The Chattooga's character is brash and bold, rushing headlong through craggy mountain gorges while dropping 2,000 feet in elevation from Ellicott Rock at the North Carolina state line to the flat, quiet waters of Tugaloo Lake.
"The Chattooga is, by far, our state's most beautiful river," said Chuck Patterson of Foothills Fly Fishing in Greenville.
Designated by the U.S. Congress as a "Wild and Scenic River" for its abundant wildlife and rugged natural beauty, the Chattooga is the longest free-flowing river in the southeast. Its high-elevation origin, steep gradient, and undeveloped riverbanks give the river all the necessary ingredients to make it a blue-ribbon trout stream. The fact that Trout Unlimited lists the Chattooga in its surveys of America's Top 100 Trout Streams should come as no surprise.
It might come as a surprise, however, to learn that despite its well-deserved celebrity status, the famed wild-brown trout fishery of the upper Chattooga is relatively underfished and free of crowds. The river gets more than its share of media attention downstream with its world-class whitewater paddling runs and the 2-mile delayed-harvest section, but the wild brown-trout water of the upper Chattooga goes almost unnoticed.
That might have something to do with the area's remote nature. The upper Chattooga flows through the ruggedly beautiful Ellicott Rock Wilderness area - miles from any roads or human development.
The Ellicott Rock Wilderness, in extreme northwest South Carolina, is an 8,200-acre tract of unspoiled mountain terrain. The actual rock itself is a streamside marker that identifies the point where all three states - South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia - converge. In 1811, surveyor Andrew Ellicott chiseled the inconspicuous mark on a rock on the river's east bank.
This is the section of the Chattooga River that has a healthy population of wily brown trout.
In order to successfully catch wild browns, one must understand the feeding habits and dark, secretive nature of these creatures. Brown trout can be the most finicky eaters of all the different trout species, and a good understanding of the fish's behaviors will go a long way toward catching more of these colorful salmonids.
"The big browns of the Chattooga are like wolves," said Patterson. "They are carnivorous loners that prey on crayfish, sculpins, darters, dace - almost anything that swims."
Browns usually occupy different areas of rivers or streams than rainbows. While the thrill-seeking rainbow trout like the oxygenated riffles and current edges of a pool, browns will more likely be found in slower water at the pool's tail or edges, holding tight to structure or undercut banks.
These browns also have a reputation for being extremely shy and wary.
"The browns of the upper Chattooga probably see more predators than most other trout," said Patterson. "Lots of birds and otter make these fish ultra-sensitive to movements of wading fishermen, making them much more difficult to catch."
When it comes to fishing for these temperamental fish, no single technique stands out as being superior. Many different flies or lures can be used, but tailoring your techniques to the specific seasonal feeding personalities of browns will better your chances of hooking them consistently.
During the winter, browns are less likely to chase fast-moving flies or lures, particularly ones with erratic movements. Cold water temperatures lead to lackadaisical feeding behavior, so getting your fly down in the strike zone is necessary since the fish are unlikely to chase it.
"A favorite technique of mine is to cast a brown Woolly Bugger or another fly that mimics a crayfish into one of those deep pools, letting the fly swirl around the bottom like a young, soft-shelled crayfish," said Patterson. "I've taken many big browns that way from the Chattooga.
"There is always the chance at catching a 30-inch brown from one of those deep holes," he added. "That always makes ... each cast interesting."
Larger fish - 13 inches or longer - are almost exclusively carnivorous, allowing them to add weight quickly and reach fantastic sizes. Crayfish are item No. 1 on their daily menu.
"Crayfish are the brown's favorite food," said Patterson, "and the Chattooga River is full of them. The crayfish molts five times each year, and it's during the soft-shell phase, right after molting, that they are especially targeted by those big browns."
Flies such as the brown or olive Woolly Bugger work very well as a crayfish pattern. The Muddler Minnow is another classic fly that seems to catch the attention of those big, meat-eating browns.
"Hellgrammites are another important food source for the browns on the Chattooga," Patterson said. "Woolly Buggers are a good imitation for those insects as well."
The healthy fishery can be attributed to the abundant food found in the river. The Chattooga is blessed with a large forage base of small fish and crustaceans - as well as aquatic insect life.
"The Chattooga is an extremely fertile river, with lots of quality food sources," explained Patterson. "The effluent that flows from the hatchery up on the East Fork helps to explain some of it, but not entirely.
"I have seen some of the heaviest insect hatches in the Southeast," said Patterson. "Some of the Cahill hatches I've witnessed have been simply incredible.
"There are lots of bugs up on the upper Chattooga, and you can fish through some pretty heavy hatches, especially in the early spring. March Browns, Blue Quills, Blue-Wing Olives, and Black Caddis are just some of what can come off the water in abundance."
Smaller browns tend to target the abundant mayflies, caddis flies, and stoneflies, but if the hatch is big enough, it will catch the attention of some of the big boys as well.
The area's rugged terrain also lends itself to a healthy trout environment.
"The upper Chattooga in the Ellicott Rock Wilderness is deceptively steep," Patterson said. "The turbulent nature of the river adds to the dissolved oxygen in the water, which is very beneficial to the trout. The highly-aerated water probably helps the fish survive the hot summers."
Nymph fishing through the deeper runs and notches can be particularly good before or even during a hatch. Getting the fly down to the river bottom is difficult, so it must be heavily weighted. Prospecting water when there is no hatch with big black and brown stonefly patterns can be a deadly technique.
A floating line coupled with long leaders and some strategically placed weight will be the most productive nymph rig. Bead-head flies are a good idea when fishing heavy water like the Chattooga, because they have a little more weight than standard nymphs - as well as the extra flash to incite a lazy fish to strike.
For fly fishermen, there is plenty of open room for casting. Nine-foot rods are recommended for their reach and line control in 5- or 6-weight varieties.
Spin fishermen will have success with inline spinners and small crankbaits. The key is getting the lure down near the bottom and retrieving it slowly. The Rebel Wee Crawfish in "nest robber" color is the ideal size and pattern.
November is spawning time for brown trout. After reducing their food intake during the warm, low-water months of August and September, browns begin a dramatic increase in food consumption in October as they prepare for the spawning ritual.
"Spawning time just about coincides with Thanksgiving on the Chattooga," said Patterson. "The fish are especially aggressive at this time of year."
Big brown trout can be found in tributaries in November and December. The East Fork of the Chattooga is an ideal place to hunt the big boys during the spawning period.
During the spawn, rising water from late-fall and early- winter rains allows fish to travel safely to traditional spawning areas. Conversely, dropping water levels will cause spawning fish to hold in the deeper holes, providing the best fishing conditions. If you are planning a trip to catch a lunker brown trout, visiting the river three or four days after a heavy rain should be ideal. The water should be dropping and have a just a slightly tinted color.
The best fishing for brown trout - at any time of year -will always be during times of low light. Dawn, dusk, or overcast days are when browns are more apt to forgo their cautious ways and actively feed. This is true when fishing the Chattooga River or any body of water that brown trout inhabit.
A relatively short hike upstream from Burrells Ford Bridge will soon have you in prime water, but the farther you venture, the better the fishing becomes. A well-maintained trail on the South Carolina bank parallels the river and provides easy access. The hike from Burrells Ford to the East Fork confluence is 1.5 miles. From there, it's another 1.5 miles to Ellicott Rock and the North Carolina state line.
Hiking down the East Fork from the Walhalla Fish Hatchery to the confluence with the main stem is another option that will put the adventurous angler right in the middle of blue-ribbon trout water. If you take this option, don't overlook the fishing opportunities of the East Fork itself. If not overshadowed by its big brother downstream, the East Fork would be considered one of the state's best streams for wild browns.
A trip to the Chattooga River is a primitive wilderness experience. There are no facilities of any kind, so some basic preparations should be taken before visiting. Carrying a map, water, and first-aid kit is a good start. Fishing with a buddy is probably the safest thing you can do when venturing into this wilderness area.
There is no closed season for trout in the Chattooga River. The limit is 8 per day and 8 trout in any angler's possession. There are no bait or lure restrictions.
A fishing license from either South Carolina or Georgia is needed. The states have a reciprocal agreement that allows a licensed fisherman from either state to fish from either bank. Be aware, however, if you fish one of the tributaries, you must have a license for the state you are fishing in. Also, be keenly aware of the boundary at Ellicott Rock. Once you venture upstream from that point, you are in North Carolina.