Best Trophy Trout Headwaters

Arkansas can boast some of the finest trout venues in the country. Follow the suggestions that the author offers here, and a trophy may well be within your reach.

Though this 18-inch fish in no way compares to the whopper the author lost some four years ago, it's not a bad consolation prize.
Photo by Jim Spencer

It was late afternoon. I was fishing by myself, drifting on White River near Calico Rock, casting a Rebel Crawdad to a shallow gravel shoal.

When the fish hit, it was deliberate and firm -- not so much a strike as a sudden stopping of all forward progress. I'd have thought it was a hangup, but I saw a fish's side flash golden in the clear water when it took the lure. The flash was long and deep, and I remember thinking: Uh-oh.

The boat was drifting fast, and the fish allowed the gentle tug of my line to peel it away from the shoal and into the current. It followed me downstream, and we drifted through the fast water and into a wider, slower stretch of river.

Things began to unravel when I started applying more pressure. It didn't want to be pressured, so it went away, back upstream into the faster water beside the shoal. The drag started buzzing, and line melted off my reel.

I cranked the outboard and motored upriver, steering with my knee, reeling in line. When I got pretty much above him, it swam out to the side and allowed me to pull it down into the slower water again. We did this twice more, and each time the fish came farther downstream with me. I could tell it was beginning to tire.

I'm a fisherman, so I don't expect you to believe me. But this is gospel: When I got a look at it 45 minutes into the contest, it was approximately the length and girth of my leg, and I'm not a small man. If it wasn't close to 30 pounds, I'm a poor judge.

I lost it, of course. I tried five times to get it into my net, and each time it rolled back out because I couldn't get half of it in there. I tried grabbing it by the gills, but it wasn't having any, and I knew it'd break the line if I made it thrash around.

And then the tiny treble hooks pulled out -- just pulled out. My brown trout of a lifetime swam slowly into the clear waters of the White, more than a mile downstream from where I'd hooked him more than an hour earlier.

That was almost four years ago. It haunts me still.

Losing big fish like that will eat at you, maybe even for a lot longer than four years. But not everybody who's hooked a huge brown trout in Arkansas has lost it. Here's a gee-whiz statistic for you: The three largest brown trout ever recorded came from three Arkansas rivers.

The first was a 38-pound, 9-ounce fish taken in the Norfork River in August 1988 by North Little Rock resident Mike "Huey" Manley. The fish was accepted as the new world record by the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, but rejected by the International Game Fish Association because it was taken on a treble hook and enticed by bait consisting of corn and marshmallows.

Manley's record held for almost four years. Then, in May 1992, Howard "Rip" Collins, using a 1/32-ounce jig and 4-pound line on an ultralight spinning rig, caught an unbelievable 40-pound, 4-ounce brown from the Little Red River. That fish is still at top of the heap in both the NFFHF's and the IGFA's record books.

The last of the Arkansas Big Three is a 38-pound brown trout found dead in the Little Red River in March 1998. By the time it was discovered and hauled out of the water, turtles had eaten a good portion of this fish, so it's entirely possible that it weighed more than Collins' lunker when it was still alive.

One final item: When Huey Manley caught the trout that started this big-fish ball rolling back in 1988, his fish took the state brown trout record away from a fish caught in the White in March 1977 by Flippin-based trout guide Leon Waggoner. Waggoner's fish, in its turn, was the world-record brown trout for several years.

That Arkansas has produced fish of these proportions is no accident. The tailwater trout fisheries of the Ozarks, flowing over and through a limestone substrate, are very fertile, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is -- obviously -- managing them very well. The White, Norfork and Little Red rivers yield hundreds of lunker browns each year, fish from 4 pounds up -- sometimes way up, as the above instances prove. Special length and limit regulations and designated catch-and-release areas protect these larger fish, and the fertile waters promote rapid growth. Tagging studies prove that on these three Arkansas rivers, trout grow at the phenomenal rate of 4 inches per year.

These factors combine to put the White, Norfork and Little Red at the top of the list when you're ranking the nation's brown trout waters. But which is No. 1? The answer: Who cares? They're all superb. Making them even better is the double-barreled nature of their trout fisheries. Besides trophy browns, all three streams are full of 10- to 14-inch rainbows, providing the catch-and-keep option of skillet-sized fish. The rainbows are managed differently, being heavily stocked for put-and-take fishing, so they rarely stay in the river long enough to attain trophy proportions.

These rivers provide estimable year-round fishing, so pressure is unsurprisingly heavy, especially during the summer. Some of the more popular stretches of these streams see more than 3,000 angler-days of fishing per mile of stream per year, and trout -- mostly rainbows, but also browns, cutthroats and brook trout -- are stocked at an average rate of 10,000 fish per mile per year.

Effective techniques for catching big browns differ considerably from the optimal methods for catching a limit of stocker rainbows: You're not likely to catch a yard-long brown trout by dragging a night crawler and a Berkley Power Bait Power Egg behind a drifting boat. (It happens occasionally, but it's not the way to bet.)

Big browns are probably taken more often on minnow-shaped artificials like Floating Rapalas, Holographic Rebels and Smithwick Rogues than by means of any other offering; of these types of lure, Countdown Rapalas are likely to be resorted to the most. Some anglers also swear by rattling, vibrating shad-shaped crankbaits such as Rat-L-Traps, for which silver and gold seem to be the most seductive colors. The effectiveness of these noisemakers is most pronounced when there's a moderate to high amount of generation going on, especially early and late in the day and during low-light conditions, as when cloud cover is thick or fog lies low on the water.

The most suitable tackle for

this variety of fishing is baitcasting gear with 10- to 12-pound line and a rod with both tip sensitivity and backbone. You're dealing with fish that can be as long as your arm, and wimpy tackle isn't going to cut it. If you insist on spinning gear, avoid the ultralight stuff; use a long rod for extra leverage and use the heaviest line your rod/reel combo will handle.

During low-water periods, the techniques you'll want to use on the White/Norfork complex will differ from those appropriate for the Little Red. In the case of the former, wide agreement prevails: Anchoring above a hole to fish downstream with a soft-shell crawfish, peeled crawfish tail or sculpin baiting a dropper rig that incorporates a small bell sinker (to hold the bait in place) is the preferred way to go. The latter's another matter.

On the Little Red, low-water big-trout fishermen divide into two camps: fly guys, and baitcasting/ spinning anglers. Flyfishermen catch plus-sized browns through the summer months on such unlikely offerings as sowbugs in size 16 to 18. Since minnows and sculpins are scarce on the Little Red, the browns eat sowbugs instead. That still doesn't keep these large fish from attacking minnow-type artificials, though, and the same Countdown Rapalas, Rogues and Rebels that work so well on White River browns are also effective here. The numerous mossbeds on the Little Red provide enough cover and concealment to make fishing plugs nearly as effective during low water as during periods of generation.

Night-fishing is also a worthwhile summertime technique for taking big brown trout, no matter what river you're fishing. Caution and the application of common sense are both advised, however, since drifting with the current when you can't see what you're drifting into can be risky. If you night-fish, give some thought to fishing from the bank or from an anchored boat, concentrating your efforts in a likely feeding area such as a gravel shoal at the upper end of a deep hole, and making repeated casts to the same water as you wait for a foraging brown to find you.

Following: a run-down on the how and the where of catching big trout on these three rivers.


The official trout-water section of the White stretches from Bull Shoals Dam to the Highway 58 bridge at Guion, a distance of 92 miles. Trout are common in the river all the way down to Dam 3, nine miles below Guion. If it's browns you want, however, think upstream -- especially in summer. Even during cooler seasons, more big brown trout are taken in the 18 miles or water from Bull Shoals Dam to Cotter than from the other 80 or so miles of trout water below Cotter. This state of affairs arises from the interplay of three factors.

First, water comes out of the dam at about 55 to 57 degrees. In the upper reaches of the river, things are cooler, because warm summer air hasn't had as much time to turn the water tepid. Second, brown trout move to the headwater areas to spawn during fall and winter, and even though there's some dispersal back downstream after the spawn, the annual upriver run tends to keep them concentrated in the upper reaches of the Bull Shoals tailwater. And third, most of the serious big-brown fishermen concentrate their efforts in this stretch of the river.

So even though there are decent numbers of good-sized browns downstream from Cotter, only a smallish percentage of the river's annual big-brown yield comes from there.

A couple of exceptions are worth a mention. One is the stretch of the White immediately downstream from where the Norfork River joins the White at the town of Norfork. The jolt of chill water added to the White from the short run of the Norfork tailwater makes for a nice complement of big browns there, and strong spawning runs up the Norfork and the White generally have the effect of holding fish in the area as well. Ideal big-fish possibilities exist from Norfork downstream to Calico Rock.

The other productive big-trout area is Rim Shoals, six miles below Cotter. Cool springs and habitat conditions of the sort favored by trophy-grade fish combine to retain a significant number of outsized browns here year 'round. At Rim Shoals, access is to be had only by the pedestrian angler, but when there's some generation going on, you can reach Rim Shoals by boat from Cotter (six miles upstream) or Ranchette (four miles downstream).


Although only 4.8 miles of river channel span the reach from Norfork Dam to White River, that stretch contains possibly the highest concentration of lunker brown trout per stream-mile than does any other place in Arkansas. On the downside, it's also under the heaviest fishing pressure of any tailwater trout fishery in the state. On an average summer day during low-flow periods, it's hard to find a spot providing decent casting room on the shoals, and during generation periods, boats float everywhere you look. But the big fish are there -- they're the reason for the heavy pressure -- and they can be caught.

There is no "best" place to catch a big brown in the Norfork; it may be stated without exaggeration that numerous fish from 5 to 15 pounds and more -- sometimes much more -- have been taken from every 100-yard stretch of this river over the past 50 years. However, staying away from the stretch of water within a half-mile of the dam will keep you away from the greater number of the fishermen.

One prime area to probe for big fish is the long, deep hole (called, aptly, "Long Hole") between Gene's Trout Resort and McClellan's Trout Dock (where Huey Manley caught his world-record brown in 1988.) Drifting and casting during high water and anchoring to fish bait during low water are both smart moves here.


When Southwest Power Administration is generating electricity by running water through the dam, drifting and casting large minnow-plugs close to the bank through the two-mile hole between the boar ramp at JFK Park and the upper end of Beech Island is a good bet for hooking up with browns of some serious size. The fish are also there during low-water periods, of course, but getting to them is harder then, because navigating the rockpile in the river channel below the boat ramp is tough going when the level's down.

The long hole between Libby Shoal and Dunham Shoal (approximately three miles) is another serviceable low-water area; it can be accessed by boat from the public ramp at Lobo Landing, in the middle of the hole. On high water, you can run upstream through Libby Shoal and reach another three miles of big-brown water. Walk-in fishing is rewardingly doable when the water's low at Libby Shoal.

No matter what fishing techniques you use, or which of these three rivers you use them on, you're going to need three things if your goal is to catch a big brown trout. The first is stealth, because big fish are practically always old fish, experienced and spooky, that didn't get old by being foolish. The second is persistence: Fishing for lunker trout is no high-percentage game; you're not going to get the kind of action you'll meet with on a active bream bed.

Third and finally, you'll need a good dose of luck. As my experience with that big brown trout proves, there's no guarantee that, even after you're hooked firml

y into the fish of your dreams, you're going to have the good fortune to introduce the big fella to your taxidermist.

It's been four years this August since I hooked, fought and lost that fish. I pass that same shoal a dozen times a month, and every time I do, I see the big, wide flash of that brown trout as he stopped my little lure more than 1,400 days ago. It's possible that he's still living there in the deep run beside the shoal -- still coming up onto the "brown water" to feed when the light gets low. I hope so.

But I also hope I never see him again.

Maps of all three tailwater fisheries can be found in the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's Trout Fishing Regulations pamphlet, which is available from area bait shops or from the AGFC at (501) 223-6300, or

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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