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Hit the Tailwater Buffet for Eastern Trout

Here's what to throw to tempt the biggest fish below a dam.

Hit the Tailwater Buffet for Eastern Trout

Shutterstock image

For better or worse, many of our rivers and streams in the East have been dammed to create reservoirs whose functions vary from flood control to water supply to hydro-electric power generation. When the water exiting an impoundment includes discharge from the bottom of the dam, the water is much colder than it would typically be, often creating a quality, albeit artificial, trout fishery.

How far this cooling effect exists downriver varies greatly and is influenced by the size of the river, the temperature and flow rate of discharged water and the existence of warmwater feeder streams that add to the flow. In some cases, a tailwater trout fishery may only occur within a mile or two of the dam. In others, the cool flow is such to keep trout happy for dozens of miles.

In general, tailwater trout fisheries can be fickle ones. Not only is water colder, it’s often much more fertile, benefiting from the food-rich water of the reservoir above. Trout are well-fed and exposed to high levels of fishing pressure.

Come fall, however, the situation often changes. Fall rains can bolster flows, as well as seasonal reservoir drawdowns that do the same. Rivers rise, baitfish purged from the reservoir add to the buffet available to trout and big fish become oh so susceptible to big lures and flies.


Start at the Top

While trout-attracting habitat will differ from river to river, the discharge area of the dam will likely be a spot worthy of angler attention. Gated dams often empty into a tailrace directly below the dam, while earthen dams could feature a tunnel discharge that dumps into the original riverbed some distance below the impoundment.


TailwaterTrout
Photo by Jeff Knapp

One of my first experiences fishing such a spot happened during a brisk fall day. The oversized brown trout in that particular tailrace were accustomed to feeding on disoriented shad and shiners that washed through the discharge gates. The presentation of the day—and we’re going back more than 20 years—was a golden shiner threaded onto a treble hook. The hooking arrangement was such that there was a slight curve in the shiner, causing it to spin as it was retrieved and creating a look that mimicked the stunned baitfish common in the spot.

As effective as large threaded minnows can be, suspending jerkbaits and larger inline spinners do the job as well and are more in vogue with the special regulations commonly applied to tailwater fisheries.

Veteran river guide Red Childress (alleghenyguideservice.com) says hard baits such as Rapala Husky Jerks, Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogues and Rat-L-Traps, as well as heavier Rooster Tail spinners, figure prominently in his fall fishing. Most of the hard-bodied baits he uses run four to six inches in length.

“Small spinnerbaits tipped with a live shiner can be deadly as well,” Childress says, adding that it’s important to know both the depth you are fishing and the depth the lure runs. He notes that lures don’t always hold true to the depth rating stated by the manufacturer, so he instead relies on on-the-water experience to tell him the bait’s true diving performance.


Retrieve speed and cadence are important variables when targeting fish with jerkbaits. This holds as true for trout as it does with other species. Aggressive trout, Childress says, often respond well to a straight, slow-and-steady retrieve. For others it takes some sort of jerk-pause cadence to trigger bites. Each day requires experimentation to see what’s working.

Know the Flow

With little doubt, flow is the most significant factor in determining trout location in a river, something that can be even more variable in a tailwater situation where the flow is controlled. Releases are typically based on human needs (as opposed to trout needs), which include power generation and municipal water supply. Fall throws another variable into the mix, as some reservoirs are drawn down this time of year to make room for rainfall and snow melt the following spring.

Not long ago, I fished the Delaware River’s West Branch out of Deposit, N.Y. It was fall, and extra water was being released from Cannonsville Reservoir. As such, the flow was not only discolored but seasoned with alewives being washed out of the impoundment. Throughout the day we coaxed up West Branch browns on white streamers as guide Wayne Aldridge (river-of-life.com) skillfully positioned the drift boat.


TailwaterTrout
When river flows are heavy, throw big streamers on a 200-grain sinking line to reach fish. (Photo by Jeff Knapp)
River guide Rob Nicholas (housatonicanglers.com) relishes fall periods that coincide with rainy weather and/or fall drawdowns—conditions that encourage big browns to come out to play. When confronted with heavier flows, Nicholas chooses a rod-and-reel combination loaded with a 200-grain sinking line to present buddy-style streamers, Woolly Buggers and larger articulating streamers to shoreline pockets where fish can duck out of the current. Under these higher flows, Nicholas fishes out of a drift boat, covering the water as the craft drifts along in the current.

When presented with normal flows, Nicholas will still fish streamers, but more often from a wading position and with a floating line. The standard quartering-downstream cast is included in his repertoire, but he will often mix it up and quarter some casts upstream, bringing the streamer back to the fish.

Like Nicholas, Childress takes a “cover the water” approach that includes the aforementioned soft current pockets, along with log jams and tail-out areas of pools. Another area he fishes that is largely overlooked is small ditches or depressions in the river bottom.

“These are subtle areas that are hard to see but can be a gold mine when you find them,” he says. “These ditches can change shape and size depending on how much water is passing through the gates, or if you have new trees washing in and snagging up on the bottom. Larger browns really like these areas.”

Fall is just the beginning of a time period to target trout in tailwaters. Since bottom discharge water usually runs around 40 degrees, most tailwaters remain ice-free during the winter months, providing sport for those hardy souls that just don’t know when to give up.

TAILWATER ALTERNATIVES

TailwaterTrout
How to tempt hungry fall trout in freestone and limestone streams (Shutterstock image)

Tailrace fisheries offer much for the fall trout angler, but they’re certainly not the only option when it comes to angling for vividly colored fish amidst an equally eye-pleasing setting. Freestone and limestone waters can also excel.

Freestone rivers are most affected by fall rains, often rising rapidly and draining off quickly. The same basic principles apply to free-flowing freestone streams as those dramatically regulated by upstream dams. Expect higher flows to push fish closer to the bank, back into quiet pockets where they can elude the force of the current yet be in prime position to feed.

There’s one scenario that applies to freestone streams that fall anglers should not overlook. That’s the significance of tributary waters that feed rivers that harbor brown trout. As most anglers know, brown trout spawn in the fall, in many cases using feeder streams as nursery waters. Rivers that support even moderate populations of brown trout warrant attention when the cooling, rising water of fall inspires the annual urge of procreation.

First focus on the mouths of feeder streams to target staging fish waiting for the right conditions to move up into the creeks. Then begin exploring feeder streams themselves, seeking out the best trout habitat as you would on any trout fishing journey. The difference now being that the creek could have an influx of larger, heavy fish fresh from a summer of fattening up on the bounty the main river provided.

I would add that this situation isn’t limited to brown trout. Though rainbow trout are spring spawners, if wild rainbows exist in the main river, chances are they, too, will enter feeder creeks in the fall, perhaps driven by an instinctive impulse to feed on the bounty of fresh brown trout eggs.

Lastly, bear in mind that fall rains can provide too much of a good thing. At a time when weather seems to come in extremes, it’s become common for freestone waters to become completely blown out for extended periods of time. Spring-fed limestone waters, however, are much less affected by such weather, often exhibiting a comparatively minor bump in flow and modest discoloration. This can be the perfect time to get finicky limestone trout to chase a big old streamer, spinner or minnow-shaped plug (depending on regulations and personal preference, of course).

TOP EASTERN TAILWATERS

The region’s best rivers for fall trout.

1. West Branch Delaware River, NY/PA: Flowing out of Cannonsville Reservoir, the West Branch features special-regulations areas in both New York and Pennsylvania.

2. Farmington River, CT: Two specially regulated trout management areas exist on the Farmington. Typically a busy river during the summer, fall anglers can expect a welcome absence of tubers, kayaks and canoes and lighter fishing pressure.

3. Allegheny River, PA: Given it’s deserved reputation as an excellent warmwater river, the Allegheny is often overlooked as a trout water. But a good trout population fueled by fingerling stockings exists from the tailrace of Kinzua Dam down to Warren in a trout-managed section.

4. Big Gunpowder River, MD: Fed by Prettyboy Reservoir and flowing through Gunpowder Falls State Park, anglers can expect excellent public access and a good population of trout that includes wild browns.

5. Jackson River, VA: The lower Jackson River below Gathright Dam features wild rainbows and browns. Much of the 18 miles of river are posted against trespass, but several well-marked areas provide public access, including the area below the dam.

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