4 Tips for Tailrace Trout
September 24, 2010
When you understand the up-and-down nature of tailwaters, you can catch trout in them with bait, lures or flies. Here's how.
Photo by Tom Evans
By Steve Taylor
Tailwaters, which flow below dams on reservoirs, may not be the most natural of trout fisheries, but they can be among the most productive. While federal and state wildlife agencies may have initially perceived them as simple "put and take" fishing holes to use to mitigate the loss of native fish species, times have changed. The cold waters that flow below dams can grow world-record-class trout, and they're frequently managed with the same care and respect given to native fisheries. Like natural rivers, they have quirky personalities, but once you get to know them, tailwaters may become your favorite destinations for catching trout.
All rivers have fluctuating water levels, but tailwaters are far more erratic. The reservoirs and dams above them were built to control floodwaters and/or generate hydroelectricity. Recreation is typically a lower priority, which means that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers or the power companies that control the dams run water through them for plenty of good reasons - but rarely do those reasons include the health of tailwater trout or the enjoyment of tailwater anglers. Fortunately, both fish and fishermen can adapt to these ups and downs. Here's what you need to know to enjoying catching trout on the tailwaters nearest you, with bait, lures or flies.
FOLLOWING THE FLOW When the floodgates on dams open, the tailwaters below rise, but it's not as if a wall of water surges downstream like a tidal wave. Levels may rise and fall quickly, but each river has its own unique timetable for how long it takes for water to reach various points downstream. Fishing guides, the agency or company that operates dams, or the state game and fish conservation agency can typically provide estimates. Understanding how water moves downstream in a tailwater may be the most critical factor for fishing success.
When the floodgates open or the generators go online, wading anglers near dams must immediately flee the water. But if they load up their gear and drive to the next downstream access, they can often get far enough ahead of the rising water to extend their fishing. On long tailwaters with multiple access areas, it's possible for anglers to play this leapfrog game with rising water for hours - or even a day or two.
If you're fishing from a boat, rising water can be your best friend. As the flow increases, it dislodges insects from the gravel bottom or washes worms and other terrestrial food items into the river from the shoreline. You'll notice an increase in trout feeding activity - even the birds that live along the river will become more active. Float-fishers who simply drift downstream with the rising water often have the best fishing of all.
The Corps of Engineers provides recorded updates on water releases at all of its projects via telephone numbers you can acquire by calling the nearest Corps office. Always check those recordings, but be aware that they can become outdated quickly, especially for dams that generate hydroelectric power. Generators at dams can go online with the flip of a switch to meet peak electrical demands. Fly shops and boat docks on tailwaters also provide reliable information about where the water is rising, falling or stable. Generally, trout feed better in rising or stable water conditions.
LOW-WATER TROUT TACTICS Fly- and spin-fishermen who love to wade covet the low-water periods that occur in between releases from dams. It's an intimate way of fishing, in which you partially immerse yourself in the trout's environment and have the opportunity to study structure and irregularities in the bottom that make enticing lies for resting fish. Choose wading boots (or boot-foot waders) equipped with felt soles or cleats for safe footing, and a collapsible wading staff is indispensable. By using a metal-tipped staff, you can take a step and still safely maintain two points of contact with the riverbed. If there's barely any current, it may seem like a nuisance, but if rising water forces you to make a hasty exit, a staff could save your life.
While all tailwaters support varying species and numbers of crustaceans, baitfish and insects that trout feed on, most rivers have a dominant food source. Those are the critters that fly anglers focus on to "match the hatch." Tailwaters are especially famous for producing hundreds - if not thousands - of freshwater crustaceans known as scuds or sowbugs per square yard of gravel bottom. Sowbugs are sort of the aquatic equivalent of the shell-backed bug we called a "roly-poly" when we were kids. Scuds are similar, but they're more narrow in width and shaped more like a shrimp. If your local tailwater teems with these comma-sized creatures, you can fly-fish with only a handful of matching patterns and catch fish year 'round.
While fly-fishers often choose to cast the world's favorite streamer - the Woolly Bugger - when insects aren't hatching, don't overlook baitfish imitations. Locally produced patterns to match the tailwater's sculpins or minnows are best, but a No. 10 or No. 12 Clouser Minnow will work wonders on big trout anywhere.
Low water also offers excellent opportunities for anglers who like to cast tiny lures with ultralight spinning or spincasting gear. Two- to four-pound-test line and lures in the 1/16- to 1/8-ounce range are appropriate. Inline spinners, flashy gold or silver spoons, and crankbaits that imitate sculpins or crawfish are top choices. Spin-anglers can also adopt fly-fishing techniques with a clear casting bubble at least a foot or two above a fly or micro-sized marabou jig. The bubble provides the weight required to operate spinning or spincast gear and acts as a strike indicator as it drifts downstream with a jig or fly dangling below it. If the bubble - or your smaller strike indicator if you're fly-fishing - pauses, stops, dodges to one side or disappears, raise your rod tip to set the hook.
HIGH-WATER FISHING When generators are running full-blast, the last place you want to be is standing in the middle of the river. High-water periods are the perfect times to try float-fishing in a boat with a partner or guide. Never attempt to float and fish by yourself on a rising tailwater. Navigating and maneuvering a boat safely is a full-time job. Most anglers take turns running the motor and handling the rod, or they engage a guide to do the dirty work.
Simply turning the boat perpendicular to the flow, casting out 30 or 40 feet of line with a baited hook, and drifting downstream is one of the most relaxing ways to fish a tailwater (where bait is allowed). Salmon eggs, red worms, canned corn, bits of cheese, marshmallows, Power Bait and other manmade concoctions are popular. Guides or big-fish specialists frequently gather native crawfish, which appeal to
hungry trout just as much as they do to largemouth bass. Fish them on or near the bottom sans pinchers or put a peeled crawdad tail on your short-shanked bait hook. If your tailwater supports bottom-hugging sculpins - dark, mottled baitfish - you'll find that sculpins also make excellent bait. Catch them with pinches of red worms on tiny bait hooks, then fish them whole or skinless on long-shanked bait hooks.
As with all bait rigs, use just enough weight to occasionally tick the bottom while you drift downstream. And, yes, if you're fishing deep enough, you will experience some snags. Bring plenty of extra line and terminal tackle.
Trout relate to structure during high-water periods even more than usual because they seek protection from the direct force of the current. As the rising waters inundate the shoreline, trout frequently follow right along in search of calmer waters. Bass fishermen will feel right at home in high-water conditions, in which they can chunk 3- to 6-inch jerkbaits as close to shore as possible while drifting downstream in boats. Retrieve with several quick, aggressive twitches of your rod tip, then wind in the lure and cast again. It's a tiring technique because the strike zone is within the first few feet of shore and you may make several casts a minute, but if your tailwater grows big trout, it's worth a try.
TAILWATER SAFETY While you're enjoying the bounty of tailwater trout fishing, please keep safety in mind, too. Never anchor your boat in rising water, and if you wade-fish you must pick out immovable objects to monitor water levels. If you're wading and the water's rising, it's time to get out of the river, regardless of how tempting it is to fish the rise. Catching one more trout isn't nearly as important as living to enjoy your tailwater another day.
If water sweeps you away, jettison gear to free up your hands, draw your knees up to your chest, float on your back and point your feet downstream. Resist fighting the current, and use your arms to steer yourself toward shore. You'll eventually find shallow, calm water where it's safe to stand.
As long as you understand their unique personalities, tailwaters can provide outstanding trout fishing for anglers of every ilk and skill level. Enjoy them safely!
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