Catch Chattahoochee River Wild Brown Trout Above Atlanta

Chris Scalley shares how to catch browns on the Hooch.

Don Baldwin | January 26, 2010

Chris Scalley with River Through Atlanta guide service stays on top of what the trout are biting in the Hooch. Chris said to try the section from Buford Dam to Georgia 400. Look for gravel bars and areas where there are transitions in the flow.

For the serious trout angler, nothing much compares to hooking and landing a wild trout. Most purists would rather land a small wild fish over a large stocked fish especially if they had to work harder for it. A case in point is anglers hiking deep into the hills to fish the headwaters of a stream to catch a small wild brook trout. Many times the lower parts of those streams are heavily stocked with much larger rainbows, but the lure of the wild fish wins out.

Georgia trout anglers spend a fair amount of their hard-earned cash each year heading west to the Rockies for the experience of landing a wild brown, cutthroat or rainbow.

It is hard to explain, but there is just something special about catching trout that have grown up in the wild having to depend on predatory skills for food. It feels like more of a challenge. Now don’t get me wrong, I love landing a big 9- or 10-lb. rainbow or brown on a trophy-managed stream, but landing a wild trout has a great deal of appeal.

There are plenty of stocked streams in Georgia and a few streams with wild fish, as well. Most of the wild trout streams are well up in the mountains, but there is one that is readily accessible, and it may surprise you.

The stretch of Chattahoochee River below Buford Dam has long been known as a great recreational trout stream. Thousands of rainbow trout are released each year along strategic sections of the river and provide a great deal of enjoyment for fly and spin fishermen alike.

What you may not know is that there is a thriving wild brown-trout population in that section of the river. Chris Martin, fisheries region supervisor for WRD, is responsible for the river and has kept track of the trout population (both brown and rainbow) for many years.

“In the late ’90s and early 2000s, we began to notice small brown trout in our spring electrofishing surveys,” said Martin. “These fish were smaller than anything we were stocking, so it appeared that the brown trout were reproducing naturally.”

Martin and his team monitored the breeding activity for a few years and finally stopped stocking browns altogether in 2004.

According to Martin, the fishery can support natural reproduction for several reasons. The water from Buford Dam comes from the bottom of Lake Lanier and stays at an almost constant cool temperature throughout the year. The water temperature at the dam outflow will range between the mid 40s and low 50s, and as it flows downstream, it will either warm slightly or cool off slightly depending on the season or air temperature. While the river can get a little warm at times during the summer in extremely high air temperatures, the water stays in a pretty good temperature range to support trout throughout the year. The water quality in the main river is generally good enough to support reproduction, and there is good structure and habitat on the main stream where brown trout like to breed. Rainbows tend to breed in feeder creeks and, while there has been some successful natural reproduction observed in the rainbow population, it is thought the conditions in feeder creeks are not generally good enough to support wide-scale reproduction among the rainbows.

Chris Scalley, of River Through Atlanta guide service, takes clients out on the river throughout the year. Scalley spends a lot of time investigating the natural food sources in the river and selects flies or spinning lures to help his clients be successful.

“This time of year the brown trout spawn has just finished, and the rainbows are starting to drop their eggs,” said Scalley. “In addition, there is a shad and blueback herring kill-off due to the cold temperatures on the lake, and dead or dying baitfish are swept through the dam into the river.”

For fly fishermen, Scalley chooses egg patterns like the Y2K bug, in sizes 12 to 14, or even micro eggs in sizes 16 to 18 simulating the trout eggs. Streamers like the Clouser, wooly bugger, or rolex (size 4 to 12) in a white or silver color pattern are used to match the baitfish.

Scalley dead drifts the egg imitations under a strike indicator. Since the boat is drifting with the current, it is pretty easy to flip the fly out the side of the boat and just drift along with it.

“You don’t have to be able to make long casts or even cast very often,” said Scalley. “It is an easy way to get started at fly fishing if you’ve never done it.”

The streamers are fished on a sink-tip line to get them down near the bottom, and they are stripped back to the boat. Scalley suggests you make a cast perpendicular to the boat, let the fly sink and drift downstream a bit, and then start stripping the fly back. Make long pulls of the line on the strip, and vary the interval between strips to determine the presentation the trout are looking for. Keep the line relatively tight against the current when stripping the fly. It is important to stay in contact with the fly so you can feel the strike.

When dead drifting the eggs, Scalley recommends five or six weight rods (9 feet in length), but he might even go up to a seven weight for the streamers due to the weight of the flies and the sink-tip line. While sinking-extension kits are available to be used with floating-fly lines, Scalley prefers to use a real sink-tip line. His experience is the integrated sinking tip handles better during the cast and provides a better natural action for the fly. He suggests the Orvis Streamer Stripper line that has a weighted section of about 5 feet at the end of the line.

For leader sizes, Scalley generally uses a 5x for the egg pattern, in fluorocarbon for the micro egg. For the streamers, 2x to 4x leaders are preferred. Scalley suggests that a Duncan Loop knot makes tying the flies to the thick leader easier.

You can see how to tie it in this YouTube video.


WRD Fisheries personnel Mark Rigglesford (left) and Chris Martin shocked up this 14-lb. brown trout in the fall of 2008 during the state’s electrofishing survey near Jones Bridge Park.

For spin fishermen, Scalley recommends 6-foot, light-action spinning rods with light, open-faced reels with 6-lb. test fluorocarbon line.

Productive lures include silver and gold Little Cleos, silver-and-white Rooster Tails, and silver-and-gold Blue Fox Spinners.

Make long casts, and engage the reel as soon as the bait hits the water. Start a medium to fast retrieve immediately to get the blade moving. You can then slow down and vary the speed of the retrieve to find the action the trout want. It is important to keep the lure moving, however, or you’ll spend a lot of your time hung on the bottom.

As far as locations on the river are concerned, both Martin and Scalley tell us you will find concentrations of browns all along the river from Buford Dam to Georgia 400 and beyond. Gravel bars are a good place to target as are any areas where there are transitions in the flow. When the current changes from fast to slow or slow to fast, work that area. Also, seams along the current between fast and slow water are often very productive. Browns will also hold in deep pools, especially around boulders and downed trees along the bank.

Scalley has a 15-minute rule.

“If I haven’t gotten a strike (or at least a look) in 15 minutes of fishing, I change something,” said Scalley. “I might change the color of the bait or fly, the size of the lure or leader, the presentation or even the location.”

Donna Creel caught this brown with River Through Atlanta guide service.

Scalley feels a trout will see your offering almost always in the first 15 minutes, so if you haven’t attracted it with your offering by then, you probably won’t.

This time of year the angling pressure is down, and there are plenty of places to try, whether you are wading or in a boat.

But before you head out, be sure to check out the water-release schedule at Buford Dam. The water can come downstream pretty fast, and you can be in a bad situation before you know it. Life jackets are required apparel in that section of the river. There are a couple of ways to find out if, and when, water will be released on a given day. One way is to call (770) 945-1466 where there is a recorded message that identifies the release schedule for the day.

Another way is to visit the Corps of Engineers website. At the bottom right of that page there is a link to generation schedules for the the current day and one for the next day. Those will give you the release schedules for all of the dams in the area.

It takes a while for the water to flow downstream, so when the release will reach you is determined by your distance from the dam. Check it out before you head out to the river, but water-release schedules are not guaranteed. Releases can happen without warning.

Or better yet, go out with Scalley or a member of his team. One of them is on the river generally every day, and they stay in close touch with what the browns are doing, and the best methods for catching them. While most of the brown trout will average between 6 and 15 inches in length, larger fish are landed regularly. A brown heavier than 14 pounds was netted during an electrofishing survey near Jones Bridge Park in October 2008, and another in the 16-lb. range was landed by an angler near Abbotts Bridge in November 2009. So a trophy fish is not out of the question.

To protect this excellent fishery, don’t take any more fish than you plan to eat. For effective catch and release, mash down the barbs on flies or lures. This makes it easier to get out the hook without injuring the fish.

To book a trip with Chris Scalley, call him on (770) 650-8630 or go to Tell Chris you want to catch a wild brown.

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