Last month, we discussed several characteristics of southern tailwaters. Hopefully, the information shared was useful, and you were able to put some of that knowledge into action when you were out on the river.
This month, we are going to review additional features of a tailwater, the holding patterns of trout within those structures and the techniques fly-anglers’ use to target those fish.
Tailwater Fluctuation and Scouting
Scouting is an important part of fishing tailwaters. When the dams are not releasing water into the river, low-water conditions occur. This is a good time to scout a tailwater. Scouting on low water will help an angler find specific points of interest for future fishing and – when water levels permit it – can present great opportunities to observe fishing moving into pods. This is also a good time to carefully watch fish behavior and to determine where fish might be when water is released. The amount of water being pulled through the dam and/or significant rainfall events can make changes in the river bottom, which can effect where fish will hold after a significant rain event.
A hole is encountered when the bottom of the river either suddenly or gradually deepens. Holes are typically found immediately after shoals and or riffles, although they can also occur in the midst of runs – especially within deeper channel bends. Fish will typically hold in a hole for a couple of reasons – for protection and for use in ambushing prey or gathering floating forage. The deeper water provides cover for the fish and if the water is broken it can provide even more cover. The fish feel more secure in a hole, sometimes gathering in large numbers. Another benefit to fishing a hole is as food drifts down the river and approaches the rim of the hole, the fish can move off the bottom to take the food, and then retreat back to the bottom of the hole until the next morsel of food comes down the river.
Several years ago, a friend and I were fishing on the Elk River, a tailwater in Middle Tennessee. We were fishing a flat with an uneven bottom. There were several large holes along one of the stretches and we were dead drifting nymphs as we worked our way downstream. Eventually, we came to a place in the river that usually produced fish. As we watched his indicator approach a deeper section in the middle of the river, the nymph drifted across the edge and dropped into the hole. The indicator disappeared and the fight was on. A couple minutes later he had a nice rainbow in hand and we celebrated a fish that was larger than either of us thought would be in that river. After we released that fish, my friend threw back into the same spot and achieved the same drift. This time when the nymph dropped into the hole an even larger rainbow was hooked and brought to the net. We tried several more times to drift into the hole, but we had beaten the water up pretty badly, so we moved on drifting nymphs and picking up more fish.
Holes are great places to catch multiple fish with a dead-drifted nymph or midge. But, don’t over look swinging and or stripping a streamer along the front edge of a hole. An angler who can make the streamer appear to be an injured bait fish struggling to keep itself upright in the water column, has an opportunity to pick out even bigger fish in that hole.
Typically, a run follows a section of faster moving water which has dumped into a hole. As the river moves on to the next shoal, it traditionally flows through a run. The flow of the run is usually narrower than most other sections of the river. As the current increases in speed it tends to cut more sediment or wash more gravel from the bottom.
Tailwater runs are usually wider than those in freestone and mountain streams. While tailwater runs may be bigger, they fish much the same as their freestone and mountain cousins. The faster water flow and increased depth offers protection for fish while decreasing water temperature. Also, it can increase dissolved oxygen levels while moving food into the water column. Therefore, a run is a very good place to locate fish, and in particular … healthy, feeding fish.
Positioning yourself to fish the run is critical to your fishing success. It is usually best to place yourself on one side or the other, but try to stay far enough back from the run, so you will not be noticed by the fish. As elementary as this sounds look at the places people position themselves, especially when the feeding picks up.
When working a run with a nymph, start at the bottom end of the run. It is usually best to cast slightly above the location in which you are standing and let the fly drift downstream. Proper mending is critical as the fly works downstream. Let the fly dead drift until your line begins to straighten, but don’t pick the fly up until you get that last bit of swing as the fly moves toward the slower water below where you are standing. Only after you have let the fly swing out of the run, or at least to the side below where you are standing, should you pick the fly up and cast again.
Work your way upstream as you cast, dead drift, mend, swing and then cast again. Also, you can work several locations of the run from side to side. You can usually find several different flows of water within a run. Finding the different flows requires observation and understanding how you are going to work the fly through the different flows takes patience. I look for objects floating on the water for a hint of how fast the current is moving and if fishing an indicator it should be floating the same speed as the other objects.
A run is also a great place to use a soft hackle fly or streamer. When using either of these offerings, I like to stand back from the run and to work it downstream. Locating the fish may not be easy, but usually they will follow a fly that is cast very close to the far bank then moved back toward the angler. This gives you the best opportunity to present your offering to all of the fish within the run. Don’t rely on just one retrieve; try a lazy swing and then use short wrist strips. A long arm strip will work sometimes, but a jerk strip with the rod tip can get those larger fish more excited.
Also, try stripping different retrieves from the opposite bank toward your position. Start by letting the fly swing downstream like it is fleeing. A straight-across, powerful retrieve will also get the attention of the fish.
Earlier this year (2009), I was taking a “guide’s day off” with a friend. We had anchored the boat up on the edge of a wide run and were having some success fishing large streamers on falling water. We were working those streamers through the run and picking up a few fish, generating several flashes and getting excited about the number of trout we were seeing. Somewhere in the process, we began casting to the far bank, and while the line was still above the fly, we would pull a few short strips. Then, as the line passed below the fly, we would begin the jerk strips. The flashes, hits and catching immediately began to pick up. In my opinion, our tactics gave the impression that a baitfish was coming from the safety of the bank out into the current, but didn’t have the power to continue upstream. As it moved downstream, it gave the appearance of an injured baitfish. The opportunistic trout immediately keyed into this approach.
A couple of things to remember here are, to never let the fly stop moving and never let the fly fall in the water column. It is OK to halt your retrieve as long as there is movement on the swing or if the fly has enough buoyancy to move up in the water column when the retrieve is stopped. If given a choice, fish seem to like things that are alive and dying over something completely dead.
A gravel bar is a rise in the river bottom that is parallel with the flow of the current. Obviously, the rise will be covered in gravel. Sometimes during drought years with low generation, a gravel bar will produce weeds, which can last into the following year. Typically these weeds will not last throughout a full season of generation after the drought year. However, the weeds will provide cover for stationary fish. Gravel bars are a great place to fish when the water is higher. An angler should fish a gravel bar in much the same way they would a shoal.
There are couple of differences in the bar and the shoals. When the water is above the bar it is a good place to catch resting fish. A lot of times the fish that rest on these bars are not as fearful of being exposed to predators. They are usually larger fish that have fed the night before and are just looking for a place to relax until the next feeding time. A good rule of thumb is to fish where most anglers usually stand. Now that doesn’t mean when someone moves down off the gravel bar throw a line where they were standing – it simply means don’t miss an opportunity to fish for resting fish.
Another place to fish on the gravel bar is along the sloped side (the part of the bar that drops off into deeper water). Fish will often hold close to the inside edge of that structure and watch for food traveling along the edge. When fishing from a boat, there can be a tendency to fish the deeper water away from the gravel bars. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to pick up a few fish on the slope, though.
Last year (2008), I was fishing a couple of clients on the Caney Fork. It was a spring day and we were working a long gravel bar. We were probing the deep water just off the bar and picking up a few fish here and there. After one of them caught a brook trout, I released the fish and flipped the fly downstream just off the bar, just to get the line straightened out for the next cast. The fly drifted a few feet and there was that tug we all like. When the client set the hook, the usual fight began. She brought that fish to the net and it was another brook trout. We picked up more fish on the inside slope of the gravel bar than on any other portion of that part of the river. Now, when I am fishing or have clients on the boat, we always take a shot or two at the slope of gravel bars.
Bends (Outside vs. Inside)
There are multiple bends in Southeastern tailwaters. Some of the well known bends are The Bend Pool on the Elk, Big Bend on the Hiawassee, Blevins Bend on the Watauga , and Where Cows Walk on Water at the Caney Fork River, just to name a few.
Fish will hold in the pools created when the current slows to make the bend. Therefore, multiple anglers tend to stack-up to fish these productive waters. Fish that hold in these areas can become extremely picky and sometimes completely shut down because of the pressure. But, if you catch the fish on the right day, the action can be outstanding.
Fishing the outside of the bend is a common approach. If you discuss fishing bends with other anglers, most will choose to approach the feature from the inside (soft water), and fish to the faster flowing current of the outside of the bend. The faster water produces the basic needs of trout – from food to oxygen. A good drift from slower to faster current is something to consider. Work the water from the inside to the outside of the bend and be aware of the changes in bottom depths as you work through the bends.
A lot of the bends have a sharp and sometimes undercut bank on the outside, and this is an excellent place for fish to hold. Tactics from swinging a wet fly to drifting a dry fly work on the outside and certainly toward the middle of bends.
The soft water of inside of a bend is a good place to provoke resting fish. You have to get to these places before another angler comes and stands in the water to fish the outside of the bend or at least let some time pass after the others leave. If you have the opportunity to fish from a boat, keep the boat in faster water and toss big, ugly streamers into the soft water close to the bank. Strip the “Big Uglies” (big deer hair and marabou streamers) back toward you to imitate a fleeing fish that has mistakenly moved into the soft water zone. Work the inside waters every 3’ – 5’ and don’t be surprised when a larger fish rises from the darkness and inhales your fly.
This is quickly becoming my favorite type of structure on high water floats. Rip rap is a man-made pile of large rocks placed along banks to stop erosion. The bi-product of rip rap is that it’s an excellent place for fish to hold. The multiple rocks produce slack current next to the bank as the water slows due to friction. Also, the different rock formations provide additional protection as fish move behind them to rest between passing meals.
Fishing rip rap on high water is best done by boat. Hold the boat slower in the current and allow the anglers to fish small sections of the structure. Try to work every available space by throwing “Big Uglies” as close to the exposed rocks as possible. Strip them back as slow as you can without stopping the movement of the fly. There are multiple places for fish to hold along a length of rip rap, so it is important to fish this structure thoroughly.
As I write this article, it is still very early in 2009. So far, two of our largest browns and several large rainbows have come from sections of river that offered some of this type of structure. Fishing rip rap on high water conditions can be very productive. However, after generation stops, the current will slow as the water falls out. When this occurs, fish have a tendency to move off this structure and into other parts of the river. This doesn’t mean don’t try to fish it, it simply means don’t rely on rip rap in lower water conditions.
So, there you have it, what is “it”? Just some of the things I have observed and learned from spending time on the water. I do not think you can go out on the river without learning something each time. Learning and then putting that knowledge into practice is part of the fun in fly fishing.
Am I right about all this? Only time will tell and I can tell you right now I am not correct in every situation, because every situation is different. Sure, in time some of my opinions may change, however right now it seems these hypotheses are proving true day in and day out on the river. I can’t wait to get back out there on the river. Hope to see you there.
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