Written by: Amelia Jensen, Jensen Fly Fishing
At first glance, tailouts often look featureless, which makes it easier to ignore them in favor of other water types that produce more consistently. However, during low light and hatch events, tailouts are exciting places to catch rising trout.
What & Where
Tailouts are the downstream end of a run or pool where the water depth shallows and the speed of flow picks up before dropping into the next stretch.Tailouts range in depth depending on the size of the water. Trout will hold in water from six inches to a few feet of depth and feed, given the right conditions. Because the water surface in tail-outs is often the smoothest, with slow to moderate current, trout can hold in lies with less defined structure points than in other parts of a stream. Trout tend to station in the shallowest tail-outs only during low light, so they don’t expose themselves to predation or other threats. Rainbows love to surf in tailouts, while big browns use the entirety of the tailout region because of their propensity for slow water.
A prime tailout features shoulder edge water that’s close to structure, including in-stream roots, logs, or undercut banks. Tailouts are famous for subtle, often overlooked structure, including slight vertical gravel ridges and depressions; subtle gravel troughs; and random rocks–even a 10-inch-diameter rock can hold a two-foot trout in a tailout. This added protection combined with a good hatch will attract trout to station and feed in that prime tailout for longer than it might otherwise. Where the seam-line of bugs is heaviest, trout will move a foot or two to feedand then quickly return to the structure for cover.
In flat, muted light conditions or on windy days, it can be much harder to see rises in larger tailouts. Look for any sign of a seam, any subtle change in water flow, as this is most likely where the fish will be holding. Keep a close eye on any water disturbance, as it’s most likely a subtle rise.
From early spring through late fall, trout will move from deeper water to shallower tailouts to rise whenever low light and adult bugs are present. During high water, trout will typically only use a tailout with defined current breaks, to avoid expending unnecessary energy. The best time of day to fish is mid to late afternoons on overcast, dark days, or late evenings on warm, sunny days. Early mornings can be best during summer’s hottest weather. Look for consistency in air temperatures and minimal pressure changes, which often trigger a decent hatch. Mayfly hatches and spinnerfalls, caddisflies, and midges are the most common insects to draw trout to tail-outs to feed in low light.
During low water, the very bottom end of tail-outs are frequently used by large trout. The water in tailouts speeds up at the last gravel rise, and the flow provides more oxygen than the slower water of the flat above. This year, we fished a stream with a friend who wasn’t familiar with tailouts during low water. Though we warned him, he led us upstream on a walk-and-wade, and in the recess of literally every tail-out, we watched a heavy wake of a large brown spook after he’d inadvertently stepped on them. It was disappointing in the moment, but it was a good lesson for him.
How to Work a Rising Trout
Approach: Your approach to rising trout in shallow-water tailouts is paramount. Train yourself to walk lightly, with your eyes and ears in tune with the river. Rising trout on tailout flats can be splashy but are most often subtle, sipping rises. Where rainbows tend to not make much sound, the large mouth and heavy body of a good brown often creates a lip-smacking, popping sound.
Stay low and downstream of the tailout upon your first scan. Where possible, stay on the bank. This will avoid potentially pushing that one fish that you don’t see into the one that is rising, giving you a chance at both. If you need to be in the shallow water of the tailout, move slowly and methodically. Kicking your feet on rocks and causing waves upstream will only spook fish. Avoid looking down at the tail-out from a higher bank unless you conceal yourself behind a bush. Though the low light is on your side, it’s important to watch your height in relation to a feeding fish, and it might be best to approach on your knees from shore, so you don’t expose yourself.
are based on light to moderately heavy pressure waters.
Pick a spot at the downstream end of the tailout, preferably from shore. In faster-flowing waters with substantial gradient, consider the possibility of drag in your presentation, as the water push is stronger toward the end of the tailout than the flat above. Position yourself as close to the bottom end of the tailout as possible. This will help when you cast because you want your fly line to land above the drag point, allowing for a drag-free drift. As you extend your cast and place your fly on the water, the flow may also require you to reach your rod forward above the water, giving yourself a longer drag-free drift.
On highly pressured water, you may need to adjust your position, approach, and casting angles. Changing your casting angle to be across and down is favorable, as any leader landing close to a pressured fish could cause it to spook.
Gear & Tactics
A 4- to 6-weight rod and a floating line are suitable. Pick whatever set up you’re most comfortable using to lay out a straight line on short casts. After positioning yourself to cast, pre-pull the amount of fly line needed to cast the distance you want. Keep in mind that you want to lead the fish a couple of feet with your fly. You don’t want to land the fly or the line on the trout’s head. I recommend a 10- to 12-foot, 4X leader as a starting point. You may need to use a longer leader with lighter tippet in flat or pressured water.
Keep your casts short. Just 12 to 25 feet of combined line and leader is often all that’s needed. Short casts are much easier to manage and therefore help in achieving better line control. During a significant hatch, trout will move to feed in all directions, and large fish will move great distances to feed on exactly what they want. This is especially true during the fabled hatches of our largest mayflies (Hexagenia & brown drakes) or to smash a skittering caddis. Keeping this in mind, it’s always important to eliminate any slack line in order to get a good hook set and reduce the chance of a missed fish.
Use a fly that best imitates whatever natural bug is on the surface. Since the water in tailouts is slow, shallow, and often clear, trout have an easier time inspecting your fly. I’ve found using a fly one size smaller and less conspicuous than you think you need will produce more takes and fewer refusals. Low light can make seeing small flies, sizes through 22, more difficult. Using a dry fly that’s one to two sizes larger as an indicator, placed 10 – 12 inches in front of the lead fly, can help immensely.
Tailouts have produced some highly memorable moments through the years, such as one more than two decades ago, when we were discovering our home water, the Red Deer River. It was a warm summer evening, and we chose a stretch with long runs and flat glides in hopes of finding a riser. The river is wide, stretching 60 to 80 yards and less than waist-deep at the tail-outs, allowing us free access to all likely lies. As the sun started to set, the stands of poplars and spruce cast shadows on the water. With the cooling shade, we began to see bugs appear on subtle seam lines at the tail-out, followed by a first riser, a second, and on it went. It wasn’t a huge hatch, but enough to get the attention of a few fish.
My excitement got the better of me. One sloppy step, and the first riser stopped abruptly. I was still learning about the “best” approach and what not to do. A few yards upstream, Dave spotted another rise a rod-length off shore, surfing the seams and pillow of a subtle subsurface rock. The great news is that I made a few adjustments and my size 14 Elk-hair Caddis hooked a 22.5-inch female brown trout. It jumped relentlessly in only a foot of water. This moment was so engaging, highly visual, and I had begun to learn something about tailouts in low light. I have since gone on to fish tailouts consistently on various sized waters, and the above strategies have led me to successfully catch some really large trout.
Amelia Jensen is one half of Jensen Fly Fishing, along with her husband and fishing partner, Dave. They have been guides, lodge owners, magazine publishers, and Orvis ambassadors. Their videos have inspired and taught many fly fishers over the past ten years.