July 02, 2015
By Zach Matthews
Woooooo! Pig! Sooooiiiieeee!" The tinny crackle of the radio broadcast sounded weakly from under the drift boat seat. One hundred miles away, 78,000 red-clad Arkansas Razorbacks fans "called the Hogs" right before kickoff, as I watched a cruising brown trout lazily wave its tail in the current.
The trout, I realized, strongly resembled the football that was about to be placed on the hash mark. In the old days, if you mentioned Arkansas in conversation anywhere outside the state, you immediately conjured up images of Jed Clampett, moonshine, and banjos. Now, those stereotypes are being replaced. Ask people today what they know about Arkansas, and they're now more likely to mention Walmart, Razorback football, and brown trout fishing. Walmart is open 24/7, but football and trout fishing both kick off in earnest in the fall.
Ozarks Brown Trout
Arkansas trout fishing is a direct result of rural electrification. The same government program that yanked the state out of the 19th century hillbilly stereotype created the White River trout fishery—a system of lake impoundments with tailwaters below each dam.
Like most Southern tailwaters, the White River was originally smallmouth bass habitat. In 1941, construction began on Norfork Dam, the first of what would eventually be five massive hydroelectric dams spanning the Ozarks, three of them on the main stem of the White, and two—including Norfork Dam—on important tributaries. The dams brought power, jobs, tourism, and trout.
The brown I was watching shook its head. I could see the white flash of its mouth opening and closing, indicating that it was actively feeding. The walls of Bull Shoals Dam rose out of sight upriver—a quarter-mile of concrete, and the sole source of everything important to this trout, including its life.
Nothing about this tailwater would be possible without Bull Shoals Dam, the largest in the White River system. Its eight generating units siphon cold water from the bottom of the lake, which is deep enough to have settled into groundwater temperature at about 52 degrees F. The lake also serves as a giant filter, allowing sediment to settle out of the water, and provide the cool, pure, diamond-clear liquid environment trout thrive in. When the sun shines, waving fronds of coontail and other mosses give the water an emerald-green tint.
I tied on a tiny Wilson's Trout Crack scud pattern, secured with a Davy knot—both products of ingenious anglers fishing this very same river—and began to cast.
Brown trout were originally just an afterthought in the White River system. When construction finished on the Norfork and Bull Shoals dams, a section of the White River more than 125 miles long suddenly became trout habitat. Rainbow trout were stocked to appease anglers who had lost their smallmouth bass fishery, with a smattering of browns included mostly as an experiment.
The rainbows developed into a regionally famous resource, with fat double-digit fish arriving around the time the Razorbacks last won the national football title in 1964. Meanwhile, the browns languished, and stocking (never robust) was discontinued for most of the '60s and '70s.
In 1972, a White River brown trout set the scales rattling at 31½ pounds—a new North American record. The browns—overlooked, never protected—had established a breeding population.
The record fell again in 1977 (33½ pounds) and in 1988 came the tug felt round the world: a 38-pound all-tackle world record brown flopped onto a dock near the confluence of the White and Norfork. Finally, in 1992, Howard "Rip" Collins bested a behemoth of more than 40 pounds on the Little Red tributary—a world record only recently surpassed. In short, they grow 'em big in the White River system.
First and Goal
"That's another Arkansas Razorback first down!" the announcer trumpeted, despite the fact that it was a half hour into the game, and the Hogs were already trailing 14-0.
After two unsuccessful casts at the pig trout, I had settled into a crouch next to the boat to wait him out. My mind wandered over the region as I contemplated how lucky I was to have grown up with so many incredible fishing options in the Ozarks.
There are five tailwater fisheries in the White River system. Northwest Arkansas—the most populous area in the Ozarks—is closest to Beaver Tailwater, the smallest of the White River trout sections. A series of floods in the early 1990s scoured the bottom, leaving little moss or structure for trout. As a result, this is a put-and-take fishery with some holdover trout and little natural reproduction.
The White flows briefly north from Beaver Tailwater into Table Rock Lake in Missouri. Below Table Rock Dam is a slow stretch of tailwater called Lake Taneycomo. (Despite its name, this "lake" is largely wadable at low water.) This Branson, Missouri-area fishery is known for large stocking sizes and big crowds.
Next in line below the Lake Taneycomo tailwater is massive Bull Shoals Lake—the largest in the region, with the largest tailwater as a result. Trout persist in 126 miles of cold water from Bull Shoals Dam near Mountain Home, Arkansas, to over halfway to the Mississippi River. Two tributaries join the White downstream of Bull Shoals Dam: the North Fork of the White (dammed by Norfork Dam, and thus known locally as "Norfork Tailwater") and the Little Red River.
Arkansas continues to provide spectacular rainbow trout fishing; indeed, many anglers catch trophy 'bows each year. But there's something unique about catching a big stream-born brown trout, and that's why so many anglers trek to the state. The White River tailwaters all share strong similarities; tactics that work on one almost always work on any of the others. However, if you want to be successful in Arkansas, you need to appreciate the binary nature of this fishery. It all comes down to spring and summer versus fall and winter: these are two very different fisheries, united by the nymph.
According to Michael McLellan, owner of McLellan's Fly Shop in Fayetteville, the switchover happens around mid-March: "That's when the caddis come off and we go from a winter fishery to a spring fishery," he explains. A regular pattern of power generation brings hatches, "and this also gives anglers the low water they need to fish dry flies," continues McLellan. From this point in early spring, through the first cool breezes of October, mayflies (March Browns, Sulphurs, and Blue-winged Olives), caddis, and occasionally stoneflies can be counted on. However, Arkansas is not known for its large hatches.
"Honestly," McLellan says, "the vast majority of the successful fishermen focus on nymphing."
While perennial hatches offer occasional moments of variety—and sometimes intense feeding—most local anglers put their faith in a White River constant: arthropods. Throughout the system, sowbugs and scuds (tiny, shelled relatives of shrimp) consistently provide more protein to trout than any other food source. In fact, the 40-pound record contained mostly sowbugs in its stomach.
Basic dubbing-on-a-hook sowbugs, often with beads, are the best producers on the Little Red tailwater; scud patterns like McLellan's Hunchback or Wilson's Trout Crack are all-stars on the Bull Shoals and Norfork tailwaters.
Rigging the nymphs is not complicated, but there are some pitfalls. First off, explains Steve Dally of Dally's Ozark Fly Fisher (a Tasmanian who moved to Cotter for the fishing), "5X tippet has become pretty much the standard, but at low water, you want to go to 6X and 7X fluorocarbon rather than nylon."
The trout on the White see thousands of the same patterns each year, so to fool one, "you need stealth above all else." Start with a 9-foot 5X leader and tie about 12 to 18 inches of 5X or 6X tippet to the end. Crimp on a size BB or smaller split-shot, just above the knot (the tippet knot keeps your split-shot from sliding down to the fly). Place an indicator above the split-shot at one and a half times the depth of the water you intend to fish (yarn, Palsa floats, foam, or balloons work equally well). Finally, tie on your nymph (size 14 down to size 20) with a small knot like the Davy knot.
The split-shot is critical because it draws slack out of the system and keeps the nymph near the bottom. The last foot or so of free-floating tippet lets the fly drift naturally at the depth you want in the water. Usually, if your split-shot isn't bouncing on the bottom, you're not deep enough. Unweighted nymphs snag less, since they're often higher than the split-shot.
When October comes, everything changes. Brown trout spawn heavily throughout almost the entire White River system. This is the protein-injecting equivalent of a major Pacific salmon run, and practically every non-spawning fish (and even many of the spawners themselves) key in on this new food source. Since Arkansas has consistent, mild winters, spawning activity can last well into January, greatly affecting trout food preferences for almost half the year.
To protect wild brown trout for future generations, take care when fishing during these four to five months. According to Arkansas Game & Fish Commission trout biologist Paul Port, browns scoop redds out of the gravel on shoals, forming depressions. They then deposit their eggs in these shallow holes, and cover them over with gravel from just upstream. Thus, you want to avoid walking on these scoured or "clean" sections so you don't crush next year's crop of trout underfoot.
Fly fishers should also avoid molesting active spawners, which tend to be the fish clustered over the scours, and are often oblivious to any distraction, up to and including being stepped on.
Because spawning activity lasts so long in Arkansas, it isn't realistic to ask people not to fish during this entire period. Thankfully, reality and ethics cooperate here, because the best fishing is not to the spawners themselves. The influx of eggs in the river means practically every deep cut below a shoal is stacked with large rainbows—and also browns energizing and waiting for their nightly spawn. It often seems that the biggest fish tend to spawn at night and feed during the day, which is why some spawning locations—like Cow Shoals on the Little Red—are closed to night fishing.
Rigging your tackle on the White in the fall isn't very different from during the spring: nymphs and 6X fluorocarbon tippet are standard fare, because these trout are wary survivors. However, there are some sneaky tactics you can use to your advantage.
The logical pattern to tie on in fall would be the egg, right? Indeed, many anglers do catch fish on eggs, often jelly-style, concealed in a veil of soft material. However, after a few weeks of seeing every egg pattern on the planet badly presented, most White River fish wise up. They still may check an egg out but, if they're not totally satisfied, they glide off.
This is when I tie on a dropper below my egg, usually a size 18 or 20 Zebra Midge or Trout Crack. Trout, for reasons known only to them, seem to have an on/off switch for cautiousness. Having scoped out my egg and ruled it foul, they frequently fall for the smaller dropper drifting along nearby. It's as if they say, "Oh, boy! I've never seen a fake fly so close to another fake fly, so this one must be genuine!" Moreover, keep in mind that the later in the season you go, the paler your egg pattern should be. "Dead eggs" in pale yellow or even white produce trout well into winter.
Back at the boat, I wiped sweat from my eyes. It was hotter than it should be this time of year. My trout slunk off to the middle of the river, so I occupied myself by picking up smaller rainbows cruising close to the bank. Arkansas is prone to Indian summers; early October can provide temperatures in the 60s—or the 90s. In warm years, browns often stage for up to a month before beginning to cut their spawning redds, feeding heavily at night to charge the batteries for their future exertions. Unfortunately, hot days tend to make browns sluggish; they sit on the bottom, just as mine was doing.
Meanwhile, the Hogs had gone into the half down 14-0, breaking up a late field goal attempt to keep the game in reach. My friends and I ate pizza through an uneventful third quarter as the sun started to set. (There's an excellent pizza joint called Nima's in Gassville, midway down the Bull Shoals tailwater.) Suddenly, early in the fourth, a young walk-on managed to get a finger on a routine punt, picked up the loose ball, and ran it back for a touchdown. The Hogs were down 14-7, and the opposing team's coach had thrown his famous visor.
With the sun setting, I finished my pizza and considered tying on a large streamer or stringing up a two-handed rod to reach my fish, which continued to rest at midriver. Both techniques can be effective on the White, but I didn't really like my chances. Streamers are best either at full dark, with a slow retrieve on a floating line, or from a boat, during periods of light electrical generation. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be fully dark for more than an hour, and the river was almost dead low.
Generation is all-important on the White. With Bull Shoals Dam running only one or two power units, wade-fishing in walk-in locations like Wildcat Shoals or Rim Shoals is best; the current provides excellent shallow-water nymphing.
If the dam is kicked up to three to five units, floating along in a drift boat or a White River Supreme (a sort of elongated, rockered fiberglass johnboat) is ideal. This is true on the smaller tailwaters as well, though with fewer generating units and a smaller overall size, they tend to either run low or run high, with not a lot in between. At mid-volume, throwing streamers at the bank with sinking lines almost always produces stout brown trout. When Bull Shoals Dam hits six units or more, however, be very careful out there.
I was still thinking about rigging a two-handed rod when everything happened at once. The Hogs picked off a tipped pass, and went into their two-minute offense with time running out. The trout I had been watching woke up and started chasing a sculpin toward the boat. I quickly grabbed a rod, still rigged with a streamer from the previous evening. As I stripped off line, I heard the radio crackle with the roar of the crowd. "Number five shakes one blocker, another . . . the 35, the 30, the 20, . . . pushed out of bounds on the 1-yard line!"
"Swish, swish, swish." The Zuddler Minnow (my favorite streamer) hissed through the air. My trout chased the real sculpin into a coontail moss pod as I lobbed the fly upstream. "It's a quarterback keeper; he's got it! TOUCHDOWN ARKANSAS! OH MY!"
My friends hooted and hollered on shore, and a grin warred with the concentration on my face.
"14-13," one of them said. "Just need to kick the extra point to go to overtime."
The trout backed out of the moss pod and spotted my fly—my sculpin-colored, sculpin-shaped fly. Would it be enough? The fish surged; the line came taut; the coach signaled that the Hogs would go for two.
"You have got to be kidding me!" I yelled as one friend narrated the game, while the other dove into the boat for the net. This fish was large: over 5 pounds for sure, and maybe over 10. I could feel his head shake in the throb of the line. The Hogs lined up over center, putting it all on the line.
The pig at the end of my line suddenly swung toward the bank and ran straight downstream, at me. "Net that fish!" I grunted. The net splashed down; the line went slack. "He's in! He made it! Hogs win!" The fish flashed away, my line broken. I looked at my friends—one was grinning like an idiot, the other trying not to. We'd lost the fish, but won the game.
Arkansas's official state motto, the "Land of Opportunity," which was for many years nothing but an aspiration, has now become the solid truth. The White River offers the finest large brown trout fishing in the country, while the state continues to erase outdated stereotypes. I put my hands on my hips and shook my head, then smiled. Hogs win. The trout will be there next time.
Zach Matthews is a native of Rogers, Arkansas, and the editor of The Itinerant Angler (itinerantangler.com). He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.