Georgia’s Original Delayed Harvest Stream

On The Fly Freshwater

Smith Creek in Unicoi State Park

By Jimmy Jacobs

April 2021

Not long after North Carolina first introduced delayed-harvest fishing to the region on the Nantahala River in the early 1990s, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources made the leap onto the bandwagon. Near the end of that decade the decision was made to give the management scheme a try on Smith Creek in Unicoi State Park.

From that beginning, the state eventually put five stretches of water in the Peach State under the DH regulations. As the list grew, however, Smith Creek held onto more than just the title of Georgia’s first DH experiment. This creek in the Chattahoochee River drainage also is by far the smallest DH stream in the state and also the most tightly managed.

Anna Ruby Falls and the beginning of Smith Creek. Photo by Jimmy Jaocbs.

Smith Creek begins just upstream of the park in the federal Anna Ruby Falls Recreation Area. Curtis Creek crashes down 163 feet and York Creek plunges 50 feet as twin cascades to form Smith Creek. The stream then runs out of the recreation area and into Unicoi State Park. After passing through Unicoi Lake (that is the name usually ascribed to the 44-acre impoundment, though its official title is Smith Lake), the stream continues for 1.5 miles down to the park boundary. Eventually it empties into the Chattahoochee River at the alpine-themed resort town of Helen.

A trout taken just below the dam on Unicoi Lake. Photo by Polly Dean.

The 1.5 miles of water below the lake, down to the parks border, originally opened to fishing under DH regulations in the late ‘90s. One reason Smith Creek was chosen as the initial DH stretch is that the water below the lake becomes quite warm during the summer months.

As with all Georgia DH waters, the regulations apply from November 1 through May 14 annually. All angling is strictly catch and release and only single-hook, artificial lures may be used. An exception is made for fly anglers using dropper rigs, but each fly must have only one hook. After May 14, the streams then revert to general trout regulations, allowing all baits and the harvest of fish.

One rule that is an exception on Smith Creek is the requirement that anglers stop by the office as Unicoi Lodge in the park to sign in before fishing. Also, a daily parking fee is charged by the park.

To accommodate the angling, the stream is heavily stocked at the opening of the DH season and some fish are added through the end of the regulated period as needed to make up for natural mortality. Brook, brown and rainbow trout make up the releases on Smith Creek. Most of the fish are in the 9- to 12-inch range, but some bigger fish are added each year.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Fishing pressure can be heavy on Saturdays and Sundays, but falls off during the week and even on weekends in the winter. Access to the creek is good throughout the DH section. The gravel road to the park’s intern camp is along the upper portion of the stream. Anglers are not permitted to drive on the road, but can use it for foot access.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Below the park’s water treatment facility, the Unicoi-to-Helen Trail parallels much of the stream, also offering walking access. There are several foot bridges over the flow on both the upper and lower sections as well.

Photo by Jimmy Jacobs.

Angling conditions are tight on some portions of the creek, but most experienced small-stream anglers will find enough room for fly casting. Dry-and-dropper rigs are popular on Smith Creek. Any bushy and buoyant attractor fly, like the Royal Wulff or a hopper pattern, may draw fish to the top, while a Prince or Pheasant Tail Nymph can be good subsurface options.

The bottom line is Smith Creek was Georgia’s first DH water and it continues to offer a great trout angling situation through the cooler months of fall, winter and early spring.

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