Tailwaters from one winter to next

The years hardly matter, and I have long since forgotten what years these things happened. The Kinzua Dam Tailwaters seems a different place from one winter to the next, and there is no telling what will happen the next winter. Walleye and trout are the long running stars of this show. But every now and then, a walk-on, no, make that swim-on, is a guest star.

The Kinzua Tailwaters of old looked far different than it does now. That is getting to be a distant memory, 50 years ago. Good gravy, that is a half-century ago, the year I graduated from high school.

There was no hatchery. That side of the Tailwaters was graded flat, and that was all. Anyone could drive right to the base of the dam. Roads to hilltop gravel pits were still visible. The power plant had not yet been constructed. If I recall correctly, the old railroad bridge still stood.

It had become a well-known fishery for big brown trout even before the dam was finished. Some very nice brown trout were caught, but average size was not as large as now. My old fishing log shows that most of the trout we caught then at the Tailwaters were 13 inches to 14 inches. Then we had different standards for ‘big’ brown trout. Very few trout longer than 10 inches were stocked into the small creeks. The Lake Ontario brown trout fishery had not yet developed. In the 1960s a 6-pound brown trout looked huge.

Some of the Kinzua Tailwaters oldtimers believe they remember the trout being bigger, but I had a measuring tape and a fishing log. And when fishermen exaggerate, they make fish bigger, not smaller.

Yellow perch had become common in the Tailwaters by the 1970s. Many summer nights we would go to the Tailwaters with John Smith, who owned Smith’s Bait Shop. John often brought a small gas stove, a frying pan, oil and salt to fry the perch as we caught them. Then, as now, most of the walleye caught at the Tailwaters during summer were less than 15 inches long.

Crappie started showing up in good numbers sometimes during the 1970s. They were much more abundant in the Allegheny Reservoir then. Actually it was a pretty good crappie lake for several years.

For years we were told that fish could not survive passing through the Kinzua Dam gates. Obviously a lot of fish did survive. Of course there is the possibility that crappie migrated upstream to the dam, but they did not. They also were pumped up the Upper Pump Storage Reservoir and survived.

Through these years fishing for trout and walleye varied considerably. A few winters huge walleye were common in terms of huge walleye. Some winters trout fishing was better than others.

During the 1970s I did some scuba diving in the Tailwaters. From that I vividly discovered that what anglers were catching was not necessarily an indication of the current fish population in the Tailwaters.

There is a gravel bar that extends on an angle from the hatchery-side shore to the head of the small island in the no-boats area. The downstream side of this gravel bar was, maybe still is, very steep, and the water is swifter than it appears from above the surface. At the base of the gravel bar, about in the middle, the bottom was mostly bare clay. Here I saw small schools of monstrous walleye, some certainly in the 15-pound to 20-pound class. If I kept my hands at my sides, I could get my face mask within a foot of some of these walleye.

As far as I know, none of these huge walleye were ever caught during summer. For that matter, all of the largest Kinzua Tailwaters walleye I am aware of were caught in January, February or March, with February being the best month.

While in the deep water just downstream from the clay bottom, larger schools of smaller walleye, probably 13 inches to 16 inches, frequently moved through the area. These were the walleye anglers caught.

One of my favorite winters at the Tailwaters occurred during the 2000s when white bass were present in large numbers. Most of the white bass we caught measured between 14 inches and 16 inches. What really topped it off was that I was catching white bass on Pop-R surface lures into December.

This winter, hard to say since often there was too much outflow from the dam, especially during the key period from Christmas to New Year, and during the remainder of this winter outflow has been inconsistent, or it was too cold to fish.

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