What Happened to Waters Creek?
On March 29th, 1986, an unsuspecting angler by the name of Russell Braden hooked into a pleasant surprise. On the other end of the line? A massive brook trout weighing in at 5 pounds, 10 ounces. Braden’s behemoth crushed the record for the state of Georgia’s largest brook trout and, to date, that record still stands. Where did he catch it? Waters Creek, a trophy trout stream located near Cleveland, Georgia.
It’s at this point in the article that I need to file a request with the anglers of North Georgia: please don’t have me shot. This is not me divulging some top secret information. There are only two public trophy streams in Georgia and this is one of them. The state’s DNR even lists it on their website. So please… don’t shoot.
Now, on to the matter at hand.
Waters Creek is a relatively small flow situated in the western portion of the Chestatee Wildlife Management Area in Lumpkin County, Georgia. It’s your typical southern Appalachian trout stream, characterized by thick vegetation, plenty of downed trees, and skiddish fish. If you didn’t know any better, Waters would not really stand out. The creek is a tributary to Dicks Creek, a slightly larger stream that is much easier to fish. Dicks Creek eventually feeds into the Chestatee River, a pretty freestone river known for producing big browns and, unfortunately, offering almost no public access.
The creek was the first public watershed in the state to be managed as a trophy trout stream. Management services were provided by the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service and Trout Unlimited beginning in 1970. The program was widely seen as a success, with 22”-26” trout coming out of the stream on the regular. Waters was the place to find trophy trout on public water in Georgia for over 17 years. But when the 1988 trout season rolled around, the creek’s backslide from outstanding to mediocre had already begun.
Right before opening day of the 1988 trout season, biologists assigned to Waters Creek discovered something gut-wrenching. Scattered on the banks of the stream were the corpses of almost 100 trophy trout. This was no act of God - these fish were killed via netting and gigging by a band of lowlife poachers. The illegal massacre butchered the season for Waters. Only 3 trophy trout were reported that year, confirming the worst of the community’s fears: that the phenomenal results of nearly two decades of strict management could be destroyed in one night.
Sometime between the late 80’s and early 90’s, a tornado ravaged the valley through which Waters Creek meanders. The proof is still in place today, with dozens of large trees redirecting the stream’s natural flow. The effects of the tornado slapped Waters in two distinct ways. First, the uprooting and relocation of the trees drained massive amounts of silt into the river, which had a negative impact on the water and quality of the habitat. The second result was a fishery that had been redefined in a bad way. Once open and navigable, Waters Creek is now a labyrinth of log jams, making it difficult to fish in some places and impossible in others.
Next, the fishery was struck by another disaster that continues, like the tornado, to make an impact to this day. That disaster? The discovery of river otters in the early 90’s. Otters may look cute and cuddly, but large numbers of them can decimate the local trout population. Anglers began to report spotting otters chasing down large trout and finding fish carcasses along the banks surrounded by little tracks left in the soft mud. Coincidentally, the number of keeper fish being reported remained low.
The stream’s special regulations stipulate a length requirement for keeping any fish. For rainbow and brown trout, the fish must be 22” or longer. To keep a brook trout, the fish must be 18”+. After the impact of the poachers, tornadoes, and otters, the stream went from harboring over 100 trophy trout (22”-26”+) in its 2.5 miles to producing a meager 10 keeper trout annually, according to angler reports.
The final knockout punch? Budget cuts. The supplemental feeding program, which was arguably the reason the majority of the trophy trout in Waters became trophy-size, was eliminated in an effort to save money. And unfortunately, no more feeding trough means no more hogs.
Don’t get me wrong; Waters Creek is still a great fishing destination. But don’t visit this creek thinking you’re going to find a monster. A few trophy trout likely still inhabit the creek, but prove near impossible to catch. Instead, Waters has transformed into more of a wild rainbow trout fishery. The majority of the fish you will find are little, colored-up rainbows in the 9”-12” range.
The name of the game on this creek is stealth. Wear drab colors, keep a low profile, limit your back casts, don’t make any sudden movements, and keep your fly line off the water at all costs.