How to Fish a Tailwater

How to Fish a Tailwater

Each year, each season, despite our wishes, there are only so many opportunities to enjoy the outdoor pursuits we revere. Many a weekend warrior would like to do it all, but that’s not always feasible. And, sometimes, it’s just too hard to decide—go hunt or go fish? Spend the weekend chasing spring turkeys or head out after prespawn walleyes?

When push comes to shove, I’ve been known to settle these quandaries the old fashioned way—the flip of a coin. However, if your eyes are set on pursuing big trout, there’s no heads or tails about it: “Tails never fails.”

Tailwaters, that is.

Of course there’s always a chance to catch big trout in smaller headwaters—and a much better chance at catching some solitude. But your best bet at landing a trophy trout can be found in famous tailwater fisheries across the country. Probabilities aside, a better understanding of how tailwater fisheries operate can stack the odds of sticking a river pig in your favor.

Tailwater Basics

First things first—a tailwater is a section of river below a dam. Those manmade structures—often created for hydroelectricity, irrigation, water supply, recreation, or all the above—create consistent conditions and lots of food for the trout and other fish species downstream. Tailwaters regularly support stronger populations of bigger fish than other nearby rivers than run unencumbered, often known as “freestone” streams.

Dams often release water from the bottom of the reservoir, which means the water temperatures below will remain relatively consistent throughout the year. Many aquatic insects also grow in still waters that then flush into rivers, providing reliable and high-calorie food for trout. Reservoirs also soften the effects of spring floods, summer drought, and winter freezes, making the habitat suitable for fish and fishermen all year round. These characteristics can maintain spawning habitat, reduce scour of redds and improve juvenile survival, all while providing a relatively stable and abundant food base. The results? Happy and healthy trout for your angling pleasure.

Chasin’ Tail

But here’s the thing about tailwaters—they’re known commodities that support lots of fish and big fish. Think Montana’s Madison River, East Idaho’s Henry’s Fork, the White River in Arkansas, the Upper Delaware, and so on. Save from a few voids, many anglers aren’t much more than a half day’s drive from a premiere tailwater destination. Given some extra time or a long weekend, a full day’s drive can get just about anyone in the continental U.S. to a top tailwater fishery. When it comes to fishing tailwaters, spot burning isn’t an issue, but you can expect to have company.

If you hope to avoid crowds at renowned tailwater fisheries, especially during summer months when fish are hitting big terrestrial patterns, good luck! Boat traffic from guided and unguided anglers tends to be heavy. However, in many instances, guide traffic might fit a more standard 9:00 a.m. to 5:00p.m.-ish day. So, fishing “shoulder hours,” early and late, might reduce some competition. If you’re on foot, you’ll definitely want to stake out areas early.

That said, sometimes subtle changes in your approach or techniques can improve your experience. Fish in these systems are heavily pressured and oftentimes the water is gin clear.

“You often can’t get away with the same big nymphs, foamy dries, and thick leaders you’re used to in freestones,” MeatEater Fishing Editor Sam Lungren said. “These fish know what food they want and usually don’t have to move much or wait long to get it. And they see a lot of anglers passing by them every day.”

But sometimes, it just doesn’t matter. When they’re hot, they’re hot.

Better yet, anglers can find less competition, and even better fishing, during shoulder months. Spring (read: right now) and fall can be especially productive on tailwaters, thanks to relatively stable flow conditions provided by dam operations. Most tailwater stretches remain open and fishable during winter months, even in colder climates, so good fishing and reduced angler pressure can be found for those willing to brave the elements.

Go with the Flow

Despite the many consistencies found across tailwaters, just as with any other types of fisheries, 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 improve success and exposure to different waters can help anglers adapt to different conditions and situations.

Because, by definition, flows are regulated in tailwaters, almost all have a U.S. Geological Survey gaging station near or downstream of desired fishing stretches. Thus, checking flow conditions before setting out can provide an idea of what to expect. This insight can perhaps even reduce the need for a coin flip to decide what river or drainage might provide the best fishing at that time.

While the instantaneous value of streamflow (or discharge, usually as cubic feet per second) might not mean much to most without more context, anglers can examine discharge graphs and values relative to historic values, observe what daily fluctuations might be expected, and note any recent or dramatic changes in streamflow. For example, when dam operations necessitate rapid changes in flow, it may take a couple days for fish to settle in to different habitats as the water levels change. Additionally, many of these gaging stations provide measurements of water temperature as well, which can help determine timing and presentation for anglers.

An extra-astute (no, I didn’t say nerdy) angler might keep a journal of their own experiences and river conditions from trip-to-trip—similarities and differences in conditions across time and trips can provide insight for conditions and expectations. If you’re able to establish your own baseline, you can adapt as necessary and develop your own tailwater angling consistencies. It’s also a good idea to chat with guides and fly shop workers to see what flows and water temps they prefer.

Tailwater Management

Taken at face value, the “tail[water]s never fails” mindset and relative consistency of these fisheries may seem straightforward. However, they’re not with their own set of management difficulties. Although the hydrology of tailwaters is regulated, the other side of the coin (pun intended) is, by their very nature, tailwaters are unnatural systems.

Most tailwater fisheries revolve around rainbow and/or brown trout—nonnative fishes in unnatural systems. The disruption of natural flow regimes affects native fish populations as does predation of native fishes from sought-after trout species. Conflicting management needs and angling desires can arise, especially when nearby native populations are threatened or endangered or when water availability is limited. Nonnative trout can also outcompete native trout and other fishes.

Management of tailwaters is nothing but straightforward. Fly fishing culture and catch-and-release prioritization can actually decrease the overall average size of trout when populations get overcrowded. Further, on the Upper Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam, rainbow trout stocking has been reduced to minimize competition with generally more successful brown trout in that system. On the Colorado River at Lee’s Ferry in Arizona, brown trout harvest is incentivized to protect the blue-ribbon rainbow fishery. On the South Fork Snake River, rainbow trout are being suppressed in favor of native cutthroat trout. On the West and East Coast, government agencies are removing certain dams in order to allow Pacific and Atlantic salmon, as well as steelhead, to access their historic spawning grounds. Different management goals and stakeholder values can cause tension between groups, but the foundation of such strife vary from system to system.

In some parts of the country, the coldwater fisheries created by dams would not exist otherwise. Many successful tailwater fisheries hold naturally reproducing populations, while others are largely expensive put-and-take fisheries.

Across the Western United States, drought and water shortages affect dam operations. Snowpack can vary greatly year-to-year. In many large drainages, tailwater fisheries are further complicated by a myriad of competing stakeholders and consumptive demands—the politics of water allocation and dam operation can be complex. While management agencies overseeing these fisheries have a seat at the table, their wants and needs can be put on the backburner for the needs of human water allocation and the almighty dollar.

Further, as we saw late last fall on Montana’s famed Madison River, dam infrastructures can fail.

Heads or Tails

The origin of a coin toss to settle disputes and make decisions dates back to the Roman Empire in 7th century B.C. In the times of Julius Caesar, this was known as “navia aut caput” meaning “ship or head” based on the images depicted on ancient coins. At some point, modern societies transitioned to head or tails, because, well, a tail is on the opposite end from a head.

Heads or tails? Elementary school math taught me the outcome is 50/50.

“Tails never fails?” High school psychology taught me that’s an example of confirmation bias.

But if you’re looking for a trophy trout, tailwaters never fail. Well, unless they do. But, there’s only one way to find out—make a decision, do your best to learn the fishery, and keep you line wet—that I can confirm.

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