By David A. Brown

In terms of unintended benefits, the tailraces of the nation’s dams have to be pretty high on the list. Built for hydroelectric power generation, flood control, irrigation and municipal water supplies, dams have become an integral element for bass anglers fishing river systems.

As Alabama pro Jimmy Mason point out, water pouring through those massive turbines brings several key benefits.
jimmy mason
“The one thing about a tailrace is that when you have that water coming through, it’s like an aerator – it’s highly oxygenated and it’s generally cooler,” he said. “Depending on the time of year, it can be 5- to 10-degrees cooler, but in the summer it can be more than 15-degrees cooler.”

On the flip side, Mason points out that winter typically finds tailrace water significantly warmer than what you’ll find further downstream. Passing through the turbines, the cold water picks up a few degrees of warmth and that’s just enough comfort to interest shivering fish. (For clarity, summer water is already warm, so any heat added by the turbines is nullified by the cooling effect of voluminous movement.)

Mason points out a couple more tailrace benefits:

“In the summer that higher oxygen content draws in the baitfish and the bass. A dam’s tailrace is loaded with baitfish so the fish are fatter. In a tournament, bass of equal length will generally be heavier in the tailrace.

“Also in summer tournaments, it’s common to fish either deeper offshore structure or a tailrace. When you catch them in the tailrace you don’t deal with the bends and other decompression issues, so the fish live longer in livewells.”

WHAT TO THROW

Mason breaks down his dam baits by their position in the water column:

TOP – Noting that the bass are usually active close to the dam, he’ll throw a Zara Spook Jr. or a Super Spook on a 7-foot medium-action Dobyns Rod with Lew’s BB1 Pro 6.4:1 reel and 17-lb copolymer line.

“Those fish sit up in the slack water,” Mason said. “Look down the outside seam line where the current is hitting a bar. You’ll see little points of current coming off the main current. Treat those current points just like a point of land.

“You’ll have wolf packs of bass push those shad and make one shad kick out to that point. I use that spook and try to hit exactly where they break. I tell myself I want to knock that shad out of the way and take that attention away from it.”

MID-DEPTHS – Here, Mason leverages the current’s momentum with a ½- to ¾-ounce jig head glued to a YUM Money Minnow (Foxy Shad in clear water, black back pearl or Hologram shad for extreme clarity). In the first of two presentation styles, he’ll cast outside a current seam and let his bait sweep down into the slack water where the fish sit. Ideally, the water will cause his bait to deflect off a piece of cover for the reaction bite.

When the fish are spread out, he’ll run up close to the dam, cast perpendicular to current and drift back. Using the trolling motor, he keeps the nose of the boat pointed upriver to ensure the proper progression.

“The rhythm is important,” Mason explains. “You only want to touch bottom two to three times. If you’re continuously bumping you’re going to hang up.”

Important to this routine is marking bites to identify hot spots. The fish will move as the current changes, so when the bite slows, Mason moves around to get back on the action.
 
He throws the swimbait on a 7-4 Dobyns heavy action rod with a Lew’s BB1 Pro 6.4:1 reel carrying 17-lb fluorocarbon line. Fishing in current often leaves an angler with a significant bow in the line, so a stout outfit helps him quickly gather line for a solid hook set.

BOTTOM – Mason uses the same stout rod for casting his ½-ounce Booyah jig (black/blue or green pumpkin) and YUM Mighty Craw Chunk. A very straightforward technique, he’s looking for the ripples of specific rocks, casting up-current and letting the water wash his bait into the target.

damCONSIDERATIONS

Now, the whole reason that dams act as fish attractors is that they provide something dynamic – the action and fluctuation of water flow. However, by that very definition, there will be peak times and slow times.

“The only negative is that this is a current-driven deal so you’re at the mercy of the power company,” Mason said. “Generally the (dam operators) run the turbines longer during the summer and winter because the hotter or colder it is, the higher the demand for electricity for air conditioners and heaters.

“The night before and the morning of a fishing trip, and thought the day, I’ll be checking the website or app to see how much water they’re going to run and how much was run the last 12 hours,” Mason said. “The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and other dam operators have apps that provide all of this information.”

Notably, Mason points out that the TVA, for example, will make any changes to turbine operation (i.e. which ones are running and what volume they’re pulling) on the hour. He monitors the time throughout his day and expects any changes at the top of the hour. Of course, when a hot bite keeps him occupied, that telltale horn blast also signals some forthcoming variance.

“I pay attention for these changes and adjust accordingly,” Mason said. “Any change in the water flow will have a bearing on how the fish set up, and that tells you the easiest way to fish.”

Essential to consistency, Mason said, is getting to know the dam’s layout and the effects of each individual turbine. This one may stimulate fish on a particular bar, that one might create killer shoreline rip. Learn the nuances and you’ll gain a better understanding of where the fish position.

“You have to know how the eddies form and how the seams develop,” Mason said. “It’s all about the seams for those fish. It’s about letting the current bring the food to them in the slack water. As those seams move around, the fish will move around.

“The fish will use those eddies to their advantage. They’re in total ambush mode.”