Nothin’ But Net

Georgia trout guru Jimmy Harris shares his tips and tactics for hooking, playing and landing big trout on the fly.

On a recent return flight from Colorado, my carry-on luggage was a fly-rod tube. I became the recipient of some nervous looks from others in the ticketing lines, as I guess a length of PVC pipe isn’t the most comforting thing for a passenger to see before they board a plane in our day and time. I also had some pretty interesting questions thrown my way such as, “Do you play a lot of golf?” or my favorite, “Are you an architect?” Apparently my rod tube looked more like it contained a golf club or a set of blueprints than a nine-foot, five-weight stick of graphite.

Most interestingly, when I would explain to them exactly what I was carrying, they all responded the same way: “There are trout in Georgia?” I would go on to tell them that, even though we are a southern state, we are blessed by being at the tail end of the Appalachian Mountains, and therefore possess a very good amount of suitable habitat for coldwater fish like browns, rainbows, and even brookies.

Not only do we have plenty of places in Georgia where there is the opportunity to catch a trout, we have quite a few places where there is a chance of catching a very large one. Places like the Chattahoochee tailwater or the Wild and Scenic section of the Chattooga present the possibility of landing a trophy holdover, or even naturally reproducing brown trout. There are also numerous trophy streams across north Georgia that hold huge rainbows. Even some of our wild streams can hold native fish up to 16 inches, or even larger. I would tell you the names of those, but I value my life, so I’ll keep that to myself.

Now, many anglers say they fly fish just to get out in clean air and untouched surroundings of the north Georgia mountains, and that any fish caught while enjoying the scenery is just an added bonus. This may be true to an extent, but in reality, every angler hopes that their next trip out will be the one that has that fish of a lifetime in store for them. The problem is, most anglers don’t know what to do after they set the hook into the jaw of a sleek, strong, trophy-sized submarine with spots and stripes. And, what should have resulted in an awesome picture of an ecstatic fly-flinger holding an enormous trout usually ends up being nothing more than a haunting memory of what should have happened.

So, what is it exactly that separates the experts, the seasoned veterans, from the rest of us when it comes to actually getting that brute into the landing net? How can we have a fighting chance when a 20-inch-plus trout grabs on to our fly?

To answer this question, we turn to one of Georgia’s foremost experts on all things trout, Jimmy Harris. As co-owner of Unicoi Outfitters in Blue Ridge and Helen, Jimmy has access to numerous trophy waters and probably has as much, if not more, time with a trophy on the end of his line as anyone else in Georgia. He’s been fly fishing for 27 or 28 years, has been the guest on numerous television shows, such as Fly Fishing America on ESPN Outdoors, and he just recently returned from battling sea-run brown trout in the 20-lb. range at the southern tip of Argentina in a world-famous area known as Tiera del Fuego. Bottom line: this guy knows how to land the big one!

We also had to head to a location that would offer a greater chance at tying into a trophy-sized trout in order to receive some first-hand coaching from Jimmy in the heat of battle. We decided on one of the private streams that Jimmy and his guides take clients to, Noontootla Creek Farms, which is just a short drive south of Blue Ridge. With its two miles of trophy-managed trout waters, a good mix of stream-bred and stocked fish and challenging and diverse water types, it served as an ideal setting to learn some of Jimmy’s proven tactics.

Of course, before you can worry about playing the fish right or getting it into your net, you need to know how to entice that big, wary trout into taking your offering. You can’t just throw any fly in your box in the face of an old stream-wise trout and hope that it will bite. Or can you?

On one of Jimmy’s trips with the guys from ESPN Outdoors, a cameraman had developed a lens with a long scope on it that allowed him to film underwater without actually submerging the camera. They took several hours worth of underwater footage, highlighting specific trout and specific prime holding spots to see what really goes on under the surface.

Jimmy said, “After watching the footage, we realized that the trout not only ate a lot, they also ate a lot of things that weren’t really food, like yellow hemlock needles drifting downstream.”

He said that really goes to show you that presenting whatever fly you are using with a completely drag-free drift at the right depth is more important than fly selection, unless of course a specific insect is hatching at the time.

It is also imperative to not alert the trout you are pursuing to your presence. If you don’t wear clothing that blends in with your surroundings, if you don’t approach the trout silently from behind, and if you don’t cast your fly line where it won’t pass directly over the trout’s line of vision, you might as well kiss that fish goodbye. To learn more about stalking trout, see the “Rabunite Ramble” sidebar in Cannon’s Creel on page 149.

So, let’s say that you’ve stalked the fish correctly and it has no idea you are after it, and you’ve presented your fly to the fish with a perfect dead-drift. Now what? You’ve been able to control all the variables up to this point, but you now find yourself hooked up with a creature that has a mind of its own and a very strong will to survive. To some degree, you are at the mercy of the fish. But to a larger degree, if you can keep your cool and follow Jimmy’s tips, you can be in control.

1. Stay Calm! No one ever landed a fish because they panicked.

“Most people’s initial reaction when they hook into the biggest fish of their life is to want to stop the fish immediately and get it in the net,” Jimmy said. “That’s a big mistake.”

Many times, an angler will have a few feet or even a few yards of fly line in their hand from pulling the slack out of their line while they are drifting their fly. When the fish hits and the hook is set, the angler is left with all of that slack either in their hand or oftentimes, even worse, wrapped around any number of things including a rock or stick at their feet, maybe just their feet, a wading belt or wading staff, one of the many tools hanging off of the vest and even the reel itself or the butt of the rod.

“The first concern is to get that big fish on the reel so the drag and the rod can do the work,” Jimmy said.

So, stay calm and take a second or two to clear your line free from any potential snags so that all of your slack line is now either on your reel or running through your rod guides. If you can make it this far in the fight, your chances for actually landing the fish have already increased dramatically.

2. Play Smart!

Once the hook has been set and all of the fly line has been transferred from hand to reel, the real action can begin. Blistering runs and showy leaps, all to the tune of a screaming reel, can be expected. But, this is the part of the fight where you really have to be aware of the topography of the stream you are fishing. Large rocks, roots, fallen trees and fast water should all be observed and noted before beginning to fish any section of any stream. Before you make your first cast, you need to know all of the pitfalls around you, so you can know when to allow a hooked fish to run wide open and when to apply a little more pressure to keep it away from an obstruction.

3. Get the Most From Your Equipment!

While one member of our party was fighting a large fish, Jimmy advised him to hold his rod parallel to the water as opposed to holding it vertically. I asked him how much of a difference that made, and he explained how he and his guides have tested the leverage of rods using scales at his shop.

“We have gotten as much as five times more leverage out of the same rod held sideways versus a more upright position,” Jimmy said.

This added leverage can really come in handy when the fish decides to head for an undercut bank loaded with tippet-chomping roots or a fast shoot of current that can add “weight” to an already heavy fish.

As mentioned in the previous tip, it’s crucial to get the line on your reel to take advantage of your reel’s drag system.

“No matter how good you are at palming a reel, you’re not as good as a mechanical drag,” Jimmy said.

It takes a little experimenting to find the perfect drag setting for the size of fish you may be fishing over. But, it’s best to start out with a lighter drag and tighten it during the fight to find the ideal setting that allows the fish to run without breaking the delicate tippet, yet is also strong enough to wear the fish down as fast as possible.

4. Be Patient!

All of us either have a personal story or have heard stories of getting that dream fish almost in the net. After a 10- or 15- minute fight, or maybe longer, it’s easy to get sloppy and impatient. When a large trout makes its fifth, sixth and seventh run, it’s not crazy to start thinking that maybe this fish will never know what the inside of your net feels like. That thought is multiplied exponentially when the fish is right at the net and decides to make another run. Although it’s easy to justify trying to just horse the fish in, it’s better at this point to play it safe and continue to allow the fish to wear itself down enough to net him.

“I hooked a brown trout in the Madison River, Mont. that, when I close my eyes, is still my dream fish,” Jimmy said. “I had fought it for probably 10 minutes and even the guide I was with got excited. It was probably seven or eight pounds, and as the guide got at it with the net, it made one more run and stupid me had my hand on the reel. My 5x tippet just snapped. But, I guess the trout of your dreams is always the one that got away.”
Be especially cautious if you are fishing with more than one fly.

Whichever fly isn’t in the fish will be dangling freely. And if an almost-netted fish decides to make a U-turn at the last second, the free-swinging fly can snag on the netting and the win-loss record will not be in your favor. Patience is a virtue, and that’s no exception when trying to land a fish.

5. Revive and Release.

It can’t go without mention that after landing a large trout, it may take several minutes to revive the fish. There is definitely a right and a wrong way to do this.

“You should be prepared to spend as much time reviving the fish as you spent playing the fish,” Jimmy said. This should be done by holding the trout head-first into a slight current so it can get a steady stream of oxygenated water pumping through its gills.

One curious thing that I noticed Jimmy doing was rubbing the underside of the trout while it was reviving. I asked him why he did that and he said, “I’ve never read anything about doing this, but it sure does seem to get them going quicker.” He was right. Even after a long fight, a seemingly worn-out fish would take off after just a few rubs of the belly.

Our group ended up landing around 20 fish for the day, with half of those taping over 19 inches. Almost of all of the fish that we netted, as best we could tell, were stream-bred. Their amazing color, squared-off fins and voracious fighting all added to an already-beautiful and sunny 65-degree day in the north Georgia mountains.

We lost a few fish, either from the barbless hook slipping out or from the fish running through a fast shoot or into a pile of roots and breaking the tippet. But it was obvious that, even though a few fish never made it into the net, the coaching from Jimmy drastically increased the catch rate of everyone in our group.

Learn Jimmy’s aforementioned tips, and if you can successfully adhere to all of them, you too should be able to net the fish of a lifetime when the opportunity arises. Then you can give yourself a pat on the back, have a fishing buddy snap a quick picture of you with your trophy, and release the fish back in the stream so that someone else, or maybe even you, can get a shot at another epic battle with that very same “Georgia steelhead” or bruising brown. You’ll be on your way to being the next expert exploring the streams.

For more information on trophy trout fishing in Georgia, visit <www.ncfga.com> or <www.unicoioutfitters.com>.

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