Think all trout fishing must be done with a wispy fly rod? Think again – and then grab your favorite jerkbait rod and head for a trout-filled tailwater.
“The higher the water, the better your casts need to be,” Frank Saska warned, “but high water also gives us outrbest chance for big fish.”
Saska proved the latter part over the next two mornings, with numerous quality brown trout, including a fat 6-pounder, all of which hammered jerkbaits.
A longtime guide at Gaston’s White River Resort, Saska knows about changing water levels and how they affect the fish. Gaston’s sets riverside, just downstream of Bull Shoals Dam, so river levels fluctuate several feet according to which of eight separate generators are running. Saska also knows about big trout. Outstanding habitat, extensive and diverse forage and excellent management have combined over time to create one of the world’s finest fisheries for trophy brown trout beneath Bull Shoals Dam.
Unlike many White River guides, Saska fishes mostly with artificial lures, and when he has the right anglers aboard and the right water condition, he abandons the spoons and jigs that he most commonly throws and turns to heavier rods rigged with full-sized suspending jerkbaits.
Jerkbait fishing isn’t for every angler. It calls for accurate casting, persistence and a willingness to sacrifice action. Light conditions and normal water-flow patterns create the best bite of the day (for big fish or for numbers) early, so an angler who opts to go big early is choosing to forsake his best window for fast action. Not that jerkbait action can’t be good. It can be excellent. Still, targeting large fish clearly lessens the likelihood of a lot of bites.
For the right angler, the fishing can be extraordinarily fun. Browns rip the slack out the line like angry pre-spawn smallmouths and immediately lunge toward cover. Turn them quickly, or you lose. Fish 18- to 24-inch range (2 to 4 pounds) are plentiful, 5- to 10-pound fish are fairly common, and any given fish that bites could be a genuine giant.
Jerkbaits for Trout
Jerkbaits work well for trout anywhere the trout grow large, with tailwaters being extra good both because of the big fish they commonly grow and because of regular high-water periods. Brown trout, more so than their cousins, largely abandon insects for sculpins, darters, chubs, other trout and a host of other fish species as they grow in size. Although you can certainly catch big trout on tiny offerings, serving a serious meal favors bigger browns.
Saska often throws a classic Smithwick Suspending Rogue, and his color of is chrome with a blue back and orange belly. Sleek modern jerkbaits like a XCalibur Erratic Shad, Spro McStick or Lucky Craft Pointer, also work well. Given good water flow, Saska likes a 5-inch jerkbait that that darts erratically without changing locations much with a sharp wrist snap and that suspends in the strike zone.
When the river is ripping, browns hold tight to the bank, typically in little cuts, over submerged ridges or extra close boulders or woody cover, and the higher the water the tighter they hold. Casts must hit the back of pocket or be snug to the bank or the cover or they never hit the strike zone. Saska uses a couple of sharp tugs to pull a bait down and engage its action and then allows a long pause so the lure drifts, suspended, and doesn’t move farther from the bank. After one more or two more jerks, he reels in and casts again to keep the bait in the prime zone.
Moderate flows (on the White, two to four generators) open more areas, but the fish become a little less aggressive and more likely to follow a bait but never commit. The browns still like shoreline cuts and eddies behind trees and rocks, but they’ll also feed atop or along the edges of gravel bars and in cuts between shoals. That means longer presentations, alternating jerks and pauses, and more casts over bars and shoals in the middle of the river.
White 1/8- or 1/16-oucne marabou jigs, which suggest baitfish, also work well for White River trout during moderate flows. Angle casts downstream and toward the bank from a drifting boat and work the lure with upward rod tip snaps and drops, so it dances just off the bottom. Rainbows will readily hit a white jig, but so will browns – including big browns – when because the jig suggests the flash of a shad or a small stocker rainbow.
Low Flow Option
The biggest browns definitely don’t bite lures as well when tailwater flows are low, and the big jerkbaits become substantially less effective. A good alternative is to use a similar approach but downsize for broader appeal.
Whenever little water runs (such as during a White River trip), my son and I spent most of our time throwing 3 ½-inch Rebel minnows, instead of 5-inch Rogues, and enjoyed fast action from rainbows, most of which were the 12- to 15-inch range, plus a couple of medium-sized browns.
As a bonus, low water opens much more of the White (and other tailwaters) to a wade-fishing approach. We enjoyed fabulous action one afternoon by stepping into the river right behind Gaston’s and casting to boulders and to deeper cuts along the edge of the shoals with Rebel Tracdown Minnows and Wee-Crawfish and jigs.
Of course, that’s not to say you cannot persist and catch a big fish when the water is low. My biggest White River brown trout – a beautiful hook-jawed 6 ½-pounder – came several years ago on a jerkbait when only a single generator was running. A friend and I understood that we didn’t have “good jerkbait water” but that was the way we wanted to fish, for good or for bad, so our guide took us to spots where a jerkbait might work. Turned out it worked well!
Want to Go?
The Bull Shoals tailwater gets stocked with more than 1 million trout per year and supports a spectacular population of trophy-class brown trout. Trout waters extend nearly 100 miles, but much of the best fishing is the far upper end. Gaston’s White River Resort has 2 miles of direct river access just down from the dam and offers a host of lodging options, plus great food, rental boats and guided trips. For information, visit www.gastons.com