Brook Trout Are Georgia’s Native Gems

Retreat to Georgia's high country to find elusive wild brook trout.

Nick Carter | June 22, 2007

They’re the prettiest trout, and it’s just nice to catch native fish, Justin Witt said when asked about his preference for brookies.

“And I thought bass fishermen were secretive about their favorite fishing holes,” was what I thought as I swallowed back the bile working its way up my throat. For those prone to motion sickness, being blindfolded is not the best way to ride in the back of a vehicle careening up a gravel mountain road, but it was the condition on which this writer wrangled an invitation to fish one of north Georgia’s pristine, wild brook trout streams.

The pre-dawn trip to the Waffle House in Ellijay wasn’t helping matters, but at least I had not feasted with the gusto that my guide for the day had. Six eggs with cheese, hashbrowns scattered, smothered, covered and diced, bacon, sausage and raisin toast — “Man this guy is planning on doing some serious walking,” I thought as I watched him pack all of that into his tall, but slender frame. As it turned out, the hike wasn’t that bad.

We arrived at a clear, cold mountain stream, cascading down its steep bed beneath a canopy of rhododendron after a hike of less than two miles up a grown-over logging road. By the looks of the trail, not many people know about this creek, and Justin Witt wanted to keep it that way.

Justin has spent the better part of two decades exploring the mountains of north Georgia finding and catching wild trout from small mountain streams. He fishes the stocked streams also but prefers the pretty, wild fish that inhabit these gems. And, while the black specks and pink stripes on a wild rainbow or the bright red spots on a brown’s amber sides are certainly beautiful, the brook trout is king when it comes to looks.

The wild southern Appalachian brook trout, referred to as a speck by mountainfolk, is the only coldwater game fish native to Georgia’s streams. Technically it’s not even a trout, it’s a char, but it has many of the same characteristics that make trout so fun to catch, including the proclivity to attack a dry fly with the same enthusiasm that Justin approaches a pile of eggs. And, don’t tell anyone I said this, but the occasional speck also tastes mighty good fried up crispy next to a heaping pile of eggs.

“They’re the prettiest trout, and it’s just nice to catch native fish,” Justin said when asked about his preference for brookies. “And they generally exist in some of the best places. There aren’t many places like this left.”

The “some of the best places” comment was dually noted. While most of the state was sweating in stifling 90-degree temperatures, we were stringing our rods up in a cool, mountain morning. Even with the drought strangling the state for water, this small spring-fed creek was rolling down the mountainside, falling into deep plunge pools without a care for what the weather man had to say. That may be one of the biggest draws to this type of adventure for trout fishermen. While the browns and rainbows on our larger streams struggle to survive the summer heat, these high-altitude creeks provide a suitable habitat for feeding trout.

“Brook trout fisheries up here are high enough, shaded well enough, and they are mostly spring-fed so they don’t really go through the sluggish stage like the browns and rainbows do in the lower-elevation streams,” Justin said. “The summer months are actually some of my favorite times to be up here.”

We began working the creek systematically, each man watching the other fish as we took turns hopping from hole to hole, staying low to the ground on approaches to keep from spooking fish. With narrow casting lanes because of the overhanging brush, casts were short but difficult, requiring us to be imaginative in getting our flies onto the water. We slung line out with bow-and-arrow casts, skipped flies to the top of runs with sidearm casts, did a lot of roll casting and even slid up on our bellies to dapple flies on holes when the cover was too tight for a cast.

In these tight, technical conditions, Justin prefers a 9-foot rod with a fast action so he can stay as far back from the holes as possible and shoot a lot of line. But he admitted that his taste in rods is “a little weird.”

“I like a long rod on a small stream. If you’re bow-and-arrow casting or just dropping it in there, that few extra inches really helps,” he said.

I opted for a shorter 7-foot rod, which gave me a couple of extra feet of room when working under the low canopy. Many times rod choice boils down to personal preference, but when fishing a speck stream a lightweight rod is mandatory both to enjoy the fight from these spunky little fish and to get a good hook set. Anything heavier than a 3- or 4-weight rod will often pull the fly right out of a speck’s mouth on the hook set. Justin also recommended light tippet of 6x or thinner for good fly presentation.

Justin Witt enjoys the atmosphere and seclusion of a high-mountain stream as much as catching the native brook trout found only in these small streams.

For spinfishing, personal preference is again the determining factor in rod length and action. Some people prefer a long, flexible rod for dappling or for slingshot casts, and others prefer a shorter rod to cast from under thick vegetation. Again, ultra-light gear is necessary to match the size of your prey.

From a concealed position in a clump of rhododendron, I watched Justin sneak up on a hole to crouch behind a fallen tree. The tree had blocked the flow of the creek beneath a set of swift cascades creating a deep, dark pool at the base of the falls — a perfect lie for a good-sized brookie. Justin tied on a size 10, brown Stonefly Nymph and looped it up into the run at the base of the falls. It took the fly a few seconds to sink before his indicator bounced, and he lifted his rod tip, creating a deep bend in his rod.

“Woh, it’s a good one,” he said, while fighting to keep the fish out from under the fallen tree. After playing the fish through a short but exciting fight, he brought a beautiful 12-inch brown to hand. At that point I was beginning to get a little worried about our chances of getting into some brook trout. In less than an hour we had landed half a dozen 4- to 7-inch rainbows and this brown. Justin said there were brookies in this stream, but rainbows and browns out-compete them in feeding lanes, and specks do not co-exist well with these introduced species. We needed to find a barrier blocking the upstream movement of rainbows and browns to catch brook trout.

A few holes later, I landed the first of many specks for the day, a beautiful 6-inch fighter. It emerged from invisibility on the striated stream bed to hover under the surface inspecting my size 12 Parachute Adams for less than a second before exploding on it. It put a good bend in my 3-weight rod, while darting upstream and down several times before coming to hand still struggling. And, though 6 inches may not sound impressive, it was a decent fish as specks go, and when you match your tackle to your prey the reward is a sporting fight.

Wild brook trout caught in Georgia will typically measure between 4 and 6 inches, according to Jeff Durniak, a WRD region supervisor who is also a member of the steering committee for the Eastern Brook Trout Initiative. He said a 7-incher is a pretty good one, and that a brookie 8 inches or better is a “whopper.” Wild brookie waters are limited to small headwater tributaries in the Chattahoochee National Forest, from the Cohuttas over into Rabun County.

Jeff would not give out exact locations of streams that hold brookies because of the threat of a lynching by brook-trout anglers, but he did give some clues on places to start looking. He advised people to get out a map and begin their search for specks on small headwater tributaries of the West Fork of the Chattooga, the Hiawassee and the Coopers Creek drainage. However, Jeff stressed that the easiest way to find brook trout is by word of mouth, and making friends with members of organizations like Trout Unlimited, North Georgia Trout Online or Georgia Women Flyfishers is a good way to get in the loop.

“By joining some of these fishing clubs, a lot of times you’ll meet a fishing buddy. And if he trusts you enough, he might be willing to share,” Jeff said. “It may cost you a work day on a stream, but it’s worth it.”

Besides, finding specks is half the fun. Once you locate a good creek, catching them is not a complicated task. Justin said dry-fly patterns like the Irresistable Adams, Elk Hair Caddis or Royal Humpy are murder on brook trout, and he noted that nymphs like Hares Ears, Brassies or Pheasant Tails will also catch them.

“You know, they’ll eat anything, really,” he added. “Because of the small scale of the streams they’re in, they’re forced into a more opportunistic feeding pattern than fish in richer streams that can be more selective.”

The same holds true for lures for spinfishermen. A small Panther Martin or similar in-line spinner, an artificial trout worm or a small trout jig are all good choices. I won’t even go into live bait, because that would just be too easy.

Besides, hard work — including research, a long walk in and clambering over waterfalls or under rhododendron slicks — is what makes fishing for specks so rewarding.

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