Tackling Tailwater Trout

by Michael Faw


This spring or next, tailwater trout await fly-fishermen across the country.


Much of America is fully aware of winter’s prolonged grip on the land—and waters. Deep snow and cold temperatures have meant frozen lakes and waters abound in many areas of America. Warm, sunny spring days have eluded anglers everywhere. Anglers seeking casting action, however, have an option when it seems the entire globe is in an icy deep freeze: Visit the tailwaters.

The water released from dams remains open during much of winter in nearly all regions, and those frigid and turbulent waters are often prime trout habitat. By some estimates, the United States has more than 70,000 dams, and they range from the tailwaters of Fontana Dam in western North Carolina to the water outlets below California’s Shasta Lake. Those waters tend to always be cold … and always open to fishing. Yes, when it’s winter, the swiftly moving tailwaters are often open—and fishable.

Before you ever step into any tailwaters, you need to learn the details. Many tailwaters are the result of hydro dams, where turbines that generate electricity are energized by moving water. As daily demand for electricity (warmth in winter for electric heat or cooling air conditioners during summer) rises, so do the water levels and flow rates. This can cause flood-like conditions in some tailwaters.

Places like the TVA dams in eastern Tennessee near Johnston City often sound sirens to let anglers know more water is coming down—and anglers need to move to the bank immediately. Tailwater sites such as Tannycomo, outside of Branson, Missouri, have signs warning anglers about rising waters and in-water debris. Read these warnings carefully before wading in.

Your safety comes first when fishing tailwaters of dams. Pay attention to warning signs and schedules that show when water will be released.

The good news is many dams have websites that will tell you when the release is anticipated or scheduled for each day. As a precaution, consider wearing inflatable suspenders or a floatation vest or coat when fishing in these tailwaters. Should you notice the water seems to be rising or flowing stronger, move to the banks and get out. Don’t hesitate.

The great news is that many of America’s most popular flies readily work in tailwaters. These can range from No. 20 midges up to the huge coned-head streamers, such as the muddler minnow. Bead head Prince nypmhs and red or pink San Juan worms also work well when washed through tailwaters.

For anglers who are watching their dollars, note that standard fly rods and lines work well in most tailwaters. In wide tailwaters, those longer and popular rods often seen only on open rivers of the West can also be used. In those below the dam discharge areas where the water is channeled, expect to cast more and mend more to keep the presented fly moving naturally.

A fly angler enjoys tailwater fishing on Lake Tannycomo near Branson, Missouri.

Don’t have a clue of what the fish are biting where you plan to cast? It’s always a great idea to visit the local fly shop(s) and read whiteboard notes on flows and flies used; talk to the staff behind the counter about local fishing conditions; and look closely at the brag boards. Always look in the mouth of a huge trout any angler is hoisting in a photo—where you could see the fly that angler used. Websites can also reveal the preferred equipment, flies and other fishing clues from local anglers that could help you catch the trout of a lifetime.

Much like streams everywhere that harbor trout, be certain to keep an eye open for structure. This could be root wads, submerged rock ridges or ledges, or logs and other debris. Trout in tailwaters seem to stick close to structure. This could be because it’s easier to swim there in calmer guarded waters, or because the structure helps keep the fish in dark shadows and out of sight of overhead eagles and ospreys.

Discover what hungry tailwater trout are eating and you could catch the fish of a lifetime.

Anglers can often visit at low tide (generally the first or last hours of the day) to note any structure that could hold fish. Take a quick photo with a cell phone or digital camera to help remember where something promising is located.

Tailwaters across America offer some top sites to fly-fish for trout. When you wade in, remember to stay safe—and have fun.



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