On The North Fork: Natural State Trout

Meandering southwest less than five miles, the North Fork River is a small stretch compared to the state's major tailwaters -- but within its pristine waters run some of Arkansas' biggest trout. (May 2008)

Only experienced and safety-minded anglers should wade the North Fork at night, but those with the right skills and caution often tangle with first-quality brown trout like this one caught by angler Vic Attardo.
Photo by Cindy Taylor.

Baxter County's North Fork River is only four and eight-tenths miles long, but it measures up quite impressively against the Natural State's other tailwaters, including the mighty White and world-famous Little Red.

The North Fork teems with handsome 16-inch brook and cutthroat trout and gargantuan browns up to 30 pounds that snack on freshly stocked 11-inch rainbows like a hungry fisherman munches a shore lunch of sardines and crackers. And only 15 months ago, a youngster caught and released a groaner of a rainbow on nearby Dry Run Creek that would've shattered the 19-pound state record by 6 pounds!

In addition to producing Arkansas' finest trout fishing, the North Fork accommodates anglers with physical challenges; one access has a fishing pier designed for wheelchairs, one ramp has a lift to move wheelchairs into boats, and Dry Run Creek, which runs between the river and a hatchery, is reserved for handicapped anglers and those under 16 years old.

The North Fork attracts a high percentage of fly-anglers, but boaters and bait-slingers are just as welcome. Here's a roundup of accesses, strategies for dealing with the river's ever-changing flow, fishing techniques and other hints to help you enjoy your time on the North Fork and Dry Run Creek, including advice from veteran trout guide Wayne Reed.

The North Fork flows in a southwesterly stair-stepping fashion in east-central Baxter County between the dam on the south end of Norfork Lake and the White River at the city of Norfork. Because water from the lake is released through the dam to control floodwaters or to generate hydroelectricity the short river rises and falls unpredictably. Safety is especially important on the North Fork, and the most successful anglers adapt their tactics, moving up and down the river in response to changes in flow.

When Norfork Lake was impounded in the 1940s and the resulting tailwater was too cold for native warmwater fish, the government mitigated the loss by creating the trout fishery. Now, fishing and related activities on the North Fork add about $80 million per year to the area's economy.

Public access begins at Quarry Park off state Route 177, east of Salesville. It features a concrete ramp and plenty of paved parking, along with walk-in access for waders. Expect plenty of competition for prime spots here, especially around the outflow from Dry Run Creek, which runs between the river and the nearby Norfork National Fish Hatchery.

"If you launch at the dam, you need to think about whether the water's high or low and whether it's going to be rising or falling later on so you don't end up dry-docked downstream," advised Reed, who owns a cabin and property on the North Fork.

For many years, anglers paid a small fee at McClellan's Trout Dock, which provided privately owned access to the river between Quarry Park and the next public area downstream, but, unfortunately, it's now closed.

On a short drive south on state Route 5 from the dam, you'll find the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's popular River Ridge access. Old-timers still refer to it as "Goat's Bluff," and some call it the "Handicap Access" because of the wheelchair-accessible fishing pier there. It offers walk-in access but no ramp.

"The catch-and-release area that begins at Otter Creek ends about 200 yards above this access," Reed said. "Lots of bait-fishermen fish right at the access and most of the fly-fishermen wade upstream. There's good fishing along two islands upstream from there, and you'll find deep holes with big fish in them in a big, flat pool that's called Mill Pond. I went electrofishing with guys from (the AGFC) up there once, and we shocked up a 30-pound brown in Mill Pond. You'll see a stacked-rock wall and what's left of an old grist mill that was by the river."

Although the fishing upstream is excellent, Reed warns newcomers against wading past the first island, known locally as "Cook's Island." And for safety's sake, he stops wading at the first bend downstream from the access. Many flyfishermen now rent boats or canoes to move among the holes and shoals (shallow gravel bars), and a few even buzz around on personal watercraft.

"I've bailed a bunch of folks off that river when they were caught by rising water," Reed said with a laugh. "If I had five bucks for everybody I've hauled out of the water just at my place, I could've retired by now!"

The final public entry is at the AGFC's Norfork Access, which underwent a facelift in 2006. It now has generous parking above the high-water line. Boaters appreciate the new ramp and a dock with a lift to move wheelchair-bound anglers safely into boats.

Most fishermen avoid ramps, assuming that the commotion frightens fish, but North Fork trout never miss an easy meal. Because motors dislodge nymphs and scuds from the gravel, trout are actually attracted to boat traffic here, and many folks fish from shore or wade at Norfork.

For recorded information about the lake level, current generation and the last period of generation at Norfork and Bull Shoals dams, call (870) 431-5311. The information on current generation isn't always 100 percent accurate, but it's a good starting point for planning a day on the river.

For more details about the flow, dig into the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Little Rock District Web site, www.swl-wc.usace.army.mil. Follow links in the Water Management area to a page with today's and yesterday's generation information, including the cubic feet per second of water released each hour.

Boating is best and safest with one or both generators releasing enough water for safe passage over rocky shoals. Reed estimates that you could float the entire river in 1 1/2 hours with both generators running.

Flyfishermen relish low water, which allows safe wading. Nighttime fishing can be spectacular, but you must know the water you're fishing intimately and be prepared for a safe, hasty exit if water rises. Genera

lly, fishing is best on stable or rising water and slows when the level drops.

The North Fork is stocked with a colorful array of more than 100,000 hatchery-reared trout each year and has some very limited natural fish reproduction. A few lucky or skillful anglers land all four species in a single day to score a grand slam.

Rainbows comprise more than 90 percent of the fish stocked and caught. "They average about 10 to 14 inches long, and they're everywhere up and down the river," Reed said. Cutthroats, wearing namesake slash marks on their lower jaws, resemble rainbows in size and distribution, and they also take to the air when hooked.

Brook trout are dapper, decked out with black and white bands on orange fins and wormlike markings ("vermiculations") on olive-colored backs. "In warm weather, brookies will be up by the dam, where the water's the coldest, because they're more heat-sensitive," Reed explained. "You can just tell when you hook one: They're antisocial; they don't want to get near you at all."

Reed also praises the hard-fighting browns. "Don't believe it when people say browns don't jump," he said, laughing. "I've hooked browns as big as 26 inches that jumped out of the river just like a largemouth bass!" It's been 20 years since the amazing summer of 1988, when the river surrendered browns of 34 and 38 pounds, but Reed has observed similar-sized fish in recent years.

To read the water is to examine its flow and underlying structure, and to sniff out where trout lie. "Lots of guys just 'chuck and chance,' casting anywhere. But you can really increase your odds if you wear polarized glasses and look for the right structure," Reed explained.

"For example, when there's a plunge pool right after the end of a shoal, there'll be a deep pocket with fish in it, and there's usually a deep spot at the head of each shoal. When you see white bubbles on top of the water on the sides of the shoals, there'll usually be fish under them, and fish will be crammed into any big, deep hole where you can't see all the way to the bottom."

Trout also lie in dark troughs that Reed calls "bear claws." (He explained: "Because they look like something dragged its claws along the river bottom.")

You can also fish effectively by avoiding difficult water. "Your biggest crapshoot is trying to find fish in bony water, from ankle-deep to 10 or 12 inches," Reed advised. "They might come in to feed when insects are hatching, but it's tough to catch fish in water that shallow until you're very experienced. Usually, I just sit on the shore and watch for a while before I wade in to see what the trout are doing and where they are."

Like most veteran anglers, Reed has accumulated enough rods, reels and gadgets to outfit a small store, but his gear recommendations are simple. "If I had to pick one fly rod, it'd be a 5-weight," he said. "That's heavy enough to throw big streamers, but light enough to throw the little stuff, like scuds and midges."

Reed acknowledged that low, clear water, bright days and persnickety trout can force anglers into spider-fine tippets of 7X or even 8X (under 2-pound-test), but, he added, "most of the time, you don't have to go lighter than 5X."

He recommends breathable waders, sturdy wading boots and a wading staff. "A tripod's more secure than a bipod," he said with the knowing laugh of a man who's learned about slippery river rocks the hard way. Since a development on the North Fork introduced tons of silt in 2006, footing is more hazardous than ever.

Light or ultra-light spinning gear strung with 2- to 8-pound-test line is perfect for casting bait and lures from a boat, shore or while wading. You'll spot more fish and protect your eyes from glare with polarized glasses and a wide-brimmed hat.

Trout have a reputation as picky eaters, but, Reed said, "when you think about all the stuff you can use for bait and everything they eat, maybe they're not so noble after all!" North Fork trout regularly take red worms and night crawlers, canned corn, miniature marshmallows and what Reed calls "a buffet of power eggs, paste, putty and maggots." Cast bait into the deepest available water with enough weight to keep it from rolling downstream.

Scuds -- tiny, bottom-dwelling crustaceans that resemble shrimp -- are the primary forage, and several fly patterns in sizes 12-22 are available to imitate them. The nymph and winged forms of mayflies, caddisflies, midges, damselflies and dragonflies are also important foods, as are terrestrials like ants and beetles.

Pheasant-tail and Copper John nymphs, Zebra and Y2K midges, Chuck's Emergers and soft-hackle flies mimic many of these insects. "Wait until you get to the river and go to a local fly shop to buy your flies," Reed advises. "They know what's working right then."

Big trout bites come in the form of crayfish, black-nosed dace and sculpins. Woolly buggers, Clouser Minnows and Dave Whitlock's Near 'Nuff Sculpin in sizes 2-12 imitate these foods. Spin-fishermen match them with Rebel's crawfish crankbaits, black-backed Rogue jerkbaits and bottom-running crankbaits in greens, browns and yellows. On high water, boaters who cast large jerkbaits to shoreline structure draw strikes from enormous browns, and flashy spoons, inline spinners and jigs account for countless smaller trout.

Youngsters delight in catching sculpins with bits of worm on tiny hooks. Tough-fingered folks who nab molting crawfish have the most deadly bait on the river for browns, Reed said. "A few old-timers still set out minnow traps by their docks," he stated. "They run the point of the hook down through the jaw, then turn it and put it through the body pointing up so they can cast it real gentle downstream. It looks like it's swimming in the current. That's a great way to catch big trout, but not many are still dedicated enough to do that."

You may keep up to five rainbows per day with no length limit, but your five-fish daily bag is limited to two brown or cutthroat trout per day, and they must be at least 16 inches long. The brook trout limit is also two per day with a 14-inch minimum.

In the catch-and-release area from Otter Creek to the sign 200 yards above River Ridge Access, only artificial lures with a single barbless hook are allowed, and all fish must be released immediately. A $5 trout stamp is required in addition to your fishing license.

Dry Run Creek is even shorter and sweeter than the North Fork. It flows with effluent from the federal hatchery for about a half-mile. A few years ago, a trout biologist verified that the number of fish crowding a portion of the creek represented the most dense trout population on Earth -- and conditions haven't changed much since then.

The creek is open for catch-and-release fishing during daylight hours only to disabled anglers and those under 16 years old, with help from others. (And enforcement officers are watching to ensure that "helpers" don't turn into "anglers.") Only single-hook artificial lures or flies are allowed.

During the winter of 2006, an 11-year-old fly-angler caught and released a rainbow estimated at 25 pounds there, while guide John Berry of Cotter netted a 16-pound brown for a 10-year-old who'd hooked it with a four-weight fly rod. All those numbers add up to one conclusion: there's no better place than Dry Run Creek for youngsters and those with physical challenges to catch and release trophy-sized trout.

Because the North Fork and the nearby White River are so incredibly valuable, the AGFC has been crafting a management plan, with public input, for more than a year. Its goals are to protect water quality, grow larger trout, increase enforcement and improve how the AGFC works with other state and federal agencies.

Earlier this year, the agency held another round of workshops to discuss options for managing North Fork trout, including a possible slot limit for rainbows and minimum length limits on browns and brook trout. At press time, the plan was still in draft form, and the AGFC indicated that no regulation changes would occur before January 2009.

To schedule a day of catch-and-release fly-fishing on the North Fork or nearby White River with one of the area's most colorful guides, call Wayne Reed at (501) 834-2350. The free 2008 Trout Fishing Guidebook is available from AGFC offices and bait and fly shops that serve the North Fork and White rivers.

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