April 24, 2023
By Lynn Burkhead
There's little doubt that as springtime rains descend upon portions of America's heartland, even old Noah would be impressed.
So is Steve Dally's Ozark Angler's Fly Shop crew in Cotter, Ark., which said in its most recent report for the Natural State's White River and Norfork River systems: "Line up your animals two-by-two, because we're in an all-out flood."
While not quite a 40-day-long flood of Biblical proportion, the current flows being released through the region's dams are impressive. According to Dally's fly shop report, "Water is everywhere, including encroaching on boat ramp parking lots and riverside front lawns."
But Dally's report also noted: "In other news, the caddis hatch is in full swing. It is hard to imagine that these small aquatic insects can force their way through a raging wall of H2O, but in the words of Jeff Goldblum, ‘Life finds a way.'"
Ah, yes, life finds a way, even in a flood. And that includes the springtime caddis hatch on the famed Ozark trout tailwaters, not to be confused with the well-known "Mother's Day" hatch out on the Arkansas River near Salida, Colo. Put simply, the other Arkansas caddis hatch, the one in the actual state of Arkansas, is strong enough that it helped lure Rob Woodruff, a semi-retired Orvis fly guide, to a home perched on a mountaintop overlooking it all.
An expert in bugs, Woodruff is right at home studying them, tying them up on his Regal vise, and putting them into the northern Arkansas tailwater trout streams.
"The most prolific spring caddis are a species of genus Brachycentrus, commonly called Grannoms," said Woodruff, who has an entomology degree from Texas A&M University and was once a creepy-crawly expert for a well-known national pest control company.
In other words, he really knows his bugs, even in the Natural State during a springtime flood.
"There are over 30 species of caddis documented on the White River, most of which hatch in April and May, so there could be other species in the mix that are not noticed in the blizzard," said Woodruff, a three-time finalist for the Orvis of the Year Freshwater Guide award and the husband of Jenny Mayrell-Woodruff, who won the award in 2018 for her fly guiding for trout on Oklahoma's Lower Mountain Fork River.
In other words, never get into an evening campfire discussion with the Woodruff's on bugs, because they'll win that conversation. Having run a fly-fishing lodge out West on Montana's Rock Creek, as well as managing a well-known saltwater lodge in Belize, Rob does admit that there might be a few subtle differences between a southern caddis hatch and a Western one.
"They are often a different species, but the general habits, preferred water types and emergence are all the same," he said, noting that the White River and Norfork River are becoming as well-known now for caddis hatches as they once were for scud and sowbug fly-fishing opportunities. On the two river systems' best days, the caddis hatch can rival what many anglers enjoy out West every year.
"The primary trigger for spring emerging insects is the vernal equinox, which occurs in late March," said Woodruff, whose house sits on a bluff overlooking the Norfork. "After that, water temperature and water level help trigger a hatch."
That makes the time period from April Fool's Day to around Mother's Day can’t-miss territory for the other Arkansas caddis hatch.
"April and May are definitely the prime months here," said Woodruff. "Low water is the best for dry fly action, but even during periods of heavy generation, the hatch is still occurring."
And that's good news for fly anglers wanting to find the Ozark's stocked rainbows whacking caddis imitations as well as the region's famed leg-long brown trout smashing flies. Sometimes, on these rivers and the nearby Little Red River, the Ozark's behemoth browns can even grow to world-record status thanks to all of the food and hiding spots available to these gator-sized trout.
While Dally's report indicates that the hatch is currently happening in this high-water spring—especially with explosive caddis dry fly takes in sudsy river eddies—Woodruff himself is hoping for a little less water soon.
"The deeper, faster water (often) prevents most individual caddis from making it to the surface to fly away," Woodruff explained. "That's evidenced by the definite preference of caddis pupae and emergers over other fly patterns during this time. And unlike many hatches, the caddis here tend to hatch later in the day, often after 2 p.m."
My oldest son Zach and I found that out last spring, getting into both the subsurface game and the caddis dry-fly action during a visit to see the Woodruffs. Before our weekend was over, Zach had landed a number of chunky rainbows, although the biggest browns managed to elude him.
More interested in being dear old dad and seeing my son succeed in prime runs, I was content to have a front-row seat. We did a little of everything, from wading when conditions allowed to running the big water in Woodruff's custom Shawnee rig, to even floating in his three-man rubber raft. It didn't matter what the conditions were in terms of releases from the Bull Shoal's Dam, we saw caddis hatching, saw huge brown trout swimming by, and caught a number of memorable rainbows on a caddis trip as good as anything you can experience out West.
About the only thing missing was the view of snow-capped central Colorado or Montana, and well, the Ozarks aren't a bad consolation prize in terms of the view either. The banker's hours didn't hurt either since Woodruff is something of an expert chef and mornings were spent dining on virtual gourmet breakfast meals, sipping coffee, and catching up with a friend of more than 20 years.
As soon as my youngest son Will and his wife Ashley have given birth to their first child, a son—and the lovely Mrs. B and yours truly are actually in the waiting room as this is being written—I'm ready to head for the Ozarks again to see what the 100-mile long trout tailwater might offer up this spring.
"It (the hatch) actually starts higher up on the White near the Bull Shoals Dam and State Park and then moves downstream through Wildcat Shoals, the town of Cotter, and on to Rim Shoals," said Woodruff. "And the caddis action on the Nofork usually starts about when the caddis are showing up on the White between Cotter and Rim Shoals."
If you travel out West, it's usually the opposite as caddis hatches start in warmer lower sections of a river and then travel upstream as the weather and water warms with the advance of spring from the foothills into the Rocky Mountain high country. That includes the caddis hatch on the Arkansas River near Salida, Colo., and the hatch on the Yellowstone River outside of Yellowstone National Park near Livingston, Mont.
If the southern caddis hatch on the Ozark's White and Norfork Rivers isn't as well known as those rivers out west—and the same could be said for the Watuga River in Tennessee—that is certainly subject to change according to Woodruff, because the other Arkansas caddis hatch is getting better over time.
"Even though the White River tailwaters are over 70 years old, they are still young and in transition, especially from a benthic insect view," said Woodruff. "It is quite notable that the most extensive sampling of caddis species on the White River to date, the year 1979's ‘A Preliminary List of Arkansas Trichoptera' did not find a single member of the family brachycentridae. They were apparently too rare to show up in samplings. Or, given what has happened with other invertebrates in other rivers, an accidental introduction from another river system can't be ruled out."
There's also a bigger role-player in the caddis hatch in the Ozarks region, thanks to a regulation set at the federal level. "Yeah, a big factor in the populations of insects and crustaceans in the White and Norfork Rivers was the establishment of minimum flows in 2012," said Woodruff, as much of a historian and avid reader as he is an entomologist and fly guide.
"Prior to that, flows on the rivers occasionally stopped when power generation was not required," he continued. "This limited insect populations to whatever the lowest river level was and also allowed water temperatures to climb out of (the) trout's comfort range. Since the agreement was reached between AGFC and the USACE, the flow on the White never goes below 600 CFS and 136 CFS on the Norfork."
While this year hasn't seen a blanket hatch, or blizzard of bugs, just yet, hopefully that will happen soon.
"Fly anglers judge ‘good' by dry fly action, so years with more days of low water and sunny warmer days are remembered as the best," grinned Woodruff. He's a big fan of such times on the water, noting that "The White River is probably the best place in the USA to catch a brown trout over 20 inches on a dry fly."
If you're interested in targeting those big browns, or the rainbows and cutthroat trout found in the system too, Woodruff says to pack the right kind of fly fishing gear.
"As for fly rods, I'd say a nine-foot or a 10-foot five or six-weight fly rod," he said. "And for the fly box, you'll want caddis pupa imitations and Dally's Mother's Day Caddis jigs to start with. Then have a few partridge and green soft hackle imitations and LaFontaine's Green Sparkle Pupa."
Woodruff ties those flies onto his 7 ½ foot leader system, which starts with a six to eight-foot section of 1x fluorocarbon with a tippet ring at the end. To that tippet ring, he'll tie a foot of 4x fluorocarbon as the tippet section, put a split shot above the tippet ring, and add a strike indicator above that.
"The size of the shot and indicator will be based on how much water is flowing on any given day," said Woodruff. "When you're rigged up, look for natural funnels and deeper runs to throw your flies into. Then fish on a dead drift or with a skating presentation. This is also a great time to swing a couple of soft hackles with the traditional down and across presentations and don't forget to fish a dry dropper set-up with a soft hackle subsurface."
While there might be more subsurface aquatic territory than usual right now, the caddis hatch on the White and Norfork River systems—you know, the other Arkansas caddis hatch—can be so good that it can even bring old Noah out of retirement.
It already did that for Woodruff and his wife Jenny. Because high water or not, there are few springtime days better than watching as a big brown or rainbow trout smacks a caddis imitation, no matter what state you happen to be fishing in.