Talking tailwater fishing
Given the number of hits on TVA’s Reservoir Information Web page, it’s clear that a lot of people are interested in dam release schedules, and most of them are planning to fish the rivers below TVA dams, commonly referred to as tailwaters. Since fishing tends to pick up with the warmer weather, we thought this would be a good time to ask TVA aquatic biologists Charlie Saylor, Dave Matthews, and Clint Jones to share their thoughts and advice. All three are avid fishermen and have lots of tips, especially for folks who may not have already discovered the thrill of tailwater fishing.
River Neighbors: What’s so special about tailwater fishing?
Charlie: For me, it’s the natural beauty of flowing water and the wildlife. Muskrats, beavers, minks, ospreys, ducks — there’s no telling what you’ll see on the river. That’s what really makes tailwater fishing unique. On a lot of days, catching fish is secondary. But the fact is, you can almost always catch fish in tailwaters. We sample bugs from both free-flowing rivers and tailwaters, and consistently find that fish have more food per square foot in tailwaters. The primary reason is the availability of nutrients. The organic material that washes into the upstream reservoir when it rains eventually settles to the bottom, where it releases nutrients as it decays. Then this nutrient-rich bottom water is released into the tailwater when TVA generates power. This leads to thriving aquatic plant and insect populations, which in turn means a dependable food source for fish.
Dave: Tailwaters are consistent throughout the year. When other streams slow down during winter months, you can depend on tailwaters for your angling fix. Generally speaking, tailwaters produce larger trout than streams, which is also a plus. I really like to introduce people to fly fishing for trout on Norris tailwater. The wide open space and lots of willing fish make for a great classroom.
RN: What kind of fish can you catch in the tailwaters below TVA dams?
Clint: Most people think trout when you mention east Tennessee tailwaters, and there are world-class trout fisheries below a couple of TVA dams. South Holston is famous for brown trout, and Norris has rainbows and browns. But you can also catch smallmouth, largemouth, stripers, and white bass, as well as crappie, walleye, sauger, catfish, redeyes, and carp, depending on the tailwater and season.
RN: Which tailwaters in the TVA system offer the best trout fishing?
Dave: Some people compare the tailwater below Norris Dam to the White River in Arkansas, which is high praise indeed. And the tailwater below South Holston Dam is one of Tennessee’s premier fly fishing destinations. But many other tailwaters — Tims Ford, Apalachia, Wilbur, Watauga, Cherokee, and Fort Patrick Henry, for example — are stocked by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and offer excellent opportunities for trout fishing, too.
Charlie: Trout fisheries in almost all the tailwaters have improved since TVA implemented its reservoir releases improvement program in the 1990s. We changed our operations and installed equipment to maintain minimum flows to prevent the riverbed from drying out and to add oxygen to the oxygen-depleted water pulled from the bottom of the upstream reservoir when we’re generating. It’s hard to overstate the impact that has had on both the survival and growth of tailwater trout. We’re even seeing a trend toward natural reproduction in some tailwaters. South Holston is a good example. Before TVA’s release improvements, trout had poor survival and growth, and the fishery had to be maintained by stocking. Now trout have better survival and growth, and brown trout are reproducing in the tailwater. TWRA used to manage the tailwater as a “put, grow, and take” trout fishery, but now it’s managed as a self-sustaining trophy brown trout fishery.
RN: Those are all dams on tributary reservoirs. Can you fish the tailwaters below dams on the main Tennessee River?
Clint: It’s warmer water, so you won’t find trout. But there are plenty of other species. Melton Hill, Fort Loudoun, and Watts Bar are known for stripers, Guntersville for largemouth, and Kentucky for crappie, just to name a few. There’s no wade fishing, of course. You either need to fish from the bank or by boat.
RN: What time and type of day are best for tailwater fishing?
Dave: Every angler you ask will probably give you a different answer. I’ve had some of the best luck just before dusk, maybe an hour or so before the sun sets. But, as the old saying goes, any time you can go fishing is the best time to go. As far as weather, an overcast day is probably better than a sunny day since the clouds help to hide your profile. It seems like the fish are a little braver on cloudy days.
Charlie: It depends partly on what you’re after. Plus, when fish are active can vary from day to day and season to season. In general, mornings and evenings tend to be better for trout and bass. They tend to feed more at these times, and they’re a little easier to approach when there’s less sunlight and visibility. Some anglers like to fish for walleye and sauger after dark because they have large light-sensitive eyes and avoid bright light. Others say that the more miserable the day, the better the sauger fishing. Needless to say, fishing for both walleye and sauger requires some dedication.
RN: What do you look for as far as picking a good spot to make your first cast?
Dave: The key thing is good cover: deep water or areas with plenty of hiding places such as rocks, boulders, or fallen trees.
Charlie: I usually make my first cast to cover — logs, deep water, undercut banks or boulders. A lot also depends on the season. During the warmer months, fish are more active and feed in shallow flowing water where food may be more abundant. In winter, some species — redbreast sunfish, rockbass, bluegill — tend to shut down a little so you’re more likely to find them congregated in deeper, slower water where they don’t have to battle the current.
RN: Is it okay to use bait?
Charlie: Some anglers consider fishing with live bait less sporting than fishing with artificial lures. But state regulations for 2009 do not prohibit the use of bait in TVA-managed tailwaters. No matter which method you use, there aren’t any guarantees that one will outperform the other. If one approach doesn’t work, I’d suggest trying something else. One thing, though. You can still practice catch-and-release even if you want to use bait. Just cut the line even if you hook a fish deep. Most fish will survive. They’re more resilient to hook wounds than you’d think.
Clint: Fly fishermen tend to think how you catch fish matters more than what you catch. But there’s nothing wrong with using bait, especially if you’re teaching someone new to the sport.
RN: Are you likely to have better luck wading or floating?
Clint: I prefer wading for trout and using a boat for other species.
Dave: Wade fishing has its limitations. Finding a place to get on the river can be an issue, and you’re limited by how far you can walk. But you can certainly catch fish either way, and don’t rule out bank fishing, either. The biggest problem is that a lot of stretches of tailwater are only accessible by floating. Also, if TVA is generating any at all, wade fishing is out; but you can have good luck float fishing as long as there’s only one generator running.
Charlie: If I’m short on time, I can still pull on my waders and spend an hour on the river. Fishing by boat takes more time and preparation.
RN: What happens when TVA starts generating at the upstream dam?
Dave: When TVA is generating, the river isn’t wadable due to the increased flows. If you are wading and the water comes up, you need to get out of the river immediately. The width of the river channel affects how fast the water will rise. But, as a general rule, the water released when TVA starts generating travels between three and four miles an hour. You can get an idea of when you need to quit fishing if you know the release schedule. But, remember, release schedules can change without warning, so it’s important to stay alert. I can’t emphasize it enough: if you notice that the current is getting stronger or the water is starting to rise, don’t even think about another cast. Head for the riverbank immediately.
RN: How long do you have to wait before it’s safe to wade out into the water again?
Dave: It depends on how long TVA has been generating, but typically you can figure that it will take the water about twice as long to go down as it did to come up. There isn’t any reason to push it, though, because you aren’t likely to catch anything until the river gets back to minimum flow.
RN: Are there any other hazards that tailwater users should be aware of?
Charlie: The footing can be slick since the water level in tailwaters fluctuates. Slips and falls are always a danger so make sure you have some felt-soled waders or boots with good grips. You can come across some pretty deep holes, too. Even if you’re a good swimmer, it’s a good idea to wear a wading belt, life jacket, or inflatable fishing vest.
Clint: You also need to be careful launching your boat. Ramps tend to be slippery and dangerous to walk on, and there may be a steep drop-off due to current washing away at the ends of ramps. Also, if you’re fishing by boat, you need to be careful about getting too close to the dam. Dam operations can cause backflows that could pull you into them, so stay out of restricted areas.
RN: How can you find a public access area?
Dave: Unfortunately, public access is extremely limited on some tailwaters. You’ll likely get some results from an online search using the words “public access” and the name of the river you plan to fish, or you can purchase a gazetteer map. But there tends to be a lot of fishing pressure near public access points. Another option is to stop and ask landowners for permission to cross their property. It’s important to be courteous and considerate and to pack out all your trash.
RN: Is it okay to keep the fish I catch?
Clint: Absolutely! You’ve got to comply with creel and size limits, of course. They’re in place to protect the fishery from over-harvesting. But state resource agencies intend for most of the trout they stock to be harvested. After all, trout usually don’t reproduce in most of our tailwaters anyway, which is why they’re managed as “put and take” fisheries. It’s perfectly acceptable to keep fish you intend to eat. I just try to leave the bigger ones for the next person to catch.
Charlie: The idea behind catch-and-release is conservation. It’s a way to make sure that your children have plenty of fish to catch. But that doesn’t exactly apply to trout fishing in most tailwaters since conditions aren’t suitable for natural reproduction. If you catch a trophy-size trout, though, I’d encourage you to snap a quick picture and put it back in the river so someone else can catch it again and experience the same thrill.
RN: Any other advice for folks who might be new to tailwater fishing?
Dave: Be sure to check the fishing regulations before you go, and don’t forget to bring your fishing license. If you’re fishing in a stocked trout tailwater, state wildlife resource officers will assume you’re fishing for trout so make sure you have a trout stamp, too.
Clint: Don’t limit yourself to just trout. Try fishing for crappie and white bass this spring and smallmouth and stripers this summer. Give largemouth and smallmouth a try in the fall and maybe sauger and walleye in the winter.
Charlie: Try a variety of techniques. Fish with bait for a while, then try some plugs or other artificial lures, or maybe switch to soft plastic baits or spinners. Above all, be persistent.