So I’m back on the Chattahoochee this week. This time I’m at the Jones Bridge Unit of the Chattahoochee River National Recreation Area, and I’m going after (drum roll, please) the smallest brown trout I can find. No, not big ones – small ones. The smaller the better.
Why small ones? Because catching tiny baby browns is proof positive that there are wild brown trout in the Hooch!
Actually, that’s not news anymore. Folks have known for a long time that there’s a self-sustaining population of browns in the miles of river below Buford Dam and Morgan Falls, in what’s known as the “upper tailwater.” But I’m getting ahead of the story. Let me start at the beginning and with a question.
Have browns always been in the Chattahoochee? No. In fact, that section of river would not support trout at all were it not for the construction of Buford Dam and Lake Lanier in the late 1950s.
Some old-timers I’ve spoken to remember the pre-dam days and talk about fishing there in the 1930s and 40s, when it was a “warm” river, and catching catfish, bream and bass. But they did not catch trout, for the water was much too warm.
The thing that turned it into a trout fishery was Lake Lanier. Water released from Buford Dam comes from the bottom of the lake and is really cold – usually around 50 degrees.
But at first there were no trout there to enjoy it.
Where did the first tailwater trout come from? The story you hear is that by the early 1960s it was dawning on some area fishermen that this reframed river really did have trout potential. Local trout enthusiasts approached the state with the idea of a trout stocking program in the cold water below Buford Dam, but there does not seem to have been much interest.
So they took another approach.
Somewhere in there, 1962 is mentioned fairly often, those determined anglers pooled their money and acquired a load of rainbow trout fingerlings from a hatchery in North Carolina. The trout commandos quickly transported their finned cargo back to Georgia. Then, under cover of darkness, they eased up to the river one night and dumped ‘em into the river about a mile south of Old Jones Bridge.
To make a long story short, the transplanted fish found their new digs to be ideal. They settled right in and started to grow – and a year later that section of river held a sizeable population of 12- to 14-inch fish.
For a while, it’s said, the midnight stockers quietly enjoyed this secret trout fishery, keeping it pretty much to themselves. But eventually, seeing the success, the fisheries folks recognized the river’s potential. A stocking program developed, and as a result browns and rainbows alike were soon being stocked in the tailwater. They’ve been stocking trout in the tailwater since 1962, managing the rainbows (which don’t reproduce effectively in the river) as a put-and-take fishery.
But what about browns? It turns out that brown trout do reproduce naturally in the river, and the result is a self-sustaining brown trout population that thrives there today. Today, no brown trout stocking is done; in fact, browns have not been stocked between Buford Dam and Roswell Road since 2004. In other words, every brown you catch in the upper tailwater will be a wild, streamborn fish.
I had a chance to fish that water last week with Jeff Wright, manager of Alpharetta Outfitters. Jeff was using big flies (“That’s what the big fish want,” he said) and focusing on places where big ones like to hang out – ledges, deep runs, blowdowns and the like.
How big could a big one be? Browns of 15 inches or more appear regularly. In fact, the state record brown with a weight of 20 lb. 14 ounces was caught in the tailwater in 2014, and more big ones continue to turn up too. According to Georgia DNR several fish of more than 30 inches in length were caught in the tailwater during 2016.
While Jeff was going for the big guys, I decided to see if I could catch a little one just so I could say from personal experience that baby browns really were there. So I rigged up with a tiny little midge emerger and started fishing the shallow runs.
How’d I do? Well, I caught a bunch of brown trout in the 3- to 5-inch range. Three inches? Who gets excited about a 3-inch fish? I did! For even though I already knew it to be true, that tiny little trout was proof positive that the browns are thriving in the river – proof I could literally hold in the palm of my hand.