The Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forests encompasses 867,000 acres across 26 counties, thousands of miles of clear-running streams and rivers, approximately 850 miles of recreation trails, and dozens of campgrounds. That’s a lot to digest and that’s only taking into account the sector of land closest to Atlanta. It gets real busy if you take into account the Cohutta Wilderness in the northwest section of the state. Mentioning North Carolina and Tennessee is another few million acres ripe for exploration.
To get things rolling we need to know our major public lands. To make the list easier we will limit ourselves to National Forest. There are other public access areas like WMAs( Wildlife Management Areas) but these are smaller than National Forest and usually have some extra caveats. Listed below are the major National Forest close to Atlanta.
Chattahoochee- Large chunks of North Georgia make this the closest area to Atlanta. The upper Chattahoochee and Chattooga are great watersheds to explore. Crowd favorites like Rock and Coopers creek are great family areas with solid camping options . A quick Google search will show many great options for ones willing to bush whack up a few ridge lines for untouched wild trout. It pays to be clever as many once cool locations have become teaming with Atlanta dwellers looking for a quick outsidey Instagram post.
Nantahala- About 2.5 hours from Atlanta this area is known for it’s whitewater sports but boost a phenomenal trout fishing experience. The formidable Nantahala can be considered the crown jewel with her merciless rapids and trophy brown trout. Murphy and Andrews, North Carolina are the major cities of this area. The Nan as the locals affectionately call the Nantahala has scheduled daily releases from 8am-5pm so this water MOVES. It’s meant to take rafts full of thrill seeking people thru rapids so don’t get careless with wading in the mornings.
Pisgah- This area could be considered a Googan hotbed with it’s close proximity to Asheville, North Carolina and the Smokies. Don’t be disheartened by this title as mythical rivers like the Davidson and Mills river call this area home. This area is loaded with trout options with varying degree of difficulty like North Fork French Broad (Alex Honnold nuts) or West Fork of the Pigeon (within sight of beer cooler easy). For anglers that enjoy a solid meal and glass of red wine after a long day this area is our pick. We consider Brevard our favorite crash pad with it’s slower pace and much easier parking compared to Asheville. However if you want to access areas like Mt. Mitchell it’s better to set up shop in Asheville. If budget is a concern cities like Hendersonville or Weaverville have great lodging/food.
Cherokee- Nestled in eastern Tennessee this area is worth the drive from Atlanta. With watersheds like the Tellico River and Hiwassee River this area is overflowing with trout. You can be at 3,000 ft catching brookies all day long and wrap up your day with a show at Dolly Wood in the evening…..which is a big plus to us! Our one word of caution is fishing license for out of state visitors is very expensive as most Tennessee license are over $100. The one flip side to this is these fish do see a small reduction in angler pressure as North Carolina licenses are much more affordable.
We were hesitant to add these as they are often crawling with goggly eye tourist that clog roadways but if you’re willing to do some work they have plenty of gems.
Blue Ridge Parkway- The parkway starts near Cherokee, NC and ends in Virginia but over its course this road crosses breath taking scenery as well as fishing. The parkway is routinely at 3,000 to 5,000 ft so you can imagine there’s some great brook trout fishing to be had. The cell service is not existent on the parkway so it’s best to have your pin dropped before you get up there. The National Geographic maps we have in the shop are clutch on the parkway as they are detailed enough to get you in the ball park of water sheds you want to fish. Check the NPS website before you go since they are always doing some resurfacing projects or maintenance.
Smoky Mountains National Park- The elephant in the room…we promise we won’t send you to the nation’s most visited park for no good reason. When it comes to Southern Appalachian fly fishing there’s no other place that has more folklore than this place. Classics like Hazel, Abrams, and Deep creeks usually steal the show. However with a good topographic map and some asking around you’ll find miles of stunning water. Rainbows are the most prolific but the great trail system of the park opens up lots of brook trout water. Most streams inside the park and not close to roads get very little pressure. Streams close to roads like Abrams creek are the opposite with lots of pressure. We won’t name drop but try the parts of the park off the beaten path and specifically on the side closest to Tennessee. There’s no real good way to get to this side of the park so it doesn’t see the numbers like the Asheville side sees.
Fishing our public lands in the Southeast is straight forward for most of the year. The one exception is Winter as many trout become sluggish with the cold water. Spring and early summer is full of great dry fly options.We like 3 or 4 wt rods with lots of big, bushy dries. You might catch a few more fish if you drop a small nymph off the dry but since the streams are tight we hold off on the dropper. Seeing a willing, wild rainbow crush a parachute Adams never gets old. A small box of flies is the ticket so leave the big, technical boxes in the truck. Sulfers, drakes, caddis, blue wing olives, and many more all hatch in the spring and early summer. Cold water streams in the Southeast aren’t very fertile so when bugs hatch fish take notice. Once summer roles around there will be sporadic golden stone hatches in extreme north Georgia as well as Western North Carolina. From July to our first cold weather snap in the fall, attractor patterns and terrestrials will become the dominate flies to throw. Yellow is a great color in and around the Smoky Mountains. If fish seem to be slapping at your Stimulator but not eating fully switch to a pattern that sits in the water film like a parachute Adams.
Bears- Black bears are typically giant raccoons but if they have cubs they will stand their ground. If you decide to backpack into places remember to use proper wilderness protocol for food storage.
Snakes- The Southeast has a healthy population of Copperheads and Timber rattlers. More than not if you come across a snake it will be a water snake or totally harmless to humans. No matter if it’s harmless or a Timber rattler please leave them alone. Snakes play a critical role in the ecosystem and we are in THEIR homes.
Physicality- Keep in mind your physical limits when you are exploring. Always keep an eye on the time and tell people where you’ll be. Going in pairs is great for photo taking as well as having someone to help if the day goes sideways. The Southeast may not be known for the ruggedness of the American West but there’s still a million ways to get wrecked so ALWAYS exercise common sense.
Weather– High elevation weather can change in 1o minutes from gorgeous, warm sunshine to cold downpours so have lots of different clothing. We’ve been fishing around the Blue Ridge Parkway section near Mt. Mitchell in late June and experienced high temps in the low 50s so be prepared.