Fly Fishing Tailwaters For Trout
By James Marsh
A few years ago, Angie and I produced an instructional DVD on “Fly Fishing For Trout in Tailwaters”. After the release I realized a big mistake – the title of the DVD. It should have been named “Fly Fishing For Trout Below Dams.” Why? The reason is something I didn’t think too much about. Many of anglers that fly fish for trout, simply don’t know what a tailwater means. For clarity, tailwaters are streams that exist below man-made dams. There are two basic types of tailwaters; bottom and top water releases. The ones that provide some good wintertime trout fishing are the bottom discharge tailwaters. Bottom discharge tailwaters the water comes from the bottom of the lake or reservoir that has been dammed. For at least most of the year and sometimes year-round, the warmest water exists in the bottom of the lake or reservoir. As far as water levels and flows, you are always at the mercy of the people that control the discharges from the dam. Some provide water for irrigation or electricity or flood control, and sometimes all three.
Below are tailwaters located coast to coast in the United States, representing only a small part of our database. Each one is considered to be one of the top destinations in their area. Notice, I wrote “one of the top”, there are others many would consider just as good or even better. We have fished and taken samples of the aquatic insects and food from most all that hold trout. You will find some hold steelhead, salmon, and smallmouth bass as well. We have Perfect Fly website pages on all major tailwaters as well as many you probably have never heard of. It it not practical to list them all in this article. From west to east, here are some of that stay warm enough to fish all winter long.
Yakima River, Washington:
This is a series of three tailwaters from three different dams. Although each of these three tailwaters have trout fishing opportunities, fly fishing the Yakima River is best in its prime section that begins where the three tailgaters merge together near the town of Cle Elum. It provides a year-round trout fishery.
Deschutes River, Oregon:
The state of Oregon has several good tailwaters, but we think the two-hundred mile long Deschutes River (river of falls) is the best. It begins in the Cascades as a spring-fed river and ends in the Columbia River. It has several tailwaters with about every type of water you can think of. It has a population of the famous “Redside” native rainbow trout as well as some stocked sections. It also has some brown trout, salmon and both winter and summer run steelhead.
Upper Sacramento River, California:
This one will get me in big trouble because California has many good tailwaters, including one just below this, the Lower Sacramento River, a tailwater of Lake Shasta. The upper river is a tailwater of Lake Siskiyou. You will find some big wild rainbow trout in both of these tailwaters. I guess I should mention the Pit River, and a favorite of mine, the Kern River.
Colorado River (Greers Ferry), Arizona:
The first time I fished this tailwater was in 1978 (maybe ’77)with a spinning rod before fishing national professional BASS tournament at Lake Powell It is just below Lake Powell and the beginning of the Grand Canyon. It is best fished from a drift boat but does have a walk-in section with some big, wild rainbow trout.
San Juan River, New Mexico:
This is one of the nation’s best tailwaters, with about as many fish per mile as exist anywhere. The rainbows are stocked, but there are wild browns. It is one of our favorites and a great wintertime destination. It is a tailwater of Navajo Lake. We always catch a lot of trout including many brown trout over 20 inches, up to 26 inches, on flies I can barely see.
Green River, Utah:
We have fished this one only during two trips and only in the walk in area. I don’t like it near as much as many others do. We prefer the Provo, Weber and Strawberry tailwaters better, but I’ll give other anglers the benefit of my doubt. We prefer tailwaters that provide good wading and boating opportunity and this one lacks in that regard. You need a dirft boat. In fact, we like the one above this in Wyoming better, located on the same river, I’ll list below.
Henry’s Fork Snake River, Idaho:
Idaho has so many I would run out of space quickly. Many consider this one the best trout stream in the country. It is a tailwater, and with several dams, but you may fish it and think you fished a big spring creek one time, and a freestone stream the next time. It has some huge wild, rainbow trout along with all the other species, it ranges from the most difficult stream you have ever fished to easy, all depending on when and where you fish it. The South Fork Snake deserves mentioning, but it is one you need a boat to fish most all of time.
Boise River, Idaho:
Here’s a sleeper for you. You can fish it in several places, but below Anderson Ranch Dam, you may hook a wild rainbow you can’t handle. It turns out some big ones for the relatively few anglers that fish it. Some locals will probably hate the fact I listed it.
Green River, Wyoming:
This is probably a sleeper for you. Most of the streams, including tailwaters, in Wyoming, get too cold at times during the Winter months. This one, out in the middle of no-where, can be fished year-round and has some big trout. The Snake River, just below Jackson Lake, doesn’t freeze over and can be fished all year, but most of the long river gets to cold.
Madison River, Montana:
Many anglers don’t think of the Madison River, outside of Yellowstone National Park, as being a tailwater, but it is. There are two dams, one below Hebgen Lake, and the other below Ennis Lake. There is actually a third made by Mother Nature, Quake Lake, but it is a top water discharge just five miles below Hebgen Lake. You can fish the section between Hebgen and Quake all year, and much of the walk-in section below Quake. If you fish near the Holter dam, you can fish the Missouri, River,year-round but the weather may be five degrees. You can fish the all winter as long as you are within a few miles of the dam. You can fish the Beverhead River all winter near the Clarke Canyon dam as well as the Ruby River tailwater. Again, the problem is you may be fishing 39 degree water when it is five degrees air temperature.
White River, Arkansas:
This tailwater flows from the deep Bull Shoals Lake and keeps the water warm enough to fish for miles downstream during the winter months regardless of the air temperature. It does have discharges that vary greatly, so make sure you check them prior to traveling very far to fish it.
Norfork River, Arkansas:
The Norfork is a tributary of the White River from Bull Shoals dam, and offers an alternate at times to the big White when conditions there are not suitable. There have been a lot of huge brown trout caught from it as well as it’s big brother.
Lower Mountain Fork River, Oklahoma:
This is a tailwater of Broken Bow Lake that has three different types of sections and provides fly fishing opportunity for many anglers during the winter months. It is a well maintained tailwater with one section requiring barbless hooks.
Lower Jackson River Tailwater, Virginia:
The lower Jackson River, a tailwater below Gathright Dam has more water available to the public to fish than most anglers are aware of. The main area available to the public to fish is just below the Gathright dam. There are five other areas open to the public that provide access to some of the approximate total eighteen mile length of the river.
Smith River, Virginia:
The Smith River tailwater is below Philpott Dam. In addition to a few miles of water with regular regulations, there’s a three-mile long “Trophy Trout Water” section downstream from the mouth of Town Creek.
Savage River, Maryland:
This tailwater comes from the deep waters of the Savage River Reservoir in Western Maryland. It can be fished all winter long even on the coldest days.
North Branch Potomac River, Maryland:
This tailwater comes from the deep water of Jennings-Randolph Lake in Western Maryland. This is a sleeper because it is located in a remote part of the state and fished by a relatively few anglers.
Big Gunpowder River, Maryland:
The Big Gunpowder River is the tailwaer of Prettyboy Reservoir Dam and flows through the Gunpowder Falls State Park. The first few miles of water below the dam can be fished all winter long in spite of the air temperature.
Delaware River, New York:
The Delaware may surprise some since it is in the state of New York, but the West Fork comes from the deep water and as long as you fish within a few miles of the dam, it will be warm enough to catch trout. Actually, just below the East Branch is warm enough as well, but not downstream of the Beaverkill.
Deerfield River, Massachusetts:
This New England Stream may surprise you. It comes from a series of five dams and has two “catch and release” sections. The most popular wintertime section is the tailwater of the Fife Brook Dam.
Swift River, Massachusetts:
Another New England stream that stays warm enough to fish all winter is the Swift River, a tailwater of the seventy-foot deep Quabbin Reservoir. It is only seven miles long, but it stays warm enough to fish all Winter.
Housatonic River, Connecticut:
This Connecticut stream is a tailwater of a series of five dams. It has two “catch and release” sections. Anglers fish it most days of the winter months.
Farmington River, Connecticut:
The Farmington River tailwaters come from both the Colebrook Reservoir and the West Branch Reservoirs. It can be fished year-round.
Tulpehocken Creek, Pennsylvania:
This is one of a few tailwaters in the state of Pennsylvania. It comes from the Blue Marsh Dam and is stocked with fingerling brown trout, so it isn’t a pushover. It also is stocked with rainbows.
South Holston River, Tennessee:
This one competes with the Delaware River’s West Branch as being the best tailwater in the Eastern United States. It is fished year-round and famous for it long lasting Sulphur hatches.
Holston River (Cherokee), Tennessee:
This Holston River tailwater is often confused with the South Holston. It’s a tailwater of Cherokee Dam near Knoxville,Tennessee, and stays warm enough to fish all winter long.
Clinch River, Tennessee:
The Clinch is another tailwater located near Knoxville, Tennessee, that stays warm enough to fish all winter long. It has some huge brown trout as well as rainbows. It flows from Norris Dam.
Caney Fork River, Tennessee:
This is a tailwater of the deep water of Center Hill Lake and Dam in the middle of the state of Tennessee. It’s water stay warm enough to fish during the coldest month of winter.
Hiwassee River, Tennessee:
This beautiful trout stream comes from the deep water of Appalachia Lake but is released through a ten-mile long pipe. The water within the first few miles of the discharge stays warm all winter long.
Watauga River, Tennessee:
The Watauga River comes from the deep waters of Wilburn Dam from both Wilburn and Watuaga Lakes on the Tennessee/North Carolina state line. Its know for it’s large brown trout as well as rainbows and is a popular wintertime fishing destination.
Tuckasegee River, North Carolina:
This was one of the first, if not the first, “delayed harvest” trout streams in the state of North Carolina. It was so successful that delayed harvest streams are being set up in several other states as well as several other North Carolina trout streams. The Tuckasegge River tailwater is one of the most popular trout streams anywhere in the nation during the coldest months of the year. Its water comes from two different dams.
Nantahala River, North Carolina:
This is another of North Carolina’s Delayed Harvest trout streams. It is a relatively small stream that offers some great wintertime fly fishing opportunity.
Toccoa River Tailwater, Georgia:
The Toccoa tailwater comes from the deep water discharge from the Blue Ridge Dam. It is mostly a drift boat stream with mostly deeper water but holds plenty of trout and offers some very good wintertime fly fishing opportunity.
Lower Chattahoochee River, Georgia:
This is a cold water trout stream that may come as a surprise to some anglers. It flows from the very deep waters of Buford Dam below Lake Lanier. It is managed by the National Park Service and has several miles of water that can be fished all winter long.
I am sure that I have left some tailwaters out that well deserve to be here, but this list is long enough that you should find some good fly fishing opportunities near enough to your location that you can continue to fish during the cold winter months.
About The Author
James March and wife Angie own the Perfect Fly Store, an online catalog and fishing store. Jim was a tournament salt water fisherman and one of the first producers of instructional fishing videos in the United States. If you visit their website, detailed information on hatches and tactics can be found for these tail waters.