The beer was cold and conversation flowed freely on a Friday evening in a small but well-appointed little fly shop in Olde Brainerd. A group of anglers, mostly ball-capped and bearded, gathered around a high table at The Hatch Outfitters. They talked fishing, laughed and lied, and picked the brain of a man who passes for a celebrity in the niche world of fly fishing.
At the center of the conversation was Blane Chocklett. He's a heck of an angler who made his name in Virginia, where he pioneered a style of fishing that bears little resemblance to the widely held perception of fly fishing as the delicate pursuit of trout. On big waters like the James, Roanoke and New rivers, Chocklett refined fly fishing tactics and tackle for big warm-water species, most notably muskellunge, the largest and most vicious freshwater predator in North America.
For those unfamiliar with muskie, they inhabit lakes and rivers of the East, from the Great Lakes down through Appalachia as far south as North Georgia. They are apex predators wherever they exist and regularly grow longer than 4 feet and heavier than 50 pounds. They feed on anything living they can shred in their toothy maws, mostly smaller fish.
Giant, voracious predators - on a fly rod? Sounds awesome, right? Well, there's a catch. Muskie are difficult to find and catch. Even live bait anglers can go days without a strike. The phrase "the fish of a thousand casts" is clichéd among muskie anglers and catching one on a fly is even more difficult.
That's where Chocklett stepped in to try and even the playing field. His innovative fly designs revolutionized streamer fishing. Streamers are flies tied to mimic baitfish swimming under the surface. In recent decades, fly tyers have tinkered with multiple hooks or hook shanks with flexible joints in a single streamer to add length and swimming action. This segmentation is called articulation.
Chocklett's "Game Changer" is an articulated streamer pattern so effective and popular that it morphed into a technique and system of fly tying. Originally, the "Game Changer" was developed to fool muskie, but in different sizes and configurations, it has proven effective on any species that eats fish, freshwater or salt.
And that's why Chocklett's visit to Chattanooga stirred a little bit of buzz on the Scenic City fly fishing scene. There are some limited trout fishing opportunities in the area, but the Tennessee River and its tributaries are primarily warm-water fisheries, home to awesome game fish like striped bass, largemouth and smallmouth bass and even muskie. Baitfish are the primary forage for all of these species. No one mentioned mayflies or caddisflies Friday evening. These guys were more interested in tying flies to mimic foot-long gizzard shad.
"Streamer fishing is a big part of the subculture here, and Blane is the top of that totem pole," said Seth Fields, owner of The Hatch Outfitters. "He's one of the best fly tyers out there, and he's also a very well respected muskie angler."
On Friday evening, September 24, Chocklett signed copies of his book, "Game Changer: Tying Flies that Look & Swim Like the Real Thing." Then, on Saturday, he spent most of the day teaching a sold-out tying lesson to anglers eager to dive deeper.
Events like this are central to Fields' desire to make The Hatch Outfitters a hub for Chattanooga's growing interest in fly fishing. He and Head Guide/Teacher/Casting Instructor Chase Pritchett want to nurture a scene that has seen several fly shops come and go in recent years.
The Hatch holds free fly tying classes on the first Friday of each month. These sessions are perfect for beginners, and they're also an opportunity to hang out with like-minded folks at the shop's legally licensed beer bar.
"People can sit down with other anglers and friends," said Fields. "Usually, in the afternoons, we'll get a couple people hanging around having a beer. We're always happy to give a beer to someone while they shop around. It's just part of the vibe of the shop, which is a little laid back. We want to make it feel like it's a home base for all their fishing needs and also a place to be with friends."
Each spring, The Hatch launches the season with a Spring Kickoff event that fills the parking lot with vendors and fly fishing authors. The Anything Goes Classic, an all-species fly fishing tournament ramps up in early May, and there's no telling what else Fields will dream up between now and then.
"It's kind of our way of giving back to the community that supports us. Kind of just giving them something fun to do," Fields said. "It's part of that culture building. A lot of these things have little to no financial reason to do them. It's just trying to keep people engaged and show them all this beautiful water we have around us."
"If you build it, they will come," is a phrase Fields used a few times in conversation about his shop and the fisheries around Chattanooga. The Tennessee River drainage offers a wealth of world-class fisheries, yet relatively few anglers are exploring these waters with flies. When Fields and his wife moved to Chattanooga from Athens, Georgia, he saw the lack of a fly fishing services as an untapped resource. He opened The Hatch almost three years ago, and he and Pritchett set out scouting the area with an eye toward opening a guide service.
"I've found challenging fisheries, in the best sort of way. I was maybe a little naive in the beginning thinking about those fisheries, not realizing how much time it would take to figure them out. We're still figuring out a lot of them," Fields said. "The Tennessee River drainage and many of its tributaries have these great seasonal swings where one month there's striped bass running up the rivers and then, later on, there are other species, and the smallmouth heat up this particular time of year. It's definitely a year–round fishery.
"Without getting too specific, the tributaries of the Tennessee River and the river itself are where I spend most of my time, just trying to kind of map it out and try to figure out what happens when and why. That way we can approach this from a really studied, well-prepared sense when we open our guide business."
He and Pritchett currently guide on a limited basis. They host on-the-water introductory trout trips at a few nearby locations like North Chickamauga Creek Gorge, which Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency started stocking with trout during cool weather months in 2019.
"We have trout seasonally, and we definitely promote that. It's kind of what brings people to the sport. When people think of fly fishing, they think of mountain streams and trout, and we definitely do a good bit of that, and promote it as much as possible," Fields said.
The goal is to run guided jet boat trips on big waters for big species, which will require a significant investment of time and money. Winter is muskie season, and Fields hopes to start putting clients on big muskellunge this year. He held specific locations close to his chest but mentioned there are muskie as close as 40 minutes from the shop. That's a pursuit that requires a special kind of determination and experience on the part of the angler. It is not for newcomers to the sport.
Through all the buzz about huge and difficult predatory species, Fields said The Hatch wants to create a scene that is welcoming to anglers of all skill levels as well folks who are just curious. Everyone has to start somewhere, and he said folks of all ages from all walks of life come through the door of the shop. Fly fishing-like climbing, biking and paddling-has experienced a boom in interest because of the pandemic, and ushering newcomers into the sport is not only good business, it's a joy.
The Hatch Outfitters is located at 3227 Brainerd Road. Check them out online at thehatchoutfitters.com or call (423)541-4691.