Tapping Taneycomo's Terrific Trout

Tapping Taneycomo's Terrific Trout

Large rainbows and browns are the stars of this beautiful coldwater impoundment. We'll tip you off as to where to go and what to do to catch these big, prolific fish.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

That Lake Taneycomo is an awesome fishery is beyond dispute. The southern Missouri lake, famous nationwide for its trout fishing, has some of the best brown trout to be had anywhere; the rainbows are nothing to sneeze at, either. And this month, when the temperatures at many lakes are quite toasty, this coldwater impoundment is the place to be.

No one has to tell that to Phil Lilley (www.ozarkanglers.com), owner and operator of Lilley's Landing, one of the top resorts and marinas on the lake. The businessman and avid trout angler will readily apprise you that anglers can expect to catch many trout, many of them big, at Taneycomo today. But the situation wasn't always so good here.

The impoundment began life in 1913, when the Power Site dam (owned by the Empire Electric Company and sited near the town of Forsyth) was built on the White River at Mile Marker 506.8. Then, in 1958, the dam at Table Rock was completed, and 45 years after the creation of what had until then been just a run-of-the-mill warmwater fishery, things began to change. In short order, the new structure at Mile Marker 528.8 transformed Taneycomo into a coldwater lake. The credit for that goes to the frigid waters churning through Table Rock's generators, which radically reduced the average temperature of the water almost overnight.

Along with the change in temperature came alterations in the physical characteristics of the impoundment. Table Rock brought into being a long, narrow, winding body of water unlike most others of its sort in the state. In some ways, Taneycomo ended up resembling more a river than a lake, having stretched out to a length of 22 miles.

Bill Anderson, fisheries biologist with the Missouri Department of Conservation, grew up in the area, and so knows the lake well. He says that by 1986, when he took up his duties at the lake, what he found there was heartbreaking. As a dedicated trout angler, he was dismayed to realize that the big rainbows he remembered were now no longer than 10 inches; that hardly compared to the 16-inch fish that he'd been accustomed to as a youth. The fishing was so bad that he actually stopped for a time. That's no small thing for Bill Anderson.

As a biologist he wanted to do something about it: something to restore the fishery to what it once had been. Sure, it was his job -- but as an angler, he felt it more as his calling.

Early on, he knew (or at least strongly suspected) that the average lifespan of a stocked rainbow was short in Taneycomo. That hunch couldn't prepare him, however, for what his studies would show: A stocked rainbow at Taneycomo could look forward, on average, to 30 days between disorientedly entering and fatally exiting the lake's waters. Little or no opportunity for growth there -- at best, maybe a half-inch; obviously, not enough to make a significant difference.

After careful study, Anderson and the MDC designed a plan that they felt would boost both the population in general and the size of individual specimens within that population. The first measure taken established a Trophy Management Area on the upper end of the lake that runs from the dam at Table Rock to the mouth of Fall Creek.

Along this 3 1/2-mile stretch of water, regulations strictly controlling fishing methods and harvest rates were implemented. One such, a fairly strict slot limit, mandates that only one rainbow trout smaller than 12 inches and one larger than 20 inches can be kept. (As a practical matter, how many 20-inch rainbows will be caught and harvested? Ideally, an angler lucking into one that size will snap a quick photo and release it immediately, anyway.)

The bait and lure regulations are even more restrictive: hard lures or flies only. Live bait, processed baits and even soft plastics are all banned, as are scented baits and any kind of scent product.

The feeling (among the fisheries biologists, at least) was that since any given fish might be caught and released several times during its lifetime, everything humanly possible should be done to lower post-release mortality. Live bait, processed bait and soft plastics result in too many deep hooksets, which in turn result in too many trout deaths. Some anglers might dispute this -- but Anderson's personal fishing experiences bear it out.

Enough time has passed since the Trophy Management Area was created in 1997 to offer a reasoned response to the question of how it's working. The short answer: Great!

Anderson's electrofishing studies are enlightening. In 1986, 10 years before the restrictions were put on, his samples yielded 135 rainbows per hour, none exceeding 13 inches in length: a poor population. In 1996, just before the Trophy Management Area was created, that figure had dropped to 23: worse than poor.

His most recent electrofishing data, from 2004, tell a much different story: The catch rate was 277 fish per hour, 43 percent of those longer than 13 inches, 9 percent topping 16 inches. What an improvement!

Anderson hastens to point out that, as rainbows are more sensitive to the shock administered in electrofishing than are other fish -- black bass, for example -- they're subjected to the process only one day per year. "All we want to do is get a snapshot of what's going on," he explained. "We don't want to hurt the fish or cause mortality ourselves." Accordingly, electrofishing data on rainbow trout are somewhat less reliable than are those for other species.

But whatever the statistical issues with methodologies in these studies, the results are obvious: The program is working.

This success was not won without conflict, however. At first the proposed regulation changes were unpopular with various interested parties. Hardcore trout aficionados questioned their efficacy. And dock operators worried about their business: Would the restrictions drive away tourists? Would serious anglers drift away?

Despite all this, a spirit of cooperation ultimately prevailed, and it's all worked out for the best. The area's large enough to make a difference, but small enough to allow dock fishing at the marinas and "keeper" fishing around most of the lake. Darn near everybody's happy.

Phil Lilley strongly supports the MDC and its programs to strengthen the fishery. When asked about the best spot on the lake for quality rainbows he replied, "The upper eight miles of the lake" -- a brief answer, and to the point, And doubtless accurate. He then pointed out that the stretch that he indicated, which

runs from Branson to the dam at Table Rock, includes the Trophy Management Area.

So why is this portion of the lake his favorite trout venue? Two reasons, the first, of course, being the presence of the trophy area. The other is the heavy stocking engaged in by the MDC.

Lilley's view of the trophy program is positive, but he does note that the results have been mixed to some extent. "It's worked well for the rainbows, but doesn't seem to have had much effect on the browns," he offered in summary.

He's lived, worked and fished on the lake for over 20 years, which is long enough to give him some perspective on the situation. He reports that before the trophy program, rainbows averaged "maybe" 12 inches, but now, after several years of effort, they average around 14 inches. Rainbows up to 19 or 20 inches are possible, though they're not yet commonplace. That's a solid increase in size over a relatively short period of time.

Numbers are up as well, and it's not unheard of for anglers to catch rainbows all day long when conditions are right. Before 1997, that was hardly possible.

Browns are another story. Con-sidered a trophy fish at Taneycomo, they're treated as such. The stringent fishing regulations in force are considered necessary -- indeed essential -- if this Missouri brown trout trophy fishery is to survive.

Current regulations limit anglers to harvesting no more than one brown 20 inches or more in length per day, and even that's discouraged. Catch-and-release is the norm: Nearly all browns, no matter their size, are released to resume their watery lives with nothing more than ego and self-respect damaged. (And, as fish have neither, no harm, no fault.)

The current lake record for browns stands at 26 pounds, 5 ounces, but the average Taneycomo fish will measure around 16 or 17 inches, maybe a little better. These are brown trout of distinction, and so worthy of any angler's time and effort.

Experience has led Lilley to believe that the brown trout's populations and individual sizes haven't altered much over the years, certainly not in the last decade. This he attributes to the nature of the fish itself, which he describes as a solitary creature inclined to seclusion and darkness.

In addition to the trophy management program, the MDC pursues an aggressive stocking program, annually releasing approximately 675,000 rainbows and 20,000 browns at Taneycomo. Even in a lake of this size -- nearly 2,100 surface-acres -- that's a lot of fish, and for the most part the heavy stocking has worked quite well.

And it's necessary: Neither rainbows nor browns reproduce naturally in the lake. Any fish that's available for sport or harvest must come from a hatchery. After all, catching a lot of fish for sport and a few fish for harvest is what it's all about.

If you're looking at the rainbows, Lilley recommends -- at least most of the time -- shallow water. "They're more oriented towards shallow water than the browns," he noted. And, although they're not exactly attracted to sunlight, they're less averse to it than are the browns.

No matter where in the lake you're fishing, Lilley's advice to you is the same: If you want a trout dinner for your efforts, start your search in water between 4 and 5 feet deep and look for a slight chop across the water's surface. That's where you'll find most of them.

When asked about structure and cover, Lilley responded by opining that rainbows don't consider it all that important, at least not at Taneycomo. "Fish under the chop and along the chop line that the wind creates," he said. "You'll catch rainbows."

As for tackle, his counsel is straightforward: Go light. He recommends a 6- or 7-foot spinning rod matched with a light or ultralight spinning reel. He spools up with 2- or 4-pound-test line -- green or clear only: He urges anglers to avoid bright colors, feeling that line should be as little discernible as possible.

He ties a small jig -- something between 1/16- and 1/200-ounce -- to his line and then attaches a bobber to the line 3 to 4 feet above the jig. The bobber's position on the line is fixed with a toothpick or small twig run through the center hole in the bobber. Tossing the rig out into the chop, he leaves Mother Nature to do the rest.

A word of warning: This is light tackle. Anglers wanting large trout should fish areas below the dam in the Trophy Management Area. Work jigs along the channel, and anywhere there's a slight change in depth. Unless anglers are in need of some fish that are painfully tough to catch, they mostly avoid the flats in this area. Plenty of fish hold on them, but the creatures can be spooky and difficult.

Anglers who like to wade or fish from the bank will find several worthwhile spots at Taneycomo. There's plenty of cold water around Taneycomo Mile Marker 22, just below the Table Rock Dam. The rainbows love it, and there's excellent shore-access as well as prime wading opportunities for those so inclined. The water temperature averages less than 50 degrees in this area, however, so if you're going to wade make sure you dress warm and wear a personal flotation device at all times. In cold water, it doesn't take much of a mistake to get into a world of trouble.

Another reason that you need to keep your head up and pay attention if you fish below the Table Rock Dam -- be it in a boat, from shore or with waders -- is that it can be treacherous there when the turbines at the dam are on, The current can get swift in a hurry, so if you hear a horn blowing from the dam, get out of the water, retreat from the shoreline or move your boat away from the area.

If it's a nice brown an angler wants, Lilley's advice is very different. He'll point you in the direction of the bluffs and steep walls found around the impoundment, where throwing big crankbaits or big jerkbaits to the brutes is his preferred method. His selection frequently includes lures up to 12 inches in length.

Lilley emphasizes that anglers shouldn't be fooled by the shy, reclusive nature of these fish. They feed just like any other top predator -- hard and fast. To entice a strike, crank your lure hard to get it down to its maximum running depth quickly. After that, jerk it along -- a hard snap or rapid retrieve will almost always outproduce a delicate presentation. His advice: "Fish 'em hard and fast."

You'll also need heavier tackle for browns. It's very difficult -- not impossible, but pretty darned hard -- to throw big, hard lures on 2- and 4-pound-test line. Go ahead and upsize to 6- or 8-pound-test, but don't go heavier than is absolutely necessary.

In Taneycomo, Missouri anglers are blessed with one of the nation's truly great trout fisheries. It'd be a shame not to take advantage of it this year.

Lilley's Landing, about two miles from Branson, offers easy access to both ends of the lake. The resort-marina complex offers rooms, cabins, professional guides an

d boat rentals, as well as bait and tackle. Contact Phil Lilley at 1-888-LILLEYS.

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