Catching trout within sight of his truck just doesn’t appeal to Dale Thomas.
Dale, a trout angler who lives in Clarkesville, prefers to fish streams that do not have a road running beside them, and he doesn’t mind having to hike to get to them.
On May 11, Dale led GON-TV cameraman James Guthrie, my wife Jan and me into an off-the-road section of the Chattahoochee River above Robertstown for a day of trout fishing on as pretty a piece of trout water as you’ll fish in Georgia, and we didn’t see another angler all day.
The hike in took about 20 minutes, clambering over downed trees — reminders of Hurricane Opal — and ducking under overhanging mountain laurel and white pine limbs until we arrived at the river.
The Chattahoochee here is a far cry from the big river that flows under I-285 and through metro Atlanta. In White County “creek” better describes the sparkling stream as it gushes out of the mountains through rock gorges lush with mountain laurel, rhododendron, ivy and ferns.
At the point we came onto the river the water poured over several slabs of rock into a deep pool.
“We ought to catch a fish here on the first cast,” said Dale, and then he did it. He flicked his Mepps spinner to the far end of the pool and began to bring it back up, the gold blade flashing in the clear water. Halfway across the pool a 10-inch rainbow knifed up out of the dark water and grabbed the spinner. One cast, one fish. Dale unhooked the fish and slipped it back into the pool.
I had a No. 5 clown-colored Rapala tied on and I missed a strike on my second cast. On my fifth cast the small plug had just reached the foaming water in the deepest part of the pool when a trout flashed on the lure — a big fish. My 4-foot ultralight arched over and the fish rolled on its side, flashing rainbow colors. The trout was 16 inches long, maybe 17, and we had no net.
With the GON-TV camera recording the details, I waded across the top of the pool to the far side of the stream, and I cornered the trout against the bank.
In less than five minutes we had caught two trout, including one of the biggest rainbows I have ever caught.
Dale has been fishing this part of the river for about 15 years after “discovering” it by studying Chattahoochee National Forest maps with an eye for trout streams away from the roads. The majority of trout fishermen won’t walk far to fish even though the quality of the fishing is usually much higher.
He has located other out-of-the-way, high-quality trout streams, too. The locations of some of these streams are closely guarded — places he has caught 40 or 50 trout in an afternoon.
This section of the Chattahoochee is not stocked, at least not directly. The trout have washed in from stocking points several miles upstream or they are brightly-colored stream natives. Mostly there are rainbow trout, although on his previous trip to the stream, Dale caught a 14-inch brown trout. The brown trout tend to be harder to catch than the rainbows, he says. Brook trout aren’t unheard of, but they are reportedly uncommon until you reach the headwaters of the Chattahoochee and its tributaries.
Dale fishes mostly artificials on ultralight spinning tackle and he releases most of the fish he catches. The two primary lures in his plastic, pocket lure case are a tiny No. 3 floating Rapala in the clown pattern and a No. 2 Mepps spinner. His reel is spooled with 6-lb. line.
“The 6-lb. line will handle just about every fish in the river and it makes it easier to recover your line if you hang in the laurel across the stream,” he said.
Getting the bait down in the pools is important, and to ensure that his lures do, Dale often pinches on a couple of split shot six or eight inches above the Rapala or spinner.
He targets the best-looking water with his first cast — the deepest, darkest water in a pool, and progressively casts to less-likely spots until he has covered the water. He expects most strikes to come at the upper end of a pool in the foaming water where the water flows in. In quieter pools he looks for ledges or boulders that break the flow and give the trout a place to hold out of the current while waiting for the current to bring a tidbit past. While the best spots are usually the pools, don’t overlook the smaller pockets that often hold a trout or two. A single boulder with a pocket of deeper water behind it always gets a cast. Any water that flows under an overhanging bank or log jam is worth a try.
If the fish aren’t interested in artificials, Dale may go to turning over rocks at the edge of the stream to find live bait to fish — worms, caddis-fly larvae or small spring lizards.
We spent the morning fishing upstream, and as we approached a deep hole after a slow fish-catching stretch, Dale turned over a few rocks and grabbed a 3-inch long spring lizard.
“Here’s a secret weapon for trout,” he said, as he tried to grasp the wiggling lizard. He hooked the lizard through the lips with a small gold Aberdeen hook and no weight.
“My father used to tell me to hide the hook, but with a spring lizard it doesn’t seem to matter,” he said. “When they see the lizard they go for it.”
Dale flipped the lizard into the white water above the pool and let it wash in naturally, watching the line as it drifted through. The line seemed to stutter where it entered the water as a trout hit the lizard and Dale set the hook on another 10-inch rainbow.
“If there’s a trout in there, a spring lizard will usually get him,” he said.
The trick to spring lizards is finding a bait that is not too big for a trout to handle. A “just-right” size is about 3-inches long.
When he is hiking in to fish a remote section of a stream, Dale brings two rods with him so he will have a spare in case one breaks. In his pack he also brings another spare reel and extra line. He doesn’t bother with waders, but opts to wade in an old set of hiking boots. By mid afternoon on a warm day, the cool water felt good on our legs compared to warm waders. Too, we didn’t have to pack the cumbersome boots in or out.
While the trout in more remote sections don’t receive the pressure of roadside streams, they can still be spooky. Dale usually wears camouflage, or muted colors to blend into the green background. He also approaches promising-looking pools carefully so that he doesn’t alert the fish to his presence. If he can, he will make his first cast well away from the edge of the pool to avoid spooking fish.
Late in the afternoon he hooked a fish from a perch high on a log 20 or 25-feet from the edge of the stream. Generally, he takes a run-and-gun approach, making just enough casts to cover each spot before moving on. The first three or four casts will usually draw a strike if there’s a feeding fish, he said.
Dale caught our 13th trout of the afternoon, a stocker-sized rainbow that hit a No. 3 Rapala. Lucky 13, Dale named the fish, because it went back into the river.
While the Chattahoochee receives some fishing pressure, the farther we fished upstream the less evidence we found of fishermen. The banks aren’t beaten down by foot traffic, there are no bait cups laying around and no fishing line strung from branches over the pools, just a scenic river and rainbows — just the kind of place Dale likes.
Dale works as a lineman for Habersham EMC and he is off work by mid afternoon putting him on the river exactly at the time the fishing is best — during the evening. A week before we fished, Dale and a friend fished from 5:00 p.m. until dark and caught 20 or 25 trout.
Weather doesn’t seem to matter much, although Dale prefers a cloudy day and likes the chance to fish just after a summer thunderstorm when there is fresh runoff entering the stream.
There are no bait restrictions for trout fishing on the Chattahoochee above Robertstown. Worms and crickets are excellent trout bait and corn would likely work, too.
The Chattahoochee River is one of Georgia’s best-known streams and still there are remote sections to fish. The same is true for many other trout streams if you just take the time to search them out. Look for places where the stream leaves the road and campgrounds, and the longer the distance from easy access the better.
With just a little research and on-the-stream scouting, you can discover your own off-the-beaten-track trout stream.