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Tailwater Tactics

American Angler

Six noted fly fishing guides share their favorite flies, tactics, and advice for fishing the most technically challenging rivers in the world.

[by John Fedorka]


TAKING OFF YOUR HAT WITH ONE HAND, you use the other hand to wipe perspiration off your brow, not because it’s hot, but because you’re frustrated. Scratching your head, you can still see a slab-sided trout holding deep and comfortably ingesting the majority of its daily protein. But it has refused almost everything in your fly box. You’ve doctored your leader more times than you’d like, and yet your finned quarry intermittently flashes its flanks, signaling it’s still hungry. Trying to close the deal is frustrating, but it’s fun, and it’s why so many anglers flock to technical fisheries.

Each year anglers from across the globe migrate to western tailwaters like the Big – horn, Missouri, Henrys Fork, Lees Ferry, San Juan, and Green Rivers. Each one offers its own mix of cool, clean water; robust aquatic bug life; and thousands of fish per mile (surrounded by some of the most beautiful backdrops in North America)— to name just a few reasons why fishermen distinguish those rivers from others. What’s more, if you’ve ever fished those waters, you likely know firsthand how equally famous the football-sized trout are for their snobby dispositions and reluctance to be fooled by anything but perfect drifts, gentle casts, and accurate imitations. Naturally, to get an edge, it helps to go to some – one in the know.

To help tip more of the odds in your favor the next time you visit a tailwater, six of the West’s most knowledgeable tailwater guides offer up their advice on tactics, pattern selection, presentation, and equipment. Tie a few of the patterns they recommend, and remember their suggestions the next time you’re plying dam-controlled waters and you just might land that one trophy fish you’ve been waiting a lifetime to catch.

Mark Raisler

The sowbug and scud are a trout-food staple in the Missouri River (and other tailwaters) and can make up around 35 percent of our trout’s available food, so my go-to is a size 16 Tailwater Sowbug. But I also like Wilcox’s Little Green Machine in size 18 for PMDs in the summer, and Mason’s Peep Show in size 18 is a great spring and fall Baetis pattern that also works year-round as an attractor. I also find myself using the Tungsten Rainbow Czech Nymph in sizes 10 to 14. And then, of course, the famous Zebra Midge in sizes 20 and 22 works 365 days a year.


Tailwater Sowbug

HOOK: Dai-Riki 070, sizes 12 to 16.
THREAD: Red 6/0 Uni-Thread.
RIB: Small silver UTC Ultra Wire.
BODY: Hairline Dubbin Rainbow (light shade) Scud Dub.
BACK: A stripe created by a brown marker or Loon Outdoors UV Clear Fly Fishing (thick)

For a leader, I recommend people start with a 7½-foot-long 3X leader because you can add tippet and turn it into anything, which allows for flexibility in modifying your rig. Although nymphing is often the most successful technique on the Missouri, it’s not unusual to have to switch to dry flies or streamers on any given day, and you can tailor a leader in this way to suit each. In most cases, you’ll want to drop 18 inches of fluorocarbon to the lead fly, like a scud, and then another 16 inches of 4X or 5X to the trailer fly, possibly a small midge. I recommend fluorocarbon because it’s less visible underwater and it sinks faster than traditional monofilament. For weight, start with a size B split shot above the tippet-toleader knot and add more as needed.

For a rod, I like the 9-foot-long, 6-weight Sage Pulse matched with a Sage 2250 reel spooled with a weight-forward Rio Extreme Indicator line. It’s a fast-action rod, and though it’s not Sage’s top-end rod, the action on it is terrific.

Words of Wisdom—Tailwater fish don’t always line up on the banks as they sometimes do in big freestone rivers. Look for the “not so obvious” structure points like shelf lines, weed lines, slower-water seams, and especially the slow inside bends and slow outside bends. On the Missouri, that means looking for the sexiest water you can find, then turning around and fishing the water behind you. Also, remember to mend, mend, mend.

The challenge of fishing to educated and selective trout on fabled tailwaters like Montana’s Bighorn River is what keeps anglers returning year after year. (photo by Barry and Cathy Beck)

Hale Harris
Bighorn Trout Shop

My go-to flies are a size 18 Flashback Quill Nymph because I can use it to imitate a midge or Baetis nymph yearround. Next would be a size 16 or 18 Ray Charles because it’s such a great sow bug pattern. The Tung Teaser midge pupa in sizes 16 and 18 works well as a dropper and serves double duty as a drowned Trico or caddis pupa. A common Bighorn River scud, the Gammarus, turns amber when it molts, so a simple size 16 or 18 Orange Scud is a good pattern, and can also imitate an egg. An olive Flashback Pheasant Tail works well as a black caddis imitation and outfishes most caddis pupa imitations. The camel-dubbed Soft-Hackle Sowbug is a good pale morning dun (PMD) nymph or orange scud imitation. Finally, a burgundy San Juan Worm is always a good choice.


Flashback Quill Nymph

HOOK: Dai-Riki 060, sizes 16 to 20.
THREAD: Black 6/0 Uni-Thread.
TAIL: Natural pheasant tail.
RIB: Extra-small gold Ultra Wire.
BODY: Black 6/0 Uni-Thread.
THORAX: Peacock herl.
WING CASE: Medium pearl tinsel.

The only time you should use any leader shorter than nine feet long is during low-water conditions—then use a 7½-foot-long leader. You should add tippet to the leader anyhow, and if you use a two-fly setup, your entire leader is well over nine feet long anyhow, which is adequate for spooky tailwater fish. It’s also a good compromise between presentation and castability, especially in windy conditions. Otherwise, during the high-water flows of the early season, use a nine-foot-long leader tapered to 3X with a dropper tied to 4X tippet. Later in the season, switch to a nine-foot-long 4X leader with another two feet of 4X tippet to the lead fly, and 5X to the dropper.

If you need to add weight to your rig, use Hareline Dubbin Tungsten Tacky Weight. The trick is to roll out the material into a long cigar shape and attach it to your leader above the tippet knot. The cigar shape makes casting a little easier, and it’s less prone to snag. Last, it’s infinitely adjustable—add or subtract material as needed to suit each hole you fish.

For a rod, I really like my CF Burkheimer 9-foot-long 5-weight paired with a Hatch Finatic 4 Plus Reel spooled with Scientific Anglers’ Shark Wave GPX. The rod has a good moderate-fast action that I personally like; you can feel the whole rod work. Fly rod preference is a highly personal thing, but a quality rod that flexes down into the midsection mends line easier than a fast-action, stiff rod does, protects tippet from breaking because it flexes, and is just more pleasant to fish with over the course of a day.

Words of Wisdom—Since the Bighorn is a large river with big gliding runs, long-line nymphing is key, especially with pressured fish. Once the indicator drifts parallel to you, keep the drift going with stack mends. In other words, mend slack line above your indicator and feed the presentation downstream. You’ll increase the number of hookups when you get those flies downstream and away from you.

Terry Gunn
Lees Ferry Anglers

Lees Ferry is generally a midge fishery, so one of my favorite flies is a size 18 to 22 Beadhead Zebra Midge. Ted Wellington designed the fly in my shop years ago, and to this day, it’s a must-have pattern here and on other tailwaters. Another pattern we use often is a ginger or pink Deer Hair Back Scud in sizes 14 and 16. It’s a local pattern tied on a straight hook since a scud swims with a straight profile. Scuds aren’t so productive here as they are on the nearby San Juan River, but San Juan worms in brown and tan, also tied on a straight hook, are a must.

Beadhead Zebra Midge

HOOK: Dai-Riki 125, sizes 18 to 24.
THREAD: Black 6/0 Uni-Thread.
BODY: Black 6/0 Uni-Thread.
RIB: Extra-small silver wire.
HEAD: 3 /32-inch silver bead.

I recommend fishing two flies off a nine-foot-long leader with a few extra feet of either 5X, 6X, or even 7X tippet with split shot placed above the tippet knot. If you’re fishing water that’s five feet deep or more, use a Thingamabobber indicator because it can support all the additional weight on the leader to get the flies down. In shallower water, use colored yarn indicators in white, blue, or green. They aren’t obtrusive and land gently on the water.

My favorite rod is a 9-foot-long, 5-weight Sage X. It has the backbone to turn over long leaders with split shot on long upstream casts, and make long-distance dry fly presentations. I’ve recommended Abel reels for years because they’re bombproof, and work great with a Scientific Anglers line. On that note, I’d also advise selecting a line and reel with a less “noisy” color, like green for instance, to help avoid spooking fish.

Words of Wisdom—Fish go where the food is, and midges like shallow water. But at the same time, the fish won’t necessarily congregate, so the more water you cover, the better. That means making long casts upstream and long downstream presentations. It’s not uncommon to get a strike with all the line off the reel, so when you set the hook, lift the rod tip up with your right hand and simultaneously pull the line down and to your side and then strip, strip, strip. Last, change your weight before you change your flies. Fish can’t refuse your pattern (insert drum rimshot here) if it’s not in their zone.

Tom Knopick

On the San Juan, midge-pupa patterns are my favorite, and of them all, my go-to is a chocolate Duranglers Flash Midge Pupa. The WD-40, which former Durangler guide Mark Engler designed years ago, is also a good one. Baetis nymphs are also important, and the San Juan RS2 in sizes 20 to 28 is a good pattern, as is the Brown Baetis Nymph in sizes 20 and 22.


Duranglers Flash Midge Pupa

HOOK: Dai-Riki 125, sizes 18 to 22.
THREAD: Brown 8/0 Uni-Thread.
RIB: Extra-small amber UTC Ultra Wire.
THORAX: Brown Wapsi Super Fine Dubbing.
WING: Pearl Krystal Flash.

To rig these flies, I advise starting with a 7½-foot 5X leader, then adding 12 inches of 6X fluorocarbon, your lead fly, another 12 inches of 6X fluorocarbon, and your dropper fly. If you need weight, add split shot above the tippet-to-leader knot. When fish are feeding just below the surface, as San Juan trout typically do, continue to use a two-fly nymph rig, but attach a size 9 split shot a few inches closer to the fly and change to a small indicator such as a piece of yarn or the sticky foam indicators, and attach it close to the flies, too.

Rod choice is always a personal thing, but I really like the 9-foot-long, 5-weight Sage X. You’ll hear a lot of guys say a fastaction rod is not good on light tippet, but for me, I like to get tight to a fish quick, and that rod does exactly that. I like any reel with a weight-forward line and a quality drag. Because we use light tippet on the San Juan, we’re playing most fish on the reel and letting them tire out on the constant, smooth pressure of the drag.

Words of Wisdom—Replicating the size of the bugs is the key to matching the hatch, whether you’re imitating midges or Baetis. The San Juan River has a low gradient, and when you’re nymphing slow-moving water, the takes are sometimes imperceptible. You can’t think about setting the hook; if you thought about it, it’s too late. Anticipate takes, and when in doubt, set the hook.

Tailwater trout often grow large because they have the best of everything—consistant water temperatures, clean water, and abundant food sources. But they certainly aren’t easy to catch. To catch fish you’ll need small flies, light tippet, and the ability to make precise presentations. (photo by Chad Chorney)

Pat Gaffney
Trout Hunter

A Turkey Tail Nymph is a sparse, thin, realistic fly with a perfect mayfly profile, which is why I reach for one more than any other pattern. It’s my ace in the hole. Typically I use a size 14 and 16 most often, but drop to a size 18 during the late season or in low-water conditions. Other effective tailwater flies I use include the Super Pupa, LaFontaine’s Deep Sparkle Pupa, an original Serendipity, and a Ram Caddis.


Turkey Tail Nymph

HOOK: TMC 200RBL, sizes 14 and 16.
THREAD: Tan 8/0 Uni-Thread.
TAIL: Three fiber tips of a turkey tail.
RIB: Fine gold wire.
ABDOMEN: Four or five turkey tail fibers wrapped to create a tapered abdomen.
THORAX: Same as abdomen.
WING CASE: Turkey tail fibers.
LEGS: Three turkey tail fibers tied on each side of the thorax.

I generally prefer to fish a 90-degree, or right-angle, nymph rig. I’ll blow up a water ballon to about the size of a dime and attach it three feet down the leader butt section with a clinch knot. I prefer a balloon over something like a Thingamabobber, as it is more sensitive to trout takes and easier to cast. You can also attach a straight section of tippet (3X if you’re using something like a big stone as the lead fly, or 4X for smaller patterns) to get your flies into a trout’s zone faster than you can with a tapered leader. I typically use something that’s either equal to or 1½ times greater than the depth of the water.

For a tailwater rod, I recommend a 9-foot long Winston B3X 6-weight because it will cast any rig you’re fishing, and cast it well. For reels, I get tired of hearing trout guys say, “It’s just to hold line,” or “Trout reels don’t need drag.” Well, it’s all fun and games until you hook a 24-incher that blows your click pawl drag apart. That said, I really like the Hatch 5 Plus lined with a weight-forward Airflo line.

Words of Wisdom—Many anglers see the calm water behind big boulders, but often ignore the calm water directly in front of it. If you’re fishing only downstream of structure, you’re overlooking a prime location. Brown trout are like largemouth bass—they don’t want to expend energy, they want to be lazy and wait for food to come to them. The biggest fish in the river will sit upstream of something like a boulder and at times even let its tail touch the rock, because it’s the first spot in the buffet line. When you’re targeting those areas, don’t mend up to the indicator—mend beyond it. That indicator has to be upstream of your line and flies to achieve a drag-free drift. When you make the first mend after a cast, lift the line and indicator up off the water and upstream of your flies.

Carl “Boomer” Stout
Trout Creek Flies

My favorite tailwater pattern varies depending on the season. However, a WD-50 is a great imitation for Baetis in the spring and fall. A generic tungsten beadhead PMD nymph and a chartreuse-colored midge nymph in size 20 are also good patterns. A common rig we use on the Green and other tailwaters is a 7½-foot long 4X leader with another 16-inch piece of tippet going to the lead fly, which is often a size 14 or 16 Tungsten Zebra Midge above a WD-50 dropper.


HOOK: Dai-Riki 1150, sizes 16 to 20.
THREAD: Olive 6/0 Danville.
TAIL: Light bronze mallard flank.
BODY: Olive 6/0 Danville.
THORAX: Olive Wapsi Super Fine Dubbing.
WING: Light bronze mallard flank.
WING CASE: UTC small flat pearl tinsel.

I recommend a 9-foot-long Loomis GLX 5- or 6-weight to my clients or any similar 9½-foot-long rods because they offer a little more power and the extra length is nice for mending. Attached to the rod butt, I like the Ross Evolution spooled with RIO’s InTouch Outbound Short line for clients because it’s a very user-friendly line that turns over any rig with ease. Failing that, I’m personally a big fan of the Wulff Triangle Taper line. It’s a good line for delicate presentations, and the taper makes it perfect for roll casts.

Words of Wisdom—Consider what is hatching during that time of year and time of day, and think about what fish are keying in on. For example, during the spring I’ll start clients with a midge in the morning and then switch to a Baetis nymph during the afternoon, or fish a small scud early in the morning and later in the evening, as those are the times scuds migrate. Then think about where fish are holding in the water column and match your rig and technique to the scenario. Many anglers often overlook that step. After nymphs become active in the water column, fish will naturally gravitate to wherever the food is.

John Fedorka is a freelance writer from Shohola, Pennsylvania, just downstream from the cold Upper Delaware River. When not fishing, he spends time with his bird-crazy German shorthaired pointer, June.

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