8 Tips for Fishing Tailwaters

With winter just around the corner, many anglers will be trading in their sandals and summer freestone rivers for gloves and tailwaters. These stable rivers provide year-round angling opportunities for those who live in areas that freeze over. Even during the summer, they offer the chance to land a monster and try your hand at more technical rigs.

Tailwaters are simply rivers that sit below a dam. Because of this, flows are highly controlled, leading to consistent prey items, high populations of large trout, and large crowds of anglers. While tailwaters provide some amazing angling opportunities, fish are generally quite picky. Consistent insect life means fish are able to specialize. As opposed to freestone fish, which are opportunists and are more likely to take what they’re given, tailwater fish often only go for the smallest, sparsest flies in your box. Add heavy fishing pressure, and you get fish that will turn their noses up at most of what’s being thrown.

While they are picky, tailwater trout can still be caught if you know how to approach them. Some of my best days have been on tailwaters, once I dialed in what I needed to do. Here are some tips to help you make the most of your next tailwater day.

1. Stick to small flies

You’d be hard-pressed to find a tailwater tips article that doesn’t start with this suggestion.

As I mentioned earlier, freestone fish are known for taking a wide variety of flies. They need to, since their environment fluctuates frequently and they have to take what they can get. Tailwater trout, on the other hand, are used to very stable conditions and are consistently provided with large numbers of small insects. They specialize in these, and often have no reason to trust something big and buggy when they know for sure they’ll have access to their normal food source.

In order to catch them, your best bet is to size down to what the fish are targeting. You’ll occasionally have lucky days when the fish are hitting bigger bugs, but it’s not something to count on. In general, start small and simple. Midge patterns are a safe bet, and if you’re throwing dries, consider adding a second, larger dry fly to act as an indicator for your small one.

2. Play around with depth

Changing depth before flies is a common suggestion for any type of water, but I’ve noticed the effects on tailwaters more clearly than elsewhere.

Changing depth comes in many forms. It could be moving your indicator, adding or removing weight, or changing the distance between your flies. Often, anglers aren’t getting deep enough, so if you’re nymphing and aren’t hitting the bottom on occasion, start by going deeper first. That said, sometimes fish are targeting emerging insects and you’ll need to bring your flies up in the water column. Observe what’s going on and make adjustments. If you just aren’t sure, play around with depth until you find where the fish are.

I’ve had days when a single small split shot turns my luck around completely. It doesn’t seem like it matters, but it does.

3. Imitate prey precisely

This goes hand-in-hand with using small flies, as the point of using small flies is to mimic what the fish are targeting.

In addition to just sizing down, using imitative patterns, as opposed to search, impressionistic, or attractor patterns, is the way to go on tailwaters. As their name suggests, imitative patterns are meant to imitate exact insects.

With picky tailwater trout, throwing a stimulator and hoping a trout is curious is a losing battle. These fish know what they want and aren’t looking to be adventurous with their eating. If you know there is a hatch on your particular river, go to the fly shop and get flies that exactly match what will be hatching. Since tailwater insects are very consistent, pick a fly shop near the river you want to fish. Most likely, the shop will have patterns that match their local insects precisely.

An imitative fly next to a mayfly that hatched along a tailwater.

4. Explore new environments

Tailwaters sometimes have different underwater environments than other rivers. Near the dam, it’s not uncommon to find grassy flats. While many anglers (including myself) often see these areas and keep walking, it’s important to remember that these spots are worth checking out.

The key is to fish them differently than you would other sections of river. In grassy areas, for example, you may find small crustaceans like mysis shrimp, crayfish, and scuds. If that’s the case, throwing your best mayfly pattern isn’t going to do much. Match what’s available and see what happens. You may still find that you prefer the typical trout water farther downstream, but it’s worth learning new environments when they’re an option.

5. Check flows

Normally, checking flows sounds more relevant to freestone rivers. They’re the ones with wild fluctuations from snowmelt and rain. Generally, tailwaters are safe bets because they have controlled releases.

This was the mindset that led to my worst fishing trip ever, where I drove four hours to a tailwater that had produced some of my largest fish the previous year. I didn’t think to check the flows, and showed up to flood conditions because they were letting excess water out of the reservoir. I caught no fish, got washed downstream, and flooded my waders and everything inside, including electronics.

Tailwaters are human-controlled, but that doesn’t mean they can’t change. Whereas a freestone will predictably rise immediately after rainfall, a tailwater may not rise until the reservoir fills to near capacity. This could be long after it rains or snow melts.

A change in tailwater flows doesn’t mean you can’t fish, but it’s best to know beforehand what to expect when you get there. Since tailwaters come out of monitored dams, finding reliable CFS data is generally very easy.

6. Use the right leader and tippet

It seems like everything comes back to picky trout. With water that’s often very clear and small flies that need to behave naturally, using the right leader and tippet is important.

For nymphing, fluorocarbon is the best choice to get down quickly and reduce visibility in clear water. I still use nylon for dry flies for the added buoyancy, but in general I fish nymphs more often on tailwaters than dry flies anyway.

In addition to choosing the right material, you’ll want to choose the right size. The need to reduce visibility and also present tiny flies in a natural way means that sizing down on tippet is a must. While I’d consider 5X to be standard on most freestone trout streams, I think starting with 6X is appropriate on most tailwaters. Of course, every river is different. Some tailwaters handle 5X just fine, and others may require 7X. It depends on both the river and the flies you’re using.

7. Be discreet with indicators (and everything else)

Specific insect life isn’t the only hard thing about catching tailwater trout. Because tailwaters often hold trophy fish, usually have road access, and can be fished year-round, they get hammered by anglers.

With so much fishing pressure, being discreet and stealthy is an absolute must. One of the quickest ways to increase your stealth is to use the right indicator setup. On the right sections of river, this may mean no indicator at all. High-sticking is the most discreet way of all to nymph. Other discreet rigs are dry-droppers, yarn indicators, or very small, clear bobber-style indicators. Avoid the large, conspicuous ones you might use on a big freestone.

Remember to be stealthy in other ways, too. Walk slowly and quietly, move upstream as you go, watch your shadow, and avoid excessive mending and false casting. Anything you can do to minimize your presence is good.

8. Set yourself apart

While you do want to imitate available prey exactly, remember that if you go to the local fly shop, you’ll probably be sold the same fly as the last hundred customers. Although that fly will likely be a great match for whichever insects are in the river, sometimes it’s necessary to set yourself apart from the masses.

Fish can get wise to certain flies if that’s all they’re ever presented. Sometimes the best option is to find a similar imitative fly that’s just slightly different.

The top of one of my favorite tailwaters is a hotbed of mysis shrimp. Last time I fished it, only one of the four mysis patterns I had actually produced consistent results. While all were imitative patterns, the fish only wanted one of them. I can’t be sure what it was that caused it, but it could come down to something as simple as which pattern most people picked up from the fly shop.

This tip really applies to all rivers, but since tailwater trout are some of the spookiest out there, it’s particularly important to remain imitative while also giving yourself the upper hand by setting yourself apart.


This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. John C SIMON

    Ijust came back from the Navajo Dam tailwaters of the San Juan and everything that you said was 100% true. Thanks for the offerings.

    1. Katie Burgert

      Thanks for reading, John! Glad this rang true for you, and you were able to get out for a little late season fishing.

  2. Gary

    Great article as always, Katie. Always enjoy reading your stuff. Hope you and your man (boy friend, I don’t know what you young one call them now) have a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

    Gary (Socal_Gary)

    PS Did you guys get that antelope?

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