A Small Georgia Jewel
On The Fly Freshwater
Article and photos by Jimmy Jacobs
The old adage about some of the greatest gifts coming in small packages would be appropriate when describing the Peach State’s Coleman River. Besides providing some very good wild trout water, the flow is the smallest trout stream bearing the name “river” in Georgia.
The Peach States mountains are not home to mighty flows like the Colorado, Mississippi or Ohio rivers. For the most part Georgia rivers are modest in size, but the Coleman carries that trend to the extreme. From its headwaters down to its mouth on the Tallulah River the flow rarely spans more than 30 feet, and often is 10 feet wide or less. But, despite that diminutive size, it has a back story and provides fishing that make it worth discussing.
The Coleman rises on the south slope of Timber Ridge in southern Clay County, North Carolina, along the Appalachian Trail. From there it quickly crosses the state border into Rabun County, Georgia. This upper section is within the Southern Nantahala Wilderness Area, ensuring that the stream flows clear and pristine.
As for the back story, several features set this trout stream apart. To begin with, most folks don’t realize that part of the Southern Nantahala Wilderness is even in Georgia. Yet the Peach State expanse is slightly larger than the portion found in North Carolina. Established by a 1984 act of Congress, Georgia’s part of the area covers 11,732 acres of mountainous, roadless forest.
Another facet of the land management along the river is the tale of the Coleman River Wildlife Management Area. For a number of years, the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division managed the property. but during a budget crunch back around the millennium, the WRD gave up that lease. Today the land is still public, but managed by the U.S. Forest Service.
With regard to fishing. there also are a couple of interesting facts about this flow. The Coleman has one of nine sections of water in the state that are managed as artificial lure only waters. From its mouth upstream to the Coleman River Road (Forest Service 54) bridge, no natural baits are allowed to be used on the river. This section flows through the Coleman River Scenic Area, with a hiking path paralleling much of it.
Also, the headwaters section of the river was one of the first six streams in Georgia that were renovated to restore wild, native brook trout. That work took place back in 1969. A log barrier dam was added to the river in the portion that now flows through the wilderness area. Rotenone was then used to remove all fish upstream of that structure and native brookies were transplanted to the river.
The portion of the Coleman in Georgia is composed of 4.1 miles of stream on public land, split between the scenic area within the Chattahoochee National Forest and the Southern Nantahala Wilderness. From the vicinity of the FS 54 bridge and upstream there is about 1.3 miles of the river on private lands that separate the two public sections.
A couple of parking spots are available alongside the bridge over the river via the Tallulah River Road at the mouth of the Coleman. The bridge is just a few feet upstream of the junction of the two rivers. Additionally, at this site is a sign denoting the Coleman River Scenic Area and, dedicating it to the memory of Ranger Roscoe Nicholson. Known as Ranger Nick, Nicholson was a contemporary of the Barefoot Ranger Arthur Woody. Though lesser known than his unshod fellow ranger, Nicholson generally is equally credited with Woody as the two driving forces of the establishment and early success of the Chattahoochee National Forest.
From the FS 54 bridge up to the man-made barrier, the river has wild rainbows and browns, with some native brookies showing up just downstream of the barrier. Throughout this stretch the river has a heavy canopy of rhododendron and is quite small, making fishing difficult.
From the barrier upstream to the state border the river contains only wild brook trout. For the most part the stream’s course is rather level through here, but like the area below the barrier, it is overgrown and hard to fish.
If you are interested in catching some wild, colorful fish in a setting that sees quite limited angling pressure, then the Coleman River will fit your need. Don’t expect to catch much in the way of bragging-sized trout, but the quality of the scenery, pristine water and native fish provide trophies of a different type.