March 14, 2022
For Eric Underhill, fishing is a regular and integral part of his life. Living in Colorado and being surrounded by 14,000-foot peaks and trout-filled rivers, streams and alpine lakes, that’s understandable.
But sometimes, even for a lifelong angler who has seen the best that the Rocky Mountain West can offer, life can still deliver up some unexpected surprises.
That includes an impromptu trout fishing trip, a March snowstorm, and the fish of a lifetime, a monster brown trout that weighs almost 26 pounds. For Underhill, it was a simple question before that exact scenario unfolded last week in the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas:
"Hey, do you want to go fishing on the White River?"
In the Mountain Home, Ark., area to conduct some business with a longstanding client, Underhill said what most anglers would say: "Yes!"
But saying yes on a sunny spring afternoon with temperatures near 60 is one thing. And getting up the next morning and still saying yes when the temperatures are in the lower 20s, the wind chill is even lower than that, and snow is falling heavily is quite another thing.
But Underhill bundled up and persevered, pressing forward with his impromptu fishing trip. And by lunchtime on Friday (March 11, 2022), he was glad he did.
"I’m a pretty avid angler here in Colorado Springs," said the 39-year old Underhill, father to a young son named Wyatt and husband to his wife Shellie. "I frequent the rivers and lakes here, and target browns, rainbows, and northern pike.
"In all honesty, I had no idea that the White River in Cotter, Arkansas, existed and would provide the best angling experience I’ve had in more than 30 years of fishing."
But that’s what happened, thanks in part to the stormy day’s low ceiling and falling barometer—as well as a few inches of snow—that had the big brown trout in the White River on the feed bag.
In short, frigid weather and snowstorm or not, it was the kind of epic fishing day that every angler dreams of, even if he is freezing to death in the process.
"We fished for the first four hours and landed maybe 10 fish, the kind of brown trout in the three- to four-pound class," said Underhill. "Those are great fish and it was an amazing morning of fishing."
But not the kind of lunker action that guide Craig Yowell was hoping for. A longtime guide for Cranor’s Guide Service and the well-known Cranor’s White River Lodge, Yowell knew that the inclement conditions—similar to what a fall or spring fly angler might experience out West during a blue-winged olive hatch—could certainly put the big fish engine into overdrive.
Huge Trout for Lunch?
So Yowell, who has seen several big brown trout caught on the White River during other snowstorms this year, made a decision to crank the motor and run to an area of shallower, faster water.
"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."
When Yowell’s Supreme L60 boat came off plane and powered down, the guide quickly got his three clients going again, bottom-bouncing three-inch dusty-striped minnows in the current.
"That’s a bait we gather from the river," said Yowell, who guides upwards of 230 trips a year out of Cranor’s Lodge, along with the other six full-time guides who are employed there. "On the upper end of the river, from the dam until about 10 miles downstream, you don’t see too many of those. But once you get below that range, you start to see them and the fish love them."
Fishing with 6 ½-foot G-Loomis IMX Pro rods, Abu Garcia Black Max reels with a 6:1 gear ratio, and 10-pound braided line, Underhill and the two other anglers with his group were tossing lip-hooked minnows into three-feet of water on #2 and #4 Eagle Claw Aberdeen hooks. At the end of the braid, a drop sinker and three feet of 8-pound fluorocarbon completed the rig.
As the trio of anglers began to see what the White River would offer up, Underhill asked a prophetic question.
"We get to this spot, and no lie, I said ‘Craig, what’s your personal best on this river?,’" said Underhill. "I think he said his best was something like 19 pounds, 4 ounces and his client’s best was something like 18-1"
’Craig, I've Got a Monster'
Those numbers were about to change, and how. Because less than a minute later, as the minnow bounced through the shallow water, the brown trout of a lifetime engulfed it and doubled over Underhill’s fishing rod.
"I’m like, ‘Craig, I’ve got a monster!,’" recalled Underhill. "This thing takes off and goes on a run like I’ve never experienced in Colorado. About the only place I’ve had anything similar was in Alaska where king salmon and cohos were running upriver fresh out of the ocean."
The huge trout wanted to head for the bank and the brush that could cause a break-off, but Underhill did his best to keep the fish heading in the other direction. Combined with Yowell’s handling of the boat, the battle lasted several minutes and had some tense moments.
"It seemed like the fight lasted something like 15 minutes to me, but I finally started to gain some ground on it," said Underhill. "It’s getting closer and it’s on the right side of the boat as I recall, and we’re starting to see some color. As it turned sideways, we can finally see it and Craig was like, ‘Oh man! This is a monster!"
But that’s when near disaster struck as a tired fish and a tired angler completed the big-pulling dance that draws all of us to the water.
"I didn’t want that fish to roll on the line, which they can do when they are tired and really heavy," said Underhill. "That’s when they can break you off. But that’s what happened, it rolled over on the line and I was sick to my stomach, fearing that it was going to break me off. But I also knew that on an eight-pound leader, if I tried to horse the fish to the boat, bad things were going to happen, too."
Finally, after a lot of breath-holding and the silent prayers that anglers are famous for during a piscatorial fight, Yowell made a swipe with the net and the White River battle was over.
But the growing respect that Underhill had for his guide was only beginning.
"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," laughed 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)."
Finally, the group got some quick measurements, some photos, and a weight on the digital scale that was in Yowell’s boat. The numbers were simply stunning at 25.8 pounds (a weight that came twice after the guide zeroed the scale), 34 ¼ inches in length, and 26 inches in girth.
In short, the big White River brown trout was 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-year-old 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 all of those were, they paled in comparison to a fish the size of which Yowell wasn’t sure remained in the White River.
"When Eric first hooked up, I said something like, ‘Oh, that’s a good one, probably around 27 inches," the guide chuckled. "Then when I saw it, I was like, ‘Well, that might be a 20-pounder.’ And when we finally got it to the boat, I said ‘Well, we might have a record!"
As large and impressive as the snowstorm brown was, it fell short of the White River record brown trout, a 38-pound, 7-ounce behemoth caught in February 2015.
And it fell short of the legendary state record and former IGFA world-record brown trout that the late Howard "Rip" Collins stunned the fishing world with a generation ago on the Little Red River near Heber Springs, Arkansas.
That huge brown, a 40-pound, 4-ounce trout caught on May 5, 1992, remains an Arkansas state record.
"We have a fantastic year-round growth rate here," said Donald Cranor, owner of the guide service and lodge that hosts thousands of anglers each year, including the likes of Outdoor Channel TV star Bill Dance and Bass Pro Shops founder and owner Johnny Morris. "We don’t have any warm water, even in the summertime, because our water stays cold year-round. The fish continue to feed and grow year-round and we don’t have any frozen water.
"Plus, the White River is big water. This is not a little trout stream. It’s a big river with lots of different food. There’s the insect hatches like you’d find out West, but there’s also lots of scuds and baitfish, too. And there’s lots of rainbows, which these big brown trout will get after when they get big enough. Once a brown trout gets into the five or six-pound range, they really start chasing and eating these smaller rainbows, too."
World-Class Fishing Destination
All of that makes the White River one of the country’s best spots to chase a world-class brown trout, fishing that could likely only be topped by a visit to Chile’s famed Tierra del Fuego region or New Zealand’s picturesque mountain waters.
For Underhill, the big brown trout of Arkansas have definitely caught his attention. And while the big trout impresses his wife Shellie, she isn’t sure just yet that she’s ready to sacrifice family beach vacations for future visits to the Mountain Home, Ark., area.
But Eric’s young son Wyatt has no such conflict about any potential trips to the Ozarks.
"I had told him over the phone that I was going to get to fish on the White River for a couple of days and that I would send him some pictures," chuckled Underhill. "When he saw the photos of that big brown trout, he was like ‘Dad, we don’t need to fish in Colorado anymore, let’s go to Arkansas!’"
For his sake, Underhill—whose group caught another 10 to 12 nice browns the following morning during another cold half-day of fishing—isn’t so sure that he disagrees with young Wyatt’s travel plans.
"Arkansas is called the Natural State," he said. "And that idea will hold true for me for many years to come. What a fishery, what a memory, what an amazing place, and obviously, the fish and memory of a lifetime with some great guides."
And all on an impromptu fishing trip that most people would have cancelled on.