A Corner On The Trout Market

AGFC management efforts are set to turn Arkansas' northwest corner into an outstanding trout fishery. (July 2006)

New rainbow regs on the Beaver tailwater should help improve the fishery.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

For years, the stretch of the White River below Carroll County's Beaver Dam has been a steady but unspectacular tailwater trout fishery. Regardless of how many rainbows the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission poured into the river to meet the increasing demands of more and more anglers in booming northwest Arkansas, this section of the upper White River system has remained '¦ well -- average.

Trout there grew slowly and seldom gained more than a few inches beyond their average hatchery-issue length of 11 inches. The AGFC's creel surveys show that fishermen have settled for catching one of these average-sized trout every hour or so, a rate that's considered satisfactory. But let's be honest here: A mediocre day on the North Fork or Little Red River often exceeds the best day of fishing on the Beaver Tailwater.

Fortunately, the AGFC has reached out to anglers through a series of public workshops to learn what they want and expect from this river, which runs northward from Beaver Dam into Table Rock Lake. The result is a five-year management plan with the potential to turn this ho-hum fishery into an eyebrow-raising, high-quality rainbow trout factory. However, the cornerstones of the program may surprise you. The AGFC wants all anglers to keep limits of those average-sized rainbows, and it's also going to reduce the number of trout it stocks. At first blush, it sounds like a plan to drive life from the river, but it made perfect sense when Darrell Bowman, the AGFC's trout biologist, explained it in an interview earlier this year.

"We've totally revamped the management of this tailwater with respect to trout fisheries," he said.

TOUGH TIMES ON THE RIVER

In the 1990s, the AGFC recognized the increasing fishing pressure on the Beaver Tailwater. With more anglers expecting to catch their share of trout, the AGFC responded by stocking more fish -- particularly rainbows. In 2001 efforts were increased again. 240,000 rainbows and browns were stocked, a 440 percent increase over the 50,000 per year that was typical of the early '90s. Colorful cutthroat and brook trout added variety and allowed anglers to go for a four-species "grand slam" in a single day, but they "just complicated management," Bowman said.

A couple of years ago, the AGFC studied trout in the catch-and-release section of the tailwater and confirmed that the rainbows grew only 1/2 inch per year. Browns had a better rate of 2 1/2 inches per year. The high stocking rates in previous years had caused the rainbows to overpopulate, and the river just didn't have enough forage to feed that many trout.

"At that (slow growth) rate, it would take a fish more than six years to grow (up to 13 inches or more), and natural mortality would get most of them before they got that old," Bowman explained.

Other factors made the situation even worse. For example, floods in the 1990s washed away natural structure, and changes in the quality of water flowing into the river from Beaver Lake may have contributed to a drastic decrease in the population of sculpins, a brownish baitfish that brown trout favor. In general, there are also fewer nutrients in the river to support the organisms that are lowest on the food chain.

NEW PLAN, NEW REGS

Bowman and Stan Todd, the assistant trout biologist, teamed up with other AGFC personnel and special consultants to hold workshops to pick the brains of trout fishermen. A strong theme emerged: Fishermen want to catch quality rainbow trout on the Beaver Tailwater, defined as one 13 inches or longer.

As a result of the meetings and studies of fish populations, the management plan, which was still in draft form at press time, includes regulation changes that are already in effect and management changes to reduce a river that's choked with stocker-sized rainbows.

A 13- to 16-inch slot limit and a requirement for barbless, single-point hooks for bait anglers went into effect Jan. 1. The statewide limit of five trout per day applies to the Beaver Tailwater, but you may keep only one trout per day that's longer than 16 inches. All trout within the slot must be released immediately, regardless of species.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bowman encourages all anglers to support the plan by keeping legal limits of fish that are less than 13 inches long.

"The 'Average Joe' fisherman is no longer interested in taking home a limit every time, but we must decrease the numbers of trout," he emphasized. "We need more harvest to decrease the density of fish."

TAKING THE BAIT

Traditionally, 70 to 80 percent of the anglers on this stretch of the White River use bait, so the new hook rules affect the majority of fishermen there. Because the catch-and-release ethic that's so strong among bass fishermen has caught on with trout anglers, many who fish with bait now release most of the trout they catch. While perfectly legal, this type of fishing translates into a high mortality rate among trout, Bowman confirmed. "We're losing a lot of fish."

The single-point, barbless hook rule is designed to address this issue. Scientific articles show that the mortality rate for fish caught with bait on barbed hooks is 70 to 80 percent, while hook mortality with artificials is about 10 percent, Bowman said.

"We want to maintain bait-fishing and help to get people fishing in a way that causes less mortality."

By using the newly required barbless hooks -- especially circle hooks, which tend to snag the outer edges of a fish's mouth -- bait anglers can make a huge dent in hooking mortality rates. When you use barbless circle hooks and clip the line as close to the hook as possible when a fish has taken the bait deeply, mortality can drop as low as 10 percent, Bowman added. Other standard catch-and-release techniques, such as handling fish with wet hands to avoid removing their protective slime coating and leaving them in the water while you remove hooks will also help.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Over time, the slot limit, reduced stocking and the AGFC's efforts to encourage anglers to guiltlessly take home limits when they crave a fish dinner should all combine to create a quality fishery.

"What we want is to heavily harvest trout under 13 inches," Bowman explained. "We hope the overall reduction of density will increase growth in the slot in a few years." The result should be an increase in the number of trout in the 13- to

16-inch range.

"While decreasing the number of trout, we also want to maintain the current average catch rate of .8 to 1.0 fish per hour," Bowman said.

If the plan is successful, the difference will be that the fish caught every hour or so will be on the average 2 to 5 inches longer and meet the quality goal that anglers in the public workshops challenged the AGFC to meet.

"It'll take a minimum of one year to notice a difference in the quality of the fishery and the size of the fish, but it could take four or five years," Bowman said.

GETTING ON THE WATER

Water remains cold enough to support trout year 'round for about eight miles below Beaver Dam in Carroll County. Public access begins in Dam Site Park, just below the dam. You'll find a wide, concrete boat ramp there in a stretch of river that shows the results of recent fish habitat improvement projects. To reach the dam, take state Highway 187 off U.S. Highway 62 about 10 miles west of Eureka Springs and follow the signs. Locals who bait-fish from folding chairs often line the long, gravel shoal here.

County Road 506, which runs from near the dam to the AGFC's regional office, also takes you to the Bertrand Access, where you can launch a boat, and the Parker Bend Access, which is most popular with fly-anglers who use the walk-in access there. You can also wade in where U.S. 62 crosses the river farther north. The Houseman Access, on County Road 501, which runs east of U.S. 62 a few miles north of the dam, marks the end of the prime trout-fishing waters.

As on all tailwaters, water levels below Beaver Dam rise and fall according to the need to generate hydroelectric power or evacuate floodwater from adjacent Beaver Lake. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers provides recorded updates on water generation at (417) 336-5083.

GEARING UP FOR TROUT

By far, the most popular gear for trout fishing on the Beaver Tailwater is light or ultralight spinning or spincast outfits strung with 2- to 6-pound line. For the time being, the average fish is going to be 12 inches or so and weigh less than 2 pounds, so you'll enjoy your battles more with ultralight gear. While it's true that the river holds a few gigantic stripers (it's responsible for the current state record, 64 1/2 pounds, caught in 2000) and some outsized browns that require heavy line, you'll do better with 4-pound-test.

Most fly-anglers use 8- to 9-foot rods in the 4- to 6-weight range with matching floating fly lines, but it's possible to handle the tailwater's average fish on wispy 1 to 3 weights, too, which comprise fly-fishing's equivalent to an ultralight bass rod. Most use floating fly lines and 9- to 15-foot leaders and tippets tapered to 3X (for streamers) down to 7X (for tiny emergers).

A hat with a brim and polarized sunglasses are imperative whether you're wading or boating. They'll protect you from the elements and make it much easier to spot fish and obstacles underwater. Parts of the riverbed are extremely slippery from underwater vegetation; wading anglers will do best with felt-soled boots and a wading staff. When you're wading, walk slowly, avoid stepping onto large rocks and use a wading staff to always maintain two points of contact with the bottom to limit your chances of taking an inadvertent swim.

BAIT, LURES AND FLIES

The vast majority of anglers on the tailwater fish from shore with grocery store baits, such as kernel corn and marshmallows, but prepared baits are popular, too. Canned salmon eggs, wax worms and plain ol' garden redworms work as well.

Trout are attracted to the flash and vibration of many types of artificial lures. In-line spinners can be very effective in 1/16- to 1/8-ounce sizes. Small spoons, especially Little Cleos, are frequently noted in fishing reports, and Rebel's Teeny Craw and other ultralight-sized crankbaits are also effective.

It's hard to go wrong with simple fly patterns, such as the venerable old Woolly Bugger, which resembles dragonfly nymphs, baitfish or crawfish but actually matches no living creature. Dead-drift them by casting upstream and retrieving slightly faster than the current or simply cast olive or black Woolly Buggers down and across and let them swing in the current. And hold on because strikes are vicious.

Scuds and sowbugs -- crustaceans reminiscent of the landbound bugs that we called "roly-polys" in our youth -- form the backbone of the tailwater's food chain. Flies that imitate these natural fish foods are always effective. Soft hackle flies and tiny emerger patterns always work, too. Bowman recalled that the river supported huge colonies of sculpins years ago, which suggests that thumb-sized baitfish patterns in mottled browns, blacks and olives, dead-drifted or stripped slowly near the bottom, should get plenty of attention from brown trout that seek a big meal.

"We want people to go fish there, harvest plenty of trout and have fun," Bowman said.

SPAVINAW CREEK UPDATE

For more than a decade, if you've paid close attention to the fishing rules and regulations, you might've noticed an entry for something called Spavinaw Creek and wondered where it was and why you've never read or heard anything about it. In the mid-1990s, AGFC trout biologists determined that this spring-fed creek in Benton County, which lies entirely on private property, was suitable for trout. The agency even stocked it with rainbows and browns and established those regulations you see in the annual fishing booklets.

"It grew brown trout up to 8 to 12 pounds in early experiments," Bowman recalled.

Spavinaw flows with clean, high-quality water, and it's the only place in the world where you'll find a species of dusky salamander that's so rare it hasn't been named yet.

The idea of a remote, intimate trout fishery was especially attractive to fly-anglers, who visualized an Ozarks-flavored version of the famed spring creeks out West. And the commission had also accurately predicted that the demand for quality public fishing in the northwest corner of the state was growing as quickly as the population.

Unfortunately, public fishing on Spavinaw Creek has never become a reality. If you look hard enough on the Internet, you'll find fairly recent reports from successful trout anglers who have access to the creek through private landowners.

"We haven't stocked trout there or done any direct management in over eight years," Bowman confirmed. "We planned to stock and regulate it and buy some land to gain public access, but land costs were high." With folks moving to northwest Arkansas, snapping up land and building houses and businesses as if a gold rush were on, property values around the creek have rocketed into the $3,000-per-acre range.

That harsh economic reality means the AGFC is going to need help -- in the form of generous property owners, private organizations or outside sources of funding -- for all Arkansans to be able to enjoy Spavinaw Creek. If Bowman allows his imagination to run free, he easily envisions a mini-

wildlife management area designed for consumptive uses (bowhunting and fishing, for example) and non-consumptive activities such as wildlife watching on a walking trail. "If we could find willing landowners or groups to cost-share with us, Spavinaw could become something really special," he said. "It'd be a great resource for the area."

MORE INFORMATION

In addition to a valid fishing license, Arkansas resident anglers 16 or older must carry a $5 trout stamp. Non-residents require special licenses and ante up $12 for their trout stamps. Licenses and stamps are available at outdoor stores statewide, or you can obtain them by phone at 1-800-364-GAME or buy them online at www.agfc.com. While you're on the phone, ask for a free Wading Safety Tips brochure or download it in .pdf format at www.agfc.com.

Find more about Arkansas fishing and hunting at:

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