A Guide’s Romance with Brook Trout

These native fish were a catalyst for Capt. Chad Bryson’s life and career

May 2022

By Capt. Chad Bryson

Photos by Jimmy Jacobs

Long before  private water trout fisheries commanded so much attention in the South, long before the McKenzie River style drift boats made their migration to Southern Appalachia, wild brook trout in the small creeks of the region reigned supreme. In the years following the devastating reckless timber cuts throughout Southern Appalachia, rainbow and brown trout were stocked in many of the creeks in an effort to restore fisheries in waters that the brook trout could no longer survive in. Many of those creeks probably did still hold brook trout, but with the technology available to the biologists at the time, I’m sure they had no way of knowing.

A Southern Appalachian brook trout.

So, despite the fact that greed and ignorance killed off a significant population of wild native brook trout in Southern Appalachia, we actually have a pretty cool fishery here 100 years later. Brook trout still thrive in the most remote creeks naturally protected by waterfalls. Below those natural barriers, rainbow and brown trout occupy the water that some anglers argue should be brook trout water. I don’t argue about it anymore. It doesn’t matter. Now it actually makes for a pretty sweet fishing day. Where else can I put on a backpack, go for a hike in the woods and catch all three species (rainbow, brown and brook) in one day. All with the same fly. It’s awesome. It’s also something that I have never done anywhere else in the world that I have worked.

The bug for wild trout came to me when I was a kid. I grew up on the banks of the Tellico River in East Tennessee. My family kept campers at Green Cove Campground. This was back during a time that the big crowd was during 4th of July weekend. That meant there was probably 10 people in the campground instead of four. Although I don’t remember it, my dad says my first trip to the river was before I could walk and I’m certain that somewhere my mom has a picture of me dressed in nothing but a diaper and rubber boots, holding a fishing rod and standing in the river. I have seen that picture but couldn’t begin to tell you where it is now. Today, absolutely no person on the planet wants to see me dressed that way, ever. Point is, I started a long time ago.

Tennessee’s Tellico River.

The Tellico River is big water by southern freestone river standards. Even though you would never know it by looking at me now, I was a small kid. Small enough that my grandfather and my dad were pretty cautious about where they would let me stand in the river. It was intimidating and my small size prevented me from standing in the spots that I needed to be in order to catch fish. I still loved it and cherish the fact that I was fortunate to grow up that way.

At that time, I didn’t know the difference between a wild trout, stocked trout or a native trout. My family was into keeping the daily limit so we could provide this unlimited supply of trout for the family reunion fish fry. I don’t remember ever killing anything other than rainbow trout and the occasional brown. Unbeknownst to me, the Tellico River was a put-and-take fishery. My family used it for what it was designed for at the time. No apologies.

On occasion, my grandfather would take me into some of the tributary creeks and rivers of the Tellico. I remember it feeling like I had just stepped into a place that should have never existed. It was too good to be true. The creeks were small, but big enough to cast in, yet not so much flow that my small frame couldn’t manage it easily by myself. I learned to sneak up on fish to cast to them. I learned how to jump across the rocks instead of sloshing through the water. I learned that sometimes it was better to get out of the creek and walk around the pool before you fish it. I learned how to spot fish in the creek before casting. This was before polarized glasses. We didn’t wear glasses back then, no one did. Basically, I learned how to fish wild trout in some of the first protected and regulated wild trout water in Southern Appalachia. I loved it. It was the most fantastic thing I had ever experienced.

Capt. Chad Bryson on a Southern Appalachian stream today.

From that point forward, every little trickle of flowing water was on my radar, cataloged in my mind as a creek I could master. My grandfather seemed to be masterful at provoking the big, holdover brown trout in the Tellico to eat, even if they didn’t want to. He seemed to know something that none of us knew. He either wouldn’t tell me how or didn’t know how to tell me. It could also have been that I wasn’t ready to understand.

What I knew was that I could catch almost any fish I could see in any of the small creeks we went to. I couldn’t do that in the Tellico and it pissed me off. Fishing in the Tellico became almost like work. My family wanted trout kept for the reunion. Therefore, trout were kept from the rivers that were conducive to such behavior, but not on wild trout streams.

In addition to my 10-year-old ability to crush any fish I could find in these wild trout streams, there were other characteristics I found unique to these areas. It was the crazy, exotic looking little trout with brightly colored blue, red and yellow spots. Their backs were covered in yellowish green squiggles. Bright orange fins had a white stripe on the front sides. Periodically, I would catch a big one, about 12 inches. Those fish had a weird looking mouth with a little black on it.

These fish seemingly leapt off an artist’s pallet.

My grandfather just called them natives, so that’s what I called them. Later on, I discovered that they were in fact brook trout. They were the coolest fish I had ever seen. The natives only lived in creeks that had a waterfall. I thought that was weird. I didn’t grasp the fact that the waterfall was a natural barrier that kept the invasive trout out of their habitat.

The other most profound thing was the smell. Brook trout creeks have a distinctive smell in Southern Appalachia, earthy, rich, old. The Tellico River didn’t smell this way. At that time in my life that’s all I knew and it kept me awake at night – not girls, that came later.

In middle school, I discovered my track coach had a cabin on the Tellico. As a gesture of good faith, he would invite some of the guys on the team to go fishing for the weekend. Most of them had never been in any real mountains and probably never would have without this opportunity. It was a magnific time, riding in the bed of a pickup truck, no seat belts, no curfew, no rules other than don’t be stupid or disrespectful.

Being that I was the most skilled mountaineering 12-year-old in the group – practically a river local – coach allowed me to do things that were a little more adventurous. I convinced him to drop me and two guys off at the top of a ridge to slide down into a brook trout stream, then hike out at the bottom where he would be waiting for us. We were supposed to be there before dark. We were all three sworn to secrecy that we would not tell our parents that coach did that. To this day, I never told them. I guess they know now.

I wasn’t nearly as surprised as everyone else that my plan worked. I knew where I was going and how to get out. I also knew how to fish the stream. . So, there I was teaching my 12 year old buddies the nuances of brook trout. We thought it was the biggest adventure of our lives. It soon became a weekly secret event. Little did anyone know how far that would carry me in life.

I quit fishing the Tellico drainage a little over 25 years ago. My grandfather passed and it was just too painful to go back. Every spring I tell myself I’m going to and I never do.

Since that time, I have had quite the serendipitous career guiding all over the world just about anywhere I ever wanted to. All because my family afforded me the opportunity to catch a brook trout when I was a kid.

In recent years, I have discovered fishing for brook trout in the North Georgia portion of Southern Appalachia. The brook trout creeks here close to home smell the same as they did in East Tennessee, still earthy, rich and old. A big brookie is 12 inches of the most gloriously aesthetic salmonid in the family. They eat dry flies willingly. In fact, dry flies are all I take on those trips. After all, a southern brook trout should never be insulted with such behest as a nymph presentation. Blasphemy and shame should fall upon those who do.

Book A Trip

Chad Bryson guides brook trout trips in the spring for Reel Angling Adventures. He only guides two trips per week, weekdays only, no exceptions. It’s a fragile fishery that simply will not take the pressure of lots of foot traffic. We don’t wear waders: you can do it in hiking boots. It’s a lot like New Zealand fishing. You walk a lot and cast a little. He does a pretty sweet lunch with wine, cheese and meats. A charcuterie if you will. If putting on a pack and hiking through earthy, rich and old smelling creek beds casting dry flies to the only trout native to Southern Appalachia sounds fun, give him a call at (907) 669-0164, or check out the website for Reel Angling Adventures.  But hurry, or you’ll have to wait until next spring. He leaves for Alaska for the summon on June 3!

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