David Perry with Client in Drift Boat

Here in the Southeast, tailwater fishing is one of the many resources available to anglers. Some of the tailwaters below our dams hold sport fish – and specifically, trout. Thousands of anglers in the Southeast and from around the country visit these fisheries each year to enjoy everything from a good day of fishing to the chance to tangle with a trophy trout.

There is Adventure on Southern Tailwaters

Safety on Tailwaters Below Dams
Whether it’s for hydro-electric power of for flood control, generation can occur at any time. So, when fishing below dams, safety is critical. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Army Corps of Engineers, the governmental entities which oversee the majority of the Southeast’s dams, provide a Web site http://www.tva.com/river/hazwater/index.htm explaining the hazards of fishing below dams. Before going to fish a tailwater, it is highly recommended to either call 1-800-238-2264 or look up the water release schedule online at http://www.tva.gov/river/lakeinfo/systemwide.htm . Remember, a dam is subject to release water at anytime – it’s always best to wattch the water level when fishing anywhere downstream of the dam.

The Beginnings of Tennessee Valley Tailwaters
The TVA began constructing dams in 1933, beginning with Norris Dam in east Tennessee. Named for Senator George Norris of Nebraska, who authored the legislation that created TVA, the dam stretches across the Clinch River and is nearly 1860 feet high. This began tailwater fishing in Tennessee and throughout the Tennessee Valley.

The Basic Needs of Trout

The tailwaters throughout the Southeast supply trout with abundant forage, including a wide array of nymphs, midges and adult insects. Although these are usually the most common food in Southeastern tailwaters, don’t forget about small fish and terrestrials.

Whatever the choice of fly or the fish’s choice of food, one thing to remember is to get the fly into the feeding lane. This increases the odds of hooking up with the fish and provides a chance at that hero shot.

Stocking locations, while popular with many anglers, provide food sources for feeding fish. Many people fish the stocking locations on a river -- including those who fish with bait. Fish are sometimes drawn to these places as an easy source for food. Larger fish can also be drawn to stocking locations when the stocking truck arrives. Also, people who keep fish for consumption sometimes will clean their catch at the various stocking locations and public access points. Larger predatory fish will come into these areas in the evenings and in the early morning hours for an easy meal.

The opposite of fishing to feeding fish is provoking a strike in resting fish. Some fish, especially larger fish, tend to eat at night when most of us are not on the water. A fish that eats at night will rest during the day. Therefore, the best way to induce a strike with a fly-rod is with large streamer patterns. Large streamers thrown in slower-water locations can provoke the predatory instinct in larger resting trout, resulting in some memorable takes.

Someone once said that fish have an IQ of six. I’ve never seen the IQ test for a fish, but I would agree fish should have a somewhat smaller IQ than the angler who pursues them. Fish have the fight or flight instinct. This instinct can determine a fish’s daily activity and, therefore, where they spend the majority of their day. Trout, in particular, seek protection from predatory animals such as larger fish, otters, eagles, herons and sometimes anglers.

Trout will often seek cover close to a food source. This cover includes structures such as logs, large rocks, shoals with faster moving water, and undercut banks. Water will move slightly faster on the sides, above and below structure – but a nice break in the current can be found directly behind the structure. This provides opportunities for trout to move out into the faster moving water and grab a quick meal, then move back into or behind the safety of the structure. Scouting and knowing the location of these natural current breaks is a good way to increase the odds of catching fish in a tailwater.

Trout prefer cool water. Brook trout prefer water temps below 68 degrees while a brown trout lives best in water below 75 degrees. Rainbow trout fit somewhere between the brook and brown trout, preferring temps below 70 degrees.

Temperatures can vary within a tailwater. For instance, the section of river immediately below a dam will be cooler than a section further downstream. In the summer, deep holes will often be cooler than long shallow flats. Runs with swift moving water provide cooler temperature for trout, but a run with swift moving water and shade can be an even better source for cooler temperatures. Rocks and logs within swifter moving water and undercut banks with shade will provide cooler flows as well. 

Take a thermometer with you when fishing tailwaters and do a little research for yourself. Taking your own stream temps will help you to understand the anatomy of the tailwater.

Fish, like humans, need oxygen to sustain life. A fish does not have lungs, but takes oxygen from the water through their gills.  The oxygen in the water is called dissolved oxygen, and its presence is crucial to tailwater fisheries. Wildlife agencies work with the TVA and the Corps of Engineers on a variety of techniques to increase the dissolved oxygen levels in tailwaters, including minimum flow requirements and the installation of auto-venting turbines in some dams. These techniques can not only help the levels of dissolved oxygen in the water, but can also increase the aquatic bug activity … which increases the food source for feeding trout.

Caney Fork River  

Wading and Floating Can Both Make For a Relaxing Day

Wading vs. Floating
Let’s take wading first. Wading on a tailwater can make for a very relaxing day on the river. On the nicer days, it can be difficult to get away from the crowd, but putting a little distance between yourself and the other waders can be a good way to spend time. However, not all tailwaters have the most fish in the more secluded places. Some tailwaters support large numbers of fish within easy wading of the stocking points and the fish population will actually decrease within a mile or two of the stocking points – at least until the water is devoid of stocked or holdover fish. This is particularly true in the lesser stocked tailwaters in the Southeast. The best ways to find out about the fish population are by word of mouth and by striking out on your own.

Floating on the southeastern tailwaters is a great way to explore large sections of rivers. Jon boats, canoes, float tubes and drift boats are all excellent means to cover portions of a river. And, floating on low water is among the best way to scout a river. Low water will allow the angler to read the rivers bends, shoals, riffles, runs and pools. Learning the anatomy of a tailwater while floating allows the angler to make mental or written notes; this information can be used on later trips.

When fishing from a boat, be careful when passing a wading angler. If possible pass behind the angler and try not to throw a large wake. Also, it is courteous to give the wading angler plenty of fishing room, as they often do not have the ability to move onto new water like someone fishing from a boat.


Some tailwaters, especially those closer to mountainous areas, have an abundance of shoals. A shoal – also referred to as a riffle – is typically a shallow area of a river, usually accompanied by faster moving water and featuring a mix of gravel or broken rock. Shoals are a great place to pick up fish on low water and high-water trips. Scouting a shoal is very important when the water is low. Scouting gives you a good idea of the different elevations of the river bottom and potential holding patterns of fish on low water. Scouting a shoal also gives an angler information for future use when the water level is higher.

Water moves faster across the shoals, cooling the water slightly and supplying additional dissolved oxygen as currents sweep food into feeding lanes. Trout will hold on shoals and eat food as it is brought along in the flow of the water. The faster moving water also provides additional cover for trout. The additional cover can protect trout from the airborne predators such as herons, eagles and other birds of prey.

Shoals are a great place to find feeding fish. Swinging a soft hackle across a shoal will usually pick up fish. Start by standing away from the bank and cast to the bank while stripping the soft hackle back toward the middle of the river. Make small strips as you work your way downstream to where the water falls off, usually into a large hole. Another technique is to simply cast to the center of the river and let the soft hackle swing as it moves downstream. Keep the rod tip low and lift it slightly to give the fly additional action. 

Shoals are also an outstanding place to fish a dry fly. Bugs will hatch at the shoals and trout can key in on the emerging and/or adult flies. A common rule of thumb is the rougher the shoal, the higher the fly needs to float on the water. The bushier the fly, the easier it is for me to see while it floats along and over the different currents a shoal can produce. Dry flies are a real pleasure to fish when a river has an abundance of shoals.

Canada Goose in River  

Sometimes Sharing the Water is Necessary

There are several tailwaters in the Southeast that have ledges which seem to run miles upon miles. A ledge is not always just a large drop; sometimes a ledge can be as short as just two or three inches. A 6” – 8” ledge is large enough to provide cover for almost any trout in the river.

The South Holston, located in Upper  East Tennessee, is a tailwater with multiple ledges for most of the upper river, arguably providing some of the best cover for fish in the Southeast. The majority of the ledges are of the smaller variety, but some can be larger and even measured in feet. Most ledges are large enough to support the large trout that South Holston has become known for over the years.

It is surprising how large fish will support themselves against a small ledge. Usually, the fish can be found holding just below the structure, as it provides a nice current break and an opportunity to rest. A long section of ledges can also produce additional dissolved oxygen. 

Multiple ledges in skinny water are a dry fly fisherperson’s dream. Fish holding just off the bottom can have a view of a dry fly floating into their territory. Dropping the dry fly off the ledge and into the trout’s feeding lane can produce explosive strikes as the trout grabs the fly just after it drops into the feeding zone. Multiple ledges usually produce more turbulent water, so a bushier and higher riding fly can be easier to see, while being helpful in sustaining a good drift over long stretches (without having to dry and recast).

My definition of a stair-step is a series of larger ledges. The Hiawassee tailwater in East Tennessee is famous for its stair-steps. These steps present a boat-pounding, tough-wading section of that river, but results can be outstanding if you achieve a good drift with a nymph.

A very good way to fish a stair-step is to position oneself below the drop or drops. If there are multiple drops; fish from a downstream angle and work your way upstream, only after thoroughly fishing the lowest step first. It is possible to drift a nymph multiple times before getting the attention of a fish holding below the step. Keep a tighter line when the fly drops into the white water below the step and let the wash from the water coming over the step take the fly into the depths. The water coming over the step will wash out the bottom and the current will roll back toward the step before shooting down stream. Work the fly multiple times through different currents that wash over the steps. There are some real jewels holding behind that backwash.

Last year (2008), while fishing the Holston River, we were floating down the river and working the sections of stair-steps. We went over one stair-step and anchored below another in the same section. Because the water was so turbulent and running hard, we had tied on a #10 tungsten bead head pheasant tail and a couple of split-shot sinkers. We dropped that presentation over that stair-step probably 15 times and let it stay in the wash each time. Then after all those times of watching the line drop over the last step, the line went tight and ran right back into the back of the step. After a lengthy fight, we brought in the largest rainbow of the weekend. Needless to say, we fished each step we came to in the remainder of the float and picked up several more fish, more often than not at the base of the bottom step.

With all the fast water rushing over the stair-steps it is easy to get caught up in fishing only nymphs, just because they seem to be easier to control. The different currents washing over stair-steps can also produce “soft water” (slow water between faster flowing currents or between the bank and faster flowing currents). That soft water can be as small as the lid on a paint can or as large as the roof of a small car. But, it doesn’t matter the size, because it’s a great place to cast a dry fly. Pulling multiple fish in a small section of soft water is not uncommon. A good rule of thumb is: if it is big enough to support a fly – even for a few seconds – it is big enough to hold a good fish. Zero drag on the fly can be difficult, but it’s critical in this situation.

Next month we will review the anatomy of southeastern tailwaters. Specifically the different bottom structures of a tailwater, trout holding patterns within those structures and how anglers fish to trout within the tailwaters.


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