The Chauga River is nestled in the mountains of northwestern South Carolina. Long overlooked by trout fishermen in favor of its more famous and bigger brother, the Chattooga, the Chauga is quietly garnering a local reputation as top destination for feisty rainbow and trophy brown trout.
Recent improvements in water quality bode well for this little-known and under-utilized fishery.
The Chauga is large for a southern freestone stream, averaging more than 40 feet wide throughout most of its trout water. Its headwaters rise in remote Oconee County near the town of Mountain Rest, and the river follows a general southerly path before it empties into the Tugaloo arm of Lake Hartwell.
The most productive stretches of water are often miles from any road and traverse a rugged gorge of wild whitewater and true wilderness.
The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) has aggressively stocked the Chauga with catchable-sized trout for years, creating a popular, put-and-take fishery enjoyed by bait, spin, and fly anglers alike.
“The Chauga is largely a hatchery supported stream, although we have found natural reproduction of rainbow trout in the main stem during some years,” said Dan Rankin, fisheries biologist for the SCDNR. “The number of these young-of-year that survive and contribute to the fishery is not yet known, however.
“The main stem is stocked routinely with catchable brook, brown and rainbow trout at available access sites from Verner Mill Road downstream to the Spyder Valley access,” he said. “The remote reaches of the river are also helicopter-stocked with catchable rainbows and sub-adult browns (each fall) to enhance the backcountry Chauga fishery.”
Most of the wild fish in the Chauga system live in the upper reaches of the river and the tributaries. These sections are remote and difficult to access, but with some work and a little planning, the adventurous angler enamored with finding rare, wild trout in South Carolina, can be handsomely rewarded.
“A number of the Chauga tributaries support wild or put-and-grow brown trout,” said Rankin. “Most of these tributaries supporting wild fish, however, are in the extreme headwaters and on private land, so landowner permission is a must when fishing these streams.”
Much of the trout water, both stocked and wild, is located in remote, rugged wilderness. Some familiarity with the area and a fishing buddy are advised before fishing truly wild areas.
“Some backcountry areas on the Chauga, in contrast to the Chattooga — which is paralleled by a trail for its entire length — are very wild and difficult to reach,” said Rankin. “Many backcountry areas have no trail at all along the rugged gorges. Long, difficult hikes on mountain trails and old logging roads are some of the only means of access, and once you get to the river, wade fishing is the only means of actually covering the water.”
In the past, warm water temperatures during the summer have kept the Chauga from becoming one of the top trout streams in the southeastern United States. The warm waters have also prevented significant natural reproduction in the lower stretches of the river. This has also created ideal conditions for trophy brown trout, which can thrive in warm, marginal habitat.
“The main stem of the Chauga supports some large holdover browns — many of trophy proportions,” Rankin said. “Prior to the current state record fish caught in Lake Jocassee, the largest South Carolina brown trout came from the Chauga.
“The Chauga River has always been known as a great brown trout fishery because the water has always been on the warmer side as far as trout streams go,” said Chuck Patterson of Foothills Fly Fishing in Greenville. “But big browns have managed to thrive in this marginal trout water, and you would even catch an occasional smallmouth bass as well.”
There is a significant forage base of chubs and sculpins in the Chauga, making streamers for fly angers, and small plugs and spinners for spinfishermen good bets for connecting with some of the big browns.
“Fish some of those deeper holes with a big sculpin fly pattern or streamer and let it sink all the way to the bottom,” said Patterson. “After waiting a second or two, give it a twitch before starting a slow retrieve along the bottom. This is how you hook one of the big boys.”
For the fly fisherman, the classic down-and-across technique of fishing streamers will also be successful. Quarter the cast downstream toward the far bank at a 45-degree angle and let the fly swing in the current. Mend the fly line upstream in order to slow the speed of the fly or increase its speed by allowing a downstream belly to form in the line. A trout will often follow the streamer across the river and hit once your fly line straightens out and the fly stops in the current.
Spin fishermen will find the most success with small in-line spinners and plugs. The same down-and-across technique can be used with the hardware, but don’t forget the slow retrieve through the deep pools. An ultra-light rod and spinning reel spooled with 6- or 8-pound test line is a good compromise between getting the most action out of the lure and abrasion resistance with the rocks and bottom structure.
A 5- or 6-weight fly rod in an 8½- to 9-foot length is perfect for the Chauga. Whether you’re fishing streamers, nymphs, or dry flies, this will cover any situation you find on this river. The Chauga is broad and wide, with plenty of open room for easy fly casting.
“I prefer to hike in upstream from the heavily-stocked, easy access areas and fish the more remote areas,” Patterson said. “There are far (fewer) people, and the stocked fish act a lot more like wild fish. The Chauga is also a very scenic river, and getting away from other anglers lets you enjoy the natural beauty and impressive scenery around you.”
No special flies are necessary to consistently catch trout in the Chauga. Most tried-and-true patterns that have worked elsewhere in similar conditions, will work on the Chauga. Insect hatches are sporadic, and the trout are opportunistic feeders. Most well-presented flies that appear natural will provoke a strike from a waiting fish.
It is worth noting that the Chauga is a high-gradient stream with many waterfalls, cascades and lots of whitewater. Rainbows, particularly during the warm summer months, will congregate in these oxygen-rich rapids and wait for food to arrive from upstream. A dry fly that floats well, like the Humpy or Stimulator, will help avoid frustration when fishing these areas.
In addition to the ever-present whitewater, the Chauga is linked with one deep run after another — great deep nymphing water. A Gold-ribbed Hares Ear, Pheasant Tail, or Prince nymph fished along the bottom, with ample weight attached to the leader, will consistently catch fish.
During the summer, flies that imitate insects such as grasshoppers, inchworms, beetles, and ants are very effective. They can be fished on the surface or subsurface for success. Hopper patterns will be more effective downstream of open fields or meadows, while ants and beetles will be more effective below overhanging tree limbs and blow downs.
The fast nature of the water also makes wading treacherous. Felt-soled wading shoes and a wading staff are necessary equipment.
Over the past five years, the SCDNR has been tackling the water-temperature issue by helping landowners retrofit surface-release dam discharges on tributary lakes into bottom-release devices.
Instead of warm, surface water being discharged downstream, cooler water from the lakes'depths is released, The cooler water and higher dissolved-oxygen levels are more hospitable to trout.
“We have documented about a 10-degree cooling in streams below the lakes where the retrofits took place,” said Rankin. “It’s intuitive that the cumulative tributary improvements have also benefited the main stem of the Chauga, not only the tributaries. Our estimates indicate over one-fourth of the average flow of the Chauga passes through a low-head impoundment.
“The SCNDR has retrofitted the dams of all of the major impoundments along the Chauga, including Mountain Rest Lake, Chattooga Lake, Lake Leroy, Camp Chatuga, and Crystal Lake.”
These retrofits have made an immediate impact on the SCDNR’s management of trout in the Chauga tributaries.
“Last spring, we started stocking fingerling brown trout again in streams below these lakes, which were merely warmwater streams (before) the retrofits,” Rankin said. “Some examples of where this new stocking has occurred are Taylor Creek, Village Creek, and Orrs Mill Branch.”
While the SCDNR monitors the success of the brown trout stockings in the Chauga tributaries, they will also begin documenting the temperature improvements in the Chauga main stem as well.
“We have not done an in-depth temperature investigation of the main stem of the Chauga yet, but I do have pre-retrofit baseline temperature data to compare it with,” Rankin said. “We did, however, do some post-retrofit fish sampling in the main stem near the Grapevine and Bone Camp Creek area.”
“In one remote Chauga sample, we did collect a good number of fat, holdover brown trout. That was the best holdover of brown trout we had ever seen in Chauga — more evidence yet that the dam retrofits directly translated to positive improvements to the Chauga trout fishery.”
That’s the bottom line for fishermen — an improved fishery in the very near future. With cooler water combined with intelligent fisheries management, the Chauga could soon be one of the best freestone trout streams in the Southeast — not only for wild brown trout, but for wild rainbow trout as well. The fish sampling and anecdotal evidence from anglers suggests it is happening already.
“My son and I fished the Chauga near Double Branch Shoals very recently, and I caught a wild rainbow trout that went 9 to 10 inches long,” said Rankin. “He made about three fast runs and leaps during the fight.
“For a number of years — even before the dam retrofits — we had noticed that the fall-stocked Tasmanian strain of rainbow trout was reproducing in the Chauga. But in the past, it did not appear that the young-of-year were surviving the first summer in most cases. Hopefully we’ll get some survival now.”
Several good access points to the trout water of the Chauga River include: Verner Mill Road, Cassidy Bridge, Double Branch Shoals, and the Grapevine Access area. Handicap access is available at the Grapevine Access area.
General South Carolina trout regulations apply for the entire Chauga River and its tributaries. A creel limit of 10 trout per day, with no more than 10 in possession, is in effect. There are no bait or lure restrictions, and a valid South Carolina fishing license is required.