Tailwater Fishing tips and techniques

Tailwater fishing tips and techniques for action and variety

This article will share some great information on tailwater fishing tips and techniques. A tailwater is a river downstream from a dam, weir, spillway, or other obstruction in a river or flowing body of water.

Tailwater fisheries are abundant in the United States. They offer anglers an excellent fishing opportunity. A tailwater is a section of river just below a dam or spillway. Fish migrating up the river are stopped at this point. This results in a congregation of fish. Also, current flow is strong in these areas. Forage fish are also usually abundant. These factors all combine to create an excellent environment to catch fish!

Tailwater fishing for bass and catfish

There are an estimated 85,000 dams in the United States. Many, if not most, of these dams create a tailwater fishery. Most anglers live fairly close to some type of tailwater. The Tennessee Valley Authority created many lakes in the 60s. They did this to control flooding. However, the result was outstanding access for recreational uses such as boating and fishing.

Tailwater fishing tips

It is easy to understand why tailwater fisheries are so productive. Fish that migrate up rivers such as striped bass, shad, and other species are stopped by the dam. Unless there is some type of fish ladder, they cannot go any further. This results in the fish being concentrated in the water below the dam.

Fish also concentrate below the dam because it is an excellent feeding opportunity. Shad and other bait fish will get washed over the dam and sometimes chopped up going through the turbines of the generator. Many species will sit in the river just below the dam and feast on the buffet. Game fish are stronger and have the advantage in the stronger current over helpless bait fish. They will position themselves behind boulders and other obstructions out of the current, then dart out and grab their prey.

Tailwater fishing tips

Safety first when fishing tailwaters!

Safety is the number one concern when fishing tail waters! Current is usually very strong in tailwaters. This is particularly true when the the gates are open or in times of high rainfall. Anglers need to be cautious, whether in a boat or even wading. Many dams will have sirens to alert anglers and boaters downstream of the impending release of water. Anglers can often hear the change in water flow as well.

Some anglers think the the great fishing only exists at the dam. This is far from the truth! In trout streams in particular, the cool, rushing water will have an impact many miles down river. The same applies to warm water fishing for striped bass, largemouth and smallmouth bass, and catfish as well.

Tailwater fishing produces multiple species

The list of species taken in tailwater fisheries is endless. Many of the most productive freshwater trout fisheries exist because of tailwaters. Water temperature in lakes will vary by depth. Water can be released into the tailwater to cater to the preferred temperature of the trout. This is especially true east of the Mississippi River. Just about every lake or reservoir in the hills or the mountains offers excellent fishing for trout in it’s tailwater.

fli fishing Franklin North Carolina

Warm water species such as bass and catfish will take advantage of tailwaters as well. Small mouth bass in particular enjoy a bit of current flow and will take up ambush points in the rivers below dams. Migratory species such as striped bass and white bass along with shad will migrate up the rivers as they prepare to spawn.

Dams can also be the dividing line between freshwater and salt or brackish water. Often times, this obstruction is not a hydroelectric dam, it is a weir or spillway. However, it has the same effect. Saltwater fish that can tolerate brackish water such as striped bass up north and snook in tarpon in Florida will migrate up the river at then be stopped at the obstruction. Once again, fish will set up feeding stations as smaller forage fish get washed over the top of the spillway.

Tailwater fishing tackle

brook trout fishing lures

Tackle for fishing tailwater rivers runs the gamut, Anglers will need a couple of outfits to cover the various species. An ultralight spinning outfit with 4-6 lb line works well when targeting trout and bass in smaller talilwater rivers. Choose the 2000 size outfit.

A medium spinning rig with 10 lb monofilament or braided line is good for larger bass and small striped bass and catfish. Choose the 3000 size option.

Anglers fishing for larger fish from shore will need a stout spinning outfit in order to make long casts and handle a big fish. A medium-heavy spinning outfit with 20 lb braid works well.

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A medium conventional outfit is best for targeting larger fish in fast water. It will take some beef to subdue a large catfish or striped bass in heavy current. 30 lb braid is the best choice.

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Fishing the Susquehanna River tailwater

Kayla Haile grew up in fishing the Susquehanna River below the Cowingo Dam. This is basically the headwaters of Chesapeake Bay and is an outstanding tailwater fishery! Striped bass are the main quarry for most anglers, and Kayla is no exception. Catfish, smallmouth bass, walleye, shad, and other species are available.

Tailwater fishing tips and techniques

Kayla likes to “match the hatch” when fishing the Susquehanna tailwater. She uses a 3/4 ounce white buck tail as it resembles the majority of the forage in the river. This is primarily white perch but there may be shad and other smaller fish as well. Kayla drifts with the current while bouncing her jig along the bottom. White is a great all round color, however anglers will do well to match their baits to the size and color of the forage in the river.

Jigs are excellent tailwater fishing lures

Jigs are great lures for fishing tailwaters all over the country. They are relatively inexpensive and anglers fishing these rivers will certainly snag the bottom often. It just goes with the territory. Most of these tailwater rivers are strewn with rocks and boulders. However these are crucial as fish use them to lie in wait in the eddies.

Fishing tailwaters for walleye

Kayla does fish for other species as well. She will put up the heavy tackle used for striped bass and grab and ultralight spinning outfit and target smallmouth bass and walleye. Both of these species thrive in tailwater’s. They prefer cooler water with a little bit of current, and this describes many tailwater fisheries throughout the country.

Tailwater fishing tips and techniques

The same techniques that work for Kayla when targeting striped bass work for anglers in Tennessee catching smallmouth bass and out West for anglers catching salmon. Anglers can anchor just outside the main current and fish with bait. They can also drift with the current and cast lures, bounced jigs off the bottom, or drift with live or fresh bait. Out West, anglers do very well drifting with roe sacks.

salmon fishing in tailwaters

Live bait and cut bait is effective in these situations as well. Forage fish often do not survive the journey over or through the dam. The result is cut up fish and dead fish floating through the river. Live or cut bait fished on the bottom is therefore quite productive. Most anglers fishing with cut bait choose to anchor. Anglers using live bait can drift or anchor, depending on the conditions.

Catfish love tailwaters

Catfishing is extremely popular in the United States right now. The reason for this is simple, catfish are abundant and grow very large. Many large catfish are caught in tailwater just below the dam. One advantage to this type of fish and is that boats are often times not required. In fact, fishing from shore can be the most effective and productive method.

tailwater fishing tips and techniques

The best technique when using live or cut bait and a fast-moving river is to use a sliding sinker rig. The main line slides through the sinker than is attached to a swivel. A 24 inch to 36 inch piece of leader is used between the swivel and the hook. Large circle hooks are preferred as most fish are hooked in the mouth, making a healthy release easier. The sinker sizes adjusted with the current flow, with 3 ounces to 5 ounces being the average size.

Trout fishing in tailwater rivers

The creation of dams in the 60s and 70s along with the corresponding tail waters has resulted in a booming fishery for freshwater trout. Most of these are rainbow trout and brown trout. Trout fishing is excellent in these tailwaters as far south as North Georgia. One of the most famous examples, and probably the most productive trout fishing stream in the United States, is the white River and Arkansas. Once again, the key is the ability to control water temperature downstream from the dam, creating the optimal conditions for trout to thrive in.

Fishing the north shore of Minnesota

Trout anglers can either wade these streams or drift in a boat. While waiting is fun and productive, it is hard to beat a relaxing fishing trip in a drift boat. The anglers cast flies as the guide keeps the boat and prime position as it meanders down the stream. This allows anglers to cover a large portion of water in a relatively short amount of time. Most anglers fly fish for trout, however others spend fish as well. Trout fishing regulations can be a bit tricky, always check local regulations before fishing.

Drift fishing tailwaters

Drifting is a great way to fish any tailwater. Anglers will motor up close to the dam, then drift through the productive area. Many boats are equipped with jet propulsion versus propellers due to the rocky bottom. The current flow will generally ease up the further an angler gets from the dam. This technique of drifting works great no matter what the species, striped bass, smallmouth bass, musky, trout, catfish, and other game fish.

Water discharges are very important when it comes to tailwater fishing. Many dams actually publish the times when water will be released. In some circumstances, this increased flow of water will dramatically affect the bite. However, safety must be the first concern. No fishes worth dying over! Most anglers choose to trout fish when water is not being discharged.

Fishing tailwater rivers in Florida

Here on the West Coast of Florida where I fish, we have tailwaters as well. Snook, jacks, juvenile tarpon, and other saltwater species will migrate up into brackish rivers in the winter. They do this to escape the temperature extremes of the shallow flats. These rivers remain a bit salty due to the lack of rainfall Florida receives in the winter.

fishing for snook

Once again, a dam limits the migration of the species. The snook and other game fish are then concentrated in a relatively small stretch of river. Once again, drifting and casting lures such as shallow diving plugs or jigs is the best approach. My clients catch the largest snook of the year employing this technique in these rivers in the winter. On the occasions that we do receive some rainfall and water flows over the dam, it is game on! This is true of any spillway, even on the smaller creeks.

In closing, I hope this article tailwater fishing tips and techniques will help other anglers experience success in these outstanding locations. Be safe, but get out there and enjoy these man-made hot-spots!

Jim Klopfer

Capt Jim Klopfer has been a fishing guide in Sarasota, Florida since 1991. He grew up in Maryland, fishing the Chesapeake Bay waters. Capt Jim has been creating an writing articles about fishing for decades, contributing to many regional and national publications. He also lives part time in the North Carolina mountains where he fishes for trout and other species. Capt Jim Klopfer is a wel rounded angler with 50 years fishing experience, and he loves to share what he has learned with other anglers!

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