Taneycomo's Trophy Trout

By Michael McLellan

Lake Taneycomo, near Branson, Missouri, is not the longest or the most well known tailwater trout fishery on the White River System, but recently it has produced some of the best, most consistent trout fishing in the South. The oldest manmade lake in the Ozarks, Lake Taneycomo was formed with the completion of Powersite Dam in 1913 (now called Ozark Beach Dam). In 1958 Table Rock Dam was built upstream of Ozark Beach Dam, subsequently turning Lake Taneycomo into a cold-water fishery. As a result, the 22-mile span between Table Rock Dam and Ozark Beach Dam provides the cold, clean water necessary to sustain trout. However, because Ozark Beach Dam backs up Lake Taneycomo over almost the entire 22-mile stretch between the two dams, only the first 3.25 miles immediately below Table Rock Dam provide quality fly-fishing opportunities. Table Rock Dam has four turbines for producing hydroelectricity, and like all of the other tailwaters on the White River System, water flow and depth fluctuate drastically based on power generation demands. This can be a challenge for shore-bound fly fishers, never knowing for sure if they will find a trickle or a torrent when they arrive at the river. However, with the potential to land some truly trophy size rainbow and brown trout, most anglers are more than willing to put up with the wildly fluctuating water levels, including several who adapt their fly-fishing techniques to fish Lake Taneycomo at its many different water levels. Table Rock State Park provides plenty of walk-in access to the upper stretch of Lake Taneycomo, as well as the upper most boat ramp on the lake. Table Rock State Park also houses the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery where visitors can, among other things, buy fishing licenses and tour the hatchery. If you have a minute, be sure to stop in to get a close-up look at some of the monster trout the hatchery keeps as brood stock.

Taneycomo Resources

  • Further Reading Ozark Trout Tales by Steve Wright. White River Journal by Danny Hicks. Ozarks Blue-Ribbon Trout Streams by Danny Hicks. Fly Fishing for Trout in Missouri by Chuck and Sharon Tryon. 
  • Power Generation Number (417) 336-5083 Call this number for a computer-generated message on how much water is being released from Table Rock Dam. Of course, as soon as you hang up the phone, everything can change, but it does give you some idea of the water level. It is also a good idea to call for two or three consecutive days before a planned trip to see if there is a pattern to the water releases.

Thanks in large part to recent regulation changes, there are many trophy rainbow and brown trout as big or bigger than the hatchery’s brood stock swimming in the lake itself. In March of 1997, the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC) put a slot limit into effect on upper Lake Taneycomo, from Table Rock Dam to the mouth of Fall Creek, a 3.25 mile stretch of water. Rainbow trout between 12 and 20 inches must be released, as well as any brown trout measuring less than 20 inches. Natural and scented baits as well as soft plastics are prohibited in the slot-limit area. These restrictions were put in place to allow more trout to grow to trophy size and to reduce catch-and-release mortality, and by all accounts, these regulation changes have had their desired impact. Prior to the instatement of the 12- to 20-inch slot limit, only 9 percent of rainbow trout in the upper 3 miles of Lake Taneycomo were 13 inches or longer. By August of 2001, that number jumped to 34 percent of rainbow trout 13 inches or bigger. In 2003, an angler needs only to fish the river once to realize that percent is even higher today.

The Fishery

Lake Taneycomo is predominantly a rainbow trout fishery, although there are a good number of brown trout present (and the browns tend to get quite large–MDC crews have shocked up brown trout as large as 37 pounds in fish surveys). The main forage base for trout in Lake Taneycomo consists of scuds (similar to a freshwater shrimp), sow bugs (an aquatic version of the “rolly polly”) and midges (a small two-winged, gnat-like insect). There is also a good supply of sculpins (small, bottom dwelling baitfish), other minnows and crayfish. Mayflies and caddisflies are also present, with population numbers increasing further downstream from Table Rock Dam.

Dry-fly Fishing on Lake Taneycomo

At times, there is some great dry-fly action on Lake Taneycomo, and Taneycomo anglers should definitely have some Elk Hair Caddis, mayfly duns, Cracklebacks and small midge dries in their fly boxes. Use a 9- to 12-foot leader tapered to 6X or even 7X to deliver your dries to spooky trout. Or if the trout are only rising to dries periodically, drop a scud, sow bug or midge pupa off of your larger dry flies by attaching an 18-inch piece of tippet material to the bend of the dry-fly hook, and then attaching your nymph to the other end of the tippet material–in classic dry-fly-and-dropper fashion.

Basic Taneycomo Fly Box--Low Water

  • Nymphs Scuds: size 14-18 in gray, olive, orange and tan in both standard and flashback versions. Sow Bugs: size 14-18 in gray and olive in both standard and flashback versions. Midge Pupa: size 20-28 in black, gray, tan and cream. Gold Ribbed Hare’s Ear: size 14-18 in standard and beadhead versions. Pheasant Tail Nymph: size 14-18 in standard and beadhead versions. 
  • Dry Flies Elk Hair Caddis: size 14-18. Adams: size 16-20. Various adult midge patterns: size 20-28 in black, gray, tan and especially cream. Cracklebacks: size 10-16 in green and yellow. Grasshopper patterns: size 6-10 (late summer and early fall).

 

In late summer and early fall, grasshopper patterns can work quite well, pulling large trout to the surface for a chunky mouthful. However, the vast majority of dry-fly opportunities come with the almost daily midge hatches. Tiny midge dries, size 20 to 28, in tan, gray, black and especially cream will fool many midging trout. Just match the size and color to the natural insects on the water, and cast carefully to visibly rising trout.

Fly-Fishing Equipment for Low-water Conditions

An 8-1/2-foot to 9-foot four- or five-weight fly rod is ideal for fishing low water at Taneycomo. A quality reel with an adjustable disk drag is very helpful in slowing down Taneycomo’s fast fish. A floating fly line combined with a 9- to 12-foot leader tapered to 5X is pretty standard. For nymph fishing (the predominant method on upper Lake Taneycomo), add 18 inches of 5X or 6X fluorocarbon tippet, and pinch a size 6 or 8 split shot just above the tippet knot. Tie a small, yarn strike indicator to the leader at about the same depth as the water. Tie on a size 14 or smaller scud or sow bug, or try a size 20 or smaller midge pupa pattern. Try different combinations of patterns (different sizes, different colors) to find out what the fish want.

Nymph Fishing in Low-water Conditions

The most productive way to catch trout on Taneycomo is to fish subsurface with scuds, sow bugs and midge pupa. While there is one classic shoal or riffle on upper Taneycomo during low-water conditions (just above the Rebar Hole), most of the nymph fishing is in slower moving water. This is both a curse and a blessing. It allows an angler to sight cast to specific fish, targeting the largest fish in the pod, but it also affords the trout more time to scrutinize and perhaps refuse the fly if it is not presented just perfectly. To combat this problem and hook more of these spooky, low-water trout, there are several things a fly fisher can do. First, make sure to use a small, subtle strike indicator. We prefer small white, black or light blue strike indicators made out of polypropylene yarn. If you grease them with a paste floatant before you start fishing, they will float all day. Yarn indicators can also be cut to any desired size (and if the fish are spooky, smaller is definitely better), but most importantly, yarn indicators are definitely the most sensitive, making it easier to detect those very subtle strikes characteristic of the larger Taneycomo trout. Also, use the smallest split shot that still gets your flies to the bottom in a reasonable amount of time. Sizes 6 through 10 are the most commonly used split shot for low-water conditions. If you are casting to fish in extremely shallow water, try removing the split shot and letting the flies sink on their own.

Low Water Nymph-Fishing Rig

Leader: 9- to12-foot leader tapered to 5X or 6X. Tippet: 18 inches of 5X, 6X or 7X fluorocarbon. Strike indicator: Black, white, or light blue polypropylene yarn. Split shot: size 6-10 pinched on to the leader just above the tippet knot.

  On bright sunny days, Taneycomo trout will often shy away from even the most subtle strike indicators. In these situations we remove the strike indicator altogether and watch for the “wink”–the white flash of the trout’s mouth as it opens to take the fly. This can take a lot of concentration, but this technique can often be the difference between frustration and success. Another key factor to successful low-water nymph fishing is presentation–how the flies are presented to the trout. In most nymph-fishing situations, the flies should appear as if they are drifting naturally with the current, untethered to anything. This is one of the main functions of the strike indicator. When the strike indicator is drifting like a leaf on the surface of the water, the angler can be reasonably sure that the flies beneath it are also drifting naturally with the current. However, if the strike indicator starts to drag, making a small wake or disturbance on the surface, then the angler can be sure that the flies are also behaving unnaturally beneath the surface. “Drag” most commonly occurs when the fly line and leader are swept downstream of the strike indicator and, as a result, start pulling the entire rig–strike indicator, split shot, and flies–across the current. When this happens, the angler must “mend” or reposition the fly line and leader upstream of the strike indicator. However, when fishing for low-water Taneycomo trout, make sure to mend your line well ahead of the trout, for any sudden movement on the surface will most likely startle the fish before it has a chance to take your flies.

Fly Tying Recipes

  • Humpback Scud 
    • Hook: Daiichi 1150 for sizes 8-12; TMC 2487 or 2488 for sizes 14-18.
    • Underbody: Lead tape folded and cut to shape.
    • Thread: Uni 6/0 or 8/0 Rusty Dun.
    • Dubbing: Sow Scud dubbing in Sow Bug, Smokey Olive, Dead Orange, and Tan.
    • Shellback: 1/4- or 1/8-inch clear Scud Back. Rib: .004″ smoke colored mono. 
  • Woven Sow Bug 
    • Hook: TMC 2487 or 2488 for sizes 12-18.
    • Thread: Uni 8/0 Rusty Dun.
    • Antenna: .004″ smoke colored mono.
    • Body: small, round V-Rib (two strands woven around the hook shank).

Fishing Soft Hackles on Lake Taneycomo

Another productive technique for low-water conditions is to fish soft hackles with a classic wet-fly swing. This can be a deadly technique for hooking trout that are taking emerging insects as they rise towards the surface. This type of feeding behavior is signaled by “porpoising” trout–that is, when only the back and tail of the trout breech the surface of the water. We like to use teams of soft hackles that are different sizes and colors (a size 14 March Brown Spider and a size 18 Red Ass are two of our favorites). To rig a team of soft hackles, use a 9- to 12-foot leader tapered to 5X and add 18 inches of 5X or 6X fluorocarbon tippet; tie on the larger of the two flies, and tie a second piece of tippet material (18 to 20 inches long) to the bend of the first hook. Then tie on the second, smaller fly. Cast this rig at a downstream angle across the current and slightly upstream of a feeding pod of fish. (If the flies are not wet yet, you may have to give them a short tug to pull them under the surface.) Then allow the flies to slowly swing through the feeding trout. Make sure to let the flies swing all the way across the current until they are directly downstream of your position–often trout will follow the swimming flies and only take them at the end of the swing. When fishing soft hackles, it is important not to set the hook too hard; just raising the rod tip is enough because the flies are being fished on a tight line. A more forceful hookset will either yank the flies out of the trout’s mouth or break the flies off completely. Swinging soft hackles can be a fun, more active way to hook trout, especially if the nymph fishing is slow.

Fly Fishing Equipment for High-water Conditions

An 8-1/2-foot to 9-1/2-foot six-weight fly rod is ideal for high-water nymph fishing. A reel with a quality disk drag is definitely a plus in high water; even average size trout can peel off quite a bit of line in the heavy currents. A floating fly line coupled with a 9- to 15-foot leader is essential for controlling the drift and getting the flies to the bottom. The leader should be tapered to 4X to which you can add 18 inches of 4X or 5X fluorocarbon tippet. Attach a large, foam strike indicator to the leader at almost one-and-a-half times the depth of the water. Pinch a BB or AAA size split shot above the tippet knot, add a combination of size 14 or larger scuds and sow bugs and you are in business. I always like to tie on at least one fly that has some flash to help the trout see my flies in the heavy currents of high water.

Nymph Fishing in High-water Conditions

Nymph fishing in high water is a very different game; everything is bigger. The rods are bigger, the strike indicator is bigger, the split shot and even the flies are bigger. While anglers can do reasonably well fishing along the bank during high-water conditions, the most successful high-water anglers fly fish from boats when Table Rock Dam is releasing one or more units worth of water.

High Water Nymph-Fishing Rig

  • Leader: 9- to 15-foot leader tapered to 4X.

  • Tippet: 18 inches of 4X or 5X fluorocarbon.

  • Strike indicator: Large, brightly colored foam indicator (

  • Split shot: size BB to AAA pinched on to the leader just above the tippet knot.

 

Whether in a drift boat, a jon boat or some other type of watercraft, the key to successful nymph fishing in high water is to keep your boat going the same speed as your strike indicators. Your flies have to sink so far, that the longer you can keep your flies drifting naturally along the bottom of the river–that is, the longer you can keep them in the “strike zone”–the more strikes you will get. Every time you pick up your rig to reposition it, your flies are drifting over the top of several trout as they sink back towards the bottom, so the less casting you do while nymph fishing in high water, the more fish you should hook. During high-water conditions, a boat also gives you access to wadeable water that you simply cannot get to on foot. Many areas that are completely dry or are too shallow to hold trout during low-water conditions become trout havens when the water level rises. The south side of Lookout Island is a prime example of this type of water. So it is not that wade fishing is completely out of the question when one or two generators are running, it is just that fly anglers really need some sort of boat to access the wadeable water.

Basic Taneycomo Fly Box--High Water

  • Nymphs Scuds: sizes 6-14 in gray, olive, orange and tan especially in flashback versions. Sow Bugs: sizes 8-14 in gray, olive and tan especially in flashback versions. Prince Nymph: size 8-14 in standard and beadhead versions. Whitlock’s Fox Squirrel Nymph: 8-14 in standard and beadhead versions. Egg patterns: size 10-14 especially in light pink and pale yellow (fall and winter). 
  • Favorite Streamers Whitlock’s Matuka Sculpin. Whitlock’s Hare Sculpin. Conehead Madonna. Zoo Cougar. Do not hesitate to try your favorite streamers as well.

Streamer Fishing in High-water Conditions

Another useful technique for fishing high water on Lake Taneycomo is streamer fishing, throwing large sculpin, baitfish and crawdad imitations on a sink-tip or full-sink fly line. We prefer a heavier rod to throw the bigger, more wind-resistant flies as well as the heavier, sinking fly line. A 9-foot, seven-weight fly rod coupled with a fast sinking, sink-tip fly line is an ideal set up for streamer fishing in high water. A short, 5-foot leader tapered to no lighter than 3X or 8-pound tippet material will help turn over the larger flies and help hold the larger trout in the heavy currents; when trout are hitting such a large fly, they generally are not leader shy, so tippet size is less of an issue. We concentrate our streamer fishing on deep, undercut banks that provide big trout some protection from the fast moving water. Fly fishing with streamers in high water generally will not provide the most number of strikes, but it can, on occasion, produce some truly enormous trout. The key to fly fishing Lake Taneycomo is to remain flexible; be prepared for any water level. If you arrive at the river on a morning when Table Rock Dam is releasing too much water to successfully wade fish, don’t curse the power company or the Corp of Engineers, just be sure to have your high-water gear and a boat in tow, or rent a boat from one of the many commercial docks on the river. And finally — thanks in large part to the enlightened regulation changes on the upper lake — if an angler approaches Taneycomo with an open game plan, it is only a matter of time before it gives up some of its truly trophy trout.