January 24, 2023
Not long ago, as America was getting ready to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, anglers in Arkansas—and elsewhere—found another reason to be thankful.
A big piscatorial reason, mind you, as a huge brown trout we reported on last winter showed up again, this time not at the end of an angler's fishing line, but in an Arkansas Game and Fish Commission monitoring effort on the world-renowned White River.
In a Facebook post dated Nov. 16, 2022, the AGFC Trout Management and Habitat department gave Razorback Nation anglers the news that if there was ever any doubt about the success of catch-and-release efforts (even on really big fish) those doubts could be put to rest.
"The TMP is in the process of conducting its annual monitoring effort of the Bull Shoals Tailwater (White River) trout fishery," said the AGFC social media post and accompanying photos. "During last week's effort (in November), the TMP collected a 33.3-inch, 22.9-pound brown trout in the upper portion of the tailwater, which is the biggest one collected on any Arkansas trout water in the past 20 years."
That big brown trout would be great news a couple of decades into the 21st Century, in and of itself, mind you, but there's even more to the story of this huge trout finding its way into the AGFC's electroshocking nets during an annual survey. Why? Because the trout seemed quite familiar, that’s why.
"Using its size and spot patterns, we were able to confirm it was the same brown trout caught by an angler from Colorado last February. The fish was released unharmed and is waiting to provide another angler with the opportunity to catch a fish of a lifetime," stated the AGFC post.
Onlline readers might also remember that fish, which was part of a story last March about the huge trout being caught during a late-winter snowstorm. In that story, we chronicled the tale of Colorado angler Eric Underhill and the 25.8-pound brown trout he landed on March 11, 2022 when a business trip took him to Arkansas' White River region.
When given the opportunity to see what the White River tailwater had to offer a Rocky Mountain angler spending a few days in the Ozark Mountains, Underhill found himself committed to going on a guide trip with the well-known Cranor's Guide Service. But when he got up on the morning of March 11 after a night's lodging at the Cranor’s White River Lodge, a springlike day with temps near 60 had given way to heavy snowfall, temps in the low 20s, and a wind chill well below that.
Nevertheless, Underhill and guide Craig Yowell persevered and went out in the whiteout on the White River to see what the stormy day and falling barometer might bring. Initially, it was a number's day as the bite was active and the trout fed heavily on the tailwater below the Bull Shoals Dam constructed in 1952. With rainbows and browns being regularly stocked by the AGFC since 1955—and with exceptional survival, growth, and reproductive rates (for the browns) being noted—that wasn't much of a surprise. After all, thanks to the cold water inflow from the Norfork River, the trout water of the White River stretches a solid 100-plus miles downstream from Bull Shoals.
But after Underhill and two others in the boat landed about 10 trout in the three- to four-pound range on that low-ceiling and frigid wintry morn, what was a surprise was the behemoth brown trout that Underhill eventually landed just before lunch.
"Craig said we’ll go fish in a different spot, a spot we normally catch rainbows in," said Underhill. "He said we’d fish about 15 minutes, catch some smaller rainbows for lunch, and head back to the lodge for fresh trout, some hushpuppies, and some crab cakes. So, that’s why we moved."
It soon proved to be an especially great move. "We get to this spot, and no lie, I said ‘Craig, what’s your personal best on this river?," asked Underhill. "I think he said his best was something like 19 pounds, 4 ounces and his client’s best was something like 18-1."
A minute or so later, Underhill set the hook into a brown trout and quickly announced to his guide that he had hooked a monster. After several tense minutes of angling—and quite a bit of fisherman’s prayers for a successful conclusion to this piscatorial battle—the behemoth brown was at the boat.
"When Craig netted the fish, he didn't lift it into the boat, even though we were high-fiving and using language that we might not ordinarily use," chuckled Underhill. "Instead, he left it in the water to begin the recovery phase, and we left that huge brown in the water for several minutes (to let the current circulate through its gills)."
After a few moments of careful fish care, the group got some quick measurements, some photos, and a weight on the digital scale that was in Yowell's boat. At 25.8 pounds and 34 ¼ inches in length, and 26 inches in girth, the numbers were amazing.
In short, as we reported last year, the big White River brown trout was nothing less than the fish of a lifetime, a world-class specimen for everybody involved. "Yeah, it was the best day of my guide career, for sure," said Yowell, a 30-something guide, husband, and father of one. "We had multiple good fish caught that morning for the three clients in the boat, including two that pushed 23 inches, one that was almost 24 inches, and another that was nearly 24 ½ inches long."
But as good as the 2022 snowstorm brown trout angling story was, the best news of all is that just a few weeks ago, and after a long and hot summer, the big brown was still swimming strongly, happily, and chasing baitfish in the White River. That’s great news since Underhill, another one of Yowell’s clients, or even you or me can head for the White River in 2023 and have a chance to catch a world-class brown trout that gave the angling thrill of a lifetime less than one year ago to one angler.
Until, that is, the fishing stars align once again and another angler knows the thrill of landing an Arkansas brown trout weighing more than 20 pounds.
Given the Natural State’s big brown trout reputation over the years, maybe the next behemoth catch will be something even more since Arkansas has held the world record brown trout mark more than once. That includes the 1988 world-record catch of 38 pounds, 9 ounces in the Norfork River by Huey Manley and the 1992 world-record catch of 40 pounds, 4 ounces by the late Howard “Rip” Collins, a fish that we chronicled when the famous Mother’s Day catch from the Little Red River turned 30 years old last spring.
And then, of course, there was the February 2015 catch of a world-record near-miss brown trout in the White River, a monster brown that pushed the scales to 38 pounds, 7 ounces.
What will the year 2023 bring to trout fishermen in the Natural State of Arkansas? Thanks to hundreds of miles of cold and fertile tailwater streams in the Ozark Mountains, very possibly, more of the same with more big brown trout caught as the height of the winter big-fish streamer season, the potential for a wintertime shad kill, and even the early spring caddis hatch approach.
As long as anglers and guides like Underhill and Yowell keep catching big fish, taking care of them, and turning them loose to fight another day, who knows what big brown trout riches might await this winter and spring?
Either at the end of an angler’s fishing line or fly line. Or even in an AGFC survey net.
Because that's how good the brown trout fishing is right now in Arkansas, thanks to lots of great habitat, years of aggressive management, and a long-standing commitment to let big fish live to see another day.
It’s a big trout recipe that has worked for years in the Natural State, and it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. And for that, we can all be thankful, even a few days into a New Year.