Dark-30 Chattahoochee Trout

The best trout bite of the day is going on while you're on your way home for supper.

David Cannon | June 1, 2009

Dark-30 Trout… When the Big Browns Come to Feed

It’s amazing the number of trout anglers you’ll see trudging toward the parking lot to head home an hour or two before dark, just about the time the fish begin to really ramp up their feeding in the waning light of day. If you’re one of the folks hoofing it off the river when the sun slips behind the trees, read on.

As guide Rex Gudgel and I started to rig our rods alongside the Chattahoochee River just upstream of Helen — a river that’s been so low for the past few years it looked odd with water actually flowing down its corridor — I started thinking of a trip to the north Georgia mountains just a few weeks prior. After spending most of the afternoon not catching much of anything, the fish suddenly turned on about an hour and a half before dark.

When we had arrived on that nice spring day, there were more than a dozen cars in the parking lot beside the Chattooga River. When we returned just after dark that evening, ours was the only vehicle left. What a shame it was for everyone who left and missed the great fishing during the “magic hour,” but how great it was to have the entire river to ourselves!

A fishing buddy and I caught and released more than 20 rainbow and brown trout during those last 90 minutes leading up to dark, but the most memorable fish of that evening was, of course, the one that got away. After watching a large brown — a fish that is generally nocturnal — come out from hiding about 20 minutes before “lights out” and begin eating caddis and mayflies fluttering above a glassy pool, I began making cast after cast to it. Finally, the big brown broke the surface and sucked in my dry fly. I got a great hook-set, and the fight was on.

Now if there’s one direction you don’t want a fish to run, it’s right toward you. Unfortunately, that’s exactly the direction this fish decided to run. As I stumbled backward stripping in line and trying to get a tight connection, the fish made it all the way to my feet, and its length and breadth became apparent. I finally pulled my line tight on him, only to have my fly come shooting back toward me, as my rod lost its bend. When I pulled the fly to me to check it, I realized it had broken at the hook-bend.

Two valuable lessons were reinforced that night; one, check your hooks for any rust and, two, if you leave before the magic hour, you may not even get the chance to have a big trout break your hook in half.

So, with that memory still fresh, Rex and I stepped into the Chattahoochee River at about 7 p.m., a time when most other fishermen on the water were reeling up and getting ready to call it a day.

As we move into summer, this section of the river will experience a rise in temperature to a point where the trout will hunker down in the deepest water they can find to wait out the heat of the day. In June, the only times of day when the fish will become active will be in the late evening and again in the early morning.

Big, carnivorous brown trout are often nocturnal by nature, and fishing big, minnow-immitating baits at dusk or after dark is one of the best ways to target them.

Our trip to this part of the river took place in the latter half of May, and we found the water temperatures to be just a bit cooler than 60 degrees. This is in the ideal temperature range for trout, but hot June days will rapidly bring the water up into the 70s, and the fish won’t be active.

But, on this evening, in spite of the few remaining tubers floating down the river just before dark, Rex was able to take advantage of the trout’s loss of inhibitions in the low light. Rex is one of fewer than 100 people worldwide to have reached the level of Certified Master Casting Instructor by the Federation of Fly Fishers, and he has been guiding anglers to trout for more than 20 years, with about seven of those years spent in north Georgia. Rex now guides through Unicoi Outfitters, a fly shop and guide service located just south of Helen. And, like many who have spent a lot of time on the water during low light, he has had plenty of great fishing experiences under those conditions.

Rex and I walked down from the parking area in front of the Remember When Theater — a place known for its Elvis impersonators — and stepped into the cool water. Before Rex could even make his first cast, a group of three tubers floated past, followed by another single tuber only a few minutes later who asked if three guys had just gone by. Surprisingly, just a few moments after the lost tuber continued on his way, Rex’s fly disappeared and a SNIT (standard 9-inch trout) was quickly landed.

“These fish are spooked by the tubers when they first start floating the river once it’s warm enough,” Rex said, “but eventually they have to start eating again, so they get used to it.”

Rex had tied on a size 12 orange Stimulator — a large, highly visible dry fly — and stuck with it for the entirety of our time on the water.

“This fly is easy for me to see and easy for the fish to see,” Rex said. “But once it gets dark, it’s dark. Then you’re listening and hoping at the same time, just waiting to hear that slurp or that action, and you’re waiting to set the hook to the sound.”

Keep fishing when everyone else is heading home, said guide Rex Gudgel. Throw dark-colored streamers, highly-visible dry flies or crankbaits on a spinning rod.

If you don’t want to stop at dark, night fishing is legal on the upper Chattahoochee, which is governed as a year-round trout stream up to the point where the Alternate 75 bridge crosses the river. But you really need to know the terrain and be as safe as possible, as moving water tends to be more dangerous when you can’t see what it is doing. Rex also recommends always fishing with a buddy and using a headlamp with a red filter or red bulbs.

“Supposedly the red lights aren’t quite as visible to the fish, and you can still use them to tie on flies, see the trail and see what’s right in front of you,” Rex said.

If there’s a good moon out, Rex said you can continue fishing larger dry flies, as the fish will actually be able to look up and see the silhouette of the fly against the moonlight. Or, there are some synthetic materials that glow in the dark that dry flies can be adorned with for low-light or night fishing.

Regardless of whether or not the moon is out, another option is throwing large streamer patterns like Zonkers or Woolly Buggers in an attempt to get the attention of the fish by putting a large meal in front of them.

“Always use dark colors — purples, blacks, browns — so that the fly will have that opaque silhouette. The darker the streamer, the better the silhouette it puts off, and that makes it easier for the trout to see when it looks up,” Rex said.

“You’re not trying to dead-drift this thing,” Rex said in regards to the fishing technique. “You’re casting downstream and across, and you want to wake that fly all the way across the pool, run, riffle, slide — whatever area of the stream you’re fishing — to try to get the attention of the bigger fish.

“When fishing that way, I’ve had several occasions where one fish will make six or eight attempts to get the fly, and that’s just in the 40 feet or so that I cast and was stripping the fly back to me,” Rex said. “We’re not as good at night and they’re not either, so you have to be patient with them. Strip the fly back to you very slowly and give them time to find it.”

While stripping a black Woolly Bugger through a run right at dark, I enticed, hooked and landed a nice 13-inch brown trout, a fish that will often respond better to something that appears as a baitfish, as this is what mature browns eat as opposed to just insects.

For this reason, a crankbait is another great option for fooling big, nocturnal browns. Just ask Justin Murphy, owner of the record brown trout for the Toccoa River.

“Twenty-five to 30 percent of my time spent on the water is spent scouting for a spot where I think a big brown will be,” said Justin, who has a lot of experience with big trout at dusk.

Apparently that scouting has paid off. Justin and his son landed the 11-lb., 7.2-oz., river-record brown using methods most trout anglers might not even consider. Instead of throwing the usual ultra-light spinning outfit, Justin bulks up a bit. And by “a bit,” we’re talking a 7-foot Berkley Lightning Rod with a Pflueger Trion 35 series spooled with 20-lb. Stren Sonic Braid tipped off with 6 feet of 20-lb. fluorocarbon that serves as the leader.

Justin ties a snap-swivel to the end of the fluoro leader so he can rapidly switch as needed among a Rapala F7, F9 and F11 Bomber in original and gold colors, and a Smithwick Rogue. He also uses the swivel as a sort of bite-guard for those big brown trout that have developed a nice set of teeth.

“Most of the big fish I’ve caught have come from the other side of the river,” Justin said. “I barely ever wade because I have a theory that if you get in the water you can scare the big fish more easily than if you’re on the bank.”

Justin likes to look for deep water adjacent to shallows, as he believes big browns to be ambush hunters much like largemouth bass. He casts as far as he can quartering upstream and retrieves his lure fast and erratically.

Back to the long-rod, Rex suggests a six- or seven-weight fly rod rigged with floating fly line and a 5- to 6-foot leader of straight 12-, 17- or sometimes even 20-lb. test for fishing streamers. Obviously, the fish have a harder time detecting the leader in the dark, so heavier line can be used. This really comes in handy if a big, nocturnal brown trout is hooked. For the dry-fly setup, a standard 4- or 5-weight fly rod lined with the basic 9-foot leader tapered down to 3X or 4X tippet, depending on how big the fly is, works just fine.

Other options during June for trout fishing until dark-30 include the Chattahoochee tailwater just north of Atlanta and the Toccoa tailwater near Blue Ridge. For the Chattahoochee tailwater, watch for caddis in sizes 14 to 20 just before dark, as well as sulphur mayflies in sizes 18 to 20. For the Toccoa tailwater, be on the lookout for size 16 to 18 sulphur mayflies, size 14 light cahill mayflies and size 16 to 18 tan caddis.

So pack a flashlight and a fishing buddy, familiarize yourself with the area you’ll be fishing, and try to be the last one out of the parking lot. Odds are you’ll find some eager fish and have a great time.

For more info on Georgia trout fishing, contact Unicoi Outfitters in Helen at (706) 878-3083, or email [email protected].

Rex holds a dark-thirty rainbow that slurped a fly on the upper ’Hooch.

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