Chattooga River Trout On The Spring Hatch
Increasing insect activity makes March a great month to visit the delayed-harvest section of the Chattooga River.
After several months of swimming the wintry waters of the Chattooga River delayed harvest (DH), the resident rainbow, brown and brook trout must be elated to see the increasing number of insects the month of March brings. And as anglers, we’re happy that they’re happy.
Born as a trickle in North Carolina and flowing south to form the northern- most part of the Georgia-South Carolina border, the Chattooga River is one of the nation’s treasures. Its trout- filled, tumbling waters rushing by banks lined with towering hemlocks have caused it to be recognized as one of “America’s 100 Best Trout Streams” by Trout Unlimited and one of the “35 Natural Wonders to See in Georgia Before You Die,” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It was also the very first river to receive Wild and Scenic designation by the United States Congress.
Of course, long before those accolades, the Cherokees who lived near the Chattooga recognized its values as well. They called it “Tsa-tu-gi,” which some translate as “has crossed the river.” And, as this river is one of the few in the Southeast that doesn’t have a road running alongside it, only crossing over it in several places, that translation doesn’t seem to be much of a stretch.
The DH section of the Chattooga, a 2-plus mile stretch that runs from the mouth of Reed Creek downstream to the Hwy 28 bridge, is one of five in Georgia that fall under delayed-harvest regulations for more than half of each year, from Nov. 1 through May 14. The other four can be found on Amicalola Creek, the Chattahoochee tailwater, Smith Creek and the upper Toccoa River. What makes delayed-harvest water so appealing is that it is stocked regularly throughout the DH season and is all catch-and-release. This results in high catch rates and happy anglers. It should also be noted that only artificial lures or flies with a single hook are allowed.
On my most recent trip, as with every other trip to this location, I was quickly reminded why I love this place so much. On a 60-degree day in the middle of February, the river and all that reside there briefly stepped out of the winter quiet and staggered toward springtime, when this place really comes to life. My two fishing buddies for the day, Chad McClure and Frank Whitaker, and I watched as mature stoneflies, midges and a few stray caddisflies fluttered just above the surface of the water. And just below the surface, many of the rocks we turned over held hundreds of midge larvae and quite a few mayfly nymphs.
With all the activity, and after quickly catching and releasing an 8- inch, and then a hefty 18-inch rainbow in the very first run we fished, it seemed as if this would be another banner day on delayed-harvest water.
Of course, in February, March and even into April, drastic changes in weather can flip the switch to the “off” position in a hurry. And while some anglers view DH waters as “too easy,” the rest of the day was anything but that.
During a consistent weather pattern, and especially after a fresh stocking, it’s not out of the question to land 20, 30, even 40 fish or more on this stretch of water. But when conditions change, even DH waters can change personalities, and the fish can become as picky as a woman in a jewelry store. Also, with spring rains, the river often rises to levels dangerous for wading. The U.S. Geological Survey maintains a river gauge. Wading is good for most anglers up to about 2.2 on the lower gauge on the site. Some can wade up to about 2.6 or 2.7, but it’s really tough and can be unsafe. The fishing can still be good at higher water levels, you just have to change tactics by adding weight to get your lure down or finding refuge spots where the fish will lie to stay out of the ripping water.
Chad, Frank and I split up in an attempt to outrun the Saturday crowd and find unfished water. Several hours later we met back up in the parking lot, exchanged reports and found that we all had similar luck. Have you ever heard the expression, “If it weren’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all?”
Others we passed on the river and on the trail had similar success… or a lack of it. “Havin’ any luck?” I’d say to passers-by on the trail. “It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” most would reply. That’s a fisherman’s way of saying, “No, but I’m not going to say ‘no’ in case you are catchin’ ’em.”
Not long after fishing the first hole, we came upon two familiar faces; Landon Williams, a young and enthusiastic angler who seems to always either be fishing or cruising the message board at North Georgia Trout Online, and his mentor for the day, Georgia WRD Regional Fisheries Supervisor, Jeff Durniak. Jeff was offering tips and years of wisdom to Landon, who was soaking it all in.
At one point, in a very deep run, Jeff had attached five size B split shot to Landon’s 5X tippet, which was enough to deliver the size 20 pheasant tail nymph he was fishing to a trophy- size rainbow lurking in the depths. After a drag-screaming run and an acrobatic leap, the hook came loose and Landon’s line went slack. But, after that fish, something tells me that Landon will remain hooked for quite some time.
The few strikes that were earned throughout the day came on a mixed bag of fly patterns. The most consistent fly, as Jeff and Landon can attest, seemed to be a size 18 or 20 pheasant tail nymph. That could have been because of the blue-winged olive nymphs floating downriver, or the cad- dis nymphs present, or — since we are talking about trout here — for no reason at all. A size 12 black woolly bugger with a little flash also produced a couple of fish and a black, soft-hackle wet-fly gained the attention of a couple fish, as well.
The Chattooga in this area is any- where from 30 to 50 feet wide, which makes it a great place to cast a fly rod. And, since the river is stocked frequently, it makes for a great place to learn fly-fishing techniques while still picking off a few fish, even if technique isn’t exactly perfect. Stocking of the river is managed by our friends just across it at the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources. Roughly 6,500 rainbows, browns and brook trout, with a mixture of approximately 90 percent rainbows, 5 to 10 percent browns and the rest brookies, are slated to be stocked throughout the DH season, with about one-third of those being stocked via helicopter at the beginning of the season.
The other two-thirds of the fish are stocked monthly in what are called “refresher stockings.” These supplemental stockings make up for any fish lost to natural mortality and also those who make their way outside of the DH boundaries and find themselves on a plate next to some hush puppies.
Dan Rankin of the South Carolina DNR said that, while his agency is responsible for the management of stockings, our Georgia DNR is an active participant, as well.
“We have a very good working relationship with the Georgia DNR, which is very helpful,” Dan said. “We sit down every year and go over our inventories with them, and they offer support if we have any shortages.”
As far as tactics go when chasing the mixed bag available on the Chattooga, both fly anglers and spin fishermen should be able to find success.
For the fly angler, three- to six-weight fly rods 8 1/2 feet and longer will work just fine on the Chattooga. My go-to rod for this river is a 10-foot five-weight which really makes controlling line and drifting flies drag-free much easier. However, a 9-foot four- or five-weight rod is ideal. Almost any fly reel will do, but one with an adjustable disc drag is to be desired over a spring-and-pawl reel just in case you run into one of the 20-plus-inchers, like the one Landon tangled with. Eight- to 10-foot leaders tapered down to 4X or 6X tippet are in order for this water, but don’t hesitate to add a few more feet of tippet and a few more split shot to your leader to effectively work some of the deeper runs, particularly at normal or above-normal water levels.
Fly fishing the Chattooga DH can be a very different ballgame depending upon whether or not the fish have recently been stocked. From the time the fish are stocked generally until a few days later (depending upon the amount of fishing pressure they receive), the trout will be very naïve. These fish are used to being fed in the hatcheries and haven’t yet figured out that they need to stop looking for “trout chow” and start looking for the river’s forage.
Of course, anglers can assist these fish in assimilating by, well, catching them. As it’s just more fun, I like to start out with some large, bushy dry flies to see if the fish will rise. If they won’t, they will almost always pounce on a brightly colored egg pattern or a Y2K Bug, a flashy woolly bugger or a San Juan Worm accompanied by enough split shot to deliver the fly to the part of the water column the fish are lying in.
If you find yourself fishing the DH more than a few days after the most- recent stocking, having at least a general knowledge of the available forage (in this case, bugs) is a good idea.
Good dry-fly patterns and sizes to carry to the Chattooga in March include Elk-hair Caddis in sizes 16 and 18 in black, brown and cream to match the early black stonefly, the small dun Caddis and cream caddisflies, respectively. Black stonefly nymphs and grey caddis pupa in sizes 16 and 18 also need to be in your fly box, as well as dry flies and nymphs mimicking blue- winged olives in sizes 16 and 18. Quill Gordon’s in sizes 12 and 14, Red Quills in sizes 14 and 16 and March brown patterns size 12 to 14 are all needed throughout the month.
While fly anglers generally have an advantage when bugs are coming off the water and when a bit more stealth in presentation is required, spin fishermen just about have a monopoly on a few of the really deep holes that those with fly tackle would have a hard time dredging. They also tend to have more success coaxing the bigger brown trout to attack, and on the Chattooga DH, this is not an exception.
Light-duty spinning rods and reels strung with 4- to 6-lb. test, preferably fluorocarbon, will be light enough to enjoy the fight of a SNIT (standard nine-inch trout), yet stout enough to subdue some of the larger fish present. And while fly anglers need to carry quite a variety of fly patterns and sizes, spin fishermen have the luxury of packing light. A handful of lures in a few sizes and colors will do the trick. Rapalas that imitate juvenile rainbow or brown trout will play to the larger browns’ carnivorous desires, so it is definitely a good idea to have those on hand.
Also, the most abundant baitfish on these waters is the warpaint shiner. Usually around 2 inches in length, these little guys are some of the more interesting-looking baitfish you will ever see. They have a silver body and their fins and back have a black edging, but what really catches the eye is one vertical, bright-red stripe and one vertical, black stripe running parallel to each other along their gill plates. As intriguing as they may look to anglers, the trout surely enjoy seeing them as well. Tie on a black or silver inline spinner with a small silver blade to mimic the warpaint. Adding some red Sharpie ink to the edge of the spinner blade could also aide in fooling a few more fish.
For a great springtime experience, why not make the drive, walk in and “cross the river” a few times to see for yourself why this is such a special place. Just be sure to respect it and take care of it if you do. You don’t want the “Rabunites” after you.
To get to the DH section from Clayton on Hwy 441, head east on Rickman Street and travel roughly 1/2 mile before coming to a stop sign. From there, veer right onto Warwoman Road and continue for about 12 miles until it dead ends into South Carolina Hwy 28. Make another right onto Hwy 28 and drive another 3 miles to reach the Chattooga. There will be a parking lot on the left before the bridge (the Georgia side), but it is easier to access the river by crossing to the South Carolina side and turning left into the next parking lot just after the bridge. Once there, a proper Georgia or South Carolina license will allow you to legally fish either side of the river. This does not apply to the Chattooga’s tributaries, however.
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