As summer turns the corner to fall, some of the hottest action on the water can be found on tailraces below dams. From August to October, my guide trips are booked solid with anglers eager to get in on some of the most sure-fire fishing of the year.
Walleye, smallmouth and largemouth bass, stripers and hybrids; in August they start moving up around the swift waters to gorge on the new generation of shad that hatched out in mid-summer. If you set the table for them, serve up lures that match the hatch and present them properly, the fish can be easy pickings.
In early August shad fry ran about two inches in length, and successful tailrace anglers were throwing lures of that size. Good lures included spinnerbaits that could be fished across swift water without rolling over, like a Secret Weapon Quickstrike rigged with #3 willowleaf blades. Quarter-ounce lipless crankbaits, small flutter spoons, grubs and swim jigs all fit the bill, too.
When it comes to tailrace fishing, the best artificial bait I’ve discovered is the BoJoLe Flutter Spoon. Its action is unlike any conventional spoon or crankbait. Stamped from lightweight stainless steel, this American-made lure doesn’t spin but flutters and wobbles erratically during retrieves and on the drop.
In August, #2/0 flutter spoons exactly mimicked the new shad that were being spit out below the turbines. Stainless steel or chartreuse patterns, both bright colors that stood out clearly, delivered exceptional results. By now, the shad have grown enough so that the #3/0 is a closer match. As fall wears on, you’ll find the #4/0 coming into its own, but chartreuse will still out-produce white, bronze, or stainless steel.
Chartreuse makes your lure stand out in a ball of shad. It gives the game fish something definite to aim for and is highly visible for greater distances through turbulent water. For years it has almost doubled my catch rates, working equally well on trout, walleye, bass and striped hybrids
To get your flutter spoon where it will do the most good, position your boat in the boils right below the generating turbines and allow the boat to drift. Cast your lure upstream and off to one side at a 45 degree angle to the current and retrieve it just fast enough for it to tick across the tops of the boulders on the riverbed.
Let the fish tell you where to concentrate your efforts. Sometimes they give themselves away by busting shad on the surface. But even when you see no top-water action, the fish are there; you just have to hunt for them them. One day they’ll be out in the middle of the swift current chasing shad as they shoot out of the turbines. Another day you’ll find them holding along the edges of eddies. Cast to one side and then the other until you find the pattern that works.
Below some dams the channel is only eight to ten feet deep or even shallower. On others, the bottom might be fifteen to twenty feet down. Regardless, the disoriented, scattered, and often injured shad will head for the safety of the rocks, and the walleye, bass, and stripers scour the bottom in search of them.
When Carolina-rigging a BoJoLe (usually the most effective presentation), use just enough weight to get the sinker to the bottom. Start with a 1/8-ounce weight. It should click across the rocks without falling down between them. If there’s a lot of water spilling over the flood gates and three or four turbines are generating or if you’re fishing deeper water, try a quarter-ounce or even half-ounce sinker.
By casting upstream and a little out to one side, as the boat drifts downstream the lure will track along the bottom at about the same rate. Lift the bait with your rod and then allow it to flutter back down, reeling slowly to take up slack until you feel the rocks, and then repeat.
With this tactic, the flutter spoon looks a lot like a dazed or wounded shad heading for shelter. Gamefish are hard-wired to attack such prey quicker than they will healthy minnows.
Fishing the tailraces, you’re going to hang up. If you’re fishing where you need to be, there’s no way to avoid it. Swift water will push your lure into crevices between rocks. But if you don’t jerk hard on your line and just run your boat up past where the lure is hung, 99 per cent of the time it will come loose and you will lose neither your rig nor the time required to retie.
If bass and stripers continue to feed on the surface, replace the sinker on your Carolina rig with a weighted float or popping cork. Cast out and retrieve the lure with sweeps and pops of your rod tip. A BoJoLe dancing seductively just below the surface will prove irresistible to fish in the jumps.
Depending on the river, you can expect fast action for an eighth to a quarter mile below the dam. When you reach a point where the river has settled down, reel in and run back up to the dam for your next drift.
Drift-fishing the tailraces involves line-watching, much like jig fishing in calm water. A fish may scoop up your bait and move toward you, or you’ll have enough of a loop in your line from the turbulence that you might not feel a strike. Spool up with orange or chartreuse high-visibility line and keep a close watch on your line in order to detect slight ticks that signal strikes. Each twitch might be a fish or a boulder sticking up from the bottom; either way, reel up slack and set the hook!
A big hybrid can slam your bait so hard that it snaps your line before your drag even kicks in, so use a good quality monofilament with enough stretch to absorb the shock. I recommend 8-pound test line because it’s strong enough to handle trophy-size fish in open water, yet is thin enough to enable your bait to reach the bottom even in swift current.
Since knocking around the rocks will nick and scrape your line pretty fast, tie on an 18-inch to two-foot leader of ten- to twelve-pound test fluorocarbon or other low-vis line. Even with a few nicks, it will remain strong enough to handle a big fish. Check your leader after each drift and retie before heading back up to the dam.
These tactics have paid off for me below dams on the Missouri, Tennessee, and Ohio rivers and others across the country. When the late summer bite slows down on reservoirs and you’re itching to get bit, head to the other side of the dam for a change of pace. You’ll find the action you crave in the tailraces. [Buy BoJoLe Flutter Spoons Now.]
“The Ol’ Stump Bumper”