North Fork River Fly Fishing


The first time I fished it we floated down using a true and tested method. With a dropper rig and weighted against a sight detector, we trolled through runs and stopped at likely places to do a bit of wading and casting.
It’s a very good way to fish the North Fork but certainly not the only one. Moreover, it is not a way with which I am entirely comfortable. Another time I went with one of the best fly fishing strategist I know. The river has a reputation for not giving up its treasure too easily, so one has a tendency to want to fish it with methods and fly patterns of known success.

We took a canoe, but used it only to get from place to place where we would get out and wade. Best advice had us using prince nymphs, woolly buggers, and another the name of which I cannot remember. My companion liked to fish quickly downstream along the riffles and then back up the same riffle more slowly. Fishing down the riffle quickly gave him a good idea of its structure and equipped him for the more serious work wading back up, fishing up and across.

He used a lot of slack line casts, especially chuck casts, role cast, short cast and short drifts. The use of a woolly bugger was quickly discarded because it often badly twists the leader in fast water. My friends loves to fish upstream and uses a rather clever method to do it. While he would fish back up the riffle he rather seemed to prefer the tail water and its pools and always gave it a very thorough going over. He took a lot of fish and I didn’t take many.
Now I tend to like fishing with 20 to 40 feet of line down and across the flow. It’s a more pleasant way to wade and easier to move to various vantage points. Moreover, most of the fish that I have taken have been at the end of a drift. So I prefer shorter drifts to fewer long ones.

Where They Are

Fish are all over the North Fork and I am often surprised where I get good hits. I have frequently found them just inside the seam in shallow water, very close to the bank. This has happened to me many times while wading down stream, just trying to keep the line in faster water so I wouldn’t have to take it in while moving down stream. The fly swings out of the faster water toward the bank and I’m still moving down stream getting ready to put the fly back in the fast run when BANG!!

More often than not such hits are a surprise, and as a result I miss the trout. The North Fork has a stable bottom, so if you can find them there are certain holding spots that are a sure thing. I can only wish good luck in this search for they are scattered here and there.

Often overlooked, I think, is the headwater before the riffle. I tend to want to stand at the top of the riffle and fish its seams, making up for stream cast into the headwater. My best fish, however, have been caught standing far behind the headwater of a riffle and letting a large swing find its way into the headwater pools.

Tactics and Flies

Too often, when I fail to get a hit on the first several casts in headwater shallows and anxious to reach the beginning of turbulent water of the riffle, I defect my vantage point sooner than I should and splash into and across the holding areas of the headwaters, ruining them.

Try standing behind the headwater, drift into them and give them a good chance to produce. Cast out into a gentle current providing a little slack if needed. The float should be more sweeping than looped. Often it unfolds with a long vertical drift.

Subsurface and dry flies are best. Since these waters are shallow, weighted flies tend to hang up, and getting one loose spoils the water. Often it unfolds with a long vertical drift. Subsurface and dry flies are best. Since these waters are shallow weighted flies tend to hang up and getting one loose spoils the water.


Tackle selection for the North Fork is not a difficult chore. Most of the following recommendations are items the average angler already owns, so a trip to Myron’s won’t break the bank buying new gear. In this tackle section I have covered the basics: rods, reels, lines and leaders, and wading equipment. I have not gone into such things as what dry fly floatant to use or what size split shot to throw with a Mohair Leech. I tried to stick with the big issues.

The North Fork is a large river compared to some of the other spring fed streams in the state of Missouri. If your are used to fishing the small streams, the North Fork will be a nice change and sometimes a little overwhelming. Even anglers that have fished the River before walk down from the Chalet and ask themselves “Where do I start?” There is quite a bit of water, however, if you break up the river into smaller sections, work them thoroughly, then move on to the next section, you will be into fish.

Lines and Leaders
For the North Fork I recommend a weight forward taper floating fly line that is balanced with your rod. A weight forward can cast any fly combo well. Including dry flies. The myth seems to be that a double taper presents dry flies better. I have never had a problem presenting dries with my weight forwards. They’re all I fish. Sinking tip and full sinking lines also have their place on the North Fork. They are great for working large flies near or on the bottom. A fairly fast sink rate will be needed due to the river’s quick flow. A leader selection of knotless tapered leaders with tippet diameters of 3X, 4X, and 5X will suffice. My favorite leader is a 9-foot knotless tapered down to 4X tippet. With this set up I can fish the deadly Rubber Leg Stonefly with a Prince Nymph as a dropper near the bottom or can add 5X tippet off a spool and fish an Elk Hair Caddis

Trout and Your Presence
Using this approach I feel certain that you are visible to the trout. I do not think this makes much difference if you don’t move around too much. I expect trout, much like other creatures, stop feeding when something out of ordinary occurs nearby, but in a short time settle down to whatever they’re doing as soon as they are confident that the change presents them no danger.

In the North Fork I have stood casting away amusing myself by watching feeding trout not six feet away. Trout would come into the hold: sometimes there would be three, sometimes two, sometimes only one. To get them to desert the hold, one would have to chase them out.
I don’t think reasonable sized trout have natural fear of anything. Why should they? They have no natural predators and dominate the cold water. One time, wading in, I came across four or five trout giving a certain spot on the bottom a good deal of their attention. I was too close so I backed away to get some casting distance. One big fellow spotted me backing away. He took my retreat to be fear and began to stalk me making sure that I would stay out of his territory. When I was at a distance satisfying to both of us he sheered off.

Summer Fishing
During the heat of the summer the fish will congregate in deep pools just below a good riffle. The riffle will provide much needed oxygen and the deep pools provide cooler temperatures as well as an escape from the sunlight that mortifies trout. A sinking tip line or a sinking head placed above the pool and allowed to drop deep into the pool should produce results. Try using a larger Prince or Anderson rubber leg stone. Use a tight line drift with a longer leader. (9-10 ft) You need to keep the fly line off of the water and keep a direct line with the fly. The complex cross currents at the head of a pool will cause your fly line to drag and not allow the fly to drift naturally or deep enough. The take will be subtle at best. You can use a strike indicator right where the leader and fly line connect to aid in seeing a soft take. Never take your eyes off of the indicator. It is very easy to miss the take. Once that monster has taken it and spit it out, he won’t be fooled again. You get one shot.

If this does not produce, position yourself in the riffle and let out line directly below you into the pool. Allow a large dark woolly bugger (black or dark olive) to drop deep into the pool and retrieve with very short and relatively slow strips back to you. You need to get deep, keep a low profile, and work slow no matter what you use. Once again the take will be very soft. If you feel anything at all, or notice any movement not consistent with the drift, set the hook.

Night Fishing

At 8:30 p.m. the moon was just rising above the east hills of the river valley, and was well hidden by clouds and rising mist on the water.

A temperature of 30 deg. posed no problem with freezing rod eyelets. As we stood well out into the stream on a gravel shelf, casting across a deep seam, the thought occurred to me that blind people can fly fish. It was totally feel and sound to work the fly line.

This being my first night fishing experience, I ask Tom to demonstrate his finesse at catching big browns. He explained that this is the time of day when the big trout come out into the open waters to feed.

Again, casting is totally blind and it is a good idea to wear clear safety glasses, especially if you are with someone else.

Tom probably pulled off 50’ of working line & was throwing a #6 weighted marabou sculpin pattern.

After five or so casts, Tom’s voice lit up with the announcement of his first strike.

Of course I could not verify and had to trust that Tom was not hallucinating from the mystic beauty of our surroundings.

It seemed only another ten minutes before Tom burst into joyous celebration as his line & rod came alive with “SOMETHING BIG ON.” The zinging of his reel played beautiful music!

After five minutes of euphoria the 18″ brown was pulled onto the streamside vegetation.

I was CONVINCED, & ready to get into the excitement of night fishing the North Fork.

Tom is not only an expert guide brimming with enthusiasm, he also casts right handed, while I am left-handed. This enabled me to stand ten to fifteen feet downstream from him and maintain his coaching communication. Tom told me to cast across & let it swing, then strip by the foot. He told me that most strikes are on the swing.

I immediately got a couple of good hits on a #6 weighted black flash-a-bugger. Soon I too was hooked into my biggest brown ever AND, night fishing:)

Landing this beautiful big fish (17″), was an especially thrilling experience in the dark…..since one’s imagination adds extra thrill to the fight.

Final Thoughts

I make one last suggestion. From time to time I hear how thrilling it is to catch a fish on the first cast. But I think one is served best, if one is wading, to see that his first number of casts are made with the intention of expressly not catching anything. A little time spent letting things settle down and letting the river get back to an uninterrupted continuum of which one becomes a part is one of the best coverts one can provide for himself. It’s the difference between stealth, very difficult, and getting the trout to accept you as a passive part of the environment.

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