ONE OF THE MOST COMMON QUESTIONS raised by visitors to the southern tailwaters is “How do I know when to get out of the water?” Anglers from outside the area are often incredulous at a situation locals take for granted: we have no control of the dams.
Hydroelectric dams and the tailwaters they create make for a truly unique fishing environment. High water due to rain and runoff are often not even a factor in consideration of whether to fish. Rivers stay open and cool in the hottest months of the year and comparatively warm in the coldest months. However, tailwater fisheries are the only ones in which anglers have to worry about flood-level flows on bright, shiny days six weeks after the last rain shower. Moreover, these flows can be unpredictable, violent changes in the river’s character, and anglers can easily become stranded or worse.
Much as anglers would like to be able to turn the dams on or off according to fishing situations, the truth is, on the majority of tailwaters, river fishermen eat last and get the smallest slice of the pie. Dams are usually managed by either your local power company or some amalgamation of the power industry and a federal regulatory body. The best example of a generous system is the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA was set up during the second Roosevelt administration to provide jobs during the Depression, as well as flood control and electricity to one of the last areas to see a light bulb. The TVA is a fairly well-managed, transparent system. TVA posts a generation schedule in advance on its website and for the most part sticks to it. However, most areas are not that lucky.
The classic situation is the one found on the White River system in Arkansas. There, the Army Corps of Engineers manages the Dams according to power generation needs, usually in close consultation with Carroll Electric, or SWEPCO, or some other regional power supplier. In the Arkansas management mentality, power generation is really about lake levels. Little if any attention is paid to the people on the other side of the five major dams in the area. Lake users simply outnumber river users and, in this as in almost all other areas of wildlife management, politics is the order of the day. Lake users prefer high water; power companies prefer to make a profit; and river users with minimum flow or fish kill concerns often have difficulty making themselves heard over the general buzz of influence.
The result of this situation is a potentially treacherous one. Although the cold water drawn from the bottom of the lakes across the South provides a year round fishery and some of the highest growth levels for trout on the planet, anglers can and do drown every year. This article will explain the basics of river wading safety, as well as practical fishing workarounds when the water is high.
You’ve probably already read a number of articles on basic river safety. The truth is, most manufacturers and administrators wage what amounts to an abstinence campaign: if the siren sounds, get out of the water and go home, always wear a life jacket, never wade when the dams are running, etc. Like all abstinence campaigns, this isn’t exactly what fishermen want to hear.
The first and most important factor in wading safety on a tailwater is the ability to recognize when the water is rising. As the video below demonstrates, rising water can be subtle, often even unnoticeable unless you happen to be standing on a dry patch of rocks. Watch closely for changes in the amount of debris coming down river. This is often the first sign of increased flow. In the hotter months, a fogbank rolling your direction is a telltale sign, as is a sudden blast of cold air from upriver. Pay attention to herons and other birds as well; if they begin feeding inexplicably, rising water is often the cause. Because trout also go into a frenzy when flows increase, anglers are frequently caught while being absorbed in their fishing. Take care, and always pick out or place a dry marker just at the water’s edge, and remember to check it periodically.
River levels can also rise dramatically. Bull Shoals Dam in Arkansas has a whopping 8 units of water, and even on a river with areas 300 yards wide, the water can come up 8-10 feet. Water will rise more rapidly in the center of a channel as the flow “ropes” its way downriver, so be cautious and get an early start if you need to make a crossing. However, if you’d kind of like to stick around and keep fishing, read on.
Here’s a secret many anglers don’t know: you don’t always have to leave the river the minute the horn sounds. A certain amount of flow makes for excellent fishing. Most hydroelectric dam units generate somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water when they are turned fully on. That means a dam with 2 units might be able to push up to around 8,000 cfs in ordinary conditions. (Keep in mind that in flood stages water can be sluiced over the top of the dam as well). However, the generators do not have to come on all the way in order to trigger the warning siren. Moreover, most rivers are safe to wade up to around 1,500 cfs if one is reasonably vigilant and in good health. The one principle to keep in mind is ‘know your limits!’
Although the only way to learn those limits is to test them, best to do it close to the bank, with a fellow angler watching out, and preferably not wearing waders.
When wading in high water, keep in mind what the fish already know. Structure will provide you with a buffer zone both above and below any significant interruption in the current. Sometimes you can hop scotch behind boulders and make your way a considerable distance quite safely. Be cautious to never go in deeper than your center of gravity, and remember that that center will move closer to your feet as more and more power is added to the flow. Very shallow fast moving sluices or tailouts are often the most dangerous areas for a spill, despite not being deep. Choose slower water where possible, even if it means going in a little further. When in deep but slow water, add inches to your height by moving on tiptoes, and “moonjump” across narrow, deeper passages. Slow, concentrated movements will propel you through water as far as if you were on dry land so long as you don’t thrash and swirl about.
Occasionally we all end up in a situation we didn’t plan for. If it comes to an extreme measure and you absolutely must get across, try the following: If you have a rain jacket along, put it on. Zip all seams, grommets, and zippers as tight as possible, preferably all the way to your neck. A high-quality fishing jacket, teamed with waders, can make a damn-near impenetrable barrier so long as you aren’t submerged too long. If you wear a fishing vest, close all seams tightly and move fly boxes to the highest pockets. Unstring your rod but leave the pieces together – you may need it as a wading staff. Stow your reel if possible. When you get in the water, move slowly but in as close to a straight line as possible. If the current sweeps you along, let it unless it begins to threaten deeper water, and concentrate on moving to the other bank. Use your free arm to breast-stroke your way along, and be prepared to stab your rod downward as a quick brace if you miss a step.
In the worst case scenario, when you’ve taken a dunking and are floating downstream, roll over so your boots are downriver and you are on your back. Take deep breaths and spread your arms to take advantage of your natural floatation. As soon as you are in shallow enough water, stand up and walk out. It goes without saying that all anglers should wear a wading belt, even if they also wear a hip pack. Flooded, overlarge waders can act as a sea anchor, dragging you down, but only if they are allowed to billow out.
Wading safely while still being able to fish is an important skill, particularly in the early spring when the cabin fever is raging but the rivers are all high. If the water is running but you absolutely want to fish, search out a tailwater with a nice backwater slough. Arkansas’ Little Red River has just such a place, and even at two units of generation trout may be caught by wading anglers. If you are cautious in your approach, you may get a shot at very outsize trout! The big bruisers take advantage of the high water to cruise new territory for stranded terrestrials and rodents. Try a mouse or lemming pattern or a big hopper!
If you aren’t lucky enough to have a trout swamp handy, consider investing in a two-handed rod or a one man pontoon boat. Pontoons make excellent watercraft at one unit or so of generation, and generally the trout are at the highest pitch of frenzy right around 2,500 cfs.
When two units or more come on, consider stowing the rod and paying attention to the river. Strainers and downed obstacles or bridge pylons are a risk for inflatable craft, which can tear. If possible, observe the drift boat or jonboat anglers and stick to the same channels these experienced high-water hands use.
If a boat isn’t in the budget or if you can’t work out a shuttle ride on no notice, try a two handed rod. Traditional spey casts with a two-handed rod can work 60-80 feet of line out with almost no backcast even in a beginner’s hands.
High water doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of a day’s fishing. Take prudent steps and seek out new areas. Remember that trout move out of the areas of strongest flow too, so that grass bank by the parking lot might suddenly be quite productive. Above all, be aware of your surroundings and never cross your limits.
Finally, be cautious who you trust to give you scheduling advice. If possible, always check the schedule yourself before an outing, or have a cell phone handy. If you don’t know the number for the dam, contact your local fly shop. Shops in tailwater regions will often keep tabs throughout the day.
For more information about fishing in tailwaters, visit the Bulletin Board.