Trout Fishing Tour Of The Chattahoochee River
A pair of the Chattahoochee River’s best trout guides take us from Buford Dam to Azalea Park for a look at Atlanta’s backyard trout fishing.
To the uninitiated, trout fishing can seem exotic and daunting. The equipment and paraphernalia, the unending selection of flies, learning to cast, and access to productive trout waters can overwhelm a would-be trout angler.
Georgians are blessed with an excellent trout stream that runs through the middle of north Atlanta’s famous traffic jams and skyscrapers. The Chattahoochee River, as it flows south from Buford Dam at Lake Lanier, is a prime tailwater trout fishery, and it offers a wide variety of trout-fishing opportunities ranging from challenging fly fishing for big brown trout to basic bank fishing for stockers.
This trout fishery began when a handful of anglers first stocked trout in the Chattahoochee River in 1962. By the cover of night they dumped 12,500 rainbow trout purchased from a farm in North Carolina. DNR later began stocking the river with both brown and rainbow trout.
Chris Martin, fisheries biologist with WRD’s Fisheries Section, describes the Chattahoochee as a stable trout fishery with good water conditions and temperatures cold enough to support trout year round well downstream of Buford Dam. The water temperature at the base of the dam is generally around 47 degrees even during the heat of summer. That makes perfect water for trout survival. Each year DNR stocks the section of the river between Buford Dam and Azalea Drive with about 150,000 catchable- sized trout, which are about nine inches in length. The Chattachoochee fishery is also remarkable in that it has been documented that brown trout are naturally reproducing in the river.
The National Park Service maintains the access areas to the river, and there are plenty of spots where you can get to the river and fish. In the section of the river we will cover in this article there are five good boat ramps where small craft can be launched (shallow-draft boats and jet drives are highly recommended). For this article, we will divide the river up based on the location of those ramps.
Chris Scalley of Roswell runs a full-time, Orvis-endorsed guide service on the Chattahoochee called River through Atlanta Guide Service. He has been guiding full time on the river since 1994 and is familiar with just about every riffle and rock. Chris also started the non-profit Chattahoochee Coldwater Fishery Foundation, which monitors river conditions, including invertebrate life — i.e. trout food.
We fished with Chris and one of his guides, Kyle Burrell, in early February, and they gave us a tour of the river from Buford Dam to Azalea Park, including the natural bait that exists in each area and the flies that are best used to imitate them.
• Buford Dam to Abbots Bridge (14 miles)
This section of the upper Chattahoochee is considered by many to be the least favorable stretch for trout fishing. Although there are plenty of trout released into the area, the characteristics of the river near the dam make it more difficult to fish than the areas downstream. The river just below Buford Dam is relatively narrow with steep banks. Consequently, the current can be very strong in this stretch when water is released from the dam. The high banks make access difficult, and water conditions can be treacherous at times.
Some experts feel that the amount of forage in the area is scarce due to the consistently strong current. Chris Scalley disagrees.
“There are a lot of black flies, sulfur mayflies, and little winter stoneflies in the area, and although there aren’t many other examples of food in this stretch, these flies provide plenty of food for the fish.”
For fly fishermen, a good choice of flies in this stretch includes Zebra Midges, Brassy Nymphs, and the Griffiths Gnat, Adams, Parachute Sulfur, and Stimulator dry flies. All of these flies work best in the 14 to 20 size range.The portion of the river from Highway 20 to Abbotts Bridge is for artificial bait only, but natural bait can be used above HIghway 20, and in that stretch light spinning tackle with corn, worms, or crickets can be very productive when fished on the bottom with a small weight.
While this area can be fished from the bank or by wading, it is best fished from a boat for comfort and safety. If you plan to wade the area, be sure to check the generating schedule at the dam. It is a good idea to check this information no matter where you are fishing on the river. Schedules can be seen online at http://spatialdata.sam.usace.army.mil/hydropower/default.aspx. In the drop-down menu, go to Buford Dam/Lake Sidney Lanier. There will be hourly schedule of flow rate, listed in MW, which stands for megawatts. The big numbers, typically for a couple of hours, are when water is being released.
• Abbots Bridge to Medlock Bridge (4 miles)
In this section, the river widens a bit, and the banks are less steep. The current is generally a little slower through the widened river basin. Therefore, there is a richer selection of natural bait in this stretch. In addition to the black flies mentioned above, the forage in this section of the river includes several varieties of stone flies as well as caddis flies. Scalley recommends bead-headed nymphs in the Prince, Hares Ear, and Pheasant Tail patterns. His dry fly recommendations include Elk Hair Caddis, Parachute Adams, and Royal Wulff. All of the flies should be in sizes ranging from 12 to 18. Since there is no natural bait allowed in this section down to the Highway 141 bridge, spin fishermen will need to rely on small artificial baits to tempt a trout. Small spinners like a Mepps or Rooster Tail are usually productive, as are a No. 3 and No. 5 Rapala crankbait.
When fishing all of the sections on the river, Chris sticks by the motto “foam is home.” The bubble trails along areas of fast-moving current represent current seams where currents of two different speeds meet.
“These seams are great places to work your lure or fly because trout hold along the edges of those seams waiting for food to be swept to them by the current,” Chris said.
Cast your lure or fly upstream of the bubble trail, and let the current sweep it along the edge. You’ll be in a great position for a strike. When fishing nymphs, it is important to get the bait down to the fish, so when the current is strong, be sure to add a split-shot or two on the leader to help the fly sink quickly and get into the strike zone. Chris recommends a small, floating strike indicator when fishing the nymphs. He pegs the small piece of foam onto the leader to achieve the desired depth. By moving the indicator up and down the leader, the depth that the nymph is running can be adjusted. Chris recommends that you try different depths until you find the fish. You may need to change the depth often depending on factors such as current flow, location, and time of day.
• Medlock Bridge to Jones Bridge (3 miles)
This section of the river has many of the characteristics of the previous section, so the same fly patterns and lures are applicable. Starting at Highway 141 (Medlock Bridge), however, natural bait is again allowed, so the worms, corn, etc. are back in play. As you move down the river in this section, the shoals become more prolific, and there is a particularly good set of shoals at Jones Bridge Park. There are large numbers of big flat rocks in the river adjacent to the park that are dry during normal flow conditions. These rocks provide not only easy access to the water but also excellent trout habitat. Even though this area gets a lot of pressure due to its ease of access, it is still one of the best spots on the river for bank fishermen.
• Jones Bridge to Azalea Drive (12 miles)
According to Chris, this is one of the most productive sections of the river for trout. The forage is increased in this area by the addition of several types of crustaceans including scuds and sow bugs. The area is full of shoals, and there are numerous beds of algae which provide great habitat for the crustaceans. Nymphs like Lightning Bugs and WD40s, as well as the Blue Wing Olive dry-fly patterns, work well in this stretch. But Chris often fishes this area by stripping deep-running streamers. Chris fishes Wooly Buggers and Rolex Streamers by casting them 90 degrees to the boat near submerged logs, rocks and algae beds. He lets them sink, and then he rips them back to the boat using a jerk-jerk-stop erratic retrieve.
“I fish the streamers using a sink-tip line,” says Chris. “This helps the bait get down quickly and stay down in the strike zone during the retrieve.”
Chris uses weighted-head streamers, eliminating the need for split-shot on the leader under most conditions. He ties flies with various size weights on them to vary the speed of descent under different conditions.
“To me, the flies are easier to fish if the weight is in the fly rather than in a split shot on the leader. I pick up less trash, and I believe that the fly runs more naturally in the water without a split-shot on the line,” says Chris.
In addition to fishing the streamers around rocks and other structure, Chris fishes the streamers in the deep, slow-moving pools that are present throughout this section.
Since natural bait is allowed in this section, corn, worms, etc. are always a good choice for the spin fishermen, as are the small spinners and Rapalas.
No matter which section of the river you choose to fish, don’t be lulled into complacency by the ease of access of this great urban trout fishery. The river can be extremely dangerous for those who treat it casually. The water can rise rapidly after release at the dam, so pay close attention to generating schedules whether you are bank fishing, boat fishing, float tubing, or wading. At its peak, the current can flow five or six miles per hour, and it is difficult to swim against that force, particularly in fishing clothes.
If you are planning to wade or float tube, there is also the danger of hypothermia. With water temperatures in the high 40s, your body temperature can be lowered dramatically within a short period of time. This is particularly important in the winter when air temperatures are also cold. If you are going to be in the water, it is best to wear insulated trousers and socks under a good pair of waders. Even then your legs and feet are likely to get cold pretty quickly. It is a good idea to take a break every so often and get out of the water to let your temperature come back to normal. Use your head, and you should be just fine.
The quality of the trout fishery in the Chattahoochee River below Buford Dam is amazingly good, and with excellent management it is continuing to improve. Over the last six or seven years it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is natural reproduction of brown trout occurring in these sections of the river. Fisheries biologist Chris Martin has instituted a new program on the river to see just how well the browns are doing with their natural reproduction.
“We have stopped introducing brown trout to the fishery through stocking for the last two years,” said Martin. “We began noticing natural reproduction of the browns several years ago, and we want to see how well the fishery will be maintained without the introduction of additional fish.”
Of the 150,000 catchable-size trout released into this section of the Chattahoochee each year, 25,000 to 30,000 have traditionally been browns, with the rest being rainbows. The last two years, all 150,000 of the stocked fish were rainbows. Even without the stocking of browns in the river there are still plenty there to catch. We caught about half browns and half rainbows on our trip. Martin says that fall electro-fishing surveys at four locations along the river typically produce about 80 percent brown trout; another indication that the browns are thriving in the river. The fact that browns are reproducing naturally in the river has implications for the classification of the Chattahoochee River below Buford Dam. Studies are underway to determine what steps can and need to be taken to protect this thriving and growing fishery.
Whether you are an experienced trout angler or a novice wanting to give it a try, the Chattahoochee, as it runs through the north Atlanta suburbs, is a convenient place to try your luck against these beautiful fish.
While the fish are small on average, the Chattahoochee is also one of the better trout fisheries for “hold-over” trout — stockers that make it through a season or two. Plus, browns that were born in the river do better than the average stocked trout in avoiding lures and baits, so they can reach larger sizes. Even the plentiful stockers are a lot of fun to catch.
If you know nothing about trout fishing, you can likely catch some trout on the Chattahoochee by simply putting a piece of corn on a hook and dropping it to the bottom of a pool with some spinning gear from the bank. For those wishing to take a more sophisticated approach, the opportunity to do so is available as well. Novices and experienced fishermen alike would do well to go out at least once with someone who knows the river to get a feel for the place and take advantage of some valuable experience.
Chris Scalley and his team are on the river virtually every day. For the experienced angler, they’ll put you in the right spot, and you can do the rest. Novices who want to learn more about fly fishing will benefit from their instructional trips on all aspects of fly fishing including casting, fly selection, and presentation. Visit Chris’s website at riverthroughatlanta.com or give him a call at (770) 650-8630, and he’ll be glad to help you experience this great urban fishery.
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