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How to Fly Fish for Tailwater Trout

It’s winter. It’s cold. There’s too much snow to hunt ruffed grouse. Tying flies keeps you busy, but sometimes cabin fever takes its toll.

So it was one of my first winters in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Mountain trout were too cold and months away from feeding, and I needed to fish.

Thankfully, I found the Jackson River, a tailwater that keeps trout comfy year round. The Jackson kept me sane December through March before the brookies began to stir. And in the summer, when the mountain streams warmed, I could count on a tailwater to produce. Quite often my go-to water while on vacation in August was the Nantahala in Bryson City, N.C. Back home, it was Trico time on the Jackson.

So as we head into the heart of winter, here are a handful of tailwater tidbits that can provide you with year-round fishing.

Safety

Tailwater fisheries are damn controlled. The Jackson, for instance, draws water from Lake Moomaw. Releases are not always predictable. Sometimes, there’s a nice, steady flow that makes it easy to wade. Sometimes, though, the flows are unsafe.

Each tailwater I’ve fished has a release schedule and a phone number you can call to confirm, but that’s not always accurate. I found out the hard way when on North Carolina’s Tuckasegee River. I was fishing the middle of a run. The water started to rise. Knee-deep soon became waist-deep. I had to swim to shore to avoid being swept downstream.

Moral of the story: Pay attention to your surroundings. Get to shore when the water starts to rise, not after.

The Equipment

In tailwaters, because the flow is damn controlled and pulled from a lake, water temperatures are fairly constant, in the 50s where I’ve fished. That means big hatches and big fish. It also means you’ll need neoprene waders in the winter.

The potential for bigger trout means you will need a bigger rod. I fish a 4 or 5-weight for most trout. For tailwaters, I use a 6-weight. A 9-foot rod will do; a 10 is better. The longer rod gives you more line control. And because most tailwaters are wide open, you don’t have to worry about snapping a rod tip in a thicket of mountain laurel.

As for leaders, go with a 12, 13-footer, if possible. The lighter the better. Tailwater trout traditionally have an abundance of food. They’re selective because they can afford to be.

Strategies

I love to lay out as much line as anyone. Every fly fisherman, at one time or another, is seduced by distance. The good thing about tailwaters is you have the space to make 60-foot casts, but the truth is you don’t need to make the hero cast. In fact, it’s counter-productive.

Tailwater fish, because they tend to be spooky, are sensitive to micro drag. And we all know the longer the cast, the more potential there is for drag. That’s why it’s best to keep your casts short. Focus instead on stealth, accuracy and line control.

One other factor that can affect tailwater fishing is lake turnover, when the waters will essentially flip in the fall and spring, a process that can influence water clarity and oxygen levels. The timing and duration vary depending on geography. The best approach is to contact the closest local tackle or fly shop for precise up-to-date info.

The Flies

Not all tailwaters are the same, but in general, you can count on big, consistent hatches and small flies — tiny blue-wing olives, midges and tricos. I love fishing the drake hatch or slinging big hoppers when terrestrials arrive, but I’ve never fished a tailwater where big flies were the order of the day.

So, bring your reading glasses to change flies and if you wear regular glasses or contact lenses, make sure your prescription is up to date, because you will need to be visually sharp.

To Sum Up

Tailwater fishing is exceptionally challenging, yet equally rewarding. You will be tested, but rewarded. Regardless of how many fish you catch, it’s important to know you always have a place to find time on the water, even when seasonal trout spots are not available.

Five Tips for Fly Fishing Big Water

Fly fishing is an endless series of learning curves. As soon as I mastered one concept, another emerged. So it was nearly 30 years ago for me in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. I cracked the code of small streams and spring creeks. At the wise old age of 28, I thought I had it all figured out.

Then one spring day, I fished the Jackson River with a friend of mine and long-rod mentor, Billy Kingsley. I remember staring at the rush of water for a good 10 minutes and wondering one single thing:

Where the hell are the fish? As it turned out, Billy caught dozens of fish; I never felt a single tug.

Needless to say, big water can be intimidating. With so much to cover, where do you start?

Decades later, I’m still no expert on fly fishing rivers, but here are a few tips to focus on:

Safety First

You need good boots. Don’t go cheap. Find a comfortable pair that fit with good traction and support. Your ankles and knees will thank you.

Good footwear is a start, but it never hurts to have a wading staff. Depending on the size of the river, the force of the current can be deceivingly strong. I got bowled over the first time I fished out West when I was in charge of cleaning the camp dishes after dinner. All it took was one ill-advised step toward the middle and down I went.

Moral of the story: Go slow and be careful.

Think Small

When many newcomers first fish bigger water, it all looks the same, but it’s not. Rivers are merely a bigger version of small streams with a series of pools, riffles and runs. Identify one of those sections of water, preferably one that you’re comfortable with, and fish it.

Make sure to slow down. Fish each piece of water thoroughly. With small streams, you can cherry pick quickly. Rivers, because of their sheer scope, take more of a commitment. Imagine you’re working on a puzzle. Probe each section of water one by one each trip. After a few outings, you’ll have a much better clearer roadmap to the productive water.

Use a Drift Boat

When I learned to fish in the Southeast in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, drift boats weren’t in vogue. Almost everyone waded. It wasn’t until I spent a summer out West that I learned how to fish out of — and row — a Clackacraft.

I wished I had had one sooner.

Drifting a river allows you to evaluate water from a macro perspective – from start to finish — depending on how much river you cover. And let’s not forget the obvious: You can cover a lot more potential spots drifting than you can on foot.

Expand Your Skills

When I first started on small streams, I was a lousy caster. Of course, I thought I was good. I caught a ton fish with two basic presentations — high-stick nymphing along with a puddle cast. That’s it.

Bigger water demands more. If there’s wind, you might need to double haul. A serviceable reach cast over multiple current seams and a curve cast to get under trees are also beneficial. Obviously, you can catch fish with limited skills, but you won’t catch as many fish. Bigger water offers bigger rewards, but those fish demand more versatility.

The Equipment

You will generally need a bigger trout rod. I used a 3 and 4-weight on mountain streams, but stepped up to a 6-weight on rivers. Why? The fish are bigger. And the flies can be, but certainly that’s not always the case. But the potential for bigger fish means you need a higher quality reel. TFO’s Power series offers a variety of options. And if you catch the fish, you don’t want to lose it because you’re under gunned. As far as tippet, I don’t hesitate to go up a size, unless the fish are feeding in calm, slow-moving water. In that scenario, I downsize accordingly.

Big water is challenging at first, but it doesn’t have to be.  Patience and perseverance will pay off as you ease out of your comfort level.