Tactics For Tailwater Trout
October 13, 2017
Don Wirth: When cold water rushes through the turbines of a dam, an incredible, albeit artificial, stream trout fishery can result. Nationwide, fisheries personnel stock millions of rainbows and browns into icy tailraces, providing a trout angling outlet for thousands of anglers, often where none existed before. The rarefied habitat of the tailrace supports great numbers of keeper-sized trout and many trophy fish as well. Some of the biggest trout ever recorded have been caught below dams, including the 40-pound 4-ounce world record brown taken below Greers Ferry Dam in Arkansas. Best of all, tailwater trout are a renewable resource; as anglers remove fish, more are recruited from hatcheries to replace them.
Although the bite below dams can be fantastic, many trout anglers who favor free-flowing fisheries regard tailraces much the way baseball purists view domed stadiums. Tailwater trout fishermen often are dismissed as corn-dunkers, unsophisticated folks with spincast reels and six-packs of Bud Lite, content to anchor and soak Niblets on the bottom. The dunkin' crowd, to their credit, take such criticism with good humor. If you use corn, marshmallows, or cheese, they retort, at least you can eat the bait when the trout aren't biting.
Lure-casters and fly-rodders who target tailraces often find them frustrating places to fish. While a natural trout stream may remain stable for weeks, a tailrace is subject to frequent and significant changes in water level and current velocity. Current generation takes place for various reasons. Flood control is a primary function of dams; in rainy periods, excess water may be pulled from the upstream reservoir through the dam's turbine. Some dams also provide hydroelectric power. In hot weather, extra electricity may be needed to run air conditioners in the region that the dam services.
Celina, Tennessee guide Fred McClintock (, 931/243-2142) spends a couple hundred days a year on tailraces, chasing big trout and landlocked stripers. In this In'‘Fisherman exclusive, he outlines his tactics for locating and catching rainbows and browns in the various scenarios the tailwater angler likely will encounter.
The Tailrace Environment
Fred McClintock: Tailraces are artificial environments. The dam's turbines draw chilled water from the bottom of a deep reservoir, creating a river cold enough to support trout. Dale Hollow Reservoir near my home is some 130 feet deep at the dam. The water drawn off the lake bottom makes the tailrace temperature around 48°F to 55°F. During summer, the air temperature might be 98°F, the tailrace 45 degrees colder.
Tailrace trout are opportunists, taking a meal where they can find it. Small fish are a popular menu item — threadfin shad, shiners, suckers, whatever the prevailing species happens to be. Large trout also will eat big bluegills and members of their own species (browns being notoriously cannibalistic).
Last year I was guiding a party for stripers on the Cumberland River in Kentucky, pulling foot-long gizzard shad on planer boards. While I was reaching for a cold drink, my client shouted that he had a nibble. Well, stripers don't nibble; they plaster a bait. I told him it was probably just his shad kicking, but he insisted his bait was being bothered by a fish. When he asked, "Hey Fred, are stripers orange?" I turned around and saw a giant brown trout, way over 25 pounds, swimming away with his shad. Before I could yell to him to set the hook, it spit out the bait and swam off.
Frequent water fluctuations produce an unending conveyer belt of forage. Worms enter the tailrace during heavy rains. Surging water uproots crayfish. Last summer, I caught a 13-pound brown that spit up an 8-inch craw. Insects, both aquatic and terrestrial, also are consumed, as fly-fishermen are well aware. All of this dictates the lures to use in a tailrace. Flashing jerkbaits, spoons, and spinners mimic baitfish. Bottom-bumping jigs and drab crankbaits look like crayfish. Tiny marabou leadheads and artificial flies resemble bugs.
Trout have plenty of places to hide in a tailrace. Branches, sometimes entire trees are swept off banks in high water and deposited downstream. Unquestionably, browns are more strongly attracted than rainbows to wood cover. A brown will hold directly behind a submerged tree trunk, or right in the middle of a branch network, while a rainbow typically relates to wood more loosely, often lurking just upstream or downstream from woodcover.
Rocks are another common tailrace cover. Sometimes during dam construction, rocks are piled up in the tailrace because there's no other place to put them; these create major current breaks, which become feeding stations for trout. Landowners along the tailrace often pile big rocks against the shore to help prevent erosion; these, too are trout magnets. Boulders as big as pickup trucks may dislodge from bluffs and roll into the river below; I can't think of a better place for an ol' hook-jawed brown to hang out.
Aquatic grass often is ignored by tailrace trout anglers, but it can hold a ton of crayfish and insect larvae. 'Scuds' (tiny waterbugs) thrive in aquatic vegetation, and trout eat 'em like candy. If you see grass, fish it.
Sometimes tailrace trout don't relate to objects at all. They may use light and shadow as cover. Trout are well camouflaged in dappled light, so even if you don't see a tree or boulder in the water, cast to places where shade and sunlight interface.
The exceptionally clear water typical of these fisheries is conducive to catching plenty of trout in open water, too. A trout can see a lure a mile away in this environment and often will swim far from its home base behind a log or rock to investigate. Consequently, you'll get a zillion follows in tailraces. Some tips on turning lookers into biters in a moment.
High Water Tactics
The dangers of wading or boating in high, icy water can't be overemphasized. Trust me, you don't want to fall into a swollen tailrace, even if you're wearing a life jacket — hypothermia being almost a given. When boating, keep a sharp eye on what lies ahead. A guy I know was floating the Center Hill Dam tailrace in Tennessee in his johnboat; every generator was running. He hooked a big rainbow and while he was fighting it, his boat hit an interstate bridge abutment. The current twisted his boat like a pretzel. He was lucky to get out alive.
Most novice tailwater fishermen head for shore or a boat ramp when the water rises, but this is my favorite time to fish. Brown trout, especially, become much more active in high water, moving out of snaggy cover to prowl for groceries. They're far less spooky than in low water. Back when I used to wade streams in Pennsylvania, I'd catch 90 percent of my big browns at night. But when the water is high in a tailrace, they can be caught even in bright sunlight.
Rising water is like a dinner bell to trout, a signal that it's time to put on the feed bag. By targeting high'‘opportunity areas and using the right approach, big trout can be caught all day long in high water. I generally stick to the lower half of the tailrace now. If several generators are running, the upper portion can be too swift and boat control too demanding for effective fishing. It's not uncommon to have a 10-foot rise directly below the dam, while the rise may be less than 2 feet several miles downstream.
Natural trout streams are usually trashed by a heavy rain, but if generation is heavy, a tailrace can remain surprisingly clear. The massive volume of water discharged through the turbines tends to hold back muddy water from inflowing creeks. Big trout often stack up right where the clear and muddy water intersect. Once generation eases off, the tailrace falls and mud infiltrates the system — never good for trout fishing.
The higher the water, the faster the flow, and the more trout tend to stick to the shoreline. Classic trout structures such as shoals, eddies, and bars become secondary to the bank during periods of heavy generation. Tailrace banks usually are laden with rocks and wood, which provide current breaks and good spots for ambushing prey.
Lures for High Water
Big water demands big lures. Most trout fishermen use teeny lures all the time, but in high water, your shot at a big brown or rainbow will go way up if you put away that ultralight stuff and reach for bass-sized artificials — jerkbaits, big in-line spinners, even 3/4-ounce crankbaits. Fish around current breaks — trees, boulders.
Big lures work best now for several reasons. The biggest trout tend to appear during periods of heavy flow, and they're looking for a full-meal deal. High water often is laden with sediment; a bigger bait is much more visible under these murky conditions. Trout are less lure-shy now, not so prone to carefully scrutinizing a big lure before striking it.
Suspending jerkbaits — The same jerkbaits I use for big smallmouths at Dale Hollow will catch big trout in high water. My top favorite is the Daiwa TD Minnow; Smithwick Suspending Rogues and weighted Rapalas work, too. Flash colors — gold, silver, rainbow — usually produce best. Most of my clients start out fishing jerkbaits way too fast. I have to constantly tell them to slow down and not overwork the bait. The fish definitely will tell you how fast they want it. If a trout darts around the lure but doesn't strike it, you're probably jerking too hard, or too frequently. Most strikes come when the lure sits motionless.
In-line spinners — These are among the most overlooked tailwater trout lures. Many trout fishermen use small spinners, but in heavy flow, mega-spinners catch hawg trout. Try the #4, #5, or #6 Blue Fox Vibrax in gold or silver, with no hook dressing, which floats the bait too high. Cast, let the lure sink, pop the rod tip, then reel in slowly.
Diving crankbaits — Big-lipped bass cranks (Poe's and Bagley's) in crayfish colors are good in high, roily water. Bump 'em off submerged trees and rocks.
Crappie jigs — I've started using crappie jigs recently and have been amazed at their effectiveness. If trout are following, but not striking other lures, I switch to a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce marabou jig. Most of these are tied extremely full, so I use scissors to trim back the fluff until I achieve the right rate of fall. I like mine trimmed right behind the hook. Yellow, white, brown, and olive are good color choices. A jig can be sight-fished in heavy water better than any other lure. If you see a fish approach, you can entice it to bite by swimming the jig, hopping it gently, or popping it. Crappie jigs are deadly when cast around shoreline rocks and wood.
Rods & reels — Most tailwater trout anglers never use anything but spinning gear, but I find baitcasting tackle far less tiring and less prone to line-twisting. I fish jerkbaits and crankbaits on a 7-foot Browning David Fritts bass crankin' outfit with a Shimano Chronarch reel. For spinners and jigs, I like a 6-foot medium-action baitcasting rod, one with a little more backbone. In high water, I use low-diameter 8- and 10-pound mono exclusively. I avoid lighter lines, because hang-ups are inevitable, and too many expensive baits are lost by trying to yank 'em off logs.
Most tailrace anglers target these fisheries in low water. I find this to be a better time for catching large numbers of keeper-sized trout than big fish. I guide tailraces out of an aluminum flat-bottom boat with a jet outboard, which allows me to skim over mere inches of water. A rig like this is the only logical choice in low water; it allows for covering a lot of territory most boaters can't reach.
I generally catch far more rainbows than browns in low water; the brownies tend to hole up in sunken trees and tuck into undercut banks, refusing to come out to play until the sun goes down or the water level goes up.
The shoreline is far less of a trout magnet in low water. I catch more fish now away from the banks, even in midstream. Rainbows, especially, will range long distances from current breaks now; they'll confound you by striking right at the boat, 50 yards from the nearest boulder or snag. Now is the best time to target shoals, bars, and current abnormalities such as eddies and switchbacks. Deep river holes are good, too; fish these with lures or livebait.
You can score big when a tailrace is falling. Falling water gives you time to adjust your approach and stay ahead of rapidly-changing conditions. I often run upstream several miles, then float down as the water drops. This is a transition time for trout; it's possible to hook a real big brown now, because they're trying to feed up before they go back to sulking in a sunken tree.
As the tailrace drops, try a variety of lures to determine what trout want. You may start out catching 'em on big high-water baits like jerkbaits and #5 spinners, but eventually you'll notice a shift in lure preference, and the fish will refuse to take these large artificials. That's when it's time to shift to smaller, more subtle offerings.
Tiny jigs — 1/64- to 1/100-ounce marabou jigs are absolute killers for all sizes of trout under low-water conditions. The world-record brown was taken from an Arkansas tailrace on a 1/64-ounce marabou. These should be fished on an ultralight spinning rod with 4-pound mono. Try olive, black, and brown — the latter looks like a hatchery pellet. I fish tiny marabous quite fast, casting them out, letting them sink a foot or so, then retrieving them with a rapid swim-drop-swim motion. You'll see the trout react to the jig; often speeding up the retrieve works better than slowing it down when a looker is following.
In-line spinners — The Mepps #0, #1, or #2, with or without squirrel tail dressing, are good low-water spinners. Fish these in fast-moving water, especially across shoals. Surprisingly, spinners with dark bodies and painted blades often catch more and bigger trout in low water than those with lots of flash. My top favorite is the #1 Mepps Black Fury. A 6-foot light-action spinning rod with 4- or 6-pound mono works best for small spinners.
Spoons — I like spoons much better in low water than in high water. Don't use one that's too big. My pick is the 3/16-ounce Dardevle Midget in red-white, gold, or silver. Cast spoons in fast water where you'd chunk a spinner, as well as in holes. Use your electric motor to slow-troll a spoon through a 3- to 5-foot hole, motoring slightly faster than current speed. Tie a small swivel about 18 inches above the spoon to reduce line twist. I've caught some whopper rainbows while using this approach. My spoon trolling rod is a 61â„2-foot medium-action spinning stick with 8-pound mono.
Critter crankbaits — The realistic ultralight crankbaits in Rebel's "critter" series that resemble live stream forage (crawdads, grasshoppers, hellgrammites) are a good choice in low water. For best results, work 'em with short, erratic jerks.
When casting metal lures and crankbaits, I always keep a rod with a marabou jig handy. Frequently I'ˆget a follow on a spoon or Teeny Craw, only to have the trout turn away at the boat. A quick cast with the marabou often will hook the fish.