Arkansas Trout: Live Big on the Little Red
July 21, 2011
Year-round Arkansas trout fishing
The Little Red River titillated the angling world in 1992 when it coughed up the current world-record brown trout—a 40-pound, 4-ounce behemoth caught by local fisherman Howard "Rip" Collins on 4-pound-test line. This "mother of all brown trout" is the sort of thing any tourism department or chamber of commerce dreams about. It made the river's reputation as a premier fishing destination and morphed Heber Springs into a bustling resort town filled with fly shops, guides, restaurants, and hotels.
But with 29 miles of prime fly-fishing water below Greers Ferry Dam, and estimates of thousands of fish per mile, there's more than enough river to find solitude, and plenty of trout to go along with it.
The Little Red flows from Greers Ferry Dam and eventually merges with the White River, the other famous Arkansas trout tailwater. Water temperatures range from 45 to 55 degrees F. all year. Most of the river bottom is sand or gravel, with heavy moss in the deep areas.
The Little Red's most popular stretch—from the dam to Ramsey Access—has several public access points for wading anglers. While fishing, keep track of landmarks in case generation begins and you're wading deep. The water can rise as much as 8 feet in a few hours due to power generation at the dam. During periods of maximum generation, boat anglers often catch more fish than wading anglers.
The Greers Ferry National Fish Hatchery below the dam produces about one million rainbow trout yearly for the Little Red and several other Arkansas streams.
Brown trout reproduce naturally in the river, thanks to the initial efforts in the early 1970s by the Memphis-based Mid-South Fly Fishers, who took offense to the Arkansas Game and Fish Department plan to stock only rainbows. Club members covertly introduced Salmo trutta under the cover of darkness, and descendants of those fish reproduce naturally in the river today.
Some brook trout also spawn successfully in the Collins Creek area in JFK Park. Cutthroat trout are fewer and farther between—mostly downstream, from Winkley Shoals to Lobo Access.
Water levels on the Little Red are directly proportionate to energy usage levels in the area. Southwestern Power Administration provides a daily release schedule online at swpa.gov/generationschedules.aspx and by telephone at (866) 494-1993. A monthly record is available at atswl-wc.usace.army.mil/reservoirs-o.htm.
Generally, electricity usage drops on weekends, causing water levels to fall and creating ideal wade-fishing conditions. Greers Ferry Dam has two power generators, and the flow rate ranges from 20 to 7,800 cubic feet per second (cfs). When only one generator is operating, the flow ranges between 2,500 and 3,900 cfs.
In the spring, flows can be high for weeks or months at a time regardless of electricity production. During this period, wading is not an option, so you should drift stretches of the Little Red, working the banks on either side of the river with streamers.
Use bigger flies in high water, especially if the water is murky. Local guides often fish 2X tippets and throw large (#2-6) streamers. Clouser Minnows (gray/white, yellow/white, and brown/orange); black, olive, and brown Woolly Buggers; and Woolhead Sculpins are local favorites.
I use 9-foot, 3X fluorocarbon leaders with a floating line if the water is relatively clear. In off-colored water, use a sinking-tip line and a flat, 3- to 4-foot piece of fluorocarbon to get your flies down to the fish quickly.
In high water you can also use an indicator rig to dead-drift flies from a boat. Use San Juan Worms (#12-14); sow bugs (#14-16, gray and tan beadhead patterns); Pheasant Tails (#14-16); egg imitations (#12-16); and local Arkansas favorite, the Red Ass (#14-16).
Bring at least two rods to the Little Red. In low, "normal" conditions you'll want an 8- or 9-foot, 4- or 5-weight rod for wade-nymphing and dry-fly fishing. Use a stout 6-weight for streamer fishing from the boat.
Mayfly nymphs, sow bugs, and midges make up the vast majority of the macroinvertebrates in the river, and you can almost always catch fish with patterns that imitate them. When you are wading and nymphing in low water (often sight-nymphing to large trout), sow bug imitations (#14-18, gray or tan) are the most effective flies, but don't forget red Brassies (#18-22), Flashback Pheasant Tails (#14-18), Hare's Ears (tan and gray in #14-18), Copper Johns (copper, red, and brass in #14-18), and the Red Ass (#16-20). Also include an assortment of #18-22 Zebra Midges (red, black, cream, green, and brown).
When the water is low, wade quietly. Don't flail at the water uselessly. If the sun is high, look for individual fish and stalk them carefully. In low light, choose your targets and make accurate casts from one knee to maintain a low profile.
With an abundance of subsurface foods, Little Red trout don't feed on top as regularly as trout on some other waters. However, there are three strong hatches that bring trout to the surface and create classic dry-fly fishing: caddis from mid-March through May; midge hatches all year, and especially good in the winter; and Blue-winged Olives (BWOs) from August until October.
For the caddis hatch, use #14-18 Elk-hair Caddis, Lawson's Spent Caddis, and LaFontaine Emergent Sparkle Pupa patterns when trout focus on emerging caddisflies. Early in the season, the caddis hatch can last all afternoon, but to find the best dry-fly fishing, you need low-water flows.
According to guide Jed Hollan, manager of the Little Red Fly Shop in Heber Springs and author of the recently published book Fly Fishing the Little Red, midge hatches are especially heavy in January and February.
He says: "Midge hatches during the winter months are so incredible that at times, anglers need masks over their mouths and noses to keep from consuming these tiny critters."
During the hatch, subsurface midge pupa imitations such as Brassies, Zebra Midges, or Yong Specials often catch more fish than drys. However, when the fish really get working on the surface, it's time to switch to a #18-22 Parachute Adams, Griffith's Gnat, or other small dry fly.
Blue-winged Olives hatch in the spring (March and April) and again in the fall, starting in August and peaking in late September and October.
Both emergences can be excellent, but fall hatches coincide more regularly with lower water levels and better dry-fly fishing.
To find the best BWO fishing, concentrate your efforts on any of the shoal areas. Shoals provide the best mayfly habitat, have the highest numbers of trout, and provide wade-fishing opportunities where you can stalk rising trout in shallow water. BWOs hatch best in the afternoon, particularly on calm, overcast, rainy, or even snowy days.
To imitate these small mayflies, use #18-22 Parachute Adams or olive-body Sparkle Duns with a 5X or 6X tippet. Trailing a #18-20 Pheasant Tail or other unweighted small, dark nymph from the bend of your dry fly can sometimes make the difference between success and failure.
Little Red Access
John F. Kennedy Park, located downstream of Greers Ferry Dam, has a boat ramp and a ¾-mile, special-regulations, walk-and-wade area (artificial flies and lures only, with single, barbless hooks).
This area holds various water types, from shallow riffles to deep pools, and is known for big rainbows and the occasional brook trout. When electrical generation stops, this is the first place that becomes wadable because of its close proximity to the dam. Fly fishers often follow the low water as it moves downstream later in the day.
Inside JFK Park is the Collins Creek Trout Fishery Projectâ€”a man-made stream/tributary created and maintained for young or disabled anglers. Named after the late Rip Collins, the creek's bridges and wooden fishing platforms provide easy access to some of the biggest (stocked) fish in the area.
Properly licensed adults may fish near the area in the lower reaches, but only if accompanying one of the fishers in the special area. It's a great place for a child/parent outing because the terrain is easy, and the fish are within close casting distance.
Brook trout also spawn in this catch-and-release area, and there is good dry-fly fishing for small wild brook trout in the upper mile of the river.
Cow Shoals is a walk-in area with almost a mile of fishing. Brown trout spawn here during the fall, and anglers often stand shoulder to shoulder. Despite catch-and-release regulations from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31, many guides and local anglers feel it is unethical, and harmful to the wild brown trout population, to target actively spawning trout. Fish the deep water above or below the shoal area, or avoid Cow Shoals altogether during the fall—there are many other fine places for fall fishing where you won't negatively impact the trout population.
For fly fishers, Cow Shoals is best in the spring, when there are many smaller, more aggressive browns around. From February through April, there can be excellent dry-fly fishing during periods of low flow. Earlier in the year, this is primarily a midge-fishing affair, with #18-22 Parachute Adams and Griffith's Gnats, but in April you'll also need #16-20 BWO imitations when mayflies join the hatch in the afternoons.
Barnett Access (Winkley Shoals is just downstream), is a popular walk-in area with good numbers of rainbows and browns. It includes a half-mile of good wadable water with skinny flats, fast riffles, drop-offs, slow-moving deep pools, and plenty of large submerged rocks. Use the Barnett Access boat launch to motor upstream a few miles to places like Ritchey Shoal, which is not walk-in accessible.
If you find yourself fishing at the dam or at JFK Park, and Southwestern Power Administration begins generating electricty, jump in your car, drive to Barnett Access, and walk down to Winkley Shoals, where you can fish for about an hour before the high water arrives.
Most anglers who launch boats at Lobo Access motor upriver to fish. Along the way, you'll pass Libby Shoals (which is also accessible by foot), Moss Dam Shoal, Scroncher Shoals, Baker's Ford, and the lower end of Winkley Shoals. These are all shallow-water areas where the bottom structure attracts and holds big trout.
The highest numbers of large brown trout are between Beech Island and Winkley Shoals, but monsters can turn up anywhere. From Libby Shoals downstream, there are more holdover 14- to 16-inch rainbows than in the upstream areas.
From Pangburn Shoal downstream, pay attention to rainfall and water conditions, as tributaries such as Big Creek can muddy the water after a heavy rain.
Filled with folklore and fish, the Little Red invites fly fishers to visit its waters year-round. With very few restrictions, lots of access, and hospitable Heber Springs nearby, this destination should appeal to anglers of all skill levels.
Barbara Baird is a freelance writer and publisher of the Women's Outdoor News (womensoutdoornews.com). An avid outdoorswoman, Baird is also a NRA-certified handgun instructor. She lives in the Missouri Ozarks and this is her first article for Fly Fisherman.