod and reel combos fitted with 4- to 6-lb. test mono or fluorocarbon line, an angler can drift or drop baits or cast and retrieve small spinners and crankbaits.
For the bait fisherman, salmon eggs, worms, grubs and even yellow corn niblets will do the trick. Bait rigged on small bait-holder hooks ranging in size from a No. 4 to a No. 8 with a split-shot or two pinched on the line 8 to 12 inches above the hook will allow the angler to effectively fish all of the rivers varied waters.
Many have success simply dropping baits in “pockets” of deeper, slower-moving water found on the downstream side of the river’s long, shallow rock shoals. Typically these pockets are found on the inside of a bend in the river where the water turns back on itself and heads back upstream. Look for floating leaves, bubbles and other floating debris making a circle on the water’s surface. Here, the bait angler can simply cast his offering into the pocket and let it sink to the bottom.
In the slow water pockets, trout will cruise looking for food and take the bait. Keep a finger on the line and the line slightly tight to detect a light strike. A quick lifting of the rod tip and hopefully it will be fish on.
The bait angler can also pursue trout hiding in the rocky shoals. The bait fisherman can work the faster waters, drifting his baits through deeper runs and riffles.
My favorite method of presenting natural baits is to read the water and look for likely hiding spots for the trout. I cast upstream of the spot and let the bait drift as naturally by the spot as possible, letting the weight of a split-shot or two get the bait down in the water column. To work the bait in a natural way, reel in the line at the same pace as the flow the river brings the bait downstream. It’s important to keep the line coming onto the reel without dragging the bait downstream faster than the flow of the river. This also keeps your line close to tight, so that you can simply lift the rod tip to set the hook. It’s uncanny, but the trout, especially those bigger holdover trout, seem to know an unnatural drift when they see one and will not take the bait.
Spinners and crankbaits on light spinning gear can also produce a fun outing on the river. Using small, 1/16- to 1/2-oz. Mepps spinners or Rooster Tails and 1- to 2-inch floating or sinking crankbaits in any of the river’s waters can produce fish. When fishing the shallower, knee-deep rocky shoals, cast across the river or at a 45-degree angle upstream or down, and using a medium-speed retrieve, pull your lure past any obstruction to coax a hiding trout from its spot. Work both the upstream and downstream eddies of any obstruction, and look for a strike as the lure passes.
Deeper runs in the shoals will be characterized by darker water than the surrounding shoals. Cast to the upstream end of any deep runs, and retrieve the lure quickly downstream through deeper, darker water. For eddies and obstructions downstream of your position, cast the lure to the upstream side and let the current swing your lure in front or behind the spot. Unseen eddies can be created closer to the river bottom, so work all the water around you. Cast in a fan pattern from 45 degrees upstream to directly downstream, and work your way up or downstream and across to the far bank.
Pay attention to any undercut banks you see on the outside of any bends in the river. These undercuts offer favorite hiding spots for the more wary and sometimes much bigger trout found in the lower Toccoa. Trout have a pecking order, and the bigger, more dominate trout will be found in the better feeding lanes and harder-to-fish hiding spots. Also, don’t hesitate to cast to the same spot several times and from different angles. A subtle change in the bait, lure or fly’s presentation can coax a wary trout from its lair.
I’ve found that the most challenging of methods to pursue trout in any waters is the use of fly-fishing gear. Much like bowhunting, fly fishing’s challenge is what appeals to those that enjoy it. I’m also aware that those who choose this method of fishing are generally pretty experienced anglers and need little advice on how to fish a river like the lower Toccoa.
What I will offer is the choice of flies that George and I have had most of our success with. Because of the abundance of aquatic life in the lower Toccoa, there are a large selection of “bugs” for the trout to eat. When dry fly fishing, we have had good success with the blue wing olive, elk hair caddis and light cahill. When dredging the deeper runs with nymphs, we have found good success with black stonefly nymphs, hare’s ear nymphs and pheasant tail nymphs. When the dry flies and nymphs aren’t producing, we will often cast and strip big brown and black woolly buggers with good success.
George and I have used Unicoi Outfitters website (www.unicoioutfiters.com) to obtain information through their hatch chart to determine the hatches occurring at the times of our trips and the flies to include in our boxes.
When fishing the lower Toccoa, safety is of paramount importance. Your safety is dependent on being aware of the water flows in the river. Because the flow of the river is controlled by the amount of water released from the Blue Ridge Dam by the TVA, the flow can change dramatically in a very short period of time. Prior to making a trip to the river call TVA, (800) 238-2264, then dial 4, 23, # to reach the Blue Ridge Dam Generation Schedule Information or visit www.tva.gov/Environment/Lake-Levels/Blue-Ridge. The website provides generation schedules and flow rates from the dam. Note that the schedule can change without notice, and anglers should always be aware of their surroundings and the river’s flow rate where they are. If you notice an increase in floating leaves and debris in the river or exposed rocks around you beginning to be submerged, it’s wise to exit the river immediately.
For wading or floating the river, the most suitable flow rates from the dam are from 125 to 135 cubic feet per second (CFS). At these flow rates, the river is safer to wade in and suitable to float small craft. Our general rule of thumb is if the TVA is generating, we stay off the water. If the TVA is not generating and the flows are in the 125-135 CFS range, the river will be suitable for safe wading and for floating in the Gheenoe.
Some more experienced anglers familiar with the river and its flows will wade when the rate is as high as 300 CFS, but it is not advised for those new to the river. We have experienced flows lower than 125CFS, and quite frankly, we just about destroyed the nose of the fiberglass Gheenoe. So for floating a small craft, 125CFS is about the minimum.
The River’s Struggle
It would be remiss of me to write an article about the lower Toccoa River and without noting the struggle the river and its trout habitat has experienced over the last six years. The water that flows from the Blue Ridge Dam comes from the bottom of the very deep lake through a penstock, thus producing the cold, clear water that makes the fishery possible. In 2010, the TVA had to make repairs to the penstock that changed the temperature of the water released. During the late summer of 2010, water temperatures in the river rose above those ideal to sustain the fishery, and a substantial fish kill occurred.
Electrofishing surveys conducted in the fall of 2009 and again in the fall of 2010 saw an 80 percent decrease in the number of trout in the river, according to John Damer Toccoa River Trout Fishery Status Update 2015. In an effort to help rebuild the fishery, the Georgia DNR has exceeded the targeted numbers of fish stocked in the river each year since 2010. However, continued work on the dam’s electricity-generating components have and may continue to created additional temperature issues in the river, impacting the fishery’s recovery from the initial impact.
While the river is classified as a “put and take” fishery and the DNR’s management plan is directed toward anglers who can harvest a legal limit of trout, this writer would encourage all to enjoy this beautiful fishery while practicing catch and release until the river and habitat recover. The summer of 2016 will be a critical time in this recovery. The TVA has additional work to do on the electricity generating components. The Blue Ridge Chapter of Trout Unlimited will respectfully pressure the TVA to move forward with and complete the remaining repairs to these components before this year’s warm temperatures hit. To do our part in helping the river, anglers of the lower Toccoa should practice catch and release or at least limit their harvest to a few fish for a fresh trout dinner on occasion.