How to Fish a Tailwater
Every year, every season, despite our wishes, there are only a limited number of opportunities to enjoy the outdoor activities we revere. Many weekend warriors would love to do it all, but it’s not always doable. And sometimes it’s just too hard to decide: go hunting or go fishing? Spending the weekend hunting spring turkeys or hunting for pre-fresh pickerel?
When the going gets tough, I’ve been known to settle these dilemmas the old-fashioned way, in a jiffy. However, if your eyes are set on hunting big trout, there is no head and tail: “The tail never fails.”
Of course, there’s always a chance of catching big trout in smaller streams, and a much better chance of catching some loneliness. But your best bet for landing trophy trout is in the famous downwater fisheries across the country. Probabilities aside, a better understanding of how downstream fishing works can increase the odds of putting a river hog in your favor.
Leakage Water Basics
First of all, a downstream is a section of river below a dam. These man-made structures – often created for hydroelectricity, irrigation, water supply, recreation, or all of the above – create constant conditions and plenty of food for trout and other fish species downstream. The downstream waters regularly support stronger populations of larger fish than other nearby free-flowing rivers, often referred to as “cutstone” streams.
Dams often release water from the bottom of the reservoir, which means the water temperatures below will remain relatively constant throughout the year. Many aquatic insects also grow in calm waters which then drain into rivers, providing reliable, high-calorie food for trout. Reservoirs also mitigate the effects of spring floods, summer drought and winter frosts, making the habitat suitable for fish and anglers all year round. These features can maintain spawning habitat, reduce scouring of spawning grounds, and improve juvenile survival, while providing a relatively stable and abundant food base. The results? Happy and healthy trout for your fishing pleasure.
Chase the tail
But here’s the thing about tailwaters – they’re known products that are home to lots of fish and big fish. Think Madison River in Montana, Henry’s Fork in eastern Idaho, the White River in Arkansas, Upper Delaware, etc. With the exception of a few voids, many anglers are no more than half a day’s drive from a prime downstream destination. With a little extra time or a long weekend, a full day’s drive can bring just about anyone in the continental United States to a premier downstream fishery. When it comes to fishing downriver, spot burning isn’t an issue, but you can expect company.
If you’re hoping to avoid the crowds in the renowned downstream water fisheries, especially during the summer months when the fish hit large land patterns, good luck! Guided and unguided fishing boat traffic tends to be significant. However, in many cases the guide traffic may be a more standard day of 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Thus, fishing at “in between times”, early and late, could reduce some of the competition. If you are on foot, you will definitely want to stake out areas early.
That said, sometimes subtle changes in your approach or techniques can improve your experience. The fish in these systems are under great pressure and often the water is very clear.
“You often can’t get away with the same big nymphs, fluffy drys, and chunky leaders you’re used to in freestone,” said Sam Lungren, editor of MeatEater Fishing. “These fish know what food they want and usually don’t have to travel a lot or wait long to get it. And they see a lot of fishermen passing by them every day.
But sometimes that just doesn’t matter. When they’re hot, they’re hot.
Even better, anglers may find less competition and even better fishing in the shoulder months. Spring (read: right now) and fall can be particularly productive on downstream waters, thanks to the relatively stable flow conditions provided by the operation of dams. Most downstream water bodies remain open and fishable through the winter months, even in colder climates, so good fishing and reduced fishing pressure can be found for those willing to brave the elements.
go with the flow
Despite the many consistencies found in downstream waters, as with any other type of fishing, nuances between and within individual rivers and geographic locations can keep anglers on their toes. A learning mindset and experience at any particular location can enhance success, and exposure to different waters can help anglers adapt to different conditions and situations.
Since, by definition, flows are regulated in downstream waters, almost all have a US Geological Survey gauging station near or downstream of the desired fishing reaches. So checking the flow conditions before heading out can give an idea of what to expect. This idea may even reduce the need for a coin toss to decide which river or drainage might provide the best fishing at that time.
Although the instantaneous value of flow (or flow, usually in cubic feet per second) doesn’t mean much to most without more context, anglers can look at flow charts and values against historical values, observe expected daily fluctuations and note any recent or dramatic changes in flow. For example, when dam operations require rapid changes in flow, it may take a few days for fish to settle in different habitats as water levels change. Additionally, many of these gauging stations also provide water temperature readings, which can help determine timing and presentation for anglers.
An extra-astute (no, I didn’t say nerdy) fisherman might keep a journal of his own experiences and river conditions from trip to trip – the similarities and differences in conditions over time and travel can provide insight into conditions and expectations. If you are able to establish your own baseline, you can adapt as necessary and develop your own downstream fishing consistencies. It’s also a good idea to chat with guides and flight shop employees to see what flow rates and water temperatures they prefer.
Downstream water management
Taken literally, the “tail[water]The mindset and relative consistency of these fisheries may seem simple. However, they do not have their own management difficulties. Although tailwater hydrology is regulated, the flip side (pun intended) is that, by their very nature, tailwaters are unnatural systems.
Most downstream fisheries revolve around rainbow and/or brown trout, non-native fish in unnatural systems. Disruption of natural flow regimes affects native fish populations, as does native fish predation of desirable trout species. Conflicting management needs and angling desires can arise, particularly when nearby native populations are threatened or endangered or when water availability is limited. Non-native trout can also outcompete native trout and other fish.
Tailwater management is nothing short of simple. Cultivating fly fishing and prioritizing catch and release can actually reduce the overall average size of trout when populations are overcrowded. Additionally, on the Upper Green River below the Flaming Gorge Dam, rainbow trout stocking has been reduced to minimize competition with the generally better performing brown trout in this system. On the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, the brown trout fishery is encouraged to protect the blue ribbon rainbow fishery. On the South Fork Snake River, rainbow trout are being removed in favor of native cutthroat trout. On the west and east coasts, government agencies are removing some dams to allow Pacific and Atlantic salmon, as well as rainbow trout, access to their historic spawning grounds. Different management goals and stakeholder values can cause tensions between groups, but the basis for these conflicts varies from system to system.
In some parts of the country, the cold water fishery created by dams would otherwise not exist. Many successful downstream water fisheries support naturally reproducing populations, while others are largely expensive fisheries.
In the western United States, drought and water shortages are affecting the operation of dams. Snow cover can vary considerably from year to year. In many large river basins, downstream fisheries are further complicated by a myriad of competing actors and consumptive demands – the politics of water allocation and dam operation can be complex. While the management agencies overseeing these fisheries have a seat at the table, their wants and needs may be put on the backburner for the purposes of human water allocation and the almighty dollar.
Also, as we saw late last fall on Montana’s famous Madison River, dam infrastructure can fail.
Heads or tails
The origin of drawing lots to settle disputes and make decisions dates back to the Roman Empire in 7and century BC. At the time of Julius Caesar, it was called “navigation aut caput” meaning “ship or head” based on the images depicted on ancient coins. At some point, modern societies switched to heads or tails, because, well, a tail is the opposite of a head.
Heads or tails? Mathematics in elementary school taught me that the result is 50/50.
“Tails never fails?” High school psychology taught me that this is an example of confirmation bias.
But if you’re looking for trophy trout, the downstream waters are never lacking. Well, unless they do. But, there’s only one way to find out – make a decision, do your best to learn fishing and keep your line wet – which I can confirm.