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Tailwater Tour

Tailwater Tour

Tailwaters are among the finest trout fisheries anywhere. Lee's Ferry, San Juan, Green, Kootenai, South Fork Snake, Big Horn and South Platte are seven of the Rockies' best.

Bill Palmer battles a nice Kootenai River rainbow.
Photo by Chuck Robbins

For any angler yearning to catch the trout of a lifetime from a river, tailrace sections hold the best promise. Fortunately for us, the Rocky Mountain region is loaded with just such opportunity.


Traveling U.S. Highway 89 north of Page, Lee's Ferry marks the jumping off point for floating the Grand Canyon. It's also one of the country's premier trout fisheries.

Situated below Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River amid 1,000-foot sandstone cliffs, Lee's Ferry is among the more scenic trout waters anywhere on the planet. Moreover, it is living proof of how cooperation between water managers and fisheries managers can improve the overall health of a river in jeopardy. After fluctuating water releases caused the fishery to dwindle to mediocrity and then threatened to kill it altogether, a plan evolved to stabilize flows and fulfill obligations to water users, including anglers. In record time the fishery recovered, and many Lee's Ferry regulars believe conditions will only get better.

Constant water temperatures, ranging a miniscule 4 degrees between 48 and 52 degrees Fahrenheit, combine with stable flows to create an ideal environment for bugs and the fish that eat them, resulting in fat trout and happy anglers. "Things are cookin'," said one Lee's Ferry guide.

The game is sight fishing with small nymphs and scuds to rainbow trout in water almost too clear to believe. In winter, pounding the water with streamers, spawn and egg patterns works well. Long rods, 8 to 9 feet, for 5- or 6-weight lines, leaders of 10 to 14 feet and long, fine tippets from 5x to 7x rule the days here. Useful lines include floating, intermediate sink and sink tip, depending on tactics, weather and flow regimes.

Popular flies include a variety of olive and gray scuds and midge patterns, PTs and Hare's Ears in sizes 18-20. San Juan Worms, black, brown and olive Woolly Buggers, (a local favorite is Bill's Pumpkin Bugger), weighted with lead wire, bead- or cone-heads and a No. 10 egg and spawn pattern have loyal followers. Dry flies, Humpies, Tarantulas, PMXs, Stimulators, ants, 'hoppers, beetles, Royal Wulff and Parachute Adams in a variety of sizes, ranging from Nos. 14-20, round out the selection.


Ultra-light spin fishing rigs spooled with 2- to 4-pound premium line works best. Small lures, 1/8- and 1/16-ounce jigs, in black, brown and olive (Charley's Jig is the local favorite); 1/4-ounce Kastmasters (copper or silver); small countdown Rapalas; and during spawn large pink, blood red or yellow No. 10 Glo Bugs produce well.

There is one walk-in access at the mouth of the Paria River. By far the most popular is to float fish. A high water level, around 20,000 cfs, eddies and backwaters are the top producers.


The San Juan, below Navajo Dam east of Farmington, N.M., ranks right up there when it comes to fruitful, fertile tailwaters. The first 3.75 miles below the dam is designated special trout water, with regulations requiring flies and artificial lures with a single barbless hook. The first quarter-mile, from the dam to the cable, is catch-and-release.

The next 3.5 miles are designated quality water. The creel limit is one trout over 20 inches; once that fish is taken, further fishing is restricted to the C&R section or downstream of the quality water where the limit is six trout over 6 inches and bait fishing is allowed. Rainbows dominate the upper reaches, browns the lower sections. The river is open all year.

Winter and spring midge patterns -- olive, brown, gray, black, & tan WD-40s; Discos; Desert Storms; black, gray and olive CDC emergers in sizes 20-28; Griffith's Gnats and Black Cluster Midge in sizes 16-22 -- and No. 10 San Juan Worms produce well. Blue-winged olives (Baetis) dominate the bug activity in April, May and June and again in fall; match them with size 18-22 BWOs. In June, July and August look for PMDs, caddis and flying ants. Match them with like patterns in sizes 16-22. Alternatively, toss them a curve by pitching size 2-6 leeches. Buggers and Clousers produce well when the river turns murky, at dawn, dusk, and on dark days anytime fall through spring. Water quality and bug populations diminish below the quality water section, and larger fly patterns are more the rule than the exception.

Ultra-light spinning rigs and small lures such as Mepps and Panther Martins, small Kastmasters, 1/8- and 1/16-ounce jigs (black, olive, white and brown) or spawn imitations, hot glue eggs or Glo Bugs round out the spin fisher's arsenal.

Access is good off NM 511 on the river's south side; access to the north side below Simeon Canyon is via the road to Cottonwood Campground.


The tailwater below Flaming Gorge Reservoir at Dutch John, Utah, is nothing short of primo trout water, perhaps tops in this list. Eight out of 10 anglers who come here fish the initial seven miles below the dam to Little Hole.

It's little wonder the area would receive such pressure considering trout estimates run as high as five figures per mile, with the average trout running 15 to 17 inches and plenty in the 18- to 20-inch class to boot. Below Little Hole the river broadens, the crowds thin, and yet the trout are still thick though not as numerous as upstream, and the average size diminishes some but still rates as top-notch.

The river supports a mix of rainbow, cutthroat, cutbow and brown trout, with a slight bias toward browns. For the hog hunter, huge trout live here. The record brown, caught in 1996, weighed nearly 30 pounds.

This fertile piece of river produces prodigious amounts of trout food and fussy trout. Fly anglers need to get the pattern, size and presentation right. Success hinges on hitting the mark; close does not often count for much.

Day in and day out various nymphing techniques top the list of useful tactics. Drag-free drifts are essential. Green River trout are notorious for subtle takes, quick, evasive tactics, and long-distance releases known to local guides as "LDRs."

Hot fly patterns change with the seasons, but scuds and midges prevail throughout the season. Orange, pink, tan and olive scuds in sizes 10-16, small nymphs and emergers, Discos, Palominos, WD-40s, Lightning Bugs, PT, CDCs, Bubble-heads in sizes 16-22 (built-in flash helps) in gray, olive and black are the workhorse patterns. Check the fly shops to find the curr

ent hot ties.

Useful dries run the gamut from attractors, to terrestrials, to hatch matching caddis, midge, stone and mayfly patterns. Stand-bys such as the Parachute Adams and Elk-hair and X-Caddis, in several different body colors, tan, olive, amber and black, sizes 14-20 and Griffith's Gnat in sizes 18-24 cover most hatch situations. Terrestrials are necessary for late summer and fall.

Light-action spinning rods, with 4- to 6-pound line, Mepps, Rooster Tails, Panther Martins, Countdown Rapalas and a variety of jigs in smaller sizes work best. Bait is prohibited in the upper section.


Despite serving up the current state record rainbow (33 pounds plus), word on the street had the Kootenai pegged as a great spot for catching lots of small trout. Sure, monsters of the trout family live there, but don't hold your breath waiting to catch one of them.

Not anymore.

The Kootenai's star is on the rise. It began shining several years ago with the imposition of a 13- to 18-inch slot in the upper 30 river miles from Libby Dam (Koocanusa Reservoir) to Kootenai Falls. Two years ago fishery managers increased the slot to 13 to 24 inches on upper 4 miles, from the mouth of Fraser River to the dam. The result has been a slow but steady increase in the overall average size of trout caught, from a 10- to 12-inch average up to about 15 inches. Knowledgeable anglers here believe it will only get better.

The Kootenai is a big, strong river. Expect flows topping 10,000 cfs anytime; flows in excess of 15,000 are common. Regardless, the river is fast, deep, and difficult to read, in general tough to negotiate on foot. It's best fished from a boat. Floating affords easy and safe access to many of the more productive edges, smaller channels, below islands and so forth. Beware China Rapids, which is for experts only, and riding down Kootenai Falls is suicidal. The rest of the river is a piece of cake.

Hatches are limited in number but emergences tend to be strong and long lasting. Midges, Baetis, PMDs and a variety of caddis make up the hatch regimen. Ants are hot items in summer and fall.

Trout tend to pod up during any emergence, and yet pods do not show up everywhere. The secret is learning where, since pods tend to show up in the same spots whenever bugs start popping. As a rule, the largest trout fall to specialists using gear and tactics designed to probe the deepest holes, runs and slots. Night fishing with flies and lures designed to tempt big trout is without question the surest way to hook a trophy.

Spin fishers do well with light-action rods and lines, and the usual standard lures and jigs. To target big fish, rig with stout line and upsized baits that run deep.

Access is good from the dam past Libby to the falls off the frontage road; busy U.S. 2 makes access more difficult but not impossible below the falls.


The South Fork Snake, the 40-mile tailwater below Palisades Dam, is rated by many as the top cutthroat fishery in the West for good reason: With Yellowstone and Snake River fine-spotted cutthroat, rainbows and browns, the trout population exceeds 7,000 per mile in spots. Trout average 15 to 17 inches but there are lots of fish bigger than that. Experienced float fishers often catch-and-release 20 to 30 trout or more each on a good day.

There is little access from the banks for wade fishing, but plenty of spots for float fishers to get out and wade. Counting the put-ins at the dam, Mennan Buttes and the confluence of the Henry's Fork, there are 10 launch sites, enough to arrange floats to suit any whim or schedule.

July and August are prime dry-fly months. The Salmonfly hatch kicks things off, followed in short order by golden stones, yellow sallies and PMDs. Any significant hatch tends to lure cutthroats by the dozens to sample the surface feast. Common is the sight of a shallow flat literally covered with rising trout.

Experienced anglers know the futility of attempting to target the middle of such madness. Their dilemma becomes how to sort the wheat from the chaff, picking off individual feeding fish.

Grasshoppers are the main attraction from mid-August through fall. Common is to find even the river's heftiest trout blasting 'hoppers blown into the river on the hot afternoon wind.

Nevertheless, prime time for head hunting is October and November, when the brown trout spawning urge begins to rev. The game is pitching and stripping big streamers, 4, 5 inches, even longer, heavy rods and sinking lines; there's nothing easy or relaxing about it, but the rewards are high. The South Fork owns the Idaho state record for brown trout (26 pounds plus).

Spin fishers seeking numbers of trout will do well tossing standard-sized Mepps, Rooster Tails, Panther Martins, Kastmasters, marabou and tube jigs. Small crankbaits and countdown Rapalas are popular. If big trout are your bag, up the size of the offerings several notches.

To reach Palisades Dam, take U.S. 26 east from Idaho Falls; Mennan Buttes and the confluence of Henry's Fork is several miles north, west of U.S. 20.


Twenty-miles south of Thermopolis, Wyo., is Boysen Dam. Below the dam, the Wind River runs through a deep canyon for about 13 miles to Wedding of Waters, where the Wind abruptly ends and the Big Horn begins.

The first several miles, down past the famous Thermopolis Hot Springs, comprise one of the West's best and least well-known tailwater trout fisheries. That it fishes much the same in January or July does not hurt its appeal among serious trout anglers.

Flows peak in June and ratchet up again in September but for the rest of year the river runs a constant and comfortable 1,000 to 3,000 cfs. The combination of constant flow and a stable, ideal water temperature regime combine to grow many bugs and fat, healthy trout in upstream sections. While the Big Horn tailwater is first-rate, it is also short-lived. Wedding of Waters to Black Mountain Bridge (WY 172) eight miles below Thermopolis marks the end of productive trout water; the river is too warm to sustain trout from there to Yellowtail Dam in Montana.

Rainbows, browns and cutthroats in the 1- to 5-pound range feed on the river's fertile bug soup. But do not expect blizzard hatches and wall-to-wall surface-feeding blitzes. What looks like classic dry-fly water in truth is the domain of a race of notorious bottom feeders. Day in day out workhorse patterns are nymphs, scuds, worms, eggs and streamers; think of dries more as emergency rations.

The river, thanks to a fine gravel bottom, is easy to wade except at high water levels. Access is limited to the several boat launch sites, three of which are in town. Therefore, the best way is to float. There are no rapids, but floaters need to be aware of bridge abutments and diversions. It's important that you scout the river prior to launching.


To reach Cheesman Canyon on the South Platte, turn off U.S. 285 south of Pine Junction onto CR 126 and head toward Deckers. Or, from Colorado Springs, take U.S. 24 west to Woodland Park, turn north on CO 67 toward Deckers to CR 126. From the parking lot, follow the Gill Trail upstream to the canyon, at least a 20-minute hike. Those with the lungs of mountain goats access the canyon via the vertiginous drop from Cheesman Dam itself.

If you aren't sure where to go in Cheesman Canyon, just follow the crowd. Being lonely here is not possible.

The Decker's section, including the canyon, is not just heavily fished but pounded daily, 24/7/365. Fishing pressure does taper off during winter, but you can expect weekends to be crowded.

The lure, of course, is the opportunity to fish over fat, difficult trout -- rainbows and browns that average 15 to 17 inches, with plenty of 20-inchers to go around.

Insect hatches are legendary and fishing to them can be memorable. But, as a guide friend puts it, "Bug hatches tend to be thick but sporadic as political candor." Nymphs are the order of the day; tiny nymphs, size 18 to as small as you care to tie. I tend to toss in the towel once things deteriorate to sub 24s, but there are smaller hooks if you have the eyes and he patience for them.

Spin fishers lean toward ultra-light outfits spooled with 2- to 4-pound line. Small spinners, spoons, tube and marabou jigs, and crankbaits are the order of the day.

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