Big Trout in a Small Creek

– John Geiger, Managing Editor of Safari Magazine and Safari Times

A fishing lodge on Georgia’s Soque River boasts more than four miles of private Appalachian trout streams. So how was it that in my two days of fishing I covered only 200 yards of water? Well, I guess I have only myself and the trout to blame.

In that short stretch of riffles, pools and seams, I was completely absorbed trying to trick some of the fattest, angriest trout I’ve ever caught. I could have gone anywhere else but didn’t need to.

Healthy rainbows and nasty, kype-jawed browns prowl under the shade of the hemlocks, willows and rhododendron at the Headwaters of the Soque lodge.   

“I see it,” said my buddy Russ Lumpkin as he followed behind me with an oversized net. I had hooked into a monster. “Oh, he’s big!”

I realized pretty quick that my 4-weight rod was way undersized for this fish. I held it high as the ’bow went from one side of the 20-foot stream to the other. Why the fish didn’t pop my 5X leader I’ll never know but am forever grateful. He gave me a scare when he turned downstream past my legs and didn’t stop. I hopped and pushed through the water after him with a big stupid grin on my face. The fight went on and on. I can’t lie, it was kind of stressful. I knew this would be the biggest fly-caught trout of my life.

The tippet was getting weaker by the minute. The longer he fought the better the chances of wrapping a root or getting on the wrong side of a boulder. Luck must be in this river because none of that happened. Thankfully, after 10 minutes, he was getting tired, too.

After a few stabs and swipes with the net, Lumpkin scooped up my hen rainbow. The 8-pounder made my day, and it was yet breakfast time. Grits and coffee can wait.

Russ had caught a nice ’bow a few minutes earlier. Our buddy John Burrell released what could have been a 10-pounder on his first cast. Yes, a double-digit-pound ’bow. And these are no wet-blanket pellet pigs. They survive the summer thanks to cool spring-fed mountain waters and the riverbank shade. They’re wild and angry.

Thick seams, cutbanks, pools and world-class trout within a few cast-lengths. You can see why I didn’t need to stray from a small section on the meandering mountain Soque.

This was not Montana, New Zealand or Kamchatka. Headwaters of the Soque lodge is on the southern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains and only an hour and a half from Atlanta. It’s far enough from the city that you’ll step into cool, fast, clean mountain trout waters and feel like you’re far and away. It’s close enough that Southeastern anglers won’t burn a day or two of travel to get here.

Before we go further, let’s get some pronunciation straight. Soque is pronounced so-KWEE. And it’s Burrell, as in BUR-ul.

“There are a lot of reasons to love this place,” said John Burrell, whose High Adventure Company manages the operation. “Where else can you catch strong trophy trout like these, one after another without having to go to the ends of the earth?”

His company operates top-shelf, five-star sporting properties and lodges on three continents. Burrell is a master at helping a resort reach its potential, especially in the realm of sporting activities.

As Garden & Gun put it, “Burrell has emerged as one of the South’s leading sporting figures and one of the most sought-after outfitters in the world.”

He’ll train staff, upgrade guest options, position and market a property to show it off to his clients, the people who would most appreciate the attention to detail. 

You might have heard of Lanai in Hawaii, a 90,000-acre island with the world’s highest axis deer population. Or Tipiliuke in Patagonia where clients can hunt the red stag roar and catch trophy trout in the same day. Signature Lodge at Cheyenne Ridge Outfitters in South Dakota is designed for the pheasant hunter who wants an upscale sporting experience in the field and at the lodge. He also runs Beretta Shooting Grounds in Georgia, Kalahari Oryx in South Africa, and of course, Headwaters of the Soque.

Burrell was born in Lake City, Tennessee. He is a gifted businessman, master host and generous. He’s got a Southern drawl and speaks fast, so try to keep up. Burrell spouts off ideas and new projects constantly. A common phrase is, “I had this idea. Now, wrap your head around this…” But for all the worldly successes, he appreciates the simple things — watching his English setters work a covey, seeing his friends hook a big rainbow in a small stream, sharing stories around a campfire about other cool places in the world. Eventually all conversation circles back to dogs, hunting, fishing and friends.

If you do accompany Burrell or one of his guides into the waters of the Soque, bring your 5-, or 6-weight. The absolute best time to fish it is in the late winter or early spring, two days after a good rain. There is just enough sediment to hide your tippet and the fish are on the feed as insects get washed around the creek.

Lumpkin, the former editor of Gray’s Sporting Journal, has fished for trout around the Southeast, in Europe and Alaska. 

“Even compared to famous trout rivers in the American West, an angler would be hard-pressed to hook into large trout so ubiquitous as they are in certain stretches of the Soque,” said Lumpkin who lives in eastern Georgia near Augusta. “It’s unparalleled.” 

I tied on two nymphs, a bead-head pheasant-tail and then a bead-head Copper John. I used a tapered 9-foot, 5X leader, but went to a 12-foot, 6X as the water cleared and the bite slowed midday. I put a small split-shot near the first nymph and a strike indicator near the fly line. We also got fish on a parachute Adams with various nymphs on a dropper. A highly visible Y2K in orange and yellow, which mimics eggs dropped by spawning trout, also caught fish.

Use that old fly-angler tip of running a section of a woman’s nylons through your line guide to check for nicks. There will be pressure on those guides, and you’ll want to make sure imperfections won’t cut into your flyline, butt section or leader. These fish will test your tackle, so you might as well get a jump on them.

The Headwaters lodge sits atop a hill. The river meanders through pasture below. The Lovell family has owned this land for generations. They used these pristine streams for moonshine back in the day, said Mark Lovell, who owns the resort, land and waters. That was a different time. Now, Lovell watches over the waters and the fish that swim in them. He knows every inch of the four miles, and he is constantly adjusting boulders, moving river rock to make riffles and clearing deadfall to make this stretch of the Soque as perfect as possible for fly anglers like me.

It’s all designed to feel like a bit of paradise on earth.   

Hang your waders. Sit by the fire. Sip a Tennessee bourbon. You can hear the tumbling Soque waters along with evening owls and roosting turkeys. Deer appear in the pasture. The moon rises over the hills. The fire crackles.

Again, talk comes back good places and great people. We recap the events of the day and make plans to join each other’s company again in a month. These are the times we anglers live for, yet they don’t come around by accident. It’s exactly as Burrell planned it.

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