Here in Colorado, we have more than our fair share of tailwaters. For those unfamiliar, a tailwater is a river, stream or creek that flows out of a reservoir that's created by a dam or impoundment. Tailwaters, especially ones located below bottom release dams, provide consistent and steady water temperatures year-round.
In the world of fly fishing, the definition goes a little deeper. When we talk about tailwaters, we're talking about a river with dam-controlled releases that has plentiful and often sizable trout and huge populations of midges. Of course, there are plenty of other hatches that will be present throughout the year namely blue-winged olives, PMDs, tricos, caddis, and a variety of stoneflies, but midges are present year-round and provide trout with an abundance of food to eat no matter the season.
Very often these fisheries are nutrient-rich, gin-clear, highly pressured, and filled with well-educated fish. Trophy tailwater trout will turn their nose up at a seemingly perfect presentation with a fly that precisely matches the hatch. Cheesman Canyon, right here on the Colorado Front Range, is home to plenty of PhD-educated trout. As the saying goes, if you can catch trout in Cheesman Canyon, you can catch them anywhere.
Now, if you're just starting out in the world of fly fishing tailwaters, one vital piece of knowledge that's commonly imparted to new anglers is the importance of using light tippets (5x, 6x, and even 7x) and choosing small flies (size 20, 22, 24, and 26). It can be a frustrating game to play, but clear water and small bugs make often make this approach a necessity. We're going to go beyond the small flies and light tippet game and dive into a couple more tips and tricks that will help you put more trout in the net next time you fish your next tailwater.
I was following Trouts' own Head Guide Scott Dickson around Deckers this past January. For many people, this is the prime time to fish only small midges. However, Scott knows that he has a better chance of hooking and landing a fish using bigger hooks, so he started with an egg trailed by two small midges.
The fish didn't love the egg. They moved out of the way of it as it drifted through the zone. Undeterred, Scott switched his rig to an olive leech and two small midges. He caught fish on the midges, but not on the leech. He switched to a tan San Juan worm and two small midges. That was the magic formula. He started picking up fish on all three flies. Not only does the big fly give him the advantage of fighting fish with a larger hook, but he also was able to use the San Juan Worm as a sighter of sorts. Locating his rig in the water column as it drifted through likely holding water.
Knowing where your flies are in relation to the target fish or structure you're fishing to is a competitive advantage for any fly angler. Sure, there will be times when the fish won't respond to your big attractor flies on a tailwater, but exhaust the options before you resort to going with the all-small fly rig.
As we noted above, it is widely accepted that tailwaters are best fished with small flies, and with good reason. With an abundance of small midges and mayflies available at the proverbial tailwater buffet, trout will happily gorge on small aquatic insects to their little heart's content. Picking and choosing what to eat next with a well-trained eye.
However, when flows bump on any tailwater, larger meals are dislodged. Here in Colorado, our tailwaters are filled with leeches, craneflies, scuds, stoneflies, caddis aquatic worms, eggs, and baitfish amongst other things. While tailwater trout love a good midge snack, they'll readily jump on a higher protein meal at the drop of a hat. When the flows bump on tailwaters, tie on bigger flies with some thicker tippet and you won't be disappointed. You can always size back down to smaller flies if they aren't chowing on the big flies.
Micro adjustments are key when fishing for picky tailwater trout. You have to make a drift that essentially forces the fish to see and eat your fly in rhythm. Often times the effective feeding zone of a tailwater trout is 6" in any direction from their mouth. That means your drift has to be dialed and your flies have to be at the right depth at the right time. In order to do so, you need to be very precise with the weight of your rig and the positioning of your indicator.
One popular way many successful tailwater anglers use to dial in their weight - is using a combination of split shot and putty. They start with the appropriate amount of split shot to get them their best presentation in the shallowest water they'll be fishing, then add Mojo Mud Tungsten Putty or Loon Deep Soft Weight when they move into a deeper stretch of fishable water. Adding and subtracting putty as they move through water over the course of the fishing day.
The putty is reusable, so you can store any removed putty back in the original container until you need it again. It is a much more efficient use of your time than adding and subtracting split shot over and over (even with the benefit of the Rising Work Plier's precision pick tip).
This tip can be directly attributed to my time sharing the water with Pat Dorsey, Dave Lovell, and our own Tanner Smith. I am a chronic over-mender at times. Throwing big mends up and downstream in order to get as long of a drag-free drift as possible. This can be plenty effective on freestones. However, it often makes it harder to effectively fish tailwaters.
A couple of years back, Tanner and I had the honor of fishing with the one and only Pat Dorsey in Deckers for an old-school episode of Five Flies. For those of you who are familiar with the South Platte above Deckers along Y Camp Road, you have certainly encountered your fair share of picky fish. It was a very brisk March morning on the South Platte. There is a certain section of flat water right before you have to go up and over that uppermost ridge.
There are seemingly always pods of fish posted up in this section of flat water and they are notoriously hard to catch. I've certainly farmed my fair share of fish in that stretch. With temperatures in the 20s, Pat waded into that section of the river and a couple of drifts later he was hooked up with one of those elusive flat-water fish. Watching Pat go to work (as you can see HERE), you'll notice how small the mends are that Pat is making. They are "maintenance" mends that don't move or twitch his yarn indicator whatsoever. No exaggerated movements. Instead, small, but deliberate movements. There wasn't an excess of line on the water being influenced by the subtle and complex currents. A true master at work.
Our former Outfitting & Education Manager Dave Lovell blessed our YouTube channel with some knowledge a few years back. Dave reiterated that point. Often times anglers mend out of habit, as opposed to necessity. Mending your fly line should serve the purpose of setting your flies up for a drag-free drift, however, mending too much will move the flies in the water column and make them look unnatural. Small micro adjustment mends or no mends at all will oftentimes lead to more caught fish as your flies are being presented in a more natural fashion for longer.
When dealing with spooky tailwater trout, there is no sense in giving them too much information about your presence. If you can make the same cast and drift to a water feature or fish from the dry ground as you could from the riverbed, then I'd recommend staying dry. Whether we like it or not, we, as anglers, are walking sound machines. No matter how nimble we might think we are, we splash, produce wakes, shift rocks and gravel, and cast our shadow. All of these visual and auditory clues can lead to a spooked or uneasy fish that is much less willing to eat your flies.
Bottom line: stay dry, unless you can't make the right presentation. Then and only then should you make the move to wade in the water.
We hope you find some value in these tips for catching more tailwater trout. For more tips and tricks, check out the Trouts Journal - which is updated weekly with on-the-water content, videos, tips and tricks, product reviews, industry news and much more.