In the 1960s and '70s the race to harness flowing water for electricity created prime bass reservoirs throughout the country, particularly in the South. Entire river systems were dammed, forming a series of newly flooded impoundments where fish populations flourished.
At the same time, these dams forged a totally foreign fishing environment from the calm waters of the reservoirs on the other side of the giant concrete walls where a fast moving, often violent habitat exists. The sometimes torrent discharges of the hydroelectric turbines created areas long referred to as tailraces.
One angler, ironically from a state not known for its tailrace fishing, reminded the fishing world in spectacular fashion of the bass-rich grounds that exist behind dams. In 2002, Texan Jay Yelas seined the waters behind Logan Martin Dam well enough to post one of the most dominating victories in the history of the CITGO Bassmaster Classic. His catch of 45 pounds, 13 ounces, which included winning all three big-bass awards (with 6-pound-plus largemouth) provided a rare wire-to-wire win by the comfortable margin of 6-plus pounds.
It was another tailrace — this time below the Jordan Lake Dam — that provided some last minute drama in the Busch BASS Angler-of-the-Year race the following season. Using an aluminum jet boat to navigate several sets of rapids in practice, Yelas bravely piloted his full-sized fiberglass boat across the same hazards during the tournament to fish the shadow of the dam where he enjoyed the luxury of not having to share the big, unpressured spotted bass that live in that tailrace. That gamble paid off to the tune of a 34-pound two day catch, which put him into the finals of the CITGO Bassmaster Tour season-finale and secured his first Angler-of-the-Year title.
In the process, Yelas refocused our attention on the fact that tailraces harbor some of the most active bass in a river system and provide a fun but challenging way to catch fish. The untold millions of gallons of water that are pumped through the turbines of dams along rivers like the Tennessee, Coosa, Alabama, Ohio, Cumberland, Red and others create an oxygen-laden current that flows downriver over submerged rocks, humps, scour holes, trees, chunks of concrete and other objects. Baitfish are also regularly flushed through the dam. Add it up, and tailraces provide everything that a bass needs: cool, oxygen-rich water, an abundance of cover to provide a break in the current and plenty of food.
It is easy to see why bass spend their entire lives in the whitewater below dams.
It isn't so easy for fishermen, however. Tailrace fishing can be tricky at times. Just getting up to the dam can be an adventure.
That was certainly the situation with Yelas on the Coosa River. Recent rains had the river at near flood stage during the early June tournament, which allowed him to run through a section of water that surprised even local river experts. With the water dropping daily, this was a go for broke risk that could make or break his Angler-of-the-Year hopes.
A day after the tournament had ended for him, Yelas ventured another perilous trek up to the Jordan dam with a Bassmaster senior writer in tow. The lowest water level of the week made the well-rehearsed run across rows of boat-sized boulders now just barely under the surface even treacherous for him. Somehow we made it to find only a portion of the water coming out of the turbines that had flowed earlier in the week.
Still, Yelas went about his same pattern of pitching the same Berkley jig that won the 2002 Classic into eddies along the rocky shoreline in the shadow of the dam. Repeated drifts along a pair of 50-yard-long rock faces produced several 2- to 3 1/2-pound spots — the size that dominated his ninth-place tournament sack.
"Winning the Classic last year in the tailrace of a river has a tendency to get into your blood," Yelas said on the ride back down the Coosa. "Pretty much all lakes have good fishing in the tailrace. Some lakes are just better than others.
"How ironic is it that I won the Classic in the first 500 yards below the Logan Martin Dam and then won Angler of the Year below another dam?"
Ironic, but not surprising.
During the CITGO Bassmaster Elite 50 in Alabama last summer, Roland Martin ran up the Coosa River to a tailrace where he had caught the 10 largest spots of his career (totaling more than 44 pounds) 30 years earlier while filming his television show. "In those days, you could go up there and never see another boat," he says. "I went up there today and saw 15 boats. I guess people have discovered those big spots living up there. When that water's flowing, there's nothing better."
It was at the next Elite 50 event that Alton Jones' winning pattern involved targeting smallmouth among shallow rocks in the tailrace of the Cumberland River below Barkley Lake Dam with a Yum Houdini finesse worm on a split shot rig.
"Tailrace fishing can be phenomenal," Reigning CITGO Angler of the Year Gerald Swindle notes. "However, it can be very complicated and very frustrating. You've got to pay your dues. You've got to put your hours in to get all of the little subtleties down."
Transplanted Texan Gary Klein grew up fishing in the shadow of the Lake Oroville Dam in northern California.
"To me, it's all about fishing for current oriented bass," the 22-time Classic qualifier says. "Those fish were conditioned by the current, conditioned to feed. They're faced upcurrent. The harder the current, the closer they are to the bottom or the tighter they are to the target, or the piece of cover.
"So it kind of isolates something for the angler. The harder the current is, the easier those fish are to miss with a pitch or a cast. You have to get the right presentation, the right drift. But once you get that dialed in, then it's just so easy because it's almost like the current is doing all the work for you.
"I think those fish get some pressure, but I think they get overlooked because the anglers are still fishing like they were in the lower section of the lake. They're not as persistent."
Swindle, a veteran of tailrace fishing on the Tennessee, Alabama and Coosa chains, has enjoyed great success up against the concrete dam, but reminds us that the advantages of this fast-water situation can extend well down the river.
"I've smoked them right up against the dam," he recalls. "I noticed that the shad will move there a lot when they turn the current off. On all the dams I've fished — and I've fished a lot of them — it just seems like when they shut that water off, for some reason or another a lot of the bait will go right back to that concrete wall. And you will catch them right there. Even if they only have like one turbine on and you've got a big current break pushing against that concrete you can catch them. I've actually sat against many dams and caught them and caught them.
"When someone asked me if I was fishing the tailrace, I always figure if I can see it I'm fishing it. Even if you're half-mile down stream and you can see the dam, that means it's a straight shot down the river and that water is humping pretty well. If you go a quarter-mile down the river and it makes a hard 90-degree turn and you can't see it, you've pretty much gotten out of the ripping current. That's my definition."
Swindle emphasizes that inexperienced anglers often panic when they motor into the tailrace section where the water is ripping down river. But scanning the shoreline will provide a starting point because it is usually easy to see the calm-water pockets behind any object that protrudes enough to break up the current.
The key to his time-tested tailrace system is always keeping his lures hugging the bottom of the water column.
"It's just so hard to catch fish in a tailrace on anything that's not on the bottom," Swindle explains. "You've got to imagine the fish are sitting down behind a rock. The water is just ripping down this river. Why in the world would a bass be swimming around up there chasing a minnow? He's not going to do it. He's got to stay in his environment, or he'll go down the river. So he stays right there behind a rock and he's opportunistic. He waits for the crawfish to come in there.
"So many people fish over the fish. What's weird is I'll end up catching spots on a 1-ounce jig, but it's the only thing I've got in my boat that will stay on the bottom. That's just the key."
Veteran tailrace fishermen know that the flow from the turbines limits lure selection to a handful of baits.
Klein's No. 1 tailrace choice is a jig, which can be controlled somewhat in the current. But he has also had "awesome" days on crankbaits and spinnerbaits.
Former Classic champion Woo Daves utilizes a variety of baits. During the times when the current is light, he casts tubes and a Zoom Finesse worm into the deeper holes and washed-out spots. But when the water is really flowing, Daves' primary tool is a 1 1/4- or 2-ounce Ledgebuster spinnerbait
"No. 1, you want to get up as close to the dam as you can — to where it's buoyed off or closer if it's not. And keep a lifejacket on," he says. "When you cast, you want to keep the nose of the boat pointed directly at the dam and cast toward 1 o'clock. A sharp, long quartering cast. That heavier bait is going to fall down better. You're winding it slowly. Basically, you're not even working the spinnerbait as much as the current is. All you're doing is keeping your line tight."
That tactic produced nearly 25 pounds of smallmouth for him one day in a BASS tournament in the Wheeler Dam tailrace.
Daves' other tailrace tool is a weighted Smithwick Rogue or Bass Pro Shops XPS jerkbait.
"A jig is my go-to bait, along with cranking," Swindle adds. "I use a spinnerbait some, but it's mostly a slow rolling deal. It's hard to beat some kind of wide-wobbling crankbait you can get down and barely touch the bottom with. The biggest thing with a crankbait that you don't want to do is get to where you're just plowing into things because you're hanging up so bad.
"With the jig, I'm always throwing it a little bit upstream and floating it backwards. I don't put any action on the jig. I try to keep my rod at about 11 o'clock and keep a little bit of a bow in my line and let it wash down the current (while) holding the rod tight. I never ever hardly fish it. Just let it go."
Gerald Swindle has one final piece of advice:
"A lot of people think tailraces are good only during certain times of the year. I hope they keep thinking that way because it's not. It's better when it's freezing cold than it is anytime. I've been below the tailraces at Lay Lake when it was so cold I couldn't feel my hands. And I was flipping those big spots out and there wasn't 6 or 8 feet of water.
"And I've been there when it was so hot you couldn't breathe and you could smoke them.''