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Hot Dam, the Fishing’s Great!

By Mark Blauvelt

 

Everyone knows that the fishing is always good below dams, but the real question here is why is it good?  Dams within the Midwest were built for many reasons and most were built during the last 50 years and based on the type of dam, can determine how good the fishing may be. Ill show you two different types of common low dams found in the region and explain why some fish better then others.

 

The most common dam found in Ohio is the old mill or low/roller dam found on just about every major watershed in the state.  The newer ones are built for recreation and older ones were built for use for hydro power and those are now where the USGS ( U.S. Geological Survey) river level gauges are found.  The stable pool environment is a perfect place to place these 24 hr recording devices.  The picture below shows a large roller dam on the lower Great Miami River near Hamilton, Ohio.

 

 

Notice the 2 step drop on the falls itself, this was an older design that used the step halfway down to dispense the energy and this style offers excellent wading opportunities as you can see because the scour pool is close to the dam and the sediment that piles up makes a nice shallow and safe way to fish the face of the dam all the way across without getting near the dangerous undertow found below low dams.  As a reminder, all dams are dangerous even at low flows so extreme caution and sound wading judgment MUST be used at all times.   These dams typically have rip rap under them and also have undercuts back under the lip and offer many places for fish to hold.

 

 

This next picture shows a dam just 1 mile below the upper picture and shows a more modern Roller Dam that was built in the last 20 years for recreation purposes. (Meaning, the pool behind it is used for boating, skiing, fishing and other water sports)  

 

 

In this picture, you can se that the flow is uniform all the way across the face of the dam and it is a straight drop over the dam face into a concrete bottom that is “U” shaped to absorb the power of the water and this circular motion keeps the dam from eroding itself from the excessive water weight scouring the bottom.  The scour hole on this style is a smooth concrete bowl where the fish do not have much cover to hold on in higher flows.   Also notice where the sediment is piled up, its much further downstream and not as evident as the previous picture. The reason is because this style is much more efficient at removing the power from the water and that the 50 yards of stream bottom after the concrete bowl is all rip rap so it further breaks down the powerful speed of the water so less sediment is available to be deposited.

 

Ok, now that you have some comparisons here, lets talk about “why” fish are drawn to these dams in numbers.  First and foremost is that most species are migratory by nature and when mother nature steps in and tells a fish to do what comes naturally, fish tend to move upstream in search of two things, another fish to do it with and a place to do the deed.  Throw a dam into the mix and you have current, gravel and a blockage of fish migration so the spring/fall timeframe is always a good time to find high numbers of fish in the tail waters. Here is a hint, during this time, fish way downstream around the spawning gravel and out of the big rip rap rocks, this is where the majority of the fish will be found.

 

Another reason why dams attract fish is because of the food that is found here. Bait fish and crayfish thrive around the big rip rap and offer lots of nooks and cranny’s for them to hide in. It is here in these rocks that you can find large numbers of schooling baitfish like shad, shiners and even skipjacks if you are close to the Ohio River.  When there are large numbers of baitfish, you can bet the game fish will be right behind or below them having there way with the school as they are getting plump either fattening up for Winter in the Fall or fattening up in the Spring after a tough Winter. These dams also tend to stun or shock baitfish as they get tumbled over the spillway and this is fish candy as injured baitfish try to swim around below the dam only to get gobbled up by the game fish.

 

Notice the sea gulls hovering around the waters just below this dam on the Great Miami near West Carrolton. When birds are around, you can bet the baitfish is in abundance with game fish right below them.

 

 

This is why the Spring and Fall are good time but what about the heat of the summer?  It is the time of year when flows are the lowest and oxygen is also at the lowest levels of the year.  Looking back at the area below a dam and you will always have heavily oxygenated water from the spillway as well as some current to keep the bottom scoured clean from mud and algae buildups which tend to absorb sunlight and create the water to warm up when the temps are already pushing the lower 90’s.  Lastly the shade from the undercuts and the deep water below the dam offer a cooler, cleaner and protected area that tend to hold game fish.  As a rule, river game fish such as saugeyes, saugers, white bass, smallies and even predatory catfish will always be found over gravel while rough fish species like suckers, carp, buffaloes, bullhead and drum will usually be found on soft bottomed areas where there is no current.  Current always removes sediment and keeps the bottom clean.

 

Lets move back to the 2 types of low dams mentioned here in the article, the 2 step type will often have more water on one side then the other cause a large backwater or eddy area which is a key place to fish while the newer recreational roller dams almost always are evenly dispersed by water over the edge of it so in this type of fishing, there is usually a small eddy on each corner which is a key area to fish below these types of dams. Along the current seams of fast and slow water is a prime spot for game fish to ambush baitfish and along foam lines (see picture below for foam line and eddy) and as a rule, the most successful anglers will use a baitfish style of fly/lure for the tail waters as the main forage here will almost always be shiners, minnows or shad with crayfish being the secondary type of food for most game fish species.

 

 

Ill put in a few pictures here for you to see the different dams and by the way, these are all on the Great Miami from Dayton down to Hamilton.  From the pictures, try to see where you might fish and how you might fish these holding areas while staying safe and yet being close enough to find, approach and catch these fish.

 

 

Notice the large eddy on the right and the sediment piled up behind it to show you that there is deep water in this eddy found at West Carrolton, always a good spot to find fish.

The authors personal best LM Bass and Walleye came from this eddy not 5 minutes apart!

 

This picture of Steele Dam near downtown Dayton shows the older style low dam where the water drops and hits the secondary lip before running through lots of small channels loaded with pocket water full of smallies, panfish, carp and catfish. This water is perfect for spawning and in the spring is loaded with fish.

 

 The next picture shows the lip a little better and the water was up over a foot when I took this picture.  At low water you can safely walk along this lip to fish but never at this flow!

 

 

As a reminder, fishing safely around these dams is imperative and can not be stressed enough, always fish with a partner, always have a cell phone on you and if you do wade, always do it at base flows only, with a wading staff, always wear waders since much of this rip rap has rebar in it and felt bottom boots also help.  Be safe and enjoy fishing these areas that attract game fish year round.

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