White River Fly Fishing
by DAVE WHITLOCK WITH EMILY WHITLOCK
The White: A Four-Season River
I have a love-hate relationship with the White, my favorite river for 45 years. It stems from a combination of the White’s beauty, fertility, and excellent fishing for lots of big trout–and the unpredictable water levels, large numbers of anglers who kill their daily limit two or three times a day, and the occasional mismanagement of one of the world’s most productive trout fisheries. The White probably doesn’t need more fishing pressure, but it does need a lot more fly-fishing friends who will help to restore this fishery.
The White River Tailwater System
Born from limestone springs and 40 to 50 inches of annual rainfall in the highlands of the ancient Ozark Mountains, just east of Fort Smith, Arkansas, the White flows north out of Arkansas into Missouri, turns southeast and back into Arkansas, and eventually flows into the Mississippi. Its fast-flowing waters are enriched by dissolved limestone and billions of tons of chicken, turkey, and hog manure produced in giant growing operations throughout the Ozarks and then spread over poor soil of the rocky hills and valley farms.
The White was a productive smallmouth and largemouth bass river in the 1940s when the Army Corps of Engineers designated the White and Arkansas Rivers for a major flood-control plan. Over the next 30 years, five tall dams were constructed along the White’s course. Much of the White River’s warm waters disappeared under five 30-mile long, deep, serpentine lakes. However, the 100-plus miles of flowing sections (or tailwaters) that were left–below Norfork, Bull Shoals, Greers Ferry, Table Rock and Beaver Dams–became cold waters!
Within a short time, the White’s populations of spotted, largemouth and smallmouth bass, sunfish, and catfish dwindled away. Then, as mitigation for these losses, the federal government began stocking the nearly barren, cold tailwaters with rainbow and brown trout. Soon after, biologists successfully introduced coldwater minnows, plants, and invertebrates from the Spring River.
The trout adapted beautifully to the river’s almost constant, ideal temperatures (between 45 and 65 degrees F), and the abundance of nutrient-laden food in the water allowed an estimated growth of 1/2 inch or more monthly. In these conditions, an eight- to ten-inch stocked trout, weighing about six to ten ounces could gain two to three pounds per year the first, second, and third year–if they weren’t removed.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, I estimated from Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) survey data and my own observations and catches, that the White’s rainbows averaged 4 pounds and regularly grew to over 15 pounds. In the early ’60s, at one public access near Cotter, the AGFC was recording between 1,200 and 1,700 trout, weighing between 4 and 19 pounds, caught per month.
But, like the great western buffalo harvest, the White’s lunker-trout population was soon overharvested, and by the late ’60s, the average trout size was around 12-14 ounces. However, because of regular, heavy stocking, good numbers of these smaller fish continued to be harvested along with occasional large trout (especially browns).
As time went on and the rainbows continued to decrease in size and number, local anglers, resorts, and businesses cried for a reversal back to the good ol’ days of big rainbows. A well-meaning state warmwater biologist decided that the decline in rainbow populations was due to big brown trout cannibalizing smaller rainbows. So, for the next couple of years, most of the adult wild brown population was removed by electroshocking, netting, fishing, and a number of other methods. The rainbow fishery still continued to decline.
Finally it became clear to officials that the problem was overharvesting by anglers. The AGFC finally admitted that browns were not the problem and granted the local fly-fishing clubs permission to stock wild brown eggs in the White using the Whitlock-Vibert Box method. From 1971 to 1980, they purchased and stocked one million brown trout eggs, and the almost nonexistent brown trout population grew from less than .10 percent to nearly 16 percent of the river’s trout population. Catching wild, trophy trout returned to the realm of possibility.
Through the ’80s and ’90s, the state hired several coldwater biologists, implemented stocking of larger as well as smaller trout, and introduced a winter lures-only season, along with slot- and catch-limits on brown, cutthroat, and brook trout. More recently, a mile stretch of water was closed below Bull Shoals Dam from November 1 to January 31 to protect spawning browns and rainbows, a few (extremely controversial) short sections of catch-and-release areas were created, and law enforcement has been increased.
Each of these changes has had a positive but often limited effect on preserving and restoring the fishery. The bottom line is that in the 100 miles of trout tailwaters, the majority of the 1 to 2 million annually stocked trout survive in the river a mere two to four weeks before they are caught and removed. Most of the 100 miles are open all year to bait fishing and it is estimated that 95 percent of the anglers who fish these open areas take their limit of trout. If all these fishermen would stay within the regulations or keep only what they could really eat, it would be a much different situation. Many of these trout would have a chance to grow bigger, making for a much better fishing experience for everyone, and possibly get the chance to spawn and increase the wild fish population.
Unfortunately, too many times that’s not the case. A river guide with 22 years of experience recently told me that he “always cooks his clients a limit of trout each day for lunch, then proceeds to catch more, so they can take home a limit as well.” He then complained, “The fish were getting smaller each year!”
I began fishing for trout on the White River in June 1956. Other fly fishers eventually discovered the White’s remarkable fishery, but even 44 years later fly fishers are a five to ten percent minority. Sometimes, especially on weekends, the catch-and-release areas can get congested, but outside of these times most of the good shoals are rarely crowded with fly fishers. Trout in the non-catch-and-release sections of the river usually average smaller (8 to 12 inch) but are also much less selective and easier to catch on flies. That’s because most have been in the river less than a month. There are large fish, but their populations are smaller than in the catch-and-release zones.
Tactics for the White’s Tailwaters
The cold, flowing waters of the White come from deep lake water released through the dams. These water volumes vary daily, depending on the quantity and time electricity is needed and the amount of water in storage. If the lakes are high, more water is usually released and more often. If the lakes are below normal levels, water release is limited.
The needs of the fisheries or recreational users are rarely or never taken into consideration. These dams are connected through computers to over 180 other power generation systems, and there is no set release schedule. Each day, electricity needs are determined by computer and specific generators are chosen.
Dave Whitlock Illustration
Dave Whitlock IllustrationDuring minimum-flow conditions, wade-fishing is most effective in and around the shoals (shown left), which are a series of limestone outcroppings in which gravel has collected and formed networks of short riffles, runs, pools, and pockets. During high-water conditions, casting to trout holding in and around structure (above) from a johnboat is the most common and productive method of fishing.
Water releases at Beaver, Table Rock, Bull Shoals, Norfork, and Greers Ferry Dams often begin between 6 and 7 A.M. and may vary all day until 10 P.M. or 12 midnight, creating a series of tide-like pulses down the river. Intercepting maximum low-level conditions in the 80 miles of trout waters below Bull Shoals Dam or the 25 miles below Greers Ferry Dam usually means moving via boat or car downstream once or twice daily to follow the progress of low tide.
For the short tailwater sections below Beaver, Table Rock, and Norfork Dams, this procedure is not very practical, as the time between low and high water is less than one hour after the generators are turned on. So, once the generation starts, wade-fishing is usually over. There are safety zones (ranging from 100 feet to 200 yards) directly below each of the five dams where no fishing or boating is permitted.
Low water. Fly fishing for the White’s trout is best when the water is at low-flow levels because the fish are more concentrated and are easier to locate, approach, and cast to. Wade-fishing is most effective in and around the shoals, which are a series of limestone outcroppings in which gravel has collected and formed networks of short riffles, runs, pools, and pockets. Shoals are typically spaced along every 1/4 to 1 mile of river, between deep, slow, long pools.
High water. When water levels are high, wading is dangerous. Although fish feed more during higher flows, the current moves so fast that typical fishing tactics are extremely difficult. Egg patterns, San Juan Worms, Flesh Flies, and sowbug imitations with big indicators, heavy shot, and 6- to 12-foot tippets produce well during high-water periods if fished from a boat, dead-drifting the fly just above the channel bottom.
Dale Fulton, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies and fly-fishing guide who helped develop this dead-drifting technique, once told me that you can catch from 30 to 40 trout a day using this method. We strongly urge fly fishers to avoid getting on high water in a boat without an experienced guide.
But, when you can find the river dropping to near minimum or stable at minimum flow, it fishes extremely well for waders using floating or sinking-tip lines with dry flies, midges, nymphs, egg imitations, and streamers.
Because the unpredictable 1- to 12-foot water fluctuations can be dangerous if you are not accustomed to detecting the rising water or do not have a boat with you, the best insurance for good, safe fishing is to hire a local fly-fishing guide or fish the river with someone who is a White River-experienced angler. Over 200 anglers have drowned below these dams.
Gary Flippin, owner of Rim Shoals Trout Dock and Resort, located in the middle of the best section of catch-and-release shoals on the White, 24 miles below Bull Shoals Dam, has a great service for wading fly fishers. For a small fee, he will boat you to the good wading shoals and pick you up when you’re ready to quit or when the water begins to rise above safe wading conditions.
Experienced river guides monitor the generation via the hotline ( 595-6779, Bull Shoals 14, Norfork 15, Greers Ferry 16, Table Rock 13, Beaver 12). However, accurately gauging the flow levels from the information provided on the hotline takes experience. For safety, always get a guide if you are new to the White River system.
The White’s Four Seasons
There’s no closed season on the White’s tailwater system. All year, weather and water temperatures are excellent for trout and fly fishing, and all four seasons produce almost equal fishing success.
Spring. From about the first week in March to mid-June, water temperatures range from 45 to 65 degrees F, ranging from coldest near the dams and gradually warming downstream. This is the best time of the year for aquatic insect hatches consisting mainly of caddis and mayflies. Expect mildly variable water levels unless major rains flood the lakes, causing lots of high-water conditions on the river.
Dave and Emily Whitlock Photo
Though the White does have hatches, subsurface patterns (above) consistently produce the best. Dense populations of sowbugs and other macro-invertebrates live in the White’s tailwaters.
Mid- to late spring is a beautiful time to experience the Ozark Mountains’ blooming trees and wildflowers. Because trout are least fished in the winter, the spring population is at the highest, with trout that are well rested and aggressive to flies throughout the river and stream tributaries. Fishing pressure is usually moderate, increasing by June.
Summer. We consider the summer season to begin in June and end in September to correspond with our school session. Water temperatures range from 55 degrees at the dam to 70 degrees downstream; air temperatures and humidity range from 70 to 100 degrees. As temperatures rise, by midsummer the better fishing will be on the upper and middle sections of the White below Bull Shoals and the entire sections below Norfork, Beaver, and Table Rock dams.
Due to increased air-conditioning needs, daily water releases are usually high. Aquatic insect hatches are not significant, except for a few small PMDs and midges hatching near the dams. Summer fish are taken mostly on attractor and terrestrial dry flies, nymphs, Woolly Buggers, and sculpin imitations. Wet wading helps keep you cool when daily summer humidity and air temperatures are high.
The best chance to escape the crowded conditions of summer is to fish during midweek, at night, or at sunup and sundown. Otherwise you’ll need patience to cope with all the river users.
Fall. Fall conditions start in mid-September and can last through early December. Frost may hit a little in late October, but midday air temperatures range from 50 to 70 degrees F, and the hill- and riverside colors can be magnificent. The water begins to chill from the dams downstream (50-55 degrees), triggering the spawning urges of first the rainbows, then brook and brown trout. The bigger fish begin to sneak out of their deep ledge-hole sanctuaries and move upstream into schools to pair up and spawn.
Water levels are usually the most stable at this time, due to the lake levels being low after summer hydroelectric generation and lack of rainfall. However, water directly below the dams can be almost void of oxygen until late fall, so the better fishing is often several miles downstream where there are hatches of microcaddis, midges, and early Blue-winged Olives. Fish will rise nicely throughout fall to floating terrestrials, especially sizes 12 and 10, such as Dave’s Hoppers and Crickets. Scuds, sowbugs, nymphs, streamers, Woolly Buggers, San Juan Worms, and egg flies are all good late-fall flies.
By mid-fall, most tourist fishing has dwindled and hunting season has lured many of the retirees and locals off the water. The trout docks close by late November. On weekends, however, the shoals, especially those in catch-and-release sections and on good spawning shoals, are so congested that you may have to take a number and get in line to fish.
Formerly, fly fishers crowded almost shoulder to shoulder onto the spawning shoals directly below Bull Shoals Dam in the mile-long catch-and-release area. In one fall/winter period, the excessive catching, handling, and releasing of the magnificent 20- to 38-inch, wild brown trout spawners resulted in a nearly 50 percent mortality from fungus and stress. This one-mile section of the major brown and rainbow spawning sites is now closed to all fishing from November 1 to January 31, so there is a brighter future for these big, precious wild fish.
Winter. This season runs from mid-December through about the first week of March and is often mild and sunny. Nighttime freezing temperatures often rise into the 40s and 50s by afternoon. The Ozark Mountains buffer much of the winter winds and the tailwaters’ temperatures seldom drop below 45-52 degrees. In the winter, the warmest water will be in sections directly below the dams or where springs, which flow at 52 degrees all year, enter the river.
There’s a serenity and special beauty in the hills and river at this time. The rocky bluffs and beauty of the terrain are much more visible, as is the wildlife. Mink, beaver, raccoons, and deer frequent the river and its banks and the sounds of ducks, geese, eagles, gulls, and herons replace human noise. This is a perfect time for snowbound fly fishers to come to the Ozarks.
You can catch fish during low-water periods all winter on midges, Blue-winged Olives, sowbugs, scuds, Woolly Buggers, sculpins, and egg patterns. When the winters are cold enough, tons of thermally-shocked threadfin shad often pass through the generators during January and February. When this happens, large numbers of trout are drawn miles upriver to this massive shad chum line, congregating heavily in the first miles below each dam. This in turn creates some fast and furious fly fishing from boats using dead-drifted shad imitations and white flesh flies.
I love the quiet winter, because there are times, especially during the week or when the weather is dark, cold, and damp that good shoals aren’t occupied by an angler. That’s my favorite time to pick a vacant run or pool and peacefully midge-fish to big, relaxed risers with a 1- or 2-weight outfit.
Patterns for the White
No stream I’ve fished has a richer water supply than the White, but due to the height and speed fluctuations of the water, the White’s aquatic plant, invertebrate, and vertebrate life must be very hardy and adaptable.
Aquatic insects, especially the larger species, don’t maintain significant enough populations in the White to trigger much trout feeding. But smaller (#14-24) mayflies, midges, and caddis do fairly well. The river’s crustacea (scuds, sowbugs, and crayfish), as well as snails, worms, and leeches, are extremely abundant, and trout grow large on the hordes of vertebrates such as small stocker trout, sculpin, darters, chubs, dace, shiners, threadfin shad, and suckers.
The White’s tailwaters are primarily nymph and streamer water, but the river also provides excellent dry-fly action. My best subsurface flies are the Red Fox Squirrel Nymph (#6-18), Dave’s Scud and Sow Bug (#14-20), tan/olive soft hackles (#16-20), Pheasant-tails and Hare’s-ears (#14-30), NearNuff Sculpin and NearNuff Crayfish (#4-10), Matuka Sculpin (#8-5/0), and the Sheep Minnow, a threadfin shad pattern (#4-8).
The surface flies I depend on are Sulphur Emergers and Duns (#12-20), Parachute Adams (#14-20), Elk-hair and Poly-wing Caddis (#12-22), midges (#18-22), Blue-winged Olives (#20-24), Dave’s Hoppers and Dave’s Cricket (#8-12), and Carpenter Ants (#14-16).
Tackle for the White
In any 8- to 12-hour period, these tailwaters may vary in depth from 1 to 10 feet and the current speed from 1 to 2 miles per hour up to 6 or 8 miles per hour! To effectively fly fish all the sides of this tailwater system, I suggest three tackle outfits.
Dave and Emily Whitlock Photos
The White and its tributaries are home to world-record fish. Emily hooked this awesome male brown (above) on a #16 caddis and 6X tippet in the C&R section directly below Bull Shoals Dam. Rip Collins caught his all-class, 40 lb. 4 oz., world-record brown trout on the Little Red River, a tributary of the White, that flows out of Greers Ferry Lake. Outfit 1. For low water using smaller surface and subsurface flies (#12-24), a 1- to 4-weight, medium-action, 8- or 9-foot rod; weight-forward floating line with 10 to 12-foot leader; and 4X to 7X tippet is recommended.
This is an especially important outfit for success in the catch-and-release sections, as fish there become extremely small-fly and light-tippet selective.
Outfit 2. For minimum to medium flow levels using big dry flies or small streamers and nymphs, eggs, or worms fished with shot and indicators, use a 5- or 6-weight, medium-fast, 9-foot rod; weight-forward floating line with 9- to 12-foot leaders; and 2X-4X tippet.
For fishing Woolly Buggers and medium-size streamers I recommend a weight-forward sinking-tip with a 6-foot leader and 1X-3X tippet; for fishing on or near bottom with sculpin, crayfish, and shad imitations, a weight-forward uniform-sink line with 4-foot leader and 1X-3X tippet is best.
Outfit 3. For high flow levels, fishing from a boat using medium to large streamers #8 to 3/0, an 8- or 9-weight, medium-fast action, 9-foot rod is helpful. I recommend three different lines and leaders: weight-forward bass bug taper with 9-foot leader and OX-2X tippet for casting toward the banks; weight-forward, 10-foot sinking-tip IV with 6-foot leader and OX-2X tippet for casting along deep banks; and weight-forward uniform-sink V with 4-foot leader and 0X-2X tippet for fishing in the deep main channel.
If you are absolutely limited to one outfit, bring a 5- or 6-weight, 9-foot rod with a weight-forward floating line. Understand, however, that because the river has so many different faces, your success will be limited in all situations.