Visit with a legend
On The Fly Freshwater
Article and featured photo by Jimmy Jacobs
One of the appeals of trout fishing in the southern highlands was always opening day of the season. Through the winter months, time at the tying vise or fiddling with dormant equipment could assuage slightly the void created by incarceration indoors. Those activities could also manage to keep at bay the memories of forays from the previous summer and fall. A slip in that discipline, however, ran the risk of sending one plunging into reminisced revelries, which only lengthened the calendar’s intolerable creep.
But, with the arrival of the short but frigid days of February on into March, the added anticipation of that opening day kept alive the faint trout-fishing pulse in many cabinbound anglers. Then, as the singular event drew near, the desire to fish built to such a fever pitch that it demanded cold waters in which to stand while stalking trout.
These days all that has changed. We no longer have a trout season, The streams and rivers are open to fishing year-round. Still the first stirring of real spring weather issue a siren call. It was against that factual background that one early April morning, I found myself shuffling up the sand-and-gravel bed of Bear Den Creek. Located in the Blue Ridge Mountains a bit north Georgia’s faux alpine tourist village of Helen, this ribbon of crystalline water courses through the Chattahoochee National Forest. Only a small stream by any standard, its water harbors wild rainbows and – if you labor far enough up into the mountains – a vestige population of Southern Appalachian brook trout. As I climbed rocks and bullied past rhododendron limbs shaded by stately hemlock and rigidly straight poplar trees, the creek demanded roll casts and extreme caution where any back cast was possible. As water containing wild trout in North Georgia, Bear Den is not exceptional.
The trout it hides in potholes and tiny plunge pools rarely attain lengths of 10 inches, with 6 or 7 inches the norm. Colorful though they may be with blue and crimson markings, the rainbows are not enough to lure most anglers to the stream. But, on this day, Bear Den Creek proved a magical place. The new buds just beginning to appear, mixed with the evergreen of the hemlocks and rhododendron, were nudged occasionally by gentle winds. The sun’s rays picked their way through the maze of overhead boughs to bathe the carpet of last year’s decaying leaf litter and ricochet off the stream’s surface. All the while, water tumbling over rocks provided the soundtrack for the pristine scenery.
Such a setting could easily have been found on dozens of other small creeks throughout the region. But when the trout joined in the idyllic performance, the magic began. For perhaps two hours, a No. 14 Parachute Adams plopped on the surface where the churning bubbles of shoals and cascades began to fade into the body of small pools drew instant attention from rainbows hiding below. Sometimes they rose slowly to sip the insect imitation from the surface film, but more often they rocketed from the turbulent water to smack at the supposed morsel.
These trout, 5 to 9 inches each, seemed stamped from a cookie cutter, their sides blazing with vivid colors attained only in a cold mountain creek. Pushing farther upstream, my count of these natural jewels rose to 10, then 15 and surpassing 20. Along the way, I skirted the last remnant of civilization – a wooden sign on the streamside trail announcing the edge of the Mark Trail Wilderness Area. Finally, when my catch numbered 30 taken and released, I rested on a rock overlooking a small waterfall, basking in the fresh smell of new greenery, the rush of the water and the veritable magic of the day’s trout fishing.
As with many situations in life, a seemingly unrelated circumstance added the final touch to this unique morning. The location in the Mark Trail Wilderness Area created a special connection. A couple of years earlier I had accepted an invitation to drive from Marietta over to Covington and spend an afternoon with Charlie Elliott. At the time the self-effacing 92-year-old outdoorsman had long since crossed over from being the dean of Southern outdoor writers into the realm of legend. From his days as a forester both out west and here in his home state, he had risen to head the old Georgia Game and Fish Commission twice and been the first director of state parks, before pursuing a 50-year career as a field editor for Outdoor Life magazine. During that span, he hunted big game across several continents and fished around the world. Finally, he was honored by having the 6,400-acre Charlie Elliott Wildlife Center near Mansfield, Georgia named after him.
The tales of his outdoor exploits were populated with a cast of characters who were equally legendary. He bass-fished with his cousin Bobby Jones of golf fame. Another of his sporting companions over the years was Ed Dodd, who originated the syndicated comic strip “Mark Trail.” More than once Dodd confided that his fictional woodsman was loosely based on the career of his friend Charlie Elliott.
As we sat in Elliott’s study, the veteran outdoorsman spun yarns about trekking through the Georgia mountains in the 1930s and ‘40s, trout fishing and turkey hunting with Arthur Woody, the “barefoot ranger.” Woody was responsible for restocking the mountains with whitetail deer and reintroducing trout to many of the streams, as he single-handedly patrolled what would become the Chattahoochee National Forest. And true to his nickname, Woody made those rounds without the benefit of footwear. Those experiences also provided the fodder for the more than 20 books that Elliott eventually authored. To listen to his firsthand accounts shoved ajar the door to that faded world for an afternoon. Eventually, I felt compelled to ask him if he had more writing planned.
“The last thing I’ll ever do on this Earth,” he assured me, “is drag myself across this office floor, reach up to the typewriter and hit the wrong key.” During the hours we whiled away in his formal office, our conversation wandered onto the subject of fishing the Georgia mountains. We shared anecdotes of favorite pools and memorable casts, especially on the Conasauga and Jacks Rivers in northwest Georgia’s Cohutta Mountains. Our stories were separated by half a century, but in both versions the waters were clear, the trout painted with sparkling colors, and the same breezes ruffled the surrounding leaves.
Now sitting on a moss-covered rock beside the babbling water and shaded by the forest canopy, I have the sense that I’m still in Charlie Elliott’s office. Only it’s now the more expansive, informal portion where he learned the stories, before he sat down to type them. It was in early May, not long after the opening of the first trout season of the new millennium, when I heard that “Mr. Charlie,” as he had come to be known, had moved on to another plane, leaving his beloved earthly mountains, waters and pine flatlands to the rest of us to shepherd.
The high mountains and broad rivers of the West have been described as the cathedrals of trout fishing in America. That would seem to make this shaded valley of Bear Den Creek in which I rest more of a personal chapel. If the scale is diminished, the glory is the same. Too bad Mr. Charlie is not on hand to share my rock pulpit and hear my testimony. Then again, perhaps I’m wrong about his absence. The sound I assume is the rattle of wind-blown leaves may actually be the muffled mirth of an approving chuckle shared by Charlie Elliott and Mark Trail as they peek through the rhododendron at the angler splayed out on a rock beside the stream, musing on the many ingredients that create the magic of their mountains in the springtime.