“This is the kind of water I like best for jerkbait fishing,” Frank Saska told me during a shore lunch, and reports of his morning’s success suggested the same. Saska and the guys in his boat had found some hefty brown trout, including one that pushed a double-digit weight, by throwing jerkbaits very tight to the shore. “It is tough fishing that calls for precise casts, but it’s the best time to catch a really big trout,” he said.
We had “big water” that day on Arkansas’ White River, with seven or eight turbines in Bull Sluice Dam running around the clock and the fish very holding tight to cover. A year earlier on a trip I had made to the White at the same time of year, the opposite had been true. A lone turbine, which was running only part time, barely added current to a very low river, and all the fish were stacked up in the deepest channel runs.
The tailwaters of hydroelectric dams in various regions clearly rank among the nation’s most productive trout fisheries; however, waters beneath dams are also among the most volatile of river sections an angler can fish. Water levels rise and fall according to power-generation schedules, with every change altering the river character, the areas trout choose to use and way the fish behave.
Saska, a veteran guide who has fished the White River for more than 30 years, definitely understands river level fluctuations. Bull Shoals Dam has eight separate power generation units, any combination of which can be running at any given time, plus 17 spill gates for necessary dumping of water for flood-control purposes. The river commonly rises or falls several feet in a short period of time, totally changing fishing conditions, and every situation calls for a different approach.
Every tailwater has a unique personality, based on things like river width, the number of generating units, normal operating schedules and the make-up and pitch of the river bottom, and some are “all or nothing” flows that can only be fished effectively when the water is either on or off. Individual river distinctions acknowledged, much of what Saska has learned over the years on the White has valuable applications on most trout-filled tailwaters.
The good news about zero generation is that low water tends to concentrate trout in the deepest water available. In addition, tailwater wading access also tends to be best when the turbines are off. The bad news is that larger fish (on some rivers, all the fish) become substantially spookier, forcing anglers to downsize baits and to be more careful with their approaches. On many rivers – including the White – navigating some shoals with boats also because difficult, if not impossible, when no turbines are turning.
When the White is low, Saska focuses his attention on the main river channel, working through the middle of the deepest runs. He also looks for any hint of current, especially current that pushes through a deep run. Saska seeks to capitalize on the best aspects of any given water level, and low-water fishing is primarily a numbers game, he said.
With the fish are concentrated, he’ll anchor along the edge of a deep hole in the channel or drift along the edge of an extended deep run to keep baits among large numbers of trout most of the time. Any time the bite slows, it’s time to pack up and move to a new location, but on many low-water days Saska finds plenty of trout to keep everyone busy and happy without moving very often.
Saska, who fishes mostly with artificial lures, likes small spoons and in-line spinners for low-water fishing. He pointed toward Rooster Tail, Panther Martin and Blue Fox spinners and Little Cleo and Thomas Colorado spoons. For any of these flashy little offerings, a good approach is to cast cross-current, allow the bait to sink almost to the bottom and then swim it just off the bottom at a steady clip.
Another extremely effective approach to catching fish on low water is to anchor at the upstream edge of a deep hole, and make short downstream casts with three-way rigs baited with buoyant trout baits such as YUM TroutKrilla and Berkley PowerBait. The baits suspend just off the bottom in the deepest water around, which is right where the most fish pile up on low water. If the trout are home, anglers typically don’t have to wait long before rod tips begin dancing.
Extreme water levels at either end of the spectrum make the fishing predictable because the fish are forced to inhabit certain types of areas. When a tailwater is really ripping along, with the bulk its generators running, the fish look for places where they can duck out of the current to conserving energy but still be in an ambush position. They won’t chase baits far and in fact would never see offerings in much of the river, but when the right bait lands among them, they pounce opportunistically on it.
Big trout, especially, feed aggressively when the river is running hard, and they like big meals that give them plenty of bang for the buck. Saska likes big water best because he can throw jerkbaits like Rattlin’ Rogues and XCalibur Stick Baits for heavyweight brown trout. The key is getting the bait into the strike zone, which often is fairly small, and keeping it there as long as possible.
Saska concentrates on shallow gravel flats, which get flooded only on high water, and on eddies within cuts in the bank and behind shoreline timber tangles. He works the baits with very long pauses between jerks, at times dead drifting a suspending bait over the gravel or close to a bank for several seconds to keep from pulling it out of the strike zone too quickly.
“Once it’s a few feet out from the bank or away from the top of the gravel bar, the water is too deep and swift and the fish won’t even see it, let alone chase it,” Saska said.
Saska employs a run-and-gun sort of an approach to fishing high water for big trout, hitting a specific spot with precision and then moving to the next one. He might make several casts to a key spot, but he typically won’t work extended sections of bank, having learned which specific stretches most commonly hold the big fish.
“High water is also really good for drifting with bottom rigs,” Saska noted. In fact, drifting is the most popular high-water strategy because it yields fast action and does not require precise casting of plugs. The fish hold tight to the bottom along the edges of the bars, tucking into every hole between rocks and pouncing on food that gets washed just overhead.
Using the same three-way rigs they anchor with on low water, White River guides will drift along edges of gravel bars. On very high water, the boat might be positioned right on top of a flat or along the edge of the drop so that lines fished off the sides bounce along perpendicular to the slope as the boat drifts. The same types of baits used for stationary fishing in deep runs on low water yield steady action to high-water drifters.
“The trout can be anywhere on the river,” Saska said about medium water levels, “which can be both good and bad.”
On one hand Saska likes the wide range of techniques he can use to catch trout and the opportunity to pick up trout all over the place without having to do a lot of really targeted searching. He often can customize approaches to how customers prefer to fish. On the other hand, there are no predictable concentrations of trout to target.
True medium flows, which on the White occur when three or four generators are turning, allow anglers to throw spoons and bucktail jigs over the slopes between the channels and the gravel bars, to throw smaller jerkbaits and crankbaits into eddies behind flooded shoreline cover and to drift bottom bouncer rigs along the edge of the channels.
Of course, simply falling between the highest and lowest water levels covers a broad spectrum of scenarios on the White River and can vary from the relatively low volume produced by one or two generators to the strong currents produced by six or seven turbines turning. Anglers fishing below any dam that has multiple turbines must to look at relative depths and the strength of the currents and plan strategies and areas worked accordingly.
In addition to the actual level, tailwater fishermen need to pay attention to whether a river is rising or falling. If a particular pattern that has been producing suddenly stops yielding strikes, its worth watching the bank to try to determine whether the water is rising or falling or has done so recently. If a single running generator gets added on the White, for example, it might not change the overall pattern, but the fish might move a little higher on the slopes, and until an angler figures that out and makes an adjustment, the bite might seem like it has ended.
Generally speaking, Saska likes rising water best. Fresh inflows make the trout more aggressively and they’ll quickly adjust and set up to hunt forage from newly created ambush points. If an angler sees the rise and effectively predicts how the fish will adjust, he’ll often enjoy a period of outstanding action before the water level stabilizes.
Falling water has the opposite effect. The trout become substantially more tentative when the water is dropping, even at high water levels. On falling water, the fish seem to prefer to lay low until the river settles out, and then they establish new holding areas. They can still be caught while the water is dropping, but enticing them seems to require a softer touch.
Power companies that own and operate hydroelectric dams commonly provide information about projected water releases via an internet report or recorded phone message. It’s important to understand, though, that such projections are almost always just that – projections – and are subject to change at any time. An angler can set a plan, based on what the message says, but he must be ready to adapt when the water level changes because they fish don’t get the reports. They adjust based on actual flows!
Author’s Note: Franks Saska guides for Gaston’s White River Lodge, www.gastons.com, (870) 431-5202.
Baits for Every Level
-Rooster Tail, 1/16-ounce, Rainbow Trout – Fish close to the bottom in deep runs, using a steady retrieve. The small profile and flashy blade are more than a trout can resist.
-Berkley PowerBait 3” Floating Trout Worm, Bubblegum – Moderate generation creates fine conditions for drifting and bouncing three-way rigs along the bottom in search of actively feeding trout. The Buoyancy of the Trout Worm keeps it just off the bottom, right where the most trout spend their time.
-XCalibur Xs4 Stick Bait, Blue Chrome/Orange – Big water turns bigger fish more aggressive, making it time to break out the big guns. Cast over gravel bars and into shoreline eddies and fish with quick snaps and long pauses. Most fish will hit it during the pause.
-Lindy 1/8-ounce Premium Marabou Jig, Pearl Pink/White – When the water level is dropping and trout are having to fall back into deeper holes, they tend to feed less actively. That’s when a slow-falling and subtle-looking marabou jig comes into play. Fish it with alternating lifts and drops and a bit of slack in the line and set the hook any time the line jumps.