Southern Trout: Red, White & Norfork

Arkansas trout

Fish these three rivers for the hottest Arkansas trout action you will see all month.

When I need some soul space, there's a special place I go on the Little Red River.

The actual location doesn't matter. There are many places much like it where you can lose yourself for a day amid furious tugs of war with brawny brown and rainbow trout.

It's a surprise package of sorts because there's always a chance that a subtle strike will come from the biggest brown trout in the world. It happened once before in 1992 when Howard "Rip" Collins caught a 40-pound, 4-ounce brown that held the all-tackle world record until  Sept. 9, 2009, when Tom Healy beat it with a 41-pound 7-ounce brown from Michigan's Manistee River.

Arkansans took that news hard because we were mighty proud of that trout. It was the premier leg of the Greers Ferry Triple Crown, which also includes the world-record white bass/striped bass hybrid and the world-record walleye. The trout came from the Greers Ferry tailwater, and everyone that casts a fly or lure in the Little Red River dreams of bringing that brown trout world record back home.

LITTLE RED RIVER

That trout currently lives in the Little Red. Fisheries biologists for the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission say so, and it could appear anywhere, anytime.

My favorite shoal has everything a big fish needs. Deep pools are directly above and below the shoal. The pool above the shoal has a thick bed of coontail moss where big trout hide during the day. The pool below is very long, with a large amount of wood structure. Trout move in and out of it from both directions at will.

trout fishing

I always visit this spot with my friend Rusty Pruitt of Bryant, a commercial loan officer with BanCorp South. He has a friend with a riverside cabin that lets us access the river from her property.

Without private access, you have to fish at the public access areas, or boat up or downstream from the public accesses at John F. Kennedy Park, Lobo Landing, Barnett, Dripping Springs or Pangburn.

In low water you can tie up a boat or canoe at the shoals and wade fish. You can also drift fish in the pools.

In high water, a boat is about the only way you can fish. There are a lot of ways to do it. You can troll stickbaits slowly upstream against the current. You can drift with the current and throw stickbaits and inline spinners with spinning gear or big streamers on fly fishing gear. Or you can drift with live worms, PowerBait, PowerEggs or hair jigs.

Any of these methods work. I caught one of my biggest browns about this time of year fishing from a boat with Pat Kimble of Hot Springs. It was at the end of a big thunderstorm. No generators were running at Greers Ferry Dam, but storm runoff had turned the river the color of chocolate milk. We launched at Lobo Landing and motored up to Libby Shoal, where shallow water stopped our progress.

We cut the motor and hugged the bank as we drifted down. I cast a rainbow trout colored Long A Bomber stickbait to a thin pocket of clear water and got a vicious strike at the transition zone where the clear water met the stain.

The fish was 21 inches long. It didn't leap and run like a rainbow. It surged with the power of a bull and gave my spinning rig a real workout.

Drifting for rainbows is the other end of that spectrum. One of my best trips was in 2015 with Gary Hubble of Little Rock, his daughter Karyn Clifton of Benton and Jeff Hall of Little Rock.

We launched in falling water at Barnett Access, east of Heber Springs, and motored to the end of Richey Shoal. We caught a few fish until the water stabilized, but we had a grand time catching rainbows on PowerEggs as we drifted back to Barnett.

The technique was simple. We used light spinning rigs with 6-pound test line and Power Eggs on 1/8-ounce Carolina rigs. The fish bit white, yellow and chartreuse eggs, but judging by the number of fish Clifton caught, they seemed to favor white. They ignored red altogether. I used a combination of white and gold in tandem, and finally settled on two gold eggs in tandem.

The Carolina rig, with a cylindrical Carolina rig weight, is appropriate for the Little Red River because of all the moss beds. An 18-inch leader allows the bait to ride above the moss even if the weight gets in the moss. You can pull the cylinder weight through moss with minimal resistance without fouling the hook. That's also when you get strikes because trout hide in the moss waiting to ambush prey overhead or to the sides.

Strikes are subtle, but unmistakeable. You'll feel a couple of sharp taps on the line. Slowly reel in the slack until the line feels heavy and mushy and set the hook with a quick, steady sweep of the rod tip. Most times you'll hook a trout in the corner of the mouth, but a pair of needlenose pliers or forceps is helpful to disgorge a deep set hook without injuring a fish.

Also, we got most of our bites casting downstream. We cast as far as we could and then reeled in slack as we drifted to keep in contact with the bait. This kept the bait stationary, or moved it slowly upstream.

Back to the special shoal. Pruitt and I always fish the top of the shoal, but we seldom catch anything there. He uses a fly rod with his flashback rig. It consists of a hair nymph with a strand of tinsel fastened to the back. About 18 inches above the fly are a couple of very light split shot sinkers. He casts into the runs near rock and wood structure and waits for his strike indicator to plunge.

I use a light-action spinning rig with Rapala Ultralight Minnow in brown trout color. I cast it downstream and twitch it lightly against the current or retrieve it with hard jerks. Trout maul that thing, and I get three times as many strikes on the brown trout color as I do the rainbow trout pattern.

I caught my biggest one in 2017 minutes after Pruitt hooked and lost what he said was the biggest brown he ever saw. This from a guy that used to fish every day on the White and North Fork rivers, which together have produced many line-class record trout. He hooked and lost that fish twice!I cast to the same log and hooked a brawny brown that was only 17 inches long, but it fought like a prizefighter.

It was the best day of trout fishing we experienced in a long, long time. 

WHITE RIVER

Although the White River has trout far upstream in the Beaver Lake tailwater, most people fish the 60-mile section from Bull Shoals Dam to Guion. It is the most celebrated trophy trout stream in the world.

Every year, Pruitt, Bill Eldridge of Benton, Ed Kubler of Benton and I spend a long weekend fishing roughly from Rim Shoal to Buffalo Shoal. We have gone as far upstream as Redbud Shoal and farther down to the mouth of the Buffalo River. We have encountered big brown and rainbow trout everywhere we've been.

There are so many ways to fish this part of the river, so let's start with Rim Shoal, the best place on the river for big trout. Special regulations apply here, so check Game and Fish Commission regulations before you go.

Pruitt and I have enjoyed some great days wade fishing the lower part of "Rim" with nymphs. He always uses his Flashback rig, while I throw a variety of flies. My most memorable day was in late spring several years ago when I caught more than a dozen cutthroats in one spot.

I've also caught some big browns on stickbaits upstream above Redbud Shoal while fishing from a boat.

In high water we've had some great days catching rainbows with inline spinners, small stickbaits and by drifting Gulp Alive! scented baits past the mouth of Crooked Creek.

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One year the water backed far enough into Crooked Creek to safely operate a boat in the tributary. The water was clear and placid there, and we spent the entire day catching browns and rainbows on stickbaits.

Eldridge caught and lost one of the biggest trout I've seen while anchored in the shoal just upstream from Cedarwood Lodge, about a half mile upstream from Ranchette Access. That fish hit a Gulp Alive! San Juan worm on a dropper rig at sunset.

One of my favorite tactics is to drift past the big rocks on river right and throw a clear Sebile Flat Shadd or a rainbow trout colored Stick Shadd. It's a guaranteed way to catch a big brown or two.

We always seem to spend at least one day anchored behind the big rocks at Buffalo Shoal, downstream from Ranchette. Pruitt catches rainbows with the Flashback, Eldridge catches rainbows with the Gulp San Juan worms, and I catch rainbows and browns with the Rapala Ultralight Minnow.

I also spend a few days every year fishing with friends at Gaston's Resort, which is just a few miles downstream from Bull Shoals Dam.

NORFORK TAILWATER

Though the distance is very short from Norfork Dam to the White River, the Norfork Tailwater produces a lot of trophy brown trout. The best way to fish is to float from Norfork Dam to the mouth of the White in low water. Stop and fish the shoals and holes with all the aforementioned methods.

Pruitt and I have enjoyed some memorable outings fishing near the McClellan's and Rose's trout docks.

Walk-in access is available at Norfork Dam and at the Bill Ackerman River Ridge Access near the confluence with the White River.

Take a child to Dry Run Creek, a short stream fed by outflow from the federal trout hatchery to the tailwater. Only children under age 16 are allowed to fish there, and it is loaded with giants. It is the best place in the world for a youngster to catch and release the trout of a lifetime.

The weather is pleasant in May and conducive to fishing. Set aside a few days this month and fish all of these streams. Maybe you'll find a "Soul Shoal" of your own.

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