Arkansas' Other Trout Opportunities
September 24, 2010
The Natural State's rivers produce some fine trout fishing, but there are other, larger bodies of water where you can hook up with these tasty fish. (May 2006)
Everyone knows about the trout fishing in the White, Norfork and Little Red rivers, but those aren't the only places to catch trout in Arkansas. The Natural State has some obscure trout waters that many anglers don't even know exist. However, if you'd like a change of pace or just want to experience something new and different, these waters are certainly worth visiting.
Unquestionably, the tailwater fisheries below Bull Shoals, Norfork and Greers Ferry lakes are three of the world's finest destinations to catch trophy trout, but you can also catch rainbow trout on the other side of Bull Shoals Dam, in Bull Shoals Lake itself. This is a kind of fishing experience totally different from what you'll find in the tailwater, but it has its own distinct charm that draws anglers not only from Arkansas but from neighboring states as well.
There's also a dandy little trout fishery below Lake Greeson, in the Little Missouri River. It's hard to reach if you don't live in southwest Arkansas, but those who visit agree that it's worth the effort. Even fewer people know about the trout fishing available in the upper end of Lake Hamilton, or in the Ouachita River directly below Lake Catherine.
Another relatively new opportunity is the urban trout fishing available in Little Rock, in Rock Creek at Boyle Park. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission also stocks rainbow trout during the winter in several of Little Rock's municipal park ponds, as well as in Lake Atalanta in Rogers.
Stocking trout in reservoirs has a checkered history in Arkansas. Starting in the 1960s, the AGFC stocked rainbow trout in Bull Shoals Lake and developed a thriving fishery, said chief of fisheries Mike Armstrong. The agency also stocked rainbows in lakes Ouachita, Hamilton, Norfork and Greers Ferry. For various reasons, only Bull Shoals and Hamilton developed a following.
The AGFC also stocked lake trout at Bull Shoals and Greers Ferry in the early 1980s. Those experiments failed, and the rainbow experiments at Greers Ferry and Ouachita were discontinued when it became clear that they were producing some unintended consequences. The AGFC has even divested itself of the Bull Shoals program. Private marinas have taken it upon themselves to keep it going, but on a much smaller scale.
"We used to stock over 100,000 trout per year in Bull Shoals, but now it's down to about 30,000 a year," Armstrong said.
Emergence of world-class walleye and striped bass fisheries at Greers Ferry and Ouachita, respectively, ended the trout programs at those lakes. Greers Ferry produced the current world-record walleye in the early 1980s, and Ouachita is still one of the nation's best lakes for trophy stripers. One reason those fish got so big was the abundance of stocked rainbow trout. They're very nutritious, and hatchery-raised rainbows are too stupid to avoid such aggressive predators.
"In the case of Greers Ferry and Lake Ouachita, what we ended up doing was feeding walleye and striped bass more than we did anglers," Armstrong said. "It was kind of a conflict. Lots of folks, including ourselves, believe that rainbow trout is what drove the trophy walleye fishery in Greers Ferry in the 1980s. As soon as we quit stocking those fish, we stopped getting the growth rates of 10-plus pound walleye."
The same thing happened in Bull Shoals, where in the 1980s stocked rainbow trout fed both walleyes and stripers. In fact, an angler named William Sligar set the state record for stripers on Bull Shoals in 1987 with a fish that weighed 53 pounds.
Trout failed to thrive at Lake Norfork because of a temperature-oxygen squeeze that occurs in hot weather, when most of the lake's oxygen is pushed near the surface where it's too warm for trout to live. Even though the deep water was cold enough for trout, there wasn't enough oxygen to support them.
An early casualty of that phenomenon was a promising lake trout fishery that was just coming into its own before it was suddenly wiped out. Lake trout are a separate species that inhabit deep, cold northern and western lakes. In the early '80s, the AGFC stocked "lakers," and they did well for about three years. People started catching a lot of lake trout in the 7- to 9-pound range, and a number of anglers began specializing for them, especially at Greers Ferry. Low dissolved oxygen problems hit a little worse than usual for a spell, and the lake trout went looking for oxygen. They found it by coming through the dams. Many were cut into chum in the turbines. Those that made it through simply exploded when they suddenly went from 150 feet deep to less than 20.
Once in a while, an angler catches a monster lake trout on Greers Ferry, but otherwise that's an extinct fishery.
Stratification wasn't as severe on Bull Shoals, so the AGFC decided that Norfork would be a striper lake, and Bull Shoals would be a trout lake. That arrangement has worked out well. Lake Norfork is an excellent place for catching big stripers, and Bull Shoals is a popular draw for trout fishermen.
"Bull Shoals developed an avid following that remains," Armstrong said. "People planned vacations to come to Bull Shoals to fish for trout."
Which is why the marinas chose to continue the program on their own. Anglers catch about 5 percent of the trout stocked on Bull Shoals, compared to 30 percent of those stocked on the White River below Bull Shoals Dam. Obviously, it's not cost-effective for the AGFC to stock large numbers of trout in reservoirs, but there's enough demand to maintain that fishery on a smaller scale.
Despite the perils and limitations, sufficient numbers of rainbows survive successive years to attain substantial growth. In addition to the 30,000 11-inch rainbows stocked into Bull Shoals annually, there are enough fish in the 4- to 6-pound range to keep anglers interested. They also provide a necessary element of surprise.
While catch-and-release fishing is the norm below the dams, no such ethic applies to rainbows caught in Bull Shoals Lake. During the summer, a released trout would have virtually no chance of survival, as you'll most likely catch it deep in cold water and then fight it through warm water for a considerable distance. After it spends a minute or two in the blazing sun as you get the hook out, releasing it would be wasteful and cruel.
Besides, a trout like that will have been in the wild long enough for its flesh to attain a firm texture and enticing orange color. Grilled with lemon and butter, it'll be delicious.
Because they occupy s
uch remarkably different habitats, the trout living in Bull Shoals behaviors are different from those of their counterparts in the tailraces. Anglers accustomed to river-fishing techniques will find their methods completely unsuited to lake fishing.
Essentially, trout behave like any other predator fish. Their main forage is threadfin shad, so you'll often find trout lurking beneath big schools of baitfish. To find them, a good electronic graph is essential, said Anthony Rennick of Oakland, Ark. Rennick spends most of his time targeting walleye in Bull Shoals, but he always considers trout a welcome bonus.
"Generally speaking, they usually hover just below the thermocline," Rennick said. "In the summertime, the thermocline is usually about 50 feet deep, but sometimes it's even deeper, around 90 feet. If you find shad anywhere near the thermocline, it's a good bet that trout will be right under them."
Theoretically, rainbow trout occupy the predatory niche that stripers used to fill, but trout behave in a manner quite unlike that characteristic of stripers. For example, most striper anglers in the summer fish by trolling live shad under balloons. In the springtime, stripers will also hit topwater lures aggressively. You won't catch rainbows with either of those methods. When the water gets much warmer than 50 degrees, trout go deep and stay there.
On the other hand, once you determine the depth of the thermocline and find baitfish, lake rainbows are fairly easy to catch. You can also catch them on very basic tackle, which explains their popularity among casual anglers.
In the summer, some of the lake's most popular attractions are the trout charters that operate from marinas such as Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock. These trips take place on large party barges that carry as many as 18 fishermen. They leave at sunset and return when everyone catches a limit or gets tired.
Keith Katcher, a guide who operates out of Bull Shoals Lake Boat Dock is a superb bass angler, but he enjoys the trout trips because of their laid-back atmosphere. "It's a fun time when Mom, Dad and the kids can go out and cook hotdogs," he said. "There's a grill on the boat, and we take a lot of soda pop. It's a great way for people to get to know each other."
Once a guide finds a promising spot, he lowers lights into the water and turns them on. That sets up a food chain that starts with swarms of insects circling over the lights, followed by swarms of baitfish that circle beneath the lights. Trout will soon follow. Anglers simply thread a couple of corn kernels and a red worm on a small Aberdeen hook and then wait for the fish to bite. On a good night that'll happen quickly, but sometimes you might have to wait a couple of hours.
When the trout finally do arrive, however, the action can be chaotic. "I've seen them with 50 fish on board," Katcher said. "Some nights it's so fast that we'll have fish flopping all over the floor. They'll be anywhere from a pound and a half to 6 or 7 pounds. Up to about 2 pounds is about what you can expect, though."
In stark contrast to the Orvis and G. Loomis world of the tailwaters is the tackle anglers use to catch lake rainbows. Most use Zebco or Johnson spincast rigs. More-adventurous souls sometimes use a device called a "cowbell," which consists of a 2-foot leader festooned with red beads and a series of counter-rotating spinners. This is supposed to mimic a school of shad when trolled slowly.
You'll find a wide array of lodging facilities all around Bull Shoals Lake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates eight campgrounds on the Arkansas side of the lake offering 442 campsites. Bull Shoals Lake State Park also has 85 RV campsites and 20 tent sites.
During the winter, the AGFC stocks rainbow trout in the uppermost portion of Lake Hamilton, right below Blakely Dam. Though Lake Hamilton is best known for largemouth bass, the trout provide a seasonal fishing opportunity in an otherwise static part of the lake.
This is an entirely different experience from that at Bull Shoals. Basically, people follow the stocking truck to the water. Those trout are used to the pampered life at the fish hatchery, and when they hit the water and see all that corn and Powerbait, it's a meat haul.
Of course, a few trout always survive that melee, and a few actually endure for a year or two. There aren't enough to make it worthwhile targeting them specifically, but anglers occasionally welcome them into the boat by accident.
LAKE CATHERINE TAILWATER
Directly below Lake Hamilton is Lake Catherine, the last in the chain of Diamond Lakes before the Ouachita River plunges into the lowlands of the Gulf Coastal Plain. During the winter, the AGFC stocks rainbow trout below Carpenter Dam, which impounds Lake Catherine. The stream profile is more typical of a tailrace, so it's better suited to fly-fishing and wade-fishing than is the upper part of Hamilton, which is deep and steep. You can usually find flyfishermen practicing their craft here. Brown and olive Wooly Buggers are very effective for catching these trout, as are tiny sowbugs.
Of course, this is a put-and-take fishery, so corn and Powerbait are quite acceptable.
LITTLE MISSOURI RIVER
During the winter, the AGFC stocks 75,000 to 80,000 rainbow trout in a six-mile stretch of the Little Missouri below Lake Greeson. Although the first half-mile below the dam is a catch-and-release area, the Little Missouri is primarily a put-and-take fishery. Still, a number of trout survive the initial assault and move into deeper pools downstream where they encounter cooler water and less fishing pressure. The best time to fish for them is between early summer and mid-autumn.
One of the best areas to catch these veteran trout is in a place called "the Chute," a narrow constriction created by a gantlet of boulders that funnels water through a small channel, creating eddies and riffles. This entire section of river has pools that contain trout. Although most will be 11 to 14 inches long, it's always possible to catch them up to 22 inches.
Naturally, these big trout have been around long enough to see all the usual offerings, and they are much more selective about what they'll bite. Tiny sowbugs in the No. 14-17 range work exceedingly well, because they're closer to the size of the river's natural larval forage.
Of course, landing a big trout on such delicate tackle in rocky habitat is always challenging, but that's part of the fun of fly-fishing.
Conversely, big trout also love big lures. One of my favorites is a big floating Rapala minnow, either in rainbow trout pattern or silver/black back. For reasons I can't explain, I catch more big trout on that lure than on anything else. They don't just rise up and sip at it, either -- they molest it!
Lodging is available all around Narrows Dam. You can also camp nearby at Crater of Diamonds State Park and Daisy State Park. Daisy SP has 76 campsites on the shore of Lake Greeson, as well as sho
wers and flush toilets at six bathhouses. Also, the Corps operates 11 campgrounds around Lake Greeson that offer a total of 360 campsites.
LITTLE ROCK PARKS
While primarily a late-winter/early-spring fishing opportunity, the AGFC stocks about 20,000 rainbow trout in selected waters in Little Rock's Parks. Stocked waters include War Memorial Park, Ottenheimer Park and Otter Creek. Rock Creek in Boyle Park is also stocked.
Rock Creek is the most interesting of this group, and the most fun to fish. You can park right off of Rodney Parham Road and be on the water in minutes. While most of the fish are caught as soon as they leave the truck, a few escape into the deep pools downstream. By summer, the creek is too warm to support trout, so keep what you catch.
For more information about trout stocking schedules, you can call the AGFC at (501) 223-6300, or check online at www.agfc.com/fishing/trout_stocking