An ongoing controversy between users of some of our public lands is currently underway in the mountains of North Carolina on the upper Chattooga River just as it flows into South Carolina and Georgia. There’s a little history involved here.
At the point where the North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia state boundaries merge is a large rock in the Chattooga River. Ellicott Rock is the cornerstone that enables a tourist to stand with their feet in three states at one time.
With this small spot as a starting point the Chattooga flows downstream briefly through some of South Carolina and then into Georgia. From Ellicott Rock upstream the Chattooga flows entirely in North Carolina.
From its headwaters in the mountains of North Carolina until the Chattooga enters Lake Tugaloo in the mountains of Georgia, the Chattooga is about as wild and scenic as any river in the world. Its waters gush between house-sized boulders, vertical granite cliffs and spectacular waterfalls. It was a river made for fishermen and white water boaters.
Back in the 1960s the upper reaches of the Chattooga were one of the favorite trout fishing waters of a few anglers. Being “marginal” waters for the cooler water preferring fish like brook or rainbow trout, most of the angling that took place on this river was for the warmer water tolerant brown trout. It was a favorite of mine because hardly any other fishermen were willing to venture into this rugged terrain to try to catch a few trout.
In spots such as the 30 foot-high sheer granite Chattooga Cliffs above the Bull Pen Bridge, it was nearly impossible to fish. The water gushes through a narrow passage between these sheer cliffs and to place a lure or baited hook there is very difficult. Other sections of the Chattooga require anglers to inch their way through a maze of massive boulders often crawling through cave-like holes or hanging onto rocks with toes and fingers with a fly rod stuck into their belt. Interspersed in this wonderful and wild river were deep pools that delight trout fishermen and hold some trophy sized brown trout.
The Chattooga remained one of our favorite trout streams until that fateful year when Hollywood came to this section of the South. When the movie Deliverance was filmed on the Chattooga, it changed everything.
First of all the movie led to the fast-growing sport of whitewater canoeing and kayaking. Listening to the melody of Dueling Banjos (Written by Tar Heel Arthur Smith no less) thousands of “Wanna-Be’s” like Burt Reynolds began to launch their small crafts into the Chattooga and shoot the rapids and waterfalls.
The notoriety of the river brought about by “Deliverance” also led to its being declared to be a “Wild and Scenic River” in the Nantahala National Forest. This gave the river a certain degree of protection against development but it also focused more attention on the river from a group of newly emerging environmentalist. The days of the Chattooga being a river where anglers could find solitude were over.
This public land and water was now opened to a constant stream of hikers, fishermen, white-water boaters and bird watchers. It was inevitable that user conflicts emerge and further restrictions placed by the U.S. Forest Service as to how and when the public could use our land and water. The upper Chattooga River was now a famous must-visit place for outdoor enthusiasts.
The movie Deliverance and its classification as a wild and Scenic River spoiled the river for a lot of people. The angling community is upset when a group of kayakers comes paddling through their favorite pool and spooks the nervous trout into hiding. The boaters have had lines cast across their bows and rocks hurled in their direction. Some reports of fistfights between people who feel that they alone have the right to use this river have arisen.
The U.S. Forest Service tries to mitigate the issues by allowing certain sections of the Chattooga to whitewater boating only under conditions of high water and fishermen are restricted to assigned stretches of the river. Each faction seems to feel that they should be allotted more space and time on these publicly owned waters.
A similar thing happened to yet another beautiful mountain stream when the Slickrock Creek fell under the “Wild an Scenic” classification.
Before it became famous it also was a favorite of anglers and a very few hikers and backpackers. This wild mountain stream forms the border between Tennessee and North Carolina and is very difficult to hike into and out of. The isolated nature of the area and the fact that not too many people knew about the Slickrock Creek area held the number of visitors down to a minimum. The beautiful Wildcat Falls, the resultant pool beneath these falls teemed with nice trout and the nearby cave was the favorite place for an angler to spend hours casting a fly or just sitting and contemplating the scenery.
Soon after the Wild and Scenic River federal classification, every Outward Bound group in the countryside started visiting the Slickrock area. Trails in and out of the area were littered with candy wrappers and gear discarded from hiker’s packs as loads had to be lessened during a difficult hike.
The last time I visited Slickrock Creek and sneaked up on the Wildcat Falls pool to fish, the sounds of laughter came from below the falls. With backpacks and clothes left along the banks of the pool several young women and men were skinny-dipping in my favorite trout water. It looked like they were having a fantastic time jumping off rocks into the deep pool and sunbathing in the sunlight so I forwent the fishing for the afternoon and just sat on rock and enjoyed the scenery. There are some side benefits to the multiple uses of our public lands and waters I suppose. Oh well, somebody has to do it!
The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission has recently come up with some figures on just what economic benefits are derived from trout angling in the mountains. For those that don’t know, the economic impact of this type of fishing in our often-impoverished hills is staggering.
Resident mountain trout anglers’ total trip expenditures were $83.5 million; nonresident mountain trout anglers’ total trip expenditures were $23.3 million. Resident mountain trout
anglers’ total equipment expenditures were $36.9 million.
The survey also gathered demographic data on mountain trout anglers. Ages of respondents follow a bell-curve, slightly skewed to the older age groups; the mean ages are 51.2 years among resident anglers and 48.9 years among nonresident anglers. Finally, the sample of anglers is overwhelmingly male (92% of resident anglers; 96% of nonresident anglers). With the scenic beauty I enjoyed that afternoon at the Wildcat Falls I can easily understand why there’s suck a large percentage of males who trout fish in the mountains of North Carolina.