Winter Trout Fishing on Taneycomo
Most anglers in Missouri don’t think of winter as prime fishing season, but avid trout fishing enthusiasts (especially those of us who prefer fly fishing) hearty or devoted enough to brave the elements know that winter is prime fishing season in the Ozarks. Nowhere is this more the case than on the trout waters of Lake Taneycomo. When the crowds have dwindled, the tourists are in Mexico, Florida, or the Caribbean, and water temperatures drop and dissolved oxygen levels peak, some of us slip into our waders and take up the fly rod with a hint of a knowing smile on our lips as we turn our attention to the water and the fish that call it home.
Lake Taneycomo was originally created by the construction of the first dam across the White River, Powersite Dam, in 1913. The lake’s reputation quickly grew as a great warm-water fishery and vacation destination. But the completion of Table Rock Dam in 1958 and the Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery at the foot of the dam turned Taneycomo into an almost overnight trout fishing sensation. Today, the 22 miles of Lake Taneycomo is widely regarded as one of the top trout fisheries in the nation. From May until the end of November, anglers flock to Taneycomo from all over the United States. Fly fishermen gravitate toward the wadable tailwater section of the lake from just below Table Rock Dam to the mouth of Fall Creek. The Missouri Department of Conservation maintains a Trophy Trout Management Zone in this stretch of the fishery. Below Fall Creek, anglers fish from the banks and boats with everything from the occasional fly rod to live bait, and catch copious amounts of trout daily. A typical trout caught on Taneycomo will measure between ten and fourteen inches, but trophies in excess of twenty inches are not terribly uncommon. Two species of trout live in the lake: Rainbows and Browns. Rainbow trout are more common by far. Though conventional wisdom holds that the lake produces more and better fish the further upstream one fishes, excellent limits of good size trout…especially Rainbows…can be caught with regularity from one end to the other. In fact, when I want to keep fish for the dinner table I rarely venture into the upper end of the lake. I will either launch the boat downstream several miles or simply fish with jigs or bait from one of the many public-use fishing docks along the shores of downtown Branson. And I have caught several fifteen to twenty inch Rainbows in these lower stretches of Taneycomo. In the Trophy Management Zone, MDC maintains a slot limit on trout. Rainbows from twelve to twenty inches must be immediately returned to the water unharmed, while Brown trout less than twenty inches must be released. It is not uncommon to see fly fishermen wading out of these waters with a stringer full of keeper trout, but one has to catch and release several fish for each one which can be legally possessed.
As Old Man Winter settles into the Ozarks in December, the crowds diminish drastically, which results in far less pressure on the fishery. By mid-December, anglers familiar with Taneycomo can discern a change in the biting habits of the fish. They become more aggressive and “relaxed.” And they will remain so until about the end of March when the boats and crowds begin to return with the warmer weather. Trout in Taneycomo are also typically in better health during the winter months. Higher levels of dissolved oxygen and colder water temperatures make the fish more active and vibrant. A fourteen-inch Rainbow Trout in January typically fights like a seventeen inch Brown in July. In February, the Rainbow trout spawn. During this period, large trophy-size Rainbows, brightly colored in their best courting attire, move up into the tailwater section of the fishery and the fly fishing becomes nothing short of spectacular. But nothing impacts the fishery or the quality of fishing on Taneycomo like the power generation schedule at the dams. As temperatures drop and consumption of electricity for heating buildings and homes rises, more cold, highly oxygenated water flows through the dams. And this always turns the fishing on.
For the fly fisherman who has never fished Taneycomo in winter, there are a few things that should be done differently than when fishing it in the warmer seasons of the year. Throughout most of the year, size twelve through size sixteen Scuds, Olive Wooly Buggers in size ten, and egg patterns in white, orange, and rainbow are most productive. In winter, nothing becomes more important than the midge nymphs and emergers. Zebra midges, WD40s, and a variety of other midge patterns reign supreme during low-flow fishing. When the dams generate power, switch to a Bead Head Pheasant Tail nymph floated on a dead drift under an indicator so that it skips along the bottom, or tie on a darker weighted Scud. When the water is not running, anglers are well served when they use very light leaders and smaller sized flies. Three and Four-weight tackle is ideal. When the water is running, switch to five or six-weight tackle and use heavier leader and larger, heavier flies. Fish from the TMZ below Table Rock dam all the way downstream to the old swimming hole in downtown Branson. The stretch of water from Fall Creek downstream to Branson’s City Campground and the old swimming hole does not provide much wadable water, so anglers must have a boat. Wade fishing can be done safely at the old swimming hole.
Bait and spin-casting anglers should fish from boats and can fish the entire length of the twenty-two mile long fishery. Power Eggs or Wax Worms dead-drifted under a cork are the baits of choice. Mepps spinners, Roadrunners, marabou jigs, and Countdown Rapalas in Rainbow pattern are the spin-casters arsenal. Concentrate on structure such as feeder creek mouths, points, and islands. Fish along vertical rock structures at a depth of three to seven feet. And don’t be surprised if you catch some Crappie now and then.
Supplies, licenses, and guides are available locally at Anglers and Archery Outfitters, River Run Outfitters, or Lilley’s Landing. The dam generation schedule for Table Rock Dam is available by calling 417-336-5083 for a real-time report. Anglers needing overnight accommodations will find a variety of options advertising excellent “off-season” rates for everything from fully furnished condos to basic motel rooms. Owners of recreational vehicles have a wide array of RV campgrounds at their disposal too. And there are still plenty of evening entertainment options to enjoy on a winter trip to Branson.
Anglers who want to take advantage of the excellent winter fishing on Lake Taneycomo should come prepared. Dress in layers. Daytime temperatures from mid-December until mid-March can range from the single digits to about sixty degrees. Averages run from a low in the mid-twenties to a high in the mid-forties. Quality waders that provide good insulation are a must for wade fishing, as average water temperatures hover in the mid thirties. Good rain gear is also a great thing to have at hand.