January 21, 2022
By Zach Matthews
This article was originally titled Ozarks Double Play in the Feb-March 2012 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.
The fog was incredible. I could hear the river, but not see it, as I rolled out of my tent on the second day of our float down the North Fork of the White River, in the southern Missouri Ozarks. My companions lolled around the camp, sipping coffee as they waited for biscuits and gravy from the Dutch oven. I stretched and began to pack my gear, with the trout already rising in the mist.
We were attempting something like the outdoor equivalent of performance art. Three weeks before, I received a call from Kyle Kosovich, a boatbuilder and guide out of Dora, Missouri—a town so small a stoplight would be a novelty. Kosovich made an interesting proposal. See, as long as there have been anglers in the Ozarks, there have also been multi-day float trips using the region’s peculiar original watercraft: the Ozarks johnboat. An authentic Ozarks johnboat is long, low, and lean: 20 feet, made of wood, and capable of bearing an enormous burden without drafting more than a hand’s-breadth. The boats were created for the logging industry in the 1880s, then adapted by fishermen.
Kosovich—a trained scientist and amateur historian—built his first wooden johnboat out of plans scribbled into a 1940s journal. Then he did it a second time, incorporating modern building techniques to make a craft that would have been the envy of every river guide in the 1920s. Kosovich’s idea was to re-create a historic multi-day float down the North Fork, doing it the old-fashioned way.
An Unusual Fishery
The North Fork of the White is one of the most eccentric fisheries in the country. First off, one mustn’t confuse the “North Fork of the White” with the Norfork Tailwater down in Arkansas. (Run the words together and you’ll get corrected.) Though technically these fisheries are on the same river, they are separated by miles and miles of Norfork Lake, and they could not be more disparate in character. Norfork Tailwater is justifiably famous for pig trout in clear, gravelly water—a gorgeous, but artificial environment.
The North Fork of the White, on the other hand, begins life as a freestone smallmouth bass stream. Indeed, where we launched for the weekend, at a Mark Twain National Forest campsite called Hammond Camp (off Missouri Highway CC), the water was warm enough to swim comfortably (and locals on a hot summer day were doing just that).
The first 30 miles or so of the North Fork are classic Ozarks smallie water: limestone bluffs rise on either side of the gravelly, tea-colored river. Crayfish and large caddis and mayfly nymphs are abundant, and the smallmouths are aggressive.
The best technique in the smallmouth section requires a 5- or 6-weight rod and a sinking-tip line (but you can also get away with a standard floating line). Crayfish patterns like Whitlock’s NearNuff Crayfish or rust-colored Woolly Buggers are de rigueur.
The main challenge is in presenting the fly where smallmouths live. In deeper, slower pools, cast behind and around submerged rocks. In riffles, cast along the edges behind overhanging brush or into pockets behind any rock bigger than a basketball. Smallmouths are ambush predators, like most bass. You are trying to trigger the fish’s aggressive nature, but it will only work if the fly acts like a startled baitfish and not like a dead piece of fluff. Begin animating the fly as soon as it touches the water and avoid slack in your line.
The river is clear enough to watch for strikes, which will either be missile-launch style off the bottom, or a pedestrian inspection and subtle sip. The quick takes are easier to handle because the fish often hook themselves, but the bigger bass are more likely to take their time. As with any sight-fishing, you want to avoid snatching the fly away from the fish (admittedly, a problem I fought for most of the trip). Wait for the fly to disappear, then set the hook. While the North Fork boasts some smallmouths between 3 and 5 pounds, anything over 12 inches should be considered a quality fish.
Our float began near the end of the smallmouth water, so after only a half day, we reached the dividing line, and the feature that makes the North Fork so unusual. Dubbed “Rainbow Spring,” it is a gurgling natural fountain, bubbling continuously out of a gravel bar in the middle of the river.
Kosovich explained: “The Ozarks are blessed with many coldwater aquifers, which seep up at various points along the river.” The groundwater temperature in that area is around 50 degrees F.
The transition at the spring was so abrupt, I could literally put one foot in bath water and the other in ice water. From this point until the Patrick Bridge access approximately 10 miles downriver, the North Fork converts to a blue-ribbon trout stream—one of the last all-natural, undammed coldwater fisheries in the Ozarks. (Below Patrick Bridge, still more miles are “red ribbon,” or mixed trout-and-smallmouth water with minimal stocking.)
Many rivers begin as trout streams in their headwaters, then turn into warmwater fisheries in their lower reaches. This reversal of the norm—due to natural coldwater influences—is the only one of its kind I know of.
Shortly before the end of our first day on the water, midnight-blue storm clouds rolled over the headwaters of the river. As night fell and the drumbeat of thunder crashed around us, a gobbler turkey began calling back to the skies: “boom rumble grumble.” A long moment. “Gobble gobble gobble!”
Stillness, and the stroke of the paddle. “Boom rumba crumba.” A beat. “Gobble robble gobble!” Kosovich looked worried, and explained that he was concerned about tomorrow’s flows, but I simply took it in: a legitimately untouched wilderness area, and sounds as old as time.
Anglers from All Walks
In order to really demonstrate the river’s potential, Kosovich put together something of a regional Dream Team of anglers for our trip, each of whom brought a different unique skill to the table. Bryan Yates, for instance, was a former Keys permit guide with liquid-smooth casts. He preferred (and was effective with) larger streamer patterns, continuously crashing the banks to draw out bigger browns and rainbows. His diametric opposite was Randy Hanner, a former Colorado trout guide, who specialized in high-stick European nymphing techniques, which he had picked up while competing on behalf of Team USA.
Brian Wise was a well-known Ozarks trout guide; in his ClackaCraft, he proved the North Fork is also perfect for Western-style driftboat angling. Like many native Ozarks fishermen, he is a generalist.
Kosovich brought an inquisitive streak to the party, kick-netting bugs along the way and displaying a very impressive entomological knowledge, not to mention his obvious fishing and river-running skills.
Having these very different anglers on hand highlighted one of the North Fork’s best traits: as a freestone, it truly offers something for everyone. Unlike the monolithic tailwaters just a few miles away, the coldwater sections of the North Fork support a bountiful and diverse forage base. Large stoneflies swarm the rocks, clinging to rich beds of moss, which also host mayfly and caddisfly larvae. Baitfish sip in the edges, sometimes looking exactly like rising trout.
As a result, there really is no wrong way to fish the North Fork. Kosovich is a proponent of the upstream nymphing technique, frequently without any indicator whatsoever. He ties a heavy stonefly or mayfly nymph to a long, 10- to 15-foot leader. He makes a short cast upriver, often no longer than the length of the leader itself. Then, as the fly ticks along on bottom, he raises his rod slowly, just keeping enough tension on the fly to detect a strike (the leader will tense or straighten slightly). Kosovich uses both ordinary fly rods and a Tenkara setup for this style of fishing.
The Euro-nymphing specialist Randy Hanner added a “sighter” to the butt of his leader when fishing this way, and also used a longer, 10-foot rod. The sighter’s short sections of different-colored monofilament serve as an aerial strike indicator, but they don’t float on the water and thus don’t spook fish. [For more information on using a sighter, see “Shallow Water Nymphing.”]
Both Hanner and Kosovich waded through rock gardens—carefully working around and behind each rock to blanket them with casts—and they caught high numbers of quality trout. (Indeed, despite water stained by those storms in the headwaters, Hanner still landed around 50 fish a day.)
Wise and Yates stuck mostly to the boats, throwing streamers at the banks and catching not only trout, but also larger smallmouths as a result. When searching trout water for larger fish, dispense with the Woolly Buggers and switch to something more meaty. The North Fork is rich in sculpins, shad, and chubs, so olive and black Raghead Sculpins are effective, as are Kelly Galloup’s articulated baitfish patterns like the Zoo Cougar.
The key here is to get the fly down in the column to where the bigger fish hang out. Type VI sinking-tips, which plummet at nearly a foot per second, allow you to use lightly weighted flies that are easier to cast and do not crash onto the water. A short leader of only 4 to 6 feet is plenty, and it can be made of level 12- or 15-pound monofilament.
In order to improve your big streamer’s action in the water, it’s best to use a nonslip mono loop knot. Before you thread your tippet through the fly, tie an overhand knot in it about 6 inches from the end, and leave the knot open. Then thread the hook eye, and wrap the tag back up the leader five or six times, exactly like a standard clinch knot. Instead of putting the tag through the loop to finish the knot, insert it instead into the open overhand knot you tied to start (which should now be resting by the hook eye). Wet and tighten; you should leave a small loop about the size of a pea for your fly to slide around on.
Because the bank-pounding flies tend to be on the large side, it’s okay to go up to a 7- or even 8-weight rod. If you stick a quality fish, you may want all the rod you can get!
As the North Fork rolls through its blue-ribbon trout section, it picks up additional springs along the way, which both contribute to the flow and also cause the water to improve in clarity. Six or eight miles into this lower stretch, starting at Blair Bridge access, we began to reach more challenging water from a rowing perspective. Deeper plunge pools and narrower runs between rocks make this section popular with the canoe and kayak crowd. In the summer, it’s better to avoid the weekends, when the crowds can put the fish down.
Of course, these deep runs also represent opportunity. Browns are occasionally stocked in the North Fork, but they also reproduce naturally. Rainbow trout are not stocked; they have done so well with natural reproduction that it is no longer necessary.
Wild North Fork rainbows are characterized by deep greens on their backs and bright red streaks on the flanks. Their fins are unscarred and whole, and their heads have the mature characteristics of trout that have never eaten pellets. Some of the largest of these fish hang out in the plunge pool section below Blair Bridge.
Thanks to the storms on the first day of our float, we had not managed to boat any of the larger denizens of the North Fork, though we had certainly caught a lot of fish. With the takeout at Patrick Bridge access almost in sight, Randy Hanner came through with a gorgeous, mature male brown trout, taken from yet another rock garden just above one of the deepest plunge pools. The fish’s teal cheeks and healthy butter color spoke better than anything else of its nutrient-rich diet and clean and unpolluted environment.
In the lower sections of the North Fork, it helps to have a wheel of split-shot with you. While Hanner proved that his technique works anywhere, I took advantage of the stained water to dangle a multi-fly system of San Juan Worms and stonefly nymphs deep in the biggest cut in the river. I had the time of my life landing average trout in heavy water that made them feel like bull redfish.
As we beached our boats, I reflected on what a special opportunity the “historic recreation” had been. So many of our waters are now chopped into sections by dams, with fisheries managers required to do everything they can to generate just a touch of natural reproduction, a hint of the fish’s real behavior.
On the North Fork, you can still reach back in time to experience a float that our grandfathers would have taken for granted. Very few rivers can offer native smallmouths, wild rainbows, and trophy browns all on the same day. None can give a more authentic experience than the North Fork.
Zach Matthews is Fly Fisherman’s southeast field editor. He lives in Atlanta.