When summer temperatures peak, good daytime fishing opportunities become more limited. The blazing sun, high temps, high recreational use, and other reasons prompt many anglers to stay off the water during daylight hours. However, I’ve discovered a cool summer option that produces some of my most impressive daytime trophies of the year; fishing for big rainbow and brown trout in tail-waters. Every tail-water is a unique environment in that water depth, flow, temperature and other characteristics vary. Not all tail-waters offer good year-round trout fishing because of high water temperature during summer months. Most are stocked during spring, many in fall, but those with low carryover in summer are poor choices for numbers and worse choices for big trout. The tail-waters I fish most commonly run between fifty and sixty degrees throughout the summer period with extremes in the high-forties and low-sixties; ideal temperatures for trout. Find a tail-water close to you that is well stocked with year-round temperatures in this range and you may have found a gold mine of summer fishing.
State fisheries agencies are a good source for information about which tail-waters in your area offer the best summer trout fishing as well as which have the potential to produce trophies. And many Web sites and chat rooms tailored to area fishing provide reports by member anglers that can guide you to good tail-water fishing. Do your homework, find a tail-water or two with good potential closest to you, and the next thing to consider is access. If your goal is to wade and spin or fly-fish, water depth, flow and plentiful access points are important considerations. If you plan to float in a drift, Jon or other small boat, you must consider the distance from launch to takeout points and the nature of the river. Talk with other anglers at ramps, in chat rooms, at a local tackle shop or other places and develop a plan for fishing that puts safety first, always, and good fishing a close second.
After choosing a promising tail-water, it’s important to find a source for water generation information. TVA has a user-friendly Web site where you can check planned 24-hour generation schedules and flow rates for any dam in the TVA system. You can find a link to their site at the bottom of my home page under the “Blogroll” heading. The Army Corps of Engineers provides a US map on the Corps Lakes Gateway page on their Web site where visitors can select a state and go to a listing of that state’s lakes and waterways under Corps control. Choose the dam and tail-water in question and you’ll be directed to an information page where a link or phone number is provided to check lake information including planned generation. Unless you’ll be limited to fishing close to a dam, it’s helpful to know how long it takes for the change in flow at the dam to reach key points downstream. If your target fishing area is many miles long, choose a place or two along the way where you can monitor the flow and determine how long it takes for a change in flow at the dam to reach that point. Then you can plan fishing time under the best and safest conditions in that section. But remember; planned generation schedules are planned, not chipped in granite, so schedules can change without notice. On the tail-waters I fish, I’ve found them reliable and accurate but I have seen variances. Plan your fishing time based on published schedules, plan for the unexpected, and you can enjoy productive and safe fishing for some beautiful summer fish.
Tail-waters offer good fishing for trout anytime during the day when generators are running and water flow is high and swift. Primary moon phases, overcast skies, prefrontal conditions and low-light periods at dawn and dusk can intensify activity and improve the odds of catching more and larger trout but many feed in fast water on the clearest days under sunny skies. Therefore, tail-water trout fishing is a good choice anytime if generators are running, you choose the best sections of water available and the right lures and methods of presentations are employed. Because water is pulled from well below the surface at most dams, water temperatures are lower during generation and trout become active in the cool swift water, especially larger fish. Smaller fish that feed mostly on insects may be more active when generators are off and the water is flat and calm but when the current increases and visibility decreases, larger fish leave hiding spots to hunt and feed on larger prey. Both rainbow and brown trout move and feed during the day in swift tail-waters but after the sun sets, brown trout become the dominant predator despite the rate of generation. Some of the largest browns I’ve ever landed were caught at night in tail-waters when no generators were running and the water was still and flat. You have to be cautious and as sneaky as a cat when night fishing for browns in still water but the rewards can be incredible. Rainbows seem to disappear with the sun but browns become active and very aggressive at night. Find a section of tail-water with mixed deep and shallow areas that you can safely fish after darkness falls and your chances of catching a giant brown trout will increase greatly.
Tail-water fishing for big trout is an adventure most anglers adapt to quickly. If you fish most for bass, walleye, or hybrids you’ll feel at home with the tackle and methods of presentation required for success, especially so if you’re used to fishing rivers. Medium to medium-heavy spinning combos with six- to ten-pound diameter monofilament or braided lines are the equipment of choice, though baitcasters and slightly heavier lines work well with larger lures. I use a six-and-a-half-foot medium-heavy spinning combo spooled with 6/14 smoke colored Fireline for lures up to 3/8-ounce and a seven-and-a-half-foot heavy action combo with 8/20 Fireline for heavier lures. Ten- to fourteen-pound leaders of monofilament or fluorocarbon help prevent break-offs in shallower tail-waters so don’t hesitate to add them when needed. Add a quality-made snap to the business end of your line to support quick lure changes and always test retrieve lures before use to insure natural actions; tune or replace those that don’t run true. Floating and suspending minnow lures in various sizes and colors round out equipment needs though particular tackle and lure choices should be made based on the target species because rainbow and brown trout preferences differ.
Rainbow trout favor shallower areas with swift, broken water and clearly visible seams and current breaks. Work lures along current edges and through eddies while fan-casting large areas with more uniform flow. Slow steady retrieves or fast retrieves mixed with intermittent erratic twitches that make lures dart and change direction are reliable methods of presentation so it’s best to alternate between these until fish show a preference under current conditions. Rainbows have small mouths compared to their body size and prefer smaller lures to about three-and-a-half inches long. Minnow lures with shad profiles like Lucky Craft Pointers in smaller sizes and Yo-Zuri Sashimi Jerkbaits have fooled many big rainbows, including some of my largest, but rainbows often strike slender minnow profiles best like Rapalas or Lucky Craft Slender Pointer MR’s so it’s best to carry a few in each body shape. Floating models are better choices in shallower areas because many times they’ll float free of hang-ups when the retrieve is stopped. But suspending models offer more natural presentations with erratic retrieves because they retain their depth and pause directly in the face of following fish. When a big rainbow strikes, most will quickly announce their presence by shooting through the water’s surface like a fat missile. An angry rainbow trout in shallow, fast water is the gold-medal gymnast of the fish world with more tricks than a circus monkey. You can expect drag screaming runs and an impressive aerial show so a properly set drag and longer, more shock absorbing rod are important factors that may determine who wins the fight.
Brown trout have different personalities than rainbows so when targeting them it’s necessary to make a few adjustments in presentation and lure choice. As a rule, browns prefer spots with a little less current and some overhead cover. Search for them in current breaks behind logs or large rocks along shore, in deep holes where current slows or on inside bends in the river. Not that you won’t catch one in swift, shallow water in mid-river but when you do, the fish probably followed your lure from slower water before deciding to strike. Big brown trout are notorious for following lures all the way to the rod tip so a little figure-eight action at boat-side is a wise addition to the presentation process. Because browns like to follow, slow to medium retrieves with occasional stops are highly effective methods of presentation. This tendency to follow makes suspending lures top choices for big brown trout in tail-waters. Stop the retrieve for a few seconds to a half minute and let the lure suspend and drift with the current as you watch your line. If the line jumps, suddenly begins to move or you feel a light tick, set the hook fast! Smaller three-and-a-half inch lures will catch many small- to medium-sized fish but to catch big browns use large lures, larger than many would believe for trout. Four- to six- inch minnow lures are good choices for large brown trout in tail-waters and when in doubt, err to the large side. I use four-inch sizes most during daylight hours in summer because during years of normal weather, the water is very clear. To create the illusion of larger prey, I often use lures with chrome, holographic or other highly reflective finishes to increase flash and make them look larger without letting trout see the lure too clearly. Under low-light conditions, I use larger lures in the same color patterns or those with brightly painted finishes. Most brown trout don’t explode with the same level of energy as rainbows when they strike. It’s most common for the rod to suddenly bow and the drag to slip in short bursts, depending on the size of the fish and the drag’s setting. Occasional you’ll meet an aerial acrobat but most big browns wallow on the surface like a stuck pig, sound and move off steadily against the drag.
As different as the two species are, they do share some common traits. In most tail-waters, larger prey items that big trout feed on are limited to some type of shad minnows and smaller trout. So shad or minnow profile lures in colors that mimic these prey species are highly attractive to both rainbows and browns. My top three color choices for browns and rainbows are shad, rainbow and brown trout color patterns. However either species, at any time, may climb all over a lure with a gold flash or brilliant color pattern so it pays to carry a few of these in favorite lure models and sizes. And changing to deeper diving lures when water depth increases isn’t necessary. In the clear water common to most tail-waters, rainbows and browns will rise many feet to strike shallow running lures, eliminating the need to carry a selection of sizes and colors in deep diving models. The most important trait these fish share and one all anglers should remember is how sensitive trout are to high air temperatures and handling. It’s best to unhook fish while in the net where you can quickly and safely remove hooks, then let it rest in the net while you get a camera ready. Wet your hands and lift the fish long enough to take a couple pictures, then set it back in the net until it recovers. If the trout cannot swim upright, move to a safe place in still water and hold the fish upright until it recovers. Take time to insure each fish is released in the best condition possible. Remember, if you’re ever going to catch that eight- to ten-pound trophy trout of your dreams, you must release the four and five pounders in good condition.