Its banks are not much to look at. Muddied. Eroded. Developed. Trashed.
No doubt, the Chattahoochee River, where it runs through the northern metro Atlanta suburban landscape,
leaves little to the imagination of trout anglers anywhere else.
But here in Georgia, we learned long ago that the water that runs between those adjectives is clean enough and cold enough to support tens of thousands of annually stocked rainbows, as well as a thriving, accessible population of wild brown trout that can run as long as your arm… maybe longer.
Big trout—brown trout—are what carries fishing guide Chad Bryson of The Fish Hawk, Atlanta’s fly-fishing headquarters for more than 40 years, onto the waters of the Chattahoochee River every week he’s in town.
From late summer through winter and spring, Chad guides his clients on the Chattahoochee chasing not every trout the river has to offer, only those with the buttery flanks and glowing halos around black and red spots.
Most often, he’s looking for the biggest of them. No wonder. Chad matches his local Chattahoochee River spring, fall and winter guide service with his summertime trophy-fishing guide service on the watershed of the Alagnak (Branch) River northwest of King Salmon, Alaska.
“And it can be exhausting,” Chad says. “Honestly, we don’t always catch large browns. We’re casting 8-weight rods with large flies attached to heavy leaders on full-sink lines. Or we throw large plugs, over and over again. Most days we don’t turn a big fish. It’s not for everyone, but it is for anyone who wants to catch the Chattahoochee’s brown trout. We’ll catch some browns. They won’t always be large, but they’re wild.”
The Chattahoochee’s biggest browns are, indeed, elusive and limited in number, but the population of browns is
high enough to qualify Chad’s guide trips as legitimate treks after trophy trout.
The Georgia state-record brown trout was caught on the Chattahoochee in 2014 by Chad Doughty, of Winder. The 20-lb., 14-oz. brown was landed by Doughty after a reported 45-minute fight from his kayak in the waters immediately downstream from Buford Dam in Suwanee.
A couple years ago, the fisheries staff of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources told the membership of the Atlanta Fly Fishing Club that many large browns—fish heavier than 10 pounds—live in the 30 miles of the riverway from Buford Dam to Morgan Falls Dam. Many were found by electroshocking surveys in the reach from Georgia Highway 20 to Jones Bridge Park.
But “many” is not a lot of big browns. Recruitment is low of individual fish through growth lengths that see them switch their feeding patterns from insects to vertebrates. It’s the vertebrates—small fish (yes, the big browns even eat stocked rainbows), frogs, mice and more—that lead to even larger growth among fish that live in relative seclusion. That’s why key to catching the largest of the browns lies in access and technique.
Soak a bait or toss a spinner, especially in the vicinity of the park tracts operated by the National Park Service, and you’re likely to catch hatchery rainbows in the 10- to 15-inch class. That makes a good outing for fishermen who don’t have the means to leave the parks and float-fish stretches of the Chattahoochee that must be read with a different mind set to at least get a chance at tackling a trophy brown.
“These fish don’t eat insects. They eat other fish,” Chad confirms, “so it doesn’t matter what the bug hatch may or may not be. If you are worried about bug hatches, this is not the trip for you. An 18-lb. brown trout requires a substantial amount of food to sustain its existence. They have to eat every day. They don’t care if the river is muddy or if it’s raining; neither should you.”
Just a couple weeks ago, Chad and I slid his Hyde jet boat into the river at the McGinnis Ferry Road boat-launch site near Suwanee.
A clear, falling river greeted us— water conditions Chad says are good for targeting the browns. He didn’t promise a big fish, but he promised a solid effort to catch a big fish, and he promised me “some fish” while showing me both his fly-fishing and spin-fishing techniques.
Regardless of the method of fishing, Chad’s tackle speaks of fish that eat large things. Our fly selection included large, articulated patterns that resemble small fish. Many were black or brown with various additions for flash, brilliance and even to tone them down. Others were as colorful as the orange, yellow and green shades of a yellow perch. And there was a pattern among them, the Principle—tied by Leigh Gardner of The Fish Hawk—in a spoonfly style that caught my attention because spoonflies are a type of fly I recently started fishing on guide trips of my own.
“On an average day, we get multiple chases and some good hook-ups, usually landing at least high-quality fish,” Chad says. “Some days are better, some are worse, but that’s the result of fishing for trophy-class browns in the Chattahoochee.
“Remember, we aren’t targeting a 10-inch trout. That’s the food source.”
After running several miles upstream, Chad shut down the engine and dropped anchor a cast’s distance from deep, blue-green water holding large rocks and a broken bottom. Along the way, we saw wood ducks, red-tailed hawks, whitetails, mallards, Canada geese, blue herons, white egrets, pileated woodpeckers and more.
Nearby tree trunks and rocks with wet lines several inches above the water proved the water level was still falling from the high flows that poured overnight from Buford Dam at Lake Sidney Lanier.
Learn more about daily water releases at Buford Dam water by calling (770) 945-1466, or visit the Hydropower Generating Schedule website of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for release times and volume.
Chad believes big trout transition from the margins of high water into deeper water during periods of falling water. Key sites on the Chattahoochee where this condition is optimal are the places where he and his clients have hooked their largest browns.
Following his lead and a quick lesson in throwing tackle heavier than the 6-weights that top out the tackle requirements where I guide in the north Georgia mountains, I learned how to throw his large, articulated flies on a full-sink 8-weight fly line and rod.
“Pond fish it,” he says. “Fish it like you are bass fishing. Throw to the cover—the wood, the deep rock edges.”
I didn’t find any fish—let alone a large brown trout—in that hour of casting before I took over the oars and watched Chad fish with experience. In his hands, Gardner’s spoonfly, called the Principle, quickly proved its worth. Six or seven browns in the 12- to 15-inch class found it tasty. Not large fish … but every one of them incredible in their own right as wild browns in the suburbs of Atlanta.
An hour later, I was armed with a 7-foot spinning rod, 12-lb. line and a No. 11 Rapala Countdown. The spinning rod is a great way to rest your shoulder from casting massive streamers and not lose any fishing time. Minutes later, I was onto my first brown of the trip.
“This may seem like heavy gear for trout,” Chad says, and the fish I was hooked into belied the size of the tackle.
The 13-inch brown was much smaller in size than the fish we were after, but it stood no less in its stature among the river’s browns. Georgia DNR stopped stocking browns in the river in 2008 following confirmation of widespread successful spawning of browns. This was a wild brown trout.
“We’re not fishing like we would for regular trout. These are not regular trout,” Chad points out, “and to catch a big one, you need to find one that’s ready to eat. Any day fishing for the Chattahoochee’s trophy browns is a ‘sleeper’ day. You throw all that big tackle all day long and catch those small browns. You might catch them all week. Then, one day, you hit a 15-pounder. We are using techniques not unlike some you might use to attract the apex predator fish in any environment. Anything less than the gear I’ve shown you is simply ineffective and, most importantly, unfair to the fish itself.”
The Chattahoochee River, arguably, holds the strongest population of wild brown trout in the Southeast. And they’ve accomplished their remarkable presence regardless of the battering the river receives from flooding flows, heavy silt loads, tainted suburban run-off and heavy fishing pressure.
“The Chattahoochee River is a river that should never have had trout in it to begin with, but it is inhabited with a trout that shouldn’t even be on this continent,” Chad says, “and they successfully reproduce! If browns can reproduce on the Chattahoochee, I’m sure the cure for cancer will be found in their DNA.”
Author’s note: Book your guided fishing trip for trophy browns on the Chattahoochee River by contacting Chad Bryson at The Fish Hawk at (404) 237-3473, or visit the website at TheFishHawk.com.