“This is the coolest place in the world, a real jewel,” said Rodney Tumlin, the pony-tailed past-president of the Cohutta chapter, which meets monthly in a nearby Kennesaw restaurant. “You wouldn’t think you’re in Paulding County. We’ve got miles of stream we can fish here. It’s an amazing place to fish.”
Favorite fishing holes around the country are being gussied up for the season in a mutually beneficial dance between nonprofits and state and federal agencies, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s a fruitful relationship that improves habitat, boosts under-siege species and pumps millions of dollars into local and state coffers.
Few places have benefited as much as Raccoon Creek in Paulding County, about 35 miles west of downtown Atlanta. The Service, the county, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Nature Conservancy and a slew of nonprofits have pumped tens of millions of dollars into land buys, conservation easements, stream restoration and listed species work the last decade.
The creek, a tributary of the bountifully biodiverse Etowah River, is filled with at-risk, threatened and endangered fish and mussels. Clean water not only helps them survive, but also lures anglers, hikers, birders and garden club members from the ever-encroaching suburbs.
“It’s a critical stream due to the multiple listed species and its proximity to Atlanta,” said Robin Goodloe, a Service supervisory biologist. “There were a lot of development pressures. There were a bunch of things coming together to make that a magnificent place to focus our efforts. We are so lucky to have great partners.”
Everybody pitches in
In 1946, a dearth of deer prompted local hunters to rally Paulding County farmers to create a hunting reserve in the rolling, pine-covered hills of western Georgia. Roughly 12,000 acres were cobbled together along with a pledge to not hunt the land for five years. Twenty deer, 100 wild-turkey eggs and 20,000 fingerling rainbow trout were imported and strategically scattered across the land.
Decades of farming and gold mining had harmed the region’s streams. Power lines and gas pipelines crisscross the WMAs. Meanwhile, metro Atlanta edges ever closer. Paulding, Forsyth and Cherokee ranked as some of the nation’s fastest growing counties over the last quarter century. The popular Silver Comet bike trail, built upon an old railroad bed that stretches from Atlanta into Alabama, brings thousands of people through the 32,000-acre Paulding Forest and adjoining Sheffield wildlife management areas (WMAs).
The state parklands rank in the top 10 for deer hunting and No. 2 for turkeys in Georgia. And Raccoon Creek increasingly attracts anglers from across metro Atlanta.
“You can imagine the number of subdivisions, new roads and the incredible amount of development affecting those streams,” said Goodloe. “The impacts were huge. Triage-wise, Raccoon Creek was the place to focus our efforts.”
She has spent a decade working with partners resuscitating the wonderfully biodiverse streams that feed into the Etowah River, part of the Coosa River basin which flows into Alabama. Raccoon Creek is home to 43 native fish species. The famed Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest tallies 31 native species.
Raccoon Creek’s watershed is the only known habitat for the federally endangered Etowah darter below Lake Allatoona. The genetically-distinct population of the Cherokee darter, a threatened species, is also found here. Etowah crayfish, a state threatened species, have been collected at several sites throughout the basin.
The Blue Ridge Mountains, the Piedmont plateau and the coastal plain all come together at the WMAs, creating a rich tableau of flora and fauna. Remnants of a “montane” longleaf pine forest overlay the wildlife area and stretch into Alabama. Fox squirrels, Bachman’s sparrows and Northern long-eared bats, as well as other at-risk species, populate the area.
A bevy of federal, state, local and nonprofit agencies cobbled together the WMAs starting with the Service’s Wildlife Restoration Act (aka Pittman-Robertson) which delivered a truckload of Wisconsin whitetail deer in the late 1940s. More than $20 million in federal money, including grants from the Recovery Land Acquisition program and the U.S. Forest Service, expanded boundaries, established easements and protected at-risk species.
Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources, which manages the WMAs, worked with the Service, Paulding County, Kennesaw State University, Georgia Power and private foundations to restore sections of the creek and monitor fish populations. The Nature Conservancy and partners stabilized stream banks, removed culverts and improved habitat along a 1.2 mile section of Raccoon Creek and other tributaries.
In all, nearly $70 million has been spent transforming the creek and adjoining lands into metro Atlanta’s premier wildlife area.
“There’s been a lot of interest the last 15 years in protecting this watershed,” said Brent Womack, a DNR wildlife biologist in charge of Paulding Forest. “We have so many varied partners. We’ve got groups interested in endangered species, longleaf pine and trout fishing. Everybody has made Raccoon Creek a success. It’s something to be really proud of.”
A gift to anglers
He gathered the retirees, school kids and other Trout Unlimited members on a ridge above the creek and assigned chores. Clear a firebreak. Trim overgrown trees and bushes. Pick up trash. The Cohutta chapter and others across North Georgia have joined with DNR each of the last five years to ready the creek for the season.
“Whatever Brent decides to do we do,” said Tumlin, the chapter’s past president and a teacher whose high
school classroom contains a mini-trout hatchery. “We have strong backs.”
And dedicated volunteers. Trout Unlimited tallies 300,000 members and supporters nationwide. They protected 3 million acres of public land and 1,164 stream miles during the last year, according to the national office.
Anglers are a powerful, big-spending constituency. More than 100,000 trout fishing licenses are sold annually in Georgia and fishing accounts for $172 million in economic impact, according to the American Sportfishing Association. In all, roughly 1.2 million Georgians fish – nearly twice as many than hunt.
To cater to them, Fish and Wildlife operates 72 fish hatcheries nationwide. Georgia runs 10, including the Summerville hatchery, which stocks Raccoon Creek from mid-March to early July. In years past, the state has dumped 900 nine-inch trout into the creek each time. This year, thanks to enough rain and state money, hatcheries will supply 10-inch trout.
North Georgia anglers anxiously await DNR’s “weekly stocking report,” which comes out Fridays, to learn when Raccoon Creek will be jumping.
“When they stock, the fishing’s really good,” said Steve Westmoreland, current president of the Cohutta chapter while wielding garden shears creekside. “Nine hundred fish sounds like a lot, but 40 people along the creek can go through ‘em pretty quick. Still, I’ve caught fish way down the stream in August here.”
Raccoon Creek is a put-and-take stream: DNR puts them in so you can take them home to eat. There are no size restrictions. Eight is the daily limit. You can fish Raccoon all year, though stocking ends as the weather warms.
“Ten inch is a good, pan-sized fish. You get a couple of those and you’re doing real good,” said Westmoreland, who’ll typically use ultra-light rods, three-weight lines, nymphs and dry flies. “Raccoon Creek is kind of a gift to us anglers.”
Conservation work continues unabated. Bridges replace culverts. Dams disappear from tributaries. Nearly $2 million in land is being acquired to protect the watershed’s upper reaches. Coosa basin mussels are being reintroduced into the creek.
“This,” said Tumlin, “is a fantastic little fishery.”