Originally Published on the Fulling Mill Blog
(FullingMill designer Tyler Boroff with one of many fish landed on a suspension rig)
Tailwaters. Bug factories that grow high numbers of (usually large) trout. What's the catch? Well, sometimes there is no catch because tailwater trout can be notoriously picky.
Dad jokes aside, let's unpack fishing tailwaters and help put some more fish in the net. My local tailwater is the San Juan. I use both euro and suspension rigs whether I’m guiding it or fishing it personally. Usually I’ll turn to a euro rig when guiding or fishing on foot, and suspension rigs while fishing out of a drift boat.
Recently I’ve been fishing the San Juan with FullingMill Fly designer Tyler Boroff. We alternated euro and suspension techniques on our last few wade outings and had a lot of fun on the water. While the two disciplines are frequently contradicted, if you understand what makes tail water trout tick you’ll be able to have success with both styles.
What is important to picky tail water fish? Where the food is in the water column. According to Tyler, where the trout are feeding in the column, especially on the San Juan, is the primary focus. The San Juan experiences prolific midge hatches daily, enough midges to keep its fifteen thousand trout per mile happy. That's a lot of food. Trout don’t have to move very far when the buffet line comes down the river.
The midge cycle is important because at various stages of the midge’s life it is in a different part of the water column. The larva lives near the bottom, then becomes a pupa and wiggles toward the surface, the pupa then sheds its exoskeleton at the surface and an adult midge flies away. You can use a midge hatch to not only “match the hatch” but also match the column.
(A stomach sample of a midge eater. Note lots of pupa and adults, this fish was feeding higher in the water column. We picked up the fish keeping our flies high column in a riffle connected to a deep bucket.)
With such a gigantic biomass of insects, trout can really key in on things like size and color during intense hatches. That opposite will also hold true. I bring up size and color not as the “end all be all” but just something to be aware of on your next tail water outing. Feeding column was the ticket if you look at the stomach sampling in the picture above. The San Juan loves to throw curve balls. I’ve caught fish with beard hair tied to a hook (true story) and then had days where I’ve had to make 10 adjustments before hooking up. Stay flexible.
Whether you’re fishing under an indicator or euro nymphing, drifts matter. How do you get the best drift with the system you’re fishing? A few factors can mean the difference between fish or no fish.
Tyler likes to fish a custom leader. He starts off with 2ft of 1x to 9ft of Master Class 3x Fluoro carbon tippet.This terminates to a tippet ring. Because of the diameter of 3x, many consumer suspension devices will slip during casting. To combat this, Tyler uses wool affixed with an orthodontic rubber band as his suspender. Above the tippet ring a split shot is crimped. Keeping it short and sweet: Size 8 shot for shallow water/high column presentations. Size 4 shot as an “all arounder”. Size 1 shot for deep/heavy water/low column. Spacing from tippet ring, usually 12-18” of 5.5x-7x Master Class Flouro to first fly, second fly 18-28”. Go longer to the second fly if trying to hit two bands of the water column.
There are a lot of different Euro formulas out there - use what you like. From the tippet ring I go depth to the dropper with 5.5x-7x Master Class flouro. On tailwaters I almost always have an unweighted fly as my point fly. Early in the day before the hatches get going I’ll keep my flies spaced closer together. As the day progresses I’ll sometimes space my flies as far as 30” apart. I personally believe the unweighted fly “swims” better further from the dropper.
Most of the time my dropper fly is either a slush apricot egg or something from the tactical/anchor selection. I love the FullingMill’s anchor selection because I can fish smaller profile flies with heavier beads. In tailwaters it seems that trout are more apt to take smaller bugs. The tactical selection offers the non-tier the opportunity to fish smaller flies with oversized beads to better match the water type.
My favorites include:
TungBomb SOB-Czech Gray #16D(3.2mm)
MopFly Beige #14D(3.2mm)
Olive Hot Spot #18b(2.4mm)
My favorite all around bead size is a 3.2mm. For shallow upper column/floating the sighter I like 2.4mm and 2mm beads. And 3.8mm beads for heavy/deep water with stronger current. Of course, I could write a whole blog on water type and bead size…in fact I think I will! Play with the system, and find what works for your tailwater.
For my unweighted point fly I like:
RS2s in gray #20 tied on an FM ultimate dry fly hook
Foam back emergers in black and chocolate #22-26
KF Emergers #22-26
Next time you’re out fishing a tailwater with either euro or suspension techniques remember to think trout first, and rig according to the prevailing conditions and trends. Hopefully these tips will help you put some more trout in the net on your next outing.