Chattahoochee River Metropolitan Trout

Fishing access on this remarkable big-water trout stream is being threatened by a misguided National Park Service management plan.

Don Baldwin | July 25, 2004

The fly rod made a soft whoosh as it cut the crisp morning air. A graceful arc of line followed its path and unfurled to drop a fly softly on the surface of the fast-moving water. The fine mist, floating above the cool surface, was so thick that the strike indicator was barely visible as it bobbed along in the current. The only other sound was the rustle of the water and a few muted bird calls from the lush green vegetation along the rocky shoreline.

On the third cast the strike indicator disappeared and, with a quick lift of the rod tip, the fight was on.

The angler played the 10-inch brown trout easily, and the beautiful fish was soon landed and released into the flow to fight again.

This description of fishing action on a trout stream similar to this has been written and told many times all over the world. It could easily be referring to a remote stream in Colorado or Montana, the north Georgia mountains, or even some exotic trout-fishing Mecca like New Zealand. But in this case we are describing a beautiful setting in the middle of a metropolis of more than 4 million people.

The Chattahoochee River, as it flows through metro Atlanta, provides a veritable haven for outdoor enthusiasts and wildlife alike, and there are places along the river where you would have no idea that you were within the metropolitan boundaries of a large city.

Anglerʼs ability to access this remarkable river, however, is being threatened by provisions of a National Park Service (NPS) management plan that would prohibit motorized boats and would ban bank access in some sections.

NPS property along the river basin offers hiking trails and picnic areas and access to the river for fishing from the bank, boating, hiking, skipping rocks across the surface or just sitting in the grass. Hundreds of Georgians make use of these parks daily, but there is more than enough room for everyone and the river still seems remote and pristine. While fishing a section of the river on a weekday you may go several hours or even the entire trip without seeing another soul.

Chris Scalley releases a 9-inch rainbow.

Chris Scalley of Atlanta is a frequent fisherman on the “Hooch.” Chris and his brother run a fishing guide service called “River Through Atlanta” and have been guiding on the river since 1994. Chris spends at least 200 days a year on the water guiding anglers from the Atlanta area and surrounding states in pursuit of rainbow and brown trout in the Chattahoochee.

“We usually launch the boat at the lower pool ramp just below Buford Dam,” says Chris. “This area is not only beautiful, it also has a great population of trout and is relatively easy to fish.”

Chris and his team cruise the wide river in an aluminum boat powered by a low-horsepower outboard equipped with a jet drive.

The NPS plan would likely put Chris out of business.

“It would be almost impossible to run a successful guide service on the river without the boat,” says Chris. “We need to be able to maneuver up and down the river, and the shallow-drive boat makes it possible.”

When I went out with Chris he had just finished a day of fishing with a customer from Florida. His clients that day were a father-and-son team, and the teenage son had never been fly fishing before.

In a photo that looks like it could have been taken in Montana, trout guide Chris Scalley maneuvers his boat on the Chattahoochee.

“The Chattahoochee is a great place for the novice fly fisherman,” says Chris. “The fish are plentiful and take flies readily. It is also an easy spot to learn to cast with a fly rod. There are plenty of open areas, and you can concentrate on your casting action not on being tangled in overhanging trees.”

Chris said that about 30 percent of his customers are beginners looking for instruction and the opportunity to catch a few Georgia trout. And there is a excellent chance that they will be successful. No stream in Georgia receives more stocker trout. The Chattahoochee River from Buford Dam to Roswell Road is the most heavily-stocked stream in Georgia and receives about 150,000, 9- to 10-inch trout each year. The area below Morgan Falls dam receives a total of another 46,000 trout.

While most of the fish taken are SNITs (Standard Nine-Inch Trout) there are a few fish that have been able to survive in the river over several seasons and are 12 inches or better. Occasionally, trophy-class fish between five and 10 pounds are taken from the river. Recently it was documented that trout are successfully reproducing in the ʻHooch, a clear sign of a healthy stream.

The conditions are extremely good for trout in the section of the river between Buford Dam and Hwy 400. The water coming out of Lake Lanier comes from deep in the lake and is cool year round. The annual average water temperature in the river below the dam is about 55 degrees, and the temperature generally stays below 60 degrees even in the heat of summer. That constant cool temperature makes for excellent trout habitat.

A note of caution is in order however. While that water temperature is great for trout, it isnʼt so good for people. Exposure to water that cold for extended periods can cause hypothermia. So be careful and donʼt stay in the water too long. If you are wading or using a float tube, waders are a must and some insulated wading pants are very helpful.

When fishing for trout from a boat or wading in the river you should always wear an approved personal floatation device (PFD). In fact a PFD must be worn any time you are in or on the river between Buford Dam and the Hwy 20 bridge. Water releases for power generation from Lake Lanier can cause the level of the river to rise rapidly and generate extremely swift current.

As far as the fishing techniques are concerned, Chris recommends a method called “high sticking.”

“The most important factor in catching trout on a fly is the presentation of the fly,” says Chris. “It is important to have a drag-free drift so that the fly moves in the current naturally.”

Chris says that the easiest way to accomplish this is to make short casts, and once the fly starts to drift with the current keep the rod tip high holding as much of the fly line out of the water as possible.

For equipment Chris recommends a nine-foot, five-weight rod with floating line. He attaches a nine-foot 6x tippet to the line and generally uses a dry fly as a strike indicator with a nymph tied on as a dropper.

“I like to use a dry fly as the strike indicator because you will often get hits on it as well as the nymph,” he says.

Chris recommends that you cast the fly into the deeper water along the edge of current lines for the best results. A small spilt-shot or two will help get the nymph down close to the bottom, which is where most of the strikes will occur.

If you want some more specific instruction or first-hand experience, contact Chris and the team at River Through Atlanta. Theyʼll take you out, show you the ropes, and let you experience a bit of the beauty of this urban river.

Chattahoochee River trout anglers Jack Barnette and Carl Weaver have fished the Chattahoochee for more than 30 years, but their ability to fish the river will end if the NPS plan is approved.

Jack Barnette (left) and Carl Weaver have been using a small outboard to reach trout fishing holes on the Chattahoochee River for more than 30 years.

The pair worked together at Lockheed in Marietta for most of their careers and both recently retired. Now they spend much of their time fishing and hunting together, and a lot of that fishing activity is catching trout on the Chattahoochee.

“We started fishing together in the early 70s,” said Jack, “and we havenʼt slowed down much since.”

Jack and Carl typically fish farther down the river in the area from just above Hwy 400 downriver toward Morgan Falls.

“We like to catch trout on the river, and we do pretty well with light spinning gear and corn,” said Carl.

I fished with Jack and Carl on a June evening, and we caught a good number of rainbows and even a brown trout or two fishing with corn on the bottom. The rig and technique is quite simple — short, light-action rods equipped with open-faced reels and 4-lb. test line. The terminal tackle is a No. 8 hook and enough weight (small split-shot) to keep the bait on the bottom. Add a few kernels of niblets corn, and you are in business.

I met Jack and Carl at the ramp on Azalea Drive at about 5:30 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon.

In their aluminum jon boat, we headed upriver to the shoals just above the Hwy 400 bridge. The two had been at the same spot the day before and had done pretty well. As we moved into position to drop anchor Carl commented that the rain upriver the evening before had made the river muddy, and that we might have trouble getting the trout to bite. We anchored in the current anyway and gave it a try.

After 30 minutes of fishing and only a couple of bites we decided to move.

“I noticed that the mud hadnʼt gotten as far down as the Roswell Road bridge when we came up the river, so I think we should move down there,” said Carl.

As we headed downriver I noticed the water clearing up the farther we went. And sure enough, once we got positioned at the Roswell Road bridge we started catching trout. We continued to catch nice fish until dark and headed to the ramp with a good sack of fish.

“We catch these fish to eat,” said Jack. “And we can almost always count on catching quite a few unless the water is too muddy.”

This is simple fishing at its best, nothing complicated, just throw out the bait and wait for a bite. If you want to take your family fishing and have a pretty good chance of success, this is a good spot to do it. Youʼll need a boat to extend your reach and your chances, but in some places it is possible to fish from the bank.

Jack and Carl are quick to point out that there is much more to fishing the Chattahoochee than trout however.

Downstream from the ramp at Azalea Road is an area of the river called Bull Sluice. Along both sides of the main channel are openings that lead to sloughs or lakes off the main river channel. These shallow lakes offer some pretty good largemouth bass fishing. Texas-rigged plastic worms are an excellent choice of bait for bass fishermen.

In the spring Carl and Jack hit these lakes in search of the redeared sunfish or “shellcrackers” that bed in large numbers there.

“These lakes hold some really nice-sized shellcracker, and you can get plenty of action while they are on the beds from early May through June,” said Jack.

The rig for the shellcracker is almost the same as for the trout, light spinning gear with 4-lb. line, a small split-shot and about a No. 8 hook. Jack says they like to add a float to the rig to keep the bait just off the bottom. Bait the hook with some Louisiana pink worms or a cricket, cast it into the beds, and hold on. You can be in for a real fight on the light tackle.

We took a ride through the Bull Sluice lakes on our afternoon outing even though the bedding action was over. In addition to offering good fishing, to say the area is beautiful is an understatement. In a few of the lakes you can see houses on the bank, but most of the shoreline is heavily wooded and natural. You wouldnʼt have a clue that you are in a major city.

Bird life is abundant, herons, geese, and ducks are everywhere you look on the river. Warblers, thrushes, cardinals and a myriad of other songbirds flit through the brush and trees on the banks of the river. And Carl says that it isnʼt unusual to see an occasional beaver swimming across the current.

And even this far down river from the dam the water is still pretty cool. The air temperature was nearly 90 degrees when we launched the boat, but while we were anchored at the shoals and near the bridge, a cool breeze off the water kept things pleasant. It almost felt like an air conditioner was blowing across the boat.

While we were out we saw several folks enjoying the river. Some fishing from motorized craft, some in canoes or kayaks, all enjoying this beautiful natural resource.

Much of the natural beauty of the river is due to the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area that extends along the river from Buford Dam to Atlanta. While this is obviously a plus for keeping things natural, it can be a two-edged sword. Plans under consideration now by the National Park Service would limit fishing access and restrict the use of motorized watercraft. Under the proposed plan some of the areas we described and enjoyed in this article would not be reachable by motorized boats. The implications for people like Chris Scalley, Jack Barnette, Carl Weaver, and countless others who enjoy fishing on the Chattahoochee are obvious. Chris, Jack and Carl are all involved in the effort to stop the NPS plan.

It is extremely important to preserve this wonderful natural resource, but restrictions that are unreasonably limiting result in over-protection and under utilization. Letʼs keep this “metropolitan wilderness” available and open to reasonable use and enjoyment.

Sportsmen are working now to stop a National Park Service management plan for the Chattahoochee River that could severely limit trout fishing, ban gas motors, or even ban stocking on ‘non-native’ trout in the river.

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