While some trout anglers may turn their noses in the air at the prospect of fishing for the standard, nine-inch trout (SNIT) straight out of the hatchery truck, most of us fishermen — perhaps with less discerning tastes — can’t resist the allure of piles of hungry trout, stacked in holes like cordwood and ready to bite anything with a little flash — especially if it doesn’t require a multiple-hour drive to the mountains of north Georgia to catch them.
That’s the idea behind the delayed-harvest (DH) section of the Chattahoochee River below Morgan Falls Dam from Sope Creek downstream to Hwy 41. Atlanta has a metropolitan trout fishery that is unrivaled in the Southeast, and from November 1 through May 14 anglers have the opportunity to catch fish — and lots of them. The only catch is — you have to put them back, and the restrictions are single-hook, artificial only. However, that all changes after May 14. From May 15 through October 31 each year, the stretch of river is opened to most types of fishing and managed under standard hatchery-supported regulations.
“This is the epitome of a stocked trout stream. The fish stay where they put ’em in. There are a lot of fish, and they’re stupid,” said Aaron Sago, who has spent as much time on the river as anyone. As a volunteer, he helped stock the river when it first opened as a DH fishery in 2000, and he helps stock fish every year when the Georgia Wildlife Resources Division dumps about 50,000 catchable-sized rainbow and brown trout in the river throughout the DH season. He also wrote a detailed book on the Chattahoochee DH, which tells anglers how, when and where to fish to maximize their catch.
On a typical day fishing from a float tube, Aaron lands between 20 and 30 trout, so it’s easy for him to call the fish stupid, but he spent countless hours researching the river for his book, and it’s safe to say he’s figured it out.
“I like to catch fish, and I’ll do whatever it takes to catch ’em,” he said while stringing up a nine-foot, five-weight fly rod at the Cochran Shoals put-in, off Interstate North Parkway near the junction of Akers Mill and Powers Ferry roads. He’s found that a float tube with waders is the best way to comfortably navigate and fish the shoal-broken stretch of river. He prefers a fly rod but said a lightweight spinning outfit with a medium-action rod can be just as effective. A medium-action, rather than ultra-light, rod strung with 6-lb. line provides the backbone needed to set the hook in a trout’s hard jaw, he explained.
Fishing with ultra-light tackle out of the back of “The Red Rocket” — my trusty old bright red canoe, battered and bruised, but still leaky — I quickly realized that Aaron was absolutely right about his boat and tackle preferences. While my brother, Gilbert, and I did more paddling than fishing in a struggle to remain upright in the fast-moving rapids, Aaron moseyed down the river in his belly-boat, standing up amongst the knee-deep riffles to catch fish we couldn’t stop for. Also, if I had gotten a hook set in even a quarter of the fish that bit my 1/8-oz. yellow crappie jig, I would have had a day like Aaron, who was pulling in trout as fast as he could get his line out.
The ticket on a fly rod was a beadhead yellow-and-orange egg pattern wet fly, or Y2K, fished as a dropper fly about 2 1/2 feet below a brown or olive beadhead Woolly Booger. Aaron dead-drifted this rig under an adjustable strike indicator, which he moved up and down the line between casts according to the depth of the water. At the end of the drift, he pulled his line in with short upstream strips, getting hits both stripping and on the drift. He stressed the importance of weight and a long leader, at least 7 1/2 feet, to get the flies down to the fish with the line un-noticed.
“That’s my good-day set-up, either that or a Booger and a Sucker Spawn (another egg pattern). If they’re not taking these, it’s going to be a tough day,” he said. “And, the most common mistake I see out here is people fishing with leaders that are too short. A long leader is critical if you want to catch a lot of fish.”
In his book, Aaron goes into more detail about other productive sub-surface flies like Prince Nymphs, Pheasant Tails and Hares Ears, and streamers like The Rolex and polar-fiber minnows for bigger fish, but for consistency he said it’s hard to beat a Booger and an egg pattern. Also, for the dry-fly fisherman, there are often good afternoon hatches of small mayflies and later in the season large caddis hatches can occur. Aaron suggested either Blue-Winged Olives or Adams in small sizes to match the mayfly hatches or Elk-Hair Caddis or Adams to match the caddis hatches. However, even when the water looks like it has come to a boil from all the rising trout, Aaron sticks to his guns.
“I’m lazy,” he said. “It’s hard to get me to tie on a dry fly. Even when they’re rising, these trout will still take something under water.”
Lure selection can be a little more difficult for spin-casters during the DH season because of the single-hook restriction, but with a little ingenuity all the typical trout lures will catch fish on the Hooch. A yellow, 1/8-oz. crappie jig with a marabou tail yielded the best fish of the day — a healthy-looking 12-inch rainbow — when we were on the river, and it produced well until I lost all that I had hanging up on the bottom. Aaron suggested 1/16-oz. crappie jigs in yellow, pink and other bright fluorescent colors for stained water.
Unscented artificial trout worms, also in bright colors, “wacky rigged” on a 1/16-oz. jig head and fished with or without a float are a good bet. And, for those days when the fly fisherman next to you is yanking fish out of the water left and right and you can’t get a bite, Aaron suggested a casting bubble — a weighted clear plastic bubble that allows spin fishermen to cast flies.
Size 1/8-oz. to 3/8-oz. in-line spinners and two- to three-inch crankbaits can also be deadly. Most spinners and crankbaits have multiple hooks, though, and all but one of the hooks on each lure must be removed before you hit the water.
“Some people will replace the treble hook with a single hook, but I prefer clipping to replacing,” Aaron said. “I like the extra weight of the treble hooks.”
Use wire clippers or needle-nose pliers to completely remove two of the hooks off the treble hook of an in-line spinner. For a crankbait with two treble hooks, remove the front hook completely and clip two of the hooks off the back hook. Fishing a two-inch Rapala Fat Rap drew a lot of hard hits, but the hook-up rate was poor with the single hook. Once the DH season ends, and treble hooks become legal, crankbaits should produce a lot of fish, and some of better size.
Although Aaron caught 28 trout, a 3/4-lb. largemouth and two 1/2- to 3/4-lb. shoal bass, we didn’t catch any fish much longer than 12 inches the day we went out, but we weren’t targeting the larger fish with big streamers or lures. However, according to both Aaron and WRD Senior Fisheries Biologist Chris Martin, they are in there. Five percent of the fish stocked in the Hooch DH are 12-inchers and about 1 percent are longer than 15 inches. Aaron said he has brought several 20-inch trout to hand, and Chris said the WRD recently shocked up a 9-lb., hold-over brown trout.
“The reason for these regulations is to provide something for both types of fishermen, the catch-and-release guys and the guys that want to harvest them,” Chris said. “We have been having some water temperature issues on the Chattahoochee River downstream of Morgan Falls Dam. We don’t lose all the fish, but we do lose enough that the fishing success significantly declines. Since we feel like we’re going to lose a significant portion of the fish in the summer, why not let people harvest them?”
So, the evidence suggests there are some trout that survive the summer heat and the harvest to hold over and get bigger year after year.
Also, the recent addition of increased numbers of shoal bass is like a bonus to add a little spice to a trout fishing trip. The WRD began stocking 20,000 fingerling shoal bass a year four years ago to reintroduce a species that is native to the river, and to provide additional fishing opportunities when warm water makes it difficult to catch trout. They can be caught using the same tactics in the same holding water as trout, and they fight a lot harder than their cold-water brethren.
“I don’t profess to know a lot about shoal bass, but they basically hold in the same types of places as the trout. They seem to be more structure oriented. They hang closer to the banks and rocks,” Aaron said. “In the winter, the bluff walls will hold shoal bass. The theory is those rock walls warm up in the sunshine.”
Electroshock surveys and reports from anglers show the shoalies are doing well.
“We are seeing an increase in the shoal bass population. They’re out there, they’re growing and they’re in excellent condition,” Chris said. “They’ve been there; they’ve managed to gain a foothold. We’re just giving them a good shot in the arm to see what happens. We feel we have a situation where these two species can cohabitate and not effect each other adversely.”
Whether it’s bass or trout that you’re after — or the occasional striper that makes its way upstream from West Point Lake to gorge on SNITs — the Chattahoochee DH is a fantastic fishery right out the backdoor for metro-Atlanta residents. There are multiple access points between Cochran Shoals and the last DH takeout at Paces Mill, so fishermen without boats can find wadable water at Cochran Shoals, Sandy Point, Whitewater Creek and Paces Mill. Many fishermen take advantage of the wadable water, and we saw them casting, catching and competing for trout with the resident heron population, which is remarkably well-fed.
And, between the hustle and bustle of the bridges and river-side parks, there are several long, riffled bends in the river, where there are no houses and it’s easy to imagine you are on a pristine river meandering through wooded hills. But don’t spend too much time daydreaming; in moments like those there’s likely to be an eager trout eyeballing the flashy thing on the end of your line.
For more detailed information on fishing the Chattahoochee DH, float times, maps, directions to access points and anything else you may need to know about it, Aaron’s book “Fishing the Chattahoochee Delayed Harvest — A Detailed Guide” can be purchased at <www.georgiafishingbooks.com>.