Look Below Dams for Big BassLook Below Dams for Big Bass Tailwater — the section of river or reservoir that’s influenced by an upstream dam’s outflow — are bass fishing hot spots. Tap their potential by minding bass location, lure selection and your safety.
By Pete M. Anderson
Davy Hite wrote an extensive B.A.S.S. tournament resume before retiring from competition in 2016. He won the 1999 Bassmaster Classic, bookending that triumph with Angler of the Year titles in 1997 and 2002. He amassed eight B.A.S.S. wins, including his last in 2011. It was on Pickwick Lake, a Tennessee River impoundment that spreads across Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama.
In that tournament, Hite ran all the way upstream to the tailwaters of Wilson Dam, where he used a swimbait to catch 20 bass that weighed 84 pounds and 9 ounces, distancing second place by 8 pounds. The commitment wasn’t without some rough seas, as spats of falling water levels and reduced current over the course of the four-day tournament forced the South Carolina angler to continuously adjust. But even with that volatility, he knew the potential for a positive outcome was strong.
Tailwater bass are predictable in terms of their location and how they feed. That made them a good option for Hite on Pickwick and for you wherever you can find them. But like all bass, they aren’t without their nuances. Understanding and applying the best approaches will catch you more of them. Here’s how to do that.
Bass are mobile creatures. They swim anywhere their fins will take them: deep water, shallow water, up small creeks or across expansive natural lakes. And in rivers and the upper end of reservoirs, there always is a population of them swimming in the tailwaters.
Tailwaters are the stretch of river or reservoir that’s impacted by water releases from a dam immediately upstream. On rivers, such as the Mississippi, dams and locks are built to control flooding and permit commercial navigation. If spaced far enough apart and built large enough, reservoirs can form between the dams. A well-known example of the latter is the Tennessee River reservoirs, which include Guntersville, Kentucky, Wilson and Pickwick.
Tailwaters are riverine in nature, even in reservoirs. They offer shallow and deep water and a mix of hard structure and cover: rock, ledges and stumps. Aquatic vegetation and shoreline cover, such as laydowns or docks, are often lacking because of the current, which can run strong.
The amount of current in a tailwater can change hourly, daily or even weekly. Locks, for example, create pulses of current as vessels are lowered. If the dam is used to generate electricity, you can expect more current below on hot, humid summer days, when everyone is running their air conditioner full blast. And significant rainfall upstream can force operators to open the dam’s gates, moving more water downstream to stop flooding.
Regardless of its strength, current is what makes tailwaters bass producers. Smallmouth, spotted and largemouth bass are all found in tailwaters but not in the same spots. Like elsewhere in a reservoir or river, each gravitates to the spots that they feel most comfortable. Smallmouth, for example, are at home in small eddies surrounded by the fastest current. Spotted bass will use current nearly as fast, and you’ll find both, along with largemouth, in the slowest current.
Current keeps bass in a tailwater for one big reason: food. It’s washed to them, making feeding efficient. There’s no need to chase roaming schools of baitfish like their neighbors down lake.
Tailwater bass also enjoy water that’s more oxygenated during the hot summer months thanks to the turbulence. While that may not attract bass, it makes the ones that live there more active in a variety of depths.
Go with the flow
The lives of tailwater bass are dictated by current. Bass seek shelter behind rocks, ledges and other obstacles. These patches of slack water — eddies — form in any amount of current. Concentrate your casts at these spots, along with the seams that lead downstream from them.
Fish the ones that match your target bass species. If you are after smallmouth, target eddies surrounded by the fastest water. But if it’s largemouth that you’re after, look for eddies in slower water, which is usually found farther downstream and sometimes along the bank closer to the dam.
While some current is needed to form eddies, more aren’t formed as current increases. That only makes fishing more difficult. Bass are pinned into the most sheltered spots, and if you do find them, boat positioning becomes too much of a struggle to successfully present a lure to them. In those cases, you’re better off fishing elsewhere.
You can judge the amount of current before arriving at the tailwater. As you make your way up the reservoir or river from the ramp, take note of floating objects. If all the moored boats, for example, are pointing upstream and the shoal and channel makers are leaning downstream or have water boiling around them, chances are good the dam is moving lots of water.
Hite’s Pickwick plan centered around targeting bass waiting in the eddies below Wilson Dam for shad to be washed by. He targeted these spots, which changed as the flow increased and decreased, with swimbaits. And while the soft-plastic body remained the same, he constantly searched for the right size jig head.
From reel to the lure, all of your gear has to match the amount of current. It will never go completely slack, even during a drought. But as it slows, it’s easier for bass to move around more. And that means you’ll have more ways to catch them.
Tailwater bass focus on baitfish, so choose lures that mimic them. When current is slow, try topwaters, such as poppers and walking lures, spinnerbaits and crankbaits. Easily upset by faster current, these lures can quickly cover a lot of water, which is exactly what you need to accomplish as bass spread out under these conditions.
Lure options diminish as current increases. With bass gathering in eddies, anglers need lures that can be casted with pinpoint accuracy and slip easily through the fast-moving water. Jigs and soft-plastic lures are good choices. But a better option is to follow Hite’s lead and fish swimbaits. They are available in an array of sizes and colors, making it easy to match the local forage. And they can be rigged several ways, including Texas style or impaled on a jig head’s single upturned hook. They cast like a dream and fish at any depth or speed.
Jigs, soft plastics and swimbaits share one more beneficial characteristic for fishing in changing current: It’s easy to adjust their weight. By carrying a selection of weights — in the case of swimbaits, different size jig heads — you can match your offering to the current. If it’s ripping, for example, add more weight to keep your swimbait where you want it.
Current affects other parts of your setup. Large diameter lines create more drag than smaller ones. So, instead of spooling your reel with monofilament or fluorocarbon, use braided line. Most offer more strength with less diameter. And if you’re worried about more visible braid spooking clear water bass, tie in a short — 18 to 24 inches is plenty — leader of less visible fluorocarbon or monofilament.
Besides being more accurate casters, baitcasting reels manage line better. Current grabs excess line, creating a bow that deadens sensitivity, making it difficult to detect strikes. Stopping the spool with your thumb as soon as the lure lands minimizes excess line.
Play it safe
Even the slowest current can create a dangerous situation if you were to fall from your boat, including being swept away, or worse yet, under an obstruction. That danger increases exponentially as the current runs faster, when even the best swimmers struggle. While those have bleak outlooks, there are ways to protect yourself.
First and foremost, wear your personal floatation device. PFDs come in a variety of styles, with most bass anglers choosing a foam-filled or inflatable model. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Foam-filled PFDs float as soon as the wearer enters the water. But their bulk can make them uncomfortable, especially on hot summer days. That means anglers are more likely to shed one while fishing, and it won’t help unless it’s worn.
Inflatable PFDs feel less restrictive. Many bass anglers choose to wear them the entire time they’re on the water. That’s important in some states, where they have to be worn to count as a legally required PFD. They require regular maintenance, ensuring the carbon-dioxide cylinder is charged and swapping out the inflation activation tab.
Be careful if you anchor. Water can be released quickly. If you don’t have time to free your anchor, it can pull your boat under. Increased current can wash free logs and other debris, which could ram your boat, possibly knocking an occupant overboard.
Prepare for more current by calling the dam operator or checking its website for upcoming release times. That way, you can plan your trips around the strongest flows, when fishing is at its lowest and danger at its highest. Some dams also have audible signals, such as a horn, which are activated prior to releases. Always keep an ear trained for one when you’re on the water.
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