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Adapting to Changing Conditions

Big rainbow release

After turning the page on my office calendar to August, I paused to reflect on where the time had gone. Notes on the last few pages confirm each month was a whirlwind of activity, mostly of the non-fishing variety. Not that there wasn’t some time to fish, but much of my spring and early summer seasons were filled with other time-consuming activities; more on that later. Furthermore, favored places to fish were limited this year. Another hot, dry spring reduced flow on local rivers so much that productive fishing for smallmouth bass was affected and repairs at a local dam transformed some of my favorite spring fishing waters so completely I was forced to search for new ones. Nonetheless, the search for good fishing led to the discovery of new opportunities and limited choices encouraged me to invest more time in spring patterns still available. The extra time spent pursing two of my favorite game fish, rainbow and brown trout, produced an exceptional season of spring and early-summer trout fishing.

I learned to fish for trout long ago, limited then to fishing small mountain streams and stock ponds for freshly stocked fish. Many years later after moving to Tennessee, my focus changed to catching holdover tail-water trout; those that had lived for years on a diet of abundant natural prey in cool, swift water. This spring has been a testament to what I’ve learned about fishing for larger tail-water trout. We caught many rainbows and browns above eighteen inches but some special fish and one exceptional encounter come to mind. My most memorable tail-water trout adventure so far in 2015 included my best fishing buddy Andy and his 12-year old son, Harrison. Harrison had already proved he could catch trout by trolling for them. On his best outing he was credited with catching twenty-eight rainbows, though Andy and I reeled in a few of them because we had several doubles hookups. However, this trip was Harrison’s first to cast for them so when we arrived on good water, casting practice began. Andy helped with the casting part but each time the lure hit the water, Harrison took control of the rod and the retrieve. Soon we were coaching him on ways he could vary his presentation by changing speed, pausing or adding subtle twitches.

Sixteen inch tailwater brook trout 1Not long into our second drift, Harrison’s rod bowed deeply and a big trout thrashed the surface. With a firm grip on his rod, he fought the big fish well while Andy coached and I controlled the boat in swift water. When Andy slipped the net under the struggling fish, shouts of victory filled the air. It wasn’t just a big trout; it was a huge brook trout. For those of you not familiar with brook trout, let me put the size of this fish in perspective. In the State of Tennessee, if you catch a brookie ten-inches or longer, the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will award you with a colorful Trophy Fish Award, suitable for framing. The brook trout Harrison landed was sixteen-inches long. Before the day was over, he also landed a rainbow and brown trout above eighteen-inches. So on his first trip casting for them, Harrison landed the Eastern equivalent of the trout trifecta and did so with some remarkably nice fish.

My most exciting fishing experience this season came on a day when time to fish was limited. With but a few hours free and no fishing partner, I loaded my boat and headed for the closest tail-water. Local weather and water generation schedules were favorable for trout fishing, though it was midday under a sunny, blue sky. After making the first drift through prime water without so much as a follow, I changed to a larger lure, returned to my starting point and began again. A few casts into the second drift a big fish smashed my plug hard and began stripping line. The fish moved so fast and with such power, I was sure it was a big hybrid and quickly realized my hands were full.

I was adrift in fast water and approaching a shoal so shallow that hitting rocks with the trolling motor prop was a probability, but didn’t want to raise the motor and let the boat spin during the fight. With one hand on the trolling motor and the other controlling the surging fish, it became a very busy time. If I had a third hand, I’m sure it would have been equally busy. Suddenly, the fish charged the boat and did its best to tangle my line in the outboard. After a few tense seconds, it came free from the lower unit as the river bottom came up along the upstream face of the shoal. Then, out the corner of my eye I saw the big fish jump clear of the water. Even in my adrenalin-filled state I realized that hybrids don’t jump so my eyes Twenty nine inch eleven six tailwater brown edit 1strained for a clear view of my adversary as it approached the boat, then in less than two-feet of water. As we drifted over the shoal, the big fish swam closer and was soon swimming parallel to the boat in water so shallow it could clearly be seen. The light-brown color and big spots along the fish’s back confirmed it was a huge brown trout. After drifting into deeper water, it became a battle of patience and the big fish was in trouble. Finally, I led her into the net and lifted my largest brown trout ever into the boat; a beautifully marked twenty-nine-inch female. There was little time to set up and take pictures because my greatest concern was for the fish’s health. But after a few quick shots and gentle handling beside the boat, she recovered, surged from my grip and disappearing into the rushing water. I collapsed in my seat, took several deep breaths and talked to myself until my heart-rate slowed. Drained after the battle, I set out trolling rods and trolled back to the ramp. Several smaller fish up to sixteen inches came to the net on the relaxing cruise back that sunny afternoon. It was a brief though memorable outing and invigorating dose of outdoor therapy; one to remember for a very long time.

Though my time on the water this season has been limited, a few trips for other fish were also rewarding. During early spring, a couple night-fishing trips for river-run walleyes produced good results. In spring, walleyes in most southern reservoirs migrate into primary feeder-rivers to spawn. This concentrates them in sections where water depth and flow are favorable and prey species are present. Find walleyes and what they’re willing to strike and it can produce good catches of one of the best-tasting fish in fresh water. My preferred method of catching spring river-run walleyes is trolling at night so I scheduled a couple evenings free to go after them. Our priority on the first night was finding places on the river that held fish and we soon caught enough for a meal of fresh fillets. In just a few hours on the follow-up trip, under a star-studded sky, we stayed busy catching and culling fish. Repeated trolling passes along a sixty-yard stretch of water produced more than two-dozen walleyes including a few double hookups with a smallmouth bass and catfish or two mixed in. Trolling at night on a river may sound like a recipe for trouble but it’s an effective method of fishing if you follow a few simple safety rules and employ the correct lures and methods of presentation. To learn more about trolling for walleyes and other fish at night on rivers, refer to the chapter on “Winter Fishing” in my book, The Weekend Angler’s Guide To Good Fishing.

Several outings for bass produced nice catches, including both river and reservoir trips. We fished at night for reservoir largemouths when fishing pressure was lowest and smallmouths during the day on a river where only kayaks disturbed the Five four Boone Lake largemouth bass on an R&S jigserenity. Our first bass-fishing trip of the season to search for largemouths was interesting; a rough start that bloomed into a rewarding finish. We arrived late at the ramp and had to wait in line until almost dark before launching. Then, as we prepared to take off down lake I noticed some nasty looking clouds coming our way. By the time we reached a nearby bridge for shelter, it was raining steadily. An hour later we started down the lake, one we’d not seen before, to find a place to fish in total darkness. Radar on a phone app, a depth finder and some blind luck led us to a shallow point with a distinct offshore break-line that merged with a shoreline filled with alternating layers of rock, red-clay and gravel. I was confident the diverse mixture of bottom types would attract some fish. In the next few hours we landed sixteen bass along a hundred-yard stretch, mostly smallmouths, with a five-pound, five-ounce largemouth taking top honors. Small finesse jigs with plastic pork-chunk trailers caught all our fish though we tried several soft-plastics. Regrettably, I haven’t had time to go back and fish that spot again.

A few half-day trips for river smallmouths produced good fish though larger bass were less than plentiful in the low, clear conditions. The realistic action of swimbaits and soft-plastic stickbaits caught the majority of our fish with Keitech Easy Shiners and Zoom Super Flukes catching the most. Various rigging methods worked well with the Flukes when matched to water flow and natural colors were consistently good choices. However, at times four-inch swimbaits caught more fish so we had to find the best lure and method of presentation on each trip. And I often mix in some variety when fishing so we did raise a few bass on other lures. One encounter that comes to mind didn’t end with a big smallmouth photo-op, but left a vivid memory. It was a day when water generation at an upstream dam was brisk. The water level was high and moving with scattered clumps of grass drifting on the surface. However, water clarity was good and the temperature was an inviting seventy-two degrees; ideal for active river smallmouth bass. In warm moving water, fast retrieves often work well when patterning river smallies so I grabbed a spinning combo rigged with a Pop-R and began quickly covering water. No more than a dozen casts later, a bruiser smallmouth crushed the lure. I set the hook and began reeling quickly, but then my line went slack. Before I could describe what had happened and add a closing expletive, my line suddenly started streaking up river. Panicked reeling soon pulled a bow in my rod and the battle was on. However, after a hard head-shake and short burst downstream the big fish spit the lure back toward me. I thought the bass had thrown the plug because of the poor hook-set but found it had violently removed the rear treble hook, split ring and all. It was a fast and memorable tail-whipping by a big, powerful river smallmouth bass. I hesitate to estimate the fish’s size but the boil it made on the strike must have weighed four-pounds.

Bass Pro Shop Bristol TNSo my spring and early summer excursions, though limited, included some exciting and memorable fishing. Furthermore, a recent development that kept me off the water during much of the season produced many opportunities to meet other anglers and learn more about catching fish. On April 1st, I accepted a Sales Associate position in the Fishing Department at the new Bass Pro Shop store at Exit 74 in Bristol, Tennessee. I’m working there part-time, including many weekends, and enjoying the interaction with other anglers immensely. So if your travels include a trip along the I-81 corridor through Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee, take a few minutes to stop and ask for me there. I’d enjoy meeting you, swapping some fishing stories and helping you choose some lures and equipment for your next fishing adventure. Come by soon and let’s talk fishing! Hope to see you there.

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Trophy Trout of Summer

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 in East Tennessee 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. 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. You can find a link to both these Web sites at the bottom of my home page under the “Blogroll” heading. 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 a trout 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.