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Saturday, January 21, 2012

Floating the Hiwassee River

Whew! I knew the water was going to be cold, but this was ridiculous. As I pushed my canoe into the cold clear rapids of the Hiwassee State Scenic River near the Tennessee-North Carolina border an involuntary gasp and shiver shook my body. It was early March and the waters of the Hiwassee, which originate in the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Georgia, were still frigid from the winter snow melt. The morning was cool but the air temperature was much warmer than the water, resulting in a light wispy fog arising from the tumbling waters of the river. I quickly shoved off from the rocky bar and settled into the relative warmth of my canoe seat.

I had heard about the Hiwassee for many years but had never made the trek to Benton, Tennessee to experience its offerings. My mistake. As I was about to find out, the Hiwassee is a sparkling little river that makes for an easy one day or overnight trip. The river offers a little bit for almost every interest--call it a multi-purpose river. Along the river’s stretches you can experience exceptional whitewater rafting and canoeing, some of the best trout fishing in eastern Tennessee, and camping and hiking on nearby trails.

While the Hiwassee does not have the exhilarating rapids of nearby and better known rafting and kayaking rivers like the Chattooga and the Ocoee, the waters of the Hiwassee are nonetheless exciting for all but the most jaded whitewater enthusiasts. The most scenic stretch flows through a scenic five and one-half-mile stretch of the Cherokee National Forest. There are a outfitters who provide rafting and floating services on the Hiwassee and on a warm summer weekend the river can be way too crowded with watercraft, which is why I found myself pushing into the Hiwassee's current on a such a cold day.

The stretch of river I am running is somewhat longer and on this particular day I see no one else canoeing or fishing on the river. Admittedly, it is too early in the season for all but the most dedicated (or idiotic) canoeists and the trout don’t come into their own until later in the spring. So today offers me a good opportunity to take in the offerings of the Hiwassee without distraction. What is immediately apparent is the crystal clear water of the river. The Hiwassee flows directly from Georgia where it drains mainly forested lands of the Chattahoochee, Nanatahala, and Cherokee National Forests. There is not much chance of silt or pollution from towns and farms to degrade the water quality and it shows. I can see clearly to the bottom through all but the deepest pools.

Little more than a tiny mountain brook near its source, as it rushes across Georgia and North Carolina, it slows down and picks up volume before being temporarily harnessed behind the Appalachia Dam on the North Carolina/Tennessee border. For the next twenty-three miles below the dam--the section of river I am canoeing--the Hiwassee is a splendid river of fast rapids and deep pools, conducive to interesting paddling as well as excellent fishing in the deep cool eddies. For the length of this run, which has been designated a Tennessee State Scenic River, the Hiwassee is the perfect river for a combination fishing and canoeing trip, hard to beat for serious fly fishing.

By noon the sun has warmed me considerably and I paddle over to an inviting gravel bar where I eat lunch and kick myself for not bringing my rod and reel. I am in the middle of one of the finest fly fishing streams in the area and no way to take advantage of it. There are five access sites along this section, and a two mile stretch of the river from Big Bend to Childers Creek has been designated by the state as a Trophy Section, where trout fishing is at its best. This section yields impressive brown and rainbow trout in the 15-inch to 20-inch range. Trout up to nine pounds are taken from the Trophy Section, with five pound and up catches not uncommon. The water here varies from shallow ripples to swirling eddies behind large boulders, perfect hiding places for the brownies and rainbows.

After lunch, I quickly discover that paddling a canoe leisurely down the Hiwassee provides the perfect platform from which to spy likely trout spots. The best strategy is to reconnoiter a likely spot, disembark just upstream, and work the area to pick off fish. If your angling preferences lean toward spinning tackle, the river also supports largemouth bass, catfish, and yellow perch, all of which I spot as I scan likely fishing holes. I make mental notes of likely haunts for a return trip--with fishing gear. The river picks up below Childers Creek, a good time to stow your gear and concentrate more on canoeing and less on fishing. There are some interesting rapids in this section, but don't worry about dumping your expensive fishing gear: the Hiwassee is primarily Class I and II water which means easy rapids with small waves requiring minimal expertise.

Although you can run the Hiwassee in a day, a two-day journey makes for a more relaxing trip and there is a campsite available along the river to accommodate overnighters; the Gee Creek campsite near Highway 411 has 43 primitive sites, and backcountry camping is permitted along the John Muir Trail which runs near the river. This twelve mile long hiking trail begins near the town of Reliance and meanders along the river's edge for a good distance before veering back into the hills surrounding the river. Take extra time to hike and enjoy the hills and views offered by this trail.

For fishing and canoeing the best river run is from the access point at the Tennessee Valley Authority powerhouse to the take out at Highway 411 near Benton. You can take two days to float and fish this section. A mid October weekend is the best time to float the river, when the Tennessee hills are bursting with brilliant reds, oranges, and yellows as the leaves turn. The weather is still warm but has just enough evening coolness to stir the trout.

Details: The Hiwassee is about fifty miles northeast of Chattanooga, TN. Take the Cleveland exit off of Interstate 75 between Chattanooga and Knoxville. Follow Highway 64 east to U.S. 411 and turn north to Highway 30. The river is floatable year round, with the best fishing from early spring to late fall. The fishing slows up a little in the winter months. Hiwassee Outfitters provides rafting and inflatable kayak services (800-338-8133). Campsites at Gee Creek are available on a first come, first served basis (no reservations) and there is a fee for their use. There are restrooms and picnic grounds at some access points. State fishing regulations apply and are vigorously enforced, particularly in the Trophy Section. For maps and brochures, write Ranger Naturalist, Hiwassee State Scenic River, Box 255, Delano, TN 37325, or call 615-338-4133. A flyfishing outfitter, Dry Flyer Outfitters, Rt. 1, Box 227 J, Calhoun, TN 37309, 615-336-1585, offers guided one- and two-day fly fishing trips with an overnight stay at their base camp on the banks of the Hiwassee.

(This article originally appeared in the Nashville Tennessean)

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