Unicoi Outfitters

Fly Fishing Professionals

Helen, Georgia

Toccoa Tailwater Management - A Broader View

by Wayne Probst

Northwest Region Fisheries Supervisor

Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Many autumn Saturday afternoons I can be found coaching my team's quarterback from the comforts of my living room. I have watched football for nearly a half century so I surely am an expert by now. Of course, I'm kidding myself and have no real understanding of important details such as trying to relay coded plays to 10 other players in a noisy stadium or mustering the courage to get up after a 300-pound lineman drove me in the turf. From my living room these issues are just not important - the guy running the plays on the other hand cannot ignore them. Likewise, anglers are not ignorant of fishery management but often miss some of the important details that managers cannot ignore. But unlike my armchair coaching that has no affect on the outcome of the game, fishers can and should be part of the "play calling". But to make a positive and effective contribution they need to have a good understanding of the fisheries they support. Tailwater fisheries in particular can perplex anglers.

There has been a lot of interest in the Toccoa tailwater the past few years and for good reason. The river's size and abundant trout make it particularly attractive to fly fisherman. Those wishing to fry some trout after a day's catch can do so while trophy anglers have an opportunity to target fish up to 14 pounds or more. This river has something for just about every trout angler preference. From a management standpoint, the fishery is meeting the goals set for it - to provide a put-and-take fishery while allowing some fish to survive to trophy size. Fishing reports posted on Internet message boards and in newsletters generally confirm that these objectives are being met. However, some anglers feel it could be made even better if managed differently. Perhaps, but there is a lot of confusion surrounding this fishery that should be cleared up before we draw any hard conclusions. There are a deceptively large number of components to a fishery with most falling into the broad categories of habitat, biology and society. A fishery's potential can be limited by any one of these categories and it would be useless to address a biological issue if habitat is the limiting factor or to implement a regulation to adjust angler impacts if biology is the limitation. This article looks at common misconceptions regarding fishery management and illustrates some potential pitfalls.


Water chemistry is a particularly important consideration in Georgia trout streams. Southern Appalachian waters are generally very soft and consequently not very productive. Water bodies have a limit to how many pounds of fish they can support and, all other things equal, the lower the water hardness and alkalinity the lower the fish production. We should not expect the Toccoa River to support trout numbers that, say, the White River in Arkansas does. In large part, the Toccoa's modest productivity is why the fishery is a hatchery-supported system. By stocking we can create artificially high densities of fish that increase catch rates for everyone, including catch-and-release enthusiasts.

The Toccoa tailwater is an artificial environment that functions differently than naturally flowing streams. Blue Ridge Reservoir alters the river's normal sediment transport system and the streambed has a tendency to accumulate sediment that would normally be transported downstream during heavy flood events. Add to this the rapid human growth rate and associated construction in the watershed and this sediment accumulation increases. Sedimentation "clogs" the spaces in gravel and can reduce insect production and trout reproduction. Clearing vegetation from the river's edge can increase erosion, non-point source pollution and water temperature. As trees are removed from the banks there is less woody debris to eventually make its way into the river to serve as cover for trout and as substrate for insects and algae. The impact of habitat alterations on the Toccoa is not fully understood but is worth consideration. The State of Vermont was battling an unexplained reduction of brown trout in the Batten Kill for years. In 1994 they designated a 2.1-mile "test" site and implemented a slot length limit, reduced the creel limit and made it an artificial lure only zone. Despite this effort, catchable-sized trout declined 54% and quality sized fish declined 77%. It was a great effort but the problem, they concluded, is a loss of habitat. In this case they treated the wrong fishery component (harvest) when the limiting factor is habitat.


The biological aspects of the Toccoa fishery are the basis of considerable confusion. Traditional textbook management tries to strike a favorable balance between reproduction rates, growth rates and mortality rates. Many anglers are savvy enough to know this but far fewer recognize that most tailwater trout fisheries function very differently and must be managed accordingly. Some anglers contend that large tailwater trout need to be protected to assure adequate reproduction to sustain the fishery. They conclude that reproduction is substantial since they see fish smaller than the typical nine-inch stockers. Others reference a fish's color as proof of their wild heritage. Many people do not realize the state and federal hatcheries stock fingerling sized fish in addition to "catchables" and that the federal hatchery uses specially formulated feeds to enhance color. Charlie Saylor, a TVA Aquatic biologist discussing tailwaters in TVA's May 2009 "River Neighbors" newsletter wrote, "The idea behind catch-and-release is conservation. It's a way to make sure that your children have plenty of fish to catch. But that doesn't exactly apply to trout fishing in most tailwaters since conditions aren't suitable for natural reproduction." There are exceptions of course but the Toccoa tailwater fishery is sustained primarily through stockings. Although some reproduction has been documented in the Toccoa, we cannot conclude it is substantial based solely on the presence of small or colorful fish.

Understanding fish growth is important if our objective is to produce larger sized fish for sport. Consider, for example, that brook trout in Georgia streams rarely live beyond three years of age and food is scarce due to low stream productivity. A regulation to protect these fish, such as a 12-inch length limit, would do little good since nearly all die naturally before they reach that size. We need to better understand the growth of Toccoa tailwater trout to determine what target size is "reasonable" but this is a complex and difficult task. Biologists can read scales or otoliths (small bone in a fish's head) like a forester reads tree rings, but trout in southern tailwaters rarely form discernable growth rings due to moderated year-round water temperatures. To complicate matters, the growth we see in some locations is influenced by landowner feeding. Fish without access to such feeding areas will grow much slower so we suspect growth rates vary greatly between individual trout. Even if we obtain good growth data, it will be difficult to determine how much is attributed to natural food and how much to commercial feed. If landowner feeding patterns are stable it probably makes little difference what the food source is, but if the pattern changes the growth potential of fish will likewise change.

Mortality rates are another important biological consideration since this generally is what regulations try to adjust. But we need to know how much of the overall mortality is due to harvest, to catch-and-release, and to natural causes. A good example of why this is important can be found at Lake Lanier where some anglers felt that larger striped bass were disappearing rapidly and suggested they be protected from over-harvest. A subsequent tagging study estimated that the yearly mortality rate of fish greater than 15 inches was 51%. Nine of those 51 percentage points were from harvest and two were from catch-and-release mortality. The fish in the remaining 40 percentage points just died naturally. The anglers were right in their observation that large fish were disappearing but their conclusion as to the reason was wrong and a regulation would not help. DNR initiated a similar tagging study this year on the Toccoa tailwater to better understand mortality. As an incentive for anglers to return tags from tailwater fish, the Blue Ridge TU Chapter generously donated a lifetime license to be awarded to a single angler drawn at random from tags returned to DNR. More information on this study can be found on signs at tailwater access points, under "News" at www.gofishgeorgia.com or by calling Biologist John Damer at the Calhoun Fisheries Office at (706) 624-1161.

How species interact with each other is another area of biological consideration. More specifically, if we change the numbers or sizes of a particular species will it have a negative impact on others? If we want to produce more large fish will we need to reduce stocking to assure adequate food for growth? Will more large browns reduce the number of stocked rainbows through predation? Will competition among increased numbers of large fish for food decrease individual growth rates - in other words, will it result in fewer nine-pounders but more two-pounders.


I am frequently asked why trout in Georgia are not managed like other places such as North Carolina, the South Holston, or Canada. There are several reasons, not the least of which is a dissimilarity of angler interests between geographic areas. For example, the 2008 Michigan trout fishing regulation guide is 56 pages long. Georgia's guide, which includes all fresh and saltwater species, is only 41 pages long. The difference is because Georgians as a whole have voiced a desire for simplified regulations. Michigan anglers appear to prefer a water body approach to management and are willing to tolerate the resulting regulation complexity. In 1936, Missouri citizens voted to set up their Conservation Department separate from their legislature and in 1976 voted to impose a new sales tax on themselves to further expand their conservation programs. Georgia DNR, like almost all other states, is regulated by their elected legislature because that is the system our forefathers set up. Before coming to Georgia I worked for Missouri's Conservation Department and managed differently than I do here. My management philosophies did not change when I moved south but it was necessary to adapt to the objectives of my new employer - the citizens of Georgia and their elected officials.

Not only are there societal differences between geographic areas but considerable variety within an area. Among trout anglers there are those that promote catch-and-release and those who like the long tradition of harvest, those that favor fishing with home-tied barbless flies and those that glob worms on treble hooks, those that target wild fish and those that prefer less savvy stockers, those that view a catch as a bonus and those that measure satisfaction in numbers caught. DNR must manage for this wide diversity of anglers, and as much as possible, tries to provide a diversity of trout angling opportunities. The Toccoa tailwater lies in Fannin County, which already has more miles of special regulation trout streams than any other county in Georgia. In fact, Fannin County plus neighboring Murray County contain half of Georgia's special trout regulation stream miles. Given the objective to provide angling diversity, the advantages of additional regulations in an already heavily regulated area must be weighed very carefully.

We have a cartoon in our office of a crusty woman named Maxine that reads, "Don't believe everything you think." Although meant to be humorous, this quip is actually very relevant and points to the dangers of forming opinions when an issue is poorly understood. In particular, people often ask for specialized fishing regulations without considering all factors. A 2005 report from the Great Smokey Mountains National Park helps illuminate this point. The researchers reviewed 70 years of park fishing regulations including a wide variety of creel limits, size limits and seasons. Historically, they tried everything they could think of that "made sense" to improve the fishery but all met with little success. In the end, they determined that weather had a greater influence on the fishery than any regulation. Some trout anglers believe the use of barbless hooks on artificial lures assures increased fish survival. Studies to investigate the claim have had varied results over the years but in 1997 researchers looked at the studies collectively and concluded that on artificial bait there is no detectable difference in trout survival between barbed and barbless hooks. Closing bass harvest during spawning season to assure adequate numbers of reproduction is another popular idea that has not been proven in fact; there are plenty of other fish to make up for the reproduction lost when broodfish are caught off the nest. There may be other reasons for practicing these methods but the preservation of a fish population is not well supported from a scientific perspective.

Some anglers have proposed a slot length limit for the Toccoa tailwater, and although the idea has merit, we cannot assume it will automatically work just because it "makes sense." The concept of slot length limits on trout has only been tried in a hand-full of states and with varied success. One of the earliest studies was conducted during the 1980s in Wisconsin but it failed to increase numbers of large fish. I recently compared electrofishing data from the South Holston tailwater in Tennessee with Toccoa tailwater data. The South Holston has had a 16-22" protective slot limit since 2000 and the Toccoa has no size restrictions. On rainbow trout greater than 16 inches, the Toccoa had a slightly higher electrofishing catch rate than the South Holston. Conversely, the slot limit seems to be working on the South Holston's wild brown trout population.

Anglers often have management objectives that are beyond what is physically possible. Some headwater streams in Pennsylvania are known to support almost 300 pounds of brook trout per acre. By contrast, Georgia headwater streams support about 3 to 6 pounds of brook trout per acre. The North Fork of the famed White River has a water hardness of around 200 parts per million whereas the Toccoa tailwater, similar in size, averages around 12 parts per million. In addition to differences in fish productivity described in the habitat section, our southern location and associated high temperatures limit our trout management options. It would be unrealistic to fish the cool, fertile streams of more northern states and return to Georgia expecting the same type of fishery.

Sometimes, a desired shift in a fish population is met but the overall benefits are less than expected. For example, if we successfully increase the numbers of large trout will it attract more anglers, increase angler competition for space and consequently reduce individual catch rates and lower the quality of fishing experience? Will increased use cause more angler/landowner conflicts? Will an increase in the number of large fish in a population equate to bigger fish caught? Fish generally get smarter the older they get so a 20% increase in fish of large size will probably not equate to a 20% increase in large fish landed. One unintended consequence we all need to avoid is a loss in angler numbers. Although anglers still have a strong political voice it is weakening because they represent a dwindling percentage of the population. As we "compete" over our individual fishing ideals (artificial vs. natural bait, flyfishing vs. spin fishing, harvest vs. catch-and-release) we must be very careful to not weaken the angler's voice as a whole by pushing participants out of the sport.

So, how does a manger juggle all these variables and determine the best management course for the Toccoa tailwater? The process is somewhat analogous to playing the Wheel of Fortune game - you don't need all the pieces to solve the puzzle but you need enough of the key pieces to have a high probability of guessing the big picture correctly. The first pieces to resolve are the biological components. DNR is gauging mortality using the tagging study referenced earlier. Growth, at best, will be a rough estimate because of the affects of artificial feeding and difficulty of aging fish but we should gain some understanding through the tagging study. The reproductive component is of minimal importance on this tailwater since the fishery is maintained through stockings.

As noted in the opening paragraph, anglers should be a part of the management process since they represent the social component of the fishery. But to be effective there are some key points anglers should consider. First and foremost, collect accurate information on the subject and beware of urban legends and wives tales. Second, recognize that DNR manages for a wide range of angler preferences and keep an open mind to the needs and opinions of others. Finally, after due consideration make sure your opinion is heard. Internet message boards and chat rooms are great places to exchange ideas with other anglers but you should not assume messages posted there reach your state resource managers. If you have questions or wish to relay a comment regarding the Toccoa tailwater call John Damer or Wayne Probst at the Calhoun Fisheries office (phone 706-524-1161). Much like elections, it takes a lot of similar voices to carry the day but if you don't relay your viewpoint it will not be heard and considered.

Contact Unicoi Outfitters:

P.O. Box 419
7280 S. Main Street
Helen, Georgia 30545
(706) 878-3083
or by email.

Unicoi Outfitters is a permittee of the Chattahoochee-Oconee, Sumter, and Nantahala National Forests. See contact page for more information.