An Unorthodox Guide to Tailwater Fishing
Article by Jonathan Antunez
My nearest and dearest fishery is a highly pressured tailwater known as the South Platte through Deckers. Why is it my favorite? Quite simply, it is challenging. These fish have seen just about anything and everything and have very little fear of humans. They will even line up below you, not two feet away from you, snacking on whatever you happen to kick up. San Juan shuffle, you say? Hell, there are so many fishermen here that it kind of happens everywhere all at once. If that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, believe me, I completely understand. There is no solitude here.
What the place lacks in solitude, it makes up for in large and beautiful trout. That’s why people flock to this river. It’s not a secret, and the myriads of anglers who show up every day toss just about everything at these fish. If you go to the local fly shop, they will usually point you at a bevy of microscopic offerings. It’s all well and good. Those little flies catch fish. Slap them on a bobber and you’re ready to fish, right?
Well now, that’s the real catch. You see, I’m not really in it to catch numbers of fish. What I really want is to find solutions to the challenges set before me, but on my terms and in my own fixed line fly fishing way. Sure, I could fish it just like the fly shop tells me to, but where is the fun in that?!
I suppose it all depends on what you really want out of fishing. The thing that gets me out of bed and into that cold water, is finding my own collection of flies and techniques that work well on this well-fished water. In fact, I determined early on that this tailwater would be a testing ground for me. Could I catch fish regularly using somewhat unorthodox techniques and flies? What follows are a few of my experiences with fixed line fly fishing for trout in difficult and technical water.
As I recall, it was a combo of bad prep and less than favorable conditions that set up my first conundrum. I had misplaced my spool of 5x somewhere and the water that day was super low and clear. It was especially windy as well, so zero to no chance of fishing upstream. At first I played around with 6x and lost a fish almost immediately. I then went to the 4x. Not one fish would touch it. As I looked around at all the other anglers heading upstream, plying the water with nymphing rig wares, I noticed a tan caddis flutter its way across the water surface. Another one, and then another one. The perfect storm of situations started to develop in my mind. I couldn’t show my tippet to the fish, I had the wind pushing downstream, and the water was very clear.
First order of business was to lengthen my line to about 20 ft of level line plus 3 ft of tippet. That should allow me to present to fish well enough downstream that they wouldn’t see me. Next was the presentation. Choosing to mimic the clumsy caddis I saw sputtering on the surface, I picked a futsu kebari (stiff hackled wet) from my fly box and proceeded to cast the fly so that it would drag along the top of the prime lies. As it was dragging across and down, I began to employ pon pon (or tap tap) to the handle of my rod. The wind would pick up my fly sometimes with its gusts and then set it back down which was perfectly in tune with the caddis behavior.
It was only a matter of time before I picked up my first taker. A nice strong rainbow, about 16 inches. I used the technique to lure two more fish to the fly. One in particular was pushing the 20 inch mark. Traditional tenkara techniques were getting the job done, blended a little bit with English Loch style dapping presentation.
Eventually the caddis action subsided and I was left scratching my head again. I got downstream to a bit of water that was slower moving. Having done a fair bit of research on this water before coming, I knew that leeches were kind of a big deal here. As I mentioned before, the water was super low and clear, so I switched over to a small unweighted size 18 leech. I proceeded to fish this fly with the yoko-biki (fan technique) across and down as you would a western style streamer. The action with that combo was the ticket and the browns and rainbows jumped on the leech as if it was their last meal.
It was now getting to be mid to late summer. I had coerced a few browns with some yoko-biki leech action. The browns were all over this leech but where were the rainbows today? As I walked back to my starting point, I was determined to re-fish a bit of water I had missed some fish earlier. I plied my trade with my downstream yoko-biki/leech but was mostly ignored.
I saw fish rising sharply to a hatch of pale evening dun mayflies. The rise form suggested fish actively chasing emergers, which was something not uncommon to me, as I had seen it a few times before on previous trips. I wanted to continue fishing downstream, so the idea of casting a beaded nymph crept into my mind. Something that could be cast across and down and that would sink quickly. I had tied up some sakasa kebari with a 3/32 tungsten bead head in a similar color a few days back.
Now to settle on a technique. They wanted something rising. The bead head should get it down after a pause and then perhaps a pulse upwards. I settled for a gyaku-biki (reverse pull) presentation but with a little bit of a depth modification. I determined that between each pulse upward, I would allow the fly to sink and lose some ground downstream in the current.
So a quick cast across, giving the fly time to achieve depth. First pulse upwards, and then the weight and the current would do the rest. Second pulse upward, the fly sank back down and was swept downstream a bit further. I repeated this until I felt out of range and took a step downstream and repeated the motions. I was nearing the deepest part of the pool when something hit solid and did not move. My confusion gave way to elation as I saw the large side of a rainbow flash at me. Elation was soon swallowed by panic as I wrestled with this wonderful fish. Run after run, I curved the fish towards me, always maintaining the rod bend, allowing the fish to lead the way. Finally defeated, I put her in the net. A personal best rainbow for the river of 22 inches!
Fall is a special time on my tailwater. Fish seem to be jumping and chasing anything and everything they can, fattening up for the impending winter months. Sometimes they focus on the small blue winged olives, other times they take full advantage of the bumbling yellow sally stoneflies as they awkwardly try to escape their aquatic life.
Having seen this activity before, I had a mind to try something I had read about in Paul Gaskell’s book “Fly Fishing Master H.C. Cutcliffe Rediscovered in The Art of Trout Fishing in Rapid Streams”. In essence, it’s a two fly rig. The point fly which rides at the end of the line, and one that is fished on a six inch dropper off the main line about a foot and a half above the point fly. This rigging changes the attitude of the top fly completely, and as it is swung across the current, you can tap on the rod making it jump in and out of the surface film. The technique is called “dibbling the bob fly” in the English style. If the ‘bob’ fly fails to entice, the fish makes an easy meal of the point fly.
As you can imagine, the combination of the tenkara technique with a traditional English presentation had absolutely devastating results. I have a trove of vivid memories of trout going full airborne after these flies. Quite possibly the most exciting fishing I have ever done or probably ever will do. Here is a stunning brown that could not resist the Cutcliffe fly!
You won’t catch me suffering out in the cold, only to catch a few fish in uninspiring ways. Instead I sit at home, I pour myself a brandy, and consider all the wonderful memories of the fishing years gone by. I crack open an old book where ancient anglers recount their experiences and reminisce of their successes. From them I learn new ways to catch fish. I store the ideas up like arrows for the quiver. Some will find their mark next year; others will miss entirely. We anglers all have the same precocious tendencies to observe, tinker, scheme and practice.
To that end I spend time at my vise, devising new and improved flies. Drawing inspiration from the English, the Japanese, the Spanish, the Italian, and French patterns. Sometimes it feels like these masters say too much; others not enough. Whatever is lacking is left to us to discover and there is many an idle evening to do so. By and by, winter loses its grip on the world and the fish are restored to their busy ways. I ready myself for the following season with my head full of ideas and pockets full of fly boxes. I have so much more to learn from my water but I have spent my time well and I feel ready for Spring to provide its fresh challenge!
This article originally appeared in the 2022-23 issue of Tenkara Angler magazine.
Do you have a story to tell? A photo to share? A fly recipe that’s too good to keep secret? If you would like to contribute content to Tenkara Angler, click HERE for more details.
When you buy something using the retail links within our articles or Gear Shop, we may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. Tenkara Angler does not accept money for editorial gear reviews. Read more about our policy.