The tailwaters of the Chattahoochee River in January arguably provide the year's best trout fishing in the state. Join the author as she explores the options it offers.(January 2008).
Photo by Polly Dean.
It's a constant amazement to me that some folks in and around Atlanta are unaware that the Chattahoochee River holds fish. I'm routinely reminded of this when casually mentioning to a neighbor or friend that I spent a day fishing on the river, and only a few miles from my home in Marietta.
I'm even approached at the river as I'm suiting up with boots and waders. "What kinds of fish are in here?" I'm asked.
My questioners are usually quite surprised to hear that I catch trout while I stand in water only yards from bustling interstates 75 or 285. They're even more surprised to learn that this fishery running right through our great urban concentration produces trout angling of a quality to rival any North Georgia Mountain stream -- and especially in the dead of winter!
For example: The state-record brown trout was taken from of the Chattahoochee River in November 2001. Charlie Ford caught the monster brown, which weighed in at 18 pounds, 6.72 ounces, in the tailwater section of the 'Hooch, just minutes from north metro Atlanta.
Originating at Buford Dam at the southern end of Lake Lanier and meandering southwest into the midst of metro Atlanta, where it ends at the mouth of Peachtree Creek, the Chattahoochee's tailwater trout fishery stretches 48 miles. The National Park Service manages portions of this stretch of river along with 10,000 acres of parklands and access points in the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area.
The tailwater passes through subdivisions, a number of large, impressive homes dotting its shore. Along some stretches, cliffs rise sharply from the banks and forested areas shield the river, making one forget that urban sprawl lurks just beyond the trees. In shoals, the water tumbles as clear as a mountain creek over rocks, and in long, deep, slow pools, it runs dark, reflecting the brownish-grays of leaf-bare trees along the banks.
Fishermen divide this tailwater of the 'Hooch into two main sections. Each exhibits its own unique characteristics, and either would be an excellent choice for catching trout during the cool winter months. (Cont.)
THE UPPER TAILWATERS
The upper tailwater runs for 35 miles of river from Buford Dam down to Morgan Falls Dam, a small hydropower unit. Numerous access points along the upper tailwater provide excellent floating, and a couple of wading opportunities.
Few anglers know this upper section of the 'Hooch's tailwater as well as does Chris Scalley. He grew up in Roswell hunting and fishing the Chattahoochee River and its surrounding areas. He's been fly-fishing since he was a young boy, and though he's seen his share of exotic fishing destinations, he now lives and works -- and can be found almost on a daily basis -- on the 'Hooch.
Scalley has guided anglers on the river under a National Park Service permit for more than 13 years. His personal and professional goal: to see the Chattahoochee reach its maximum potential as a trout fishery.
As he works closely with biologists from the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division, Scalley's become somewhat a lay expert on insects and macroinvertebrates. He also stays in close contact with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers -- which operates Buford Dam and controls water levels on the river -- as well as the National Park Service, which controls most public access to the stream.
His passion and his knowledge have made him perhaps the Chattahoochee River's greatest angling advocate. This is evident when he speaks to clubs, organizations or anyone who steps into his boat, which I recently was fortunate enough to do.
Allen Hansen and I had fly-fishing gear in hand as we boarded Scalley's jet boat at a ramp in the Jones Bridge Unit of the Chattahoochee River NRA on the Fulton County side of the upper tailwater section. Powerboats aren't a common sight on the Chattahoochee, as numerous shallow, rocky shoals along the tailwater tend to deter boaters with outboard motors. Since it has no prop to bang against any of those, Scalley's jet engine is ideal for skirting the skinny water and rocky outcroppings.
We ran upstream from the Jones Bridge ramp just a few hundred yards -- and a literal minute after beginning the downstream float, Hansen and I both were hooking into rainbows.
"Polly! Polly! You have one!" Scalley had to holler this to me several times before I learned that it took only the slightest movement of the strike indicator to signal that a fish was taking the fly. Sometimes it was just a matter of the indicator not moving with the current, or ever so slightly going under the water's surface, which could be hard to see in areas whose water was crystal-clear.
I fly-fish often, and am fairly competent at the sport, but I've come to realize that when you fish with a guide, you can always learn or improve on something. On this trip, the lesson was: Pay close attention to the indicator.
(I have to admit, though, that it was something of a relief to hear Scalley shouting Allen's name almost as much as he did mine!)
The basic idea is that it's better to go ahead and set the hook a few times with nothing there than to miss a potential trout sipping in the fly. A trout was usually on -- and seeing the flash of the fish immediately after feeling the line go tight was a blast!
The movement can be slight, but that doesn't mean that the fish is a small one. The largest trout I've ever caught barely moved my indicator!
Apparently Allen and I had both fallen into the habit of fishing by means of what Scalley referred to as the "Helen Keller method": waiting until our nymphs were on the swing, which is to say dragging in the current at the end of the drift, and we could feel the fish take our fly. Even though I've caught many a trout as it hit the nymph at the end of the drift, I hate to think how many I must have missed during the dead-drift by not knowing how to watch the indicator!
For fly-fishing, Scalley recommends a 5- or 6-weight 9-foot rod. The longer rod helps for mending the line, needed when the belly of the line lying on the water is drifting at a faster speed than the indicator and fly. A slight flip of the rod rolls the belly upstream of the leader, such that the nymph isn't dragged downstream in an unnatural manner.
Scalley rigged my 6-weight rod with 3X (6-pound test) leader and a size No. 14 nymph called a Rainbow Warrior. He added a smaller No. 18 Lightning Bug as a dropper, tying it on with 5X (4-pound test) tippet about 18 inches below the other fly. Both of these were then suspended under a strike indicator, which is nothing more than a glorified name for a miniscule bobber.
I was having great success with the nymphs, catching rainbows in the shoals and seams -- the lines created when water flows at two different speeds, causing an "edge" to emerge between the two currents.
Scalley had us throwing our flies directly into deeper runs and dark holes in which a definite dropoff was visible. He also recommended throwing into any bulrush grass that we drifted past; trout like to hold in patches of those long, flat blades that explain the nickname "tape grass." The guide also made sure that we didn't overlook any plants, shrubs or downed trees in the water. Trout hold in the eddy just below those obstructions.
Scalley especially likes to target the big browns known to thrive (and to reproduce naturally) in the upper tailwater. Hansen was using a different method that's a recommended technique for those looking for brown trout: throwing a large Wooly Bugger and stripping it back quickly towards the boat. Scalley uses large Buggers such as sizes No. 4, 6 and 8. White Buggers work well in the cooler months, imitating the shad that die in Lake Lanier, are sucked through Buford Dam, and float downstream. Olive- and black-colored Buggers mimicking sculpin minnows or crawdads do well in the warmer months. Sink-tip leaders can also be used to get the flies deeper when stripping the big streamer patterns.
I boated a couple of bright-hued browns by throwing nymphs close to the bank, under logs and overhanging branches. Scalley strongly encourages the release of any brown trout caught. While rainbow trout are heavily stocked in the upper tailwater, brown trout have not been planted since 2005. That's due to a study that sought to determine the brown trout's success in propagating and sustaining a healthy population along this river corridor. With data demonstrating brown trout reproduction in the Chattahoochee River, biologists can further convince land developers and politicians that the river is indeed a cold-water fishery that needs to be protected.
According to Bill Couch, WRD fisheries biologist and manager of the Buford Trout Hatchery, 150,000 rainbow trout are stocked into the upper tailwater annually. An additional 9,000 are released into the 'Hooch for specially scheduled kids' fishing days. He explained that the trout are grown in the hatchery into healthy, catchable 9- or 10-inch fish before being released into the Chattahoochee. Of the trout released, 5 percent are in the larger 11- to 14-inch lengths.
Most trout anglers on the river don't cast with a fly rod, and Scalley's just as content to take spin-fishermen onto the river. In fact, he often finds it's a bit of a break to guide anglers using spinning gear rather than fly-fishing equipment.
Inline spinners such as Panther Martins, Rooster Tails and Mepps are apt choices for spin fishing. Black patterns with a gold blade are a favorite with Scalley, but he also suggested trying a silver blade in the cooler months. A 1/6-ounce Little Cleo spoon in silver or gold is another workable option.
Scalley recommended that those subscribing to the big-bait-big-fish theory might -- especially when targeting big brown trout -- want to consider throwing Rapala CountDowns in a size No. 5 or 9 in perch and baby rainbow patterns.
THE LOWER TAILWATER
Just over a dozen miles of the Chattahoochee River -- from Morgan Falls Dam southward to Peachtree Creek west of downtown Atlanta -- make up the lower tailwater section. This downstream section includes one of the state's five special regulation Delayed Harvest areas. The 4 1/2 mile DH section runs from the mouth of Sope Creek to the U.S. Highway 41 bridge at the NPS Paces Mill Unit of the Chattahoochee River NRA.
Atlanta-area residents are fortunate to have such a gem as the DH section so convenient to the heart of the city. Given our relatively mild winters, anglers can enjoy fishing year 'round.
The DH management strategy of catch-and-release from fall until spring allows fish to be caught more than once, all but assuring a high catch rate. Catchable-sized trout are heavily stocked at the beginning of the period and then periodically replenished to replace fish lost to injury or natural mortality.
According to Bill Couch, the DNR stocks 50,000 trout into the 4 1/2-mile DH section. Most are rainbows; some 10 percent are browns. Over 31,000 fish 9 to 10 inches long are put into the DH in November and December. An additional 1,300-plus 12- to 14-inch trout, and 200 fish 14 inches and larger are added during these months. The remaining 17,400 fish are stocked January through April. Couch estimates that a 15-inch fish will weigh about 2 pounds.
With the growth of the trout once in the river (which has been documented in the past to be as much as a half-inch per month) and the catch-and-release regulations in place, anglers in late winter to early spring can expect to catch some nice-sized fish.
The Chattahoochee DH section is especially popular with flyfishermen. A number of areas are very well suited for wading, and plenty of casting room is to be had. The high number of trout in the DH section makes it ideal for introducing a youngster or newcomer to the sport of trout fishing with spin or fly gear.
Plentiful as they are, the trout can at times be fickle. If throwing a fly, you may have to try a variety to be successful. Using a dropper is allowed as long as each lure or fly has a single hook. Of course, offering two choices increases your chances of hooking up. Nymphs such as Lightning Bugs, Copper Johns (in copper or red body colors), Pheasant Tail or Prince nymphs are smart options, and Wooly Buggers are definitely worth a try. Olive is generally my first choice, if I'm fishing at midday; I go to black if olive fails to produce, or when the sun is low or its cloudy.
Size No. 16 to 20 Blue-Winged Olives are smart dry-fly choices to throw in winter months. Hatches of those insects are common at midday. Midges or a Griffith's Gnat on a size No. 18 to 22 hook are also an option, especially during a sunny winter day.
From Nov. 1 to May 14, only artificial lures are permitted in the DH water; no bait is allowed, and lures must be fitted with no more than a single hook. (You can cut off two of the hooks if you're throwing a lure with a treble hook.)