Arkansas Fly Fishing

Arkansas tailwaters first gained fame for producing lunker rainbow trout in the 1950s and ’60s. During that period, five to 10-pound rainbows were commonly caught. In recent years, though, monster brown trout have stolen the limelight and made Arkansas world-famous as a trout-fishing hot spot…

The all-tackle, world record brown (40 pounds, 4 ounces) was caught in May 1992 in the Little Red River below Greers Ferry Lake by H. “Rip” Collins. This and other tailwater trout fisheries produce significant numbers of brown trout topping 30 pounds. Five- to 10-pounders are common. Several regulations have been implemented to help trout remain for several years in the fertile tailwaters.

White River

white-river-arkansas
White River

The White is the most famous southern trout river, a tailwater best known for its large brown trout. This powerful river courses 100 miles past dense forests and low-slung mountains.

Few writers spare any words to describe the natural beauty of the White River. Maybe they are too consumed by the numerous trout docks, resorts, and other establishments along the river. Maybe the powerboats cruising up and down the river disturb their aesthetic.

simple map of white river location
white river location
But the White River, when shrouded by a gentle fog in the early morning, has an otherworldly quality. Great limestone bluffs squeeze against the wide, gentle river. Thickly forested hillsides slope down to the banks.

The fishery is noted for the lunker browns, up to 40-pounds, but the staple game fish is the rainbow, stocked by the millions, and the fish most likely to be caught. In addition to the brown and rainbow trout, there are a few cutthroats and brookies stocked in the White.

Anglers report catches of cutts up to ten pounds. Experts guess it is just a matter of time before a 50-pound trout is caught. Brown trout over 20-pounds are caught many times each year, and the angler who doesn’t catch a two-to-five pounder needs to stay on the river just a little longer.

The temperature of the most popular stretch of the river stays fairly constant all year. The White River, with its year-round growing season and abundance of forage fish and insect populations, puts pounds on fish fast, by some estimates, an incredible half- to three-quarter-inch growth a month.

The river has been impounded in several spots to form three major reservoirs (Bull Shoals, Table Rock, and Beaver) and a long, narrow lake (Taneycomo). Don’t be too surprised to catch smallmouth and largemouth bass, catfish, or sunfish either, as they are plentiful in the river.

Rainbows typically run from 9 to 16 inches and will be the predominant catch. Fishermen catch so many 15-inch rainbows that they tend to fish out the river of these stockers until the next stocking date. Browns run from 10 to 18 inches, and many will be larger than that. A 19-pound rainbow was caught in the cold water of the White River in the 1980s.

Fish around islands, submerged rocks, in the runs, and in long pools and backwater eddies. When the water rises, the riffles become just more flatwater, more of a glide. Fish the edges, the current breaks. Look for underwater structure. Look around the gravel bars before splashing around in the water, because you’d be surprised how many trout feed in the shallow waters.

The Fish:

Your predominant catch will be rainbows, stocked by the hundreds of thousands, but the river is best known for its naturally-reproducing population of brown trout. Anglers can occasionally catch holdover and stocked cutthroats. The river also holdscatfish, smallmouth and largemouth bass.

Gear:

Fly fishers should bring an 8- to 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight outfit. A 6-weight won’t be too heavy for some of these monsters and the high, fast water. Both 4X or 5X leaders will work in most conditions, and only in low water will you have to switch to 6X or 7X. For night fishing, 3X leaders are best. Guides recommend weight-forward floating lines with a five-foot sink tip. Spincasters find that an ultralight spinning rod with 48 pound test line will work for the average rainbow trout you’re likely to catch, but if you are looking to land lunkers, move up to a bassin’ outfit set up with 1020 pound test line. You’ll want to bring along neoprene waders for the colder months, and breathables for the warmer ones. Felt soles are needed to keep from slipping on the slick rocks. Polarized sunglasses are a must.

Flies / Lures:

Your fly box should contain Sowbugs, Scuds, Sculpin, Woolly Buggers, San Juan worms, and Crayfish to imitate the forage fish and crustaceans. Unlike western rivers, insect hatches are secondary food sources for these trout. Standard mayfly and caddis patterns will cover all the insect imitations you will need. Bring dry, emerger and nymph patterns. Beadhead Sowbugs are deadly. Other popular patterns include Prince Nymph and March Brown Nymph, Red Brassie, and Red Ass. On each of these tailwaters, when the water is down, midge fishing is highly successful. The number-one fly that will put you into fish is the Red Fox Squirrel nymph. Dropper rigs are deadly, usually set up with a Sowbug on the bottom; try them in orange, gray and tan. Lures run the gamut, depending on who you talk to, and include gold and bright green Little Cleos, Bomber Long A’s, Rattlin’ Rogues, small black or white jigs, Rapalas and crawdad lures.

The North Fork River

The North Fork River, (sometimes called the Norfork River) below Norfork Dam, once held the world’s brown trout record of nearly 39-pounds.

The North Fork River is a nutrient-rich tailrace, perfect for wade-fishing and stalking trout. The North Fork is less than five miles long but is amazingly rich with rainbow trout to 15-pounds and brown trout on par with the White.

In the warmer months, the North Fork is a haven for trout that run up from the increasingly warmer waters of the White River. Like the White River, the North Fork has riverside resorts along its course that provide lodging, boat rentals, guides and meals.

But the riffles and pools combined with the various trout havens like ledges, cracks, and drop-offs create a fly fisher’s dream. Emergers, nymphs, wets and streamers are consistent producers, but the North Fork has some good dry-fly action. Midge fishing is good year-round. Spin casters find that everything from small jigs to largemouth bass stickbaits can be productive.

This short river is best fished from a drift boat when the water is up, best wade-fished when the generators aren’t running and the water is low and clear. Usually, Norfork Dam only runs two generators but even with just those two, when the siren sounds, get to high ground.

If you’ve brought children under age 16, make sure to visit Dry Run Creek, a special regulations creek adjacent to North Fork, loaded with rainbow and browns, some of them huge. Anglers can only use single-hook, barbless artificial lures and flies on this fun fishery. Only handicapped anglers or children under 16 may fish Dry Run Creek.

Recommended Gear

Fly fishers should bring an 8- to 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight outfit. A 6-weight won’t be too heavy for some of these monsters and the high, fast water. Both 4X or 5X leaders will work in most conditions, and only in low water will you have to switch to 6X or 7X. For night fishing, 3X leaders are best. Guides recommend weight-forward floating lines with a five-foot sink tip. Spincasters find that an ultralight spinning rod with 48 pound test line will work for the average rainbow trout you’re likely to catch, but if you are looking to land lunkers, move up to a bassin’ outfit set up with 1020 pound test line. You’ll want to bring along neoprene waders for the colder months, and breathables for the warmer ones. Felt soles are needed to keep from slipping on the slick rocks. Polarized sunglasses are a must.

Flies / Lures

Your fly box should contain Sowbugs, Scuds, Sculpin, Woolly Buggers, San Juan worms, and Crayfish to imitate the forage fish and crustaceans. Unlike western rivers, insect hatches are secondary food sources for these trout. Standard mayfly and caddis patterns will cover all the insect imitations you will need. Bring dry, emerger and nymph patterns. Beadhead Sowbugs are deadly. Other popular patterns include Prince Nymph and March Brown Nymph, Red Brassie, and Red Ass. On each of these tailwaters, when the water is down, midge fishing is highly successful. The number-one fly that will put you into fish is the Red Fox Squirrel nymph. Dropper rigs are deadly, usually set up with a Sowbug on the bottom; try them in orange, gray and tan. Lures run the gamut, depending on who you talk to, and include gold and bright green Little Cleos, Bomber Long A’s, Rattlin’ Rogues, small black or white jigs, Rapalas and crawdad lures.

Little Red River

little red river
Little Red River

The White River isn’t the only fishery capable of coughing up huge trout. Just a few years ago, the Little Red River relinquished a 40-pound, 4-ounce brown trout to a spin fisherman, setting a new world record.

One of the best-kept trout fishing secrets in the South, the Little Red, which flows from Greers Gerry Dam near Heber Springs, offers 30 miles of trout water from the dam. Angler can fish for big rainbows pushing fifteen-pounds, and colorful browns of titanic proportions.

Hatchery cutthroat were introduced in the early 1990s, and preliminary results show that these planted trout are thriving. Brook trout are now part of the regular catch, too. The river has islands, swift shoals, and big boulders, making for a variety of trout habitats.

There are all kinds of holding water along the Little Red, and the best way to try them all is to float this clear, blue-ribbon fishery from a boat, usually a johnboat — a long, narrow, shallow fiberglass or aluminum boat, the traditional craft on these waters.

Fish above the moss beds, under overhanging limbs, by submerged timber, to drop-offs, to the banks, to logjams, and to the heads and tails of pools. You’ll probably hear that the Little Red has little or no dry-fly fishing, but don’t believe it. Caddis flies hatch most of the warm months, stones come off in spring, and attractor patterns seem to work most of the summer.

Nocturnal Angling

The fall trout spawn has for years been the most popular time to be on the Little Red and White Rivers, but the guides and shops finally began to realize that fishing over spawning trout is detrimental to the continued health of the fishery. As such, the guides and shops, for the most part, have recently emphasized catch-and-release angling and discourage their clients from fishing for spawners.

So if you want to catch big trout in the White River system, and wish to avoid fishing the fall brown trout run, when thousands of anglers descend on the tailwater like so many ducks, consider hunting for these giants under the cover of darkness.

Night fishing is popular on these rivers and with good reason. The big trout tend to leave safe lies and feed under cover of dark. Anglers also need to fish with underwater flies such as egg patterns, big streamers and sculpin patterns. Stripping in big streamers with a responsive hand is a must to consistently catch nighttime trout on the White River system.

Guides and locals claim that if the moon is high and the starry night cloudless, you might as well stay at the lodge and turn in early. I recommend going out at night with a guide or only after you have fished the area during the day for a safer nighttime outing.

Recommended Gear

Fly fishers should bring an 8- to 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight outfit. A 6-weight won’t be too heavy for some of these monsters and the high, fast water. Both 4X or 5X leaders will work in most conditions, and only in low water will you have to switch to 6X or 7X. For night fishing, 3X leaders are best. Guides recommend weight-forward floating lines with a five-foot sink tip. Spincasters find that an ultralight spinning rod with 48 pound test line will work for the average rainbow trout you’re likely to catch, but if you are looking to land lunkers, move up to a bassin’ outfit set up with 1020 pound test line. You’ll want to bring along neoprene waders for the colder months, and breathables for the warmer ones. Felt soles are needed to keep from slipping on the slick rocks. Polarized sunglasses are a must.

Flies / Lures

Your fly box should contain Sowbugs, Scuds, Sculpin, Woolly Buggers, San Juan worms, and Crayfish to imitate the forage fish and crustaceans. Unlike western rivers, insect hatches are secondary food sources for these trout. Standard mayfly and caddis patterns will cover all the insect imitations you will need. Bring dry, emerger and nymph patterns. Beadhead Sowbugs are deadly. Other popular patterns include Prince Nymph and March Brown Nymph, Red Brassie, and Red Ass. On each of these tailwaters, when the water is down, midge fishing is highly successful. The number-one fly that will put you into fish is the Red Fox Squirrel nymph. Dropper rigs are deadly, usually set up with a Sowbug on the bottom; try them in orange, gray and tan. Lures run the gamut, depending on who you talk to, and include gold and bright green Little Cleos, Bomber Long A’s, Rattlin’ Rogues, small black or white jigs, Rapalas and crawdad lures.

 

Overview of Ozark Fly Fishing Opportunities – by Brian Shivers
I’d like to take a trip some day to fish all the tailwaters of the White River from Beaver Lake in Arkansas up into Missouri, across Table Rock Lake to Lake Taneycomo, back down across Bull Shoals into Arkansas, and over to the Norfork in one continuous fly fishing odyssey. As a fantasy trip it ranks right up there with Argentina or New Zealand. I can picture the rolling beauty of the Ozarks and the brilliant colors of the trout. How many “grand slams” (rainbow, cutthroat, brown, and brook trout) could I score? Would I get a shot at a new world record brown? Oh well, until this fantasy comes true, I’ll have to take it one stretch at a time.

All of these trout fisheries are the result of dams that were built in the 1950’s and stocking programs initiated by the states. The combination of cold water and a rich subsurface environment produced an excellent habitat for growing fish. Also as a result of the dams, water levels in these tailwaters can range from easily wadeable to high and fast-often in the same day. This provides anglers with a chance to experience the same length of river in two totally different ways, with completely different flies and techniques.

The Beaver Lake tailwater, near Rogers and Eureka Springs, covers 8 miles from the dam north to the headwaters of Table Rock Lake. There is a habitat program going on in this area through the efforts of local volunteers, the state game and fish agency, and the U.S. Navy Seabees that is making significant improvements to the fishery. If the water conditions are right, you can make this a day trip combining float fishing from a canoe or johnboat with wading the shoals. Low water wading is particularly good for fly anglers. Just be sure to keep a close eye on the water levels since it’s hard to hear the warnings when the gates are opened a few miles upstream.

Scott Branyan, owner of the Ozark Fly Flinger in Rogers, Arkansas, is an excellent guide for the Beaver tailwater and a good fishing companion anywhere. Scott uses a McKenzie River drift boat he built from a kit as a more comfortable and stable alternative to the long White River johnboats the other guides use. You can contact Scott via his web site at http://ourworld. compuserve.com/homepages/flyflinger, or call him at 888-993-5464.

Lake Taneycomo, near Branson, Missouri, connects Table Rock Lake to Lake Bull Shoals. It’s older than both of those lakes and was originally a warmwater fishery until the cold water coming out of Table Rock created a great incubator for large trout. Taneycomo trout may grow as much as a foot each year. Browns are protected by a 20-inch minimum and a one fish per day limit, so there are plenty of big browns. Limits on rainbows are more generous, but there are plenty of good size rainbows too. The Missouri Department of Conservation posts weekly fishing reports between April and October on their website at www.state.mo.us.conservation/fish. You can receive the reports via e-mail by signing up with their list server.

The Bull Shoals tailwater is the best known (and most heavily fished) stretch of the White River. There are catch-and-release areas below the dam and at Rim Shoals. Very large browns and rainbows can be caught when the water levels are up during the day, and at night during the summer and fall. There are many trout docks and lodges in this area where anglers can rent the traditional White River johnboats. Fly fishing guides, while increasing in numbers, are still hard to come by. I recommend Hank Wilson at Gaston’s White River Resort (870-431-5216), and Jim Lipscomb at Cane Island Fly Shop (870-431-4555). Both are located in Lakeview, Arkansas near the dam.

While the White below Bull Shoals gets most of the attention, it’s the 5-mile Norfork tailwater that has the bragging rights. Formally known as the North Fork of the White River, the Norfork River between the dam at Norfork Lake and its confluence with the White near Norfork, Arkansas produced a 38 pound, 9 ounce brown trout in 1989 which stood as the world record until 1992 when another Arkansas trout took the prize. The state record brook trout (3 pounds, 10 ounces) also came from here. This is your best shot for a grand slam. Scott Branyan, Rick Kilgore, and I fished it in January and caught several very nice rainbows, browns, and cutthroats. About one mile of the Norfork above the River Ridge access area is catch-and-release, barbless hooks only.

Although I’ve been talking about four tailwaters in two states covering hundreds of river miles, they have a lot in common. Remember that water levels can fluctuate widely. Be very careful not to get caught unaware. Having a boat available will increase the time you can spend on the water and your chances of catching big fish. Both Arkansas and Missouri require trout stamps in addition to a fishing license. Licenses can be ordered by telephone in Missouri at 800-392-4115, and in Arkansas at 800364-4263.

Fly patterns are pretty consistent along the White River. Use weighted streamers in high water, and for large browns at night. Popular patterns include zonkers, woolies, sculpins, crayfish, and shad imitations from size 6-10. Low water patterns are usually nymphs and crustaceans. Scuds, sow bugs, prince nymphs and soft hackles size 12-16 work well on 5X or lighter tippets. The White is mostly a nymph and wet fly river, but hatches do occur-size 18-22 midges, caddis, and mayflies will imitate the naturals.

One of these days I’ll take my trip and cover all the White River, but until that happens you’ll find me enjoying my fantasy on the installment plan.

Related Resources & Articles

Floating the Little Red
Arkansas’ Little Red River is a tailwater flowing out of a dam below Greers Ferry Lake at Heber Springs, which is about a 90-minute drive from Little Rock.
www.gbtu.org/events/fishstories/LittleRedRiverArkansas.htm

Fly Recommendations for the White River
fly suggestions for trout fishing the White River, Arkansas
www.whiteriver.net/wrflys.html

Flyfishing Paradise in the Ozarks
Be sure to click on fly of the month for white river flies
www.northarkansasflyfisher.org/FLYFISHINGPARADISE.html

Little Missouri Fly Fishing
www.littlemissouriflyfishing.com

Little Missouri Fly Fishing
The nearby Little Missouri river teems with rainbow trout much of the year with Permanent and Seasonal Catch & Release Areas providing excellent sport and quality fish through the summer and fall
www.murfreesboroark.com/littlemissouriflyfishing.html

Natural State Trout: Making a World-Famous Fishery Even Better
Arkansas Wildlife Magazine
www.centuryinter.net/nacent/ozark/nstrout.html

North Arkansas Fly Fishers
all about Ozark fly fishing
www.northarkansasflyfisher.org

On the Fly with Dale Fulton
Fulton says the number and quality -of fish in the White and Norfork Rivers is better than it has been in quite some time.
www.whiteriver.net/onthefly.html

Successfully Fly Fishing High Water
High waters in both the North Fork and the White River have lasted as long as several months.
www.whiteriver.net/articles/highwater1.htm

White River: Year-Round World Class Trout StreamTrout Stream
The White River begins as a small, quick mountain stream and ends up as a broad, meandering waterway serving the barge and towboat industry.
www.ozarkmountainregion.com/lakes_rivers/white.asp

Winter Shad Kills – A Trout Fishing Dream Come True
February and March mark a special time for trout fishing on the White River.
www.whiteriver.net/trimbles/shadkill.htm

Arkansas Fly Fishing Guides
Berry Brothers Guide Service
Arkansas fishing guide – Fly Fishing For Arkansas Trout
www.berrybrothersguides.com

John B. Gulley – Fly Fishing Guide
Fly Fishing Guide on the Arkansas White and Little Red Rivers
www.flyguide.com

Arkansas Hatch Charts
White River hatch chart
www.bigyflyco.com/whiteriver.html

Arkansas Fly Fishing Maps
Lake Norfork map
www.norfork.com/images/norforkmap.gif

Little Red River map
www.ozarkangler.com/river/lrr/lrr_map_gft.html

White River Map

http://flyanglersonline.com/features/greatrivers/white/whitemap.html

Arkansas Fly Fishing Reports
White River, Norfolk River, Crooked River Reports from Mountain River Fly Shops
www.mtnriverflyshop.com/Fishing%20Report.htm

Arkansas State Fishing Report
Arkansas fishing reports from The Morning News
www.nwaonline.net/articles/2005/03/14/outdoors/05statefish.txt

Little Missouri
One of the only sites out there with information about fly fishing on the Little Missouri River in southwest Arkansas.
www.littlemissouriflyfishing.com

White River Arkansas fishing reports from Davy Wotton
Updated about once per month, or as conditions change.
www.whiteriver.net/fly-fishing-report/index.htm

White River report
Overview of Little Red River

McClellans FlyShop
18 W. Sunbridge Dr., Fayetteville, Arkansas 72703, 479.251.7037
www.mcflyshop.com/

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