Arkansas' River of Trout

The densest population of trout in the world can be found right here in Arkansas! Check it out: In the Norfork tailwater and its tributaries, there are plenty of trout to go around.

Three-tenths of a mile shy of five miles long, the North Fork River flows from below Norfork Dam. It's one of the state's shortest tailwaters, but it's also one of our best trout fisheries, featuring rainbow, brown, cutthroat and brook trout that historically have ranged in size from river-spawned fingerlings to a legendary pair of 38-pound browns caught in the summer of 1988. And for handicapped anglers and all anglers under 16, nearby Dry Run Creek offers what may be the world's best trout fishing.

Lying only 2 1/2 to 3 hours from the Little Rock area, the North Fork, which is in north-central Arkansas' Baxter County, lies within easy driving distance of the northwest quarter of the state. As its source is cold water drawn from the depths of Norfork Lake, the water typically stays cool all summer, making it one of the most refreshing of destinations at this time of year. Later in the summer, in fact, when parts of the White often warm into the 70s, overheated trout venture up the North Fork; anglers following them can enjoy some of the year's hottest trout fishing as they savor the revitalizing effects of floating over or wading in chilly waters. And a trip to Dry Run Creek near the dam is always worthwhile - especially when youngsters and physically challenged folks get a chance to tangle with the oversized trout there.

Stan Todd, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission's assistant trout biologist, says that the North Fork fishes well from beginning to end. "Fish anywhere you can get a spot!" he told me. "It's just a great place to catch trout." Wading fly-anglers often look down and find trout literally at their heels. The fish appreciate any structure that creates a little break in the current where they can rest and pick off underwater insects drifting by - even when that structure is wearing boots and moves around from time to time. Enjoy watching those fish as they shadow you, but don't expect to fool them into biting at such close range.

The action starts below Norfork Dam at Quarry Park, which lies of state Highway 177 north of Salesville. If you're after colorful brook trout, this may be the finest place in the state. "The brook trout are now 12 to 15 or 16 inches long fairly regularly - that's a great brook trout," Todd reported. "Go right up next to the dam for them, because they like the coldest water." The park includes a boat ramp and good wading, too. Although Dry Run Creek is reserved for special anglers, anyone can fish the spot where it dumps into the river in the park. It's a heavily pressured spot, but worth a few casts if no one else happens to be around. As floaters head downstream, they'll pass through "Long Hole," a deeper area esteemed for productivity.

Fly-fishers pay a small fee at McClellan's Trout Dock to wade some of the river's richest waters. The pair of 38-pounders mentioned above came from this stretch; you might run into some feisty cutthroats here, too. Noted Todd: "Although the number of cutthroats seems to have declined - because two years ago we didn't get the normal number of eggs we expected from another hatchery - they're starting to come back. And the rainbows and browns are doing great."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Nearby Otter Creek marks the beginning of a one-mile catch-and-release area; here, stand along a gravel bar and cast toward the weedbeds that line the bank to the west. Farther downstream, ply the area of ledge rock that's called "Ace In The Hole." Play your cards right - by drifting Woolly Buggers and other streamers through, or casting spinners and small gold spoons and crankbaits - and you'll be in for a jackpot of strikes.

The C&R area extends from the creek to 100 yards above the next public access area downstream, River Ridge; also referred to as "Goat's Bluff," it lies off state Highway 5 in Salesville. It features a wheelchair-accessible fishing pier and shady parking spots. Upstream, a pair of islands creates interesting riffles; here, fly-anglers casting midge patterns at dusk may attract a strike or hookup on almost every cast.

Boat ramps and walk-in access lie on both sides of the White River at its confluence with the North Fork. At this time of year, heavy boat traffic makes these accesses less desirable for wading, but as 40 miles' worth of prime White River fishing lies in either direction, they're perfect for boaters who like plenty of options.

Always be wary of rising water when Norfork Dam comes on line to generate electricity; the North Fork isn't very wide, and water levels can rise incredibly quickly. Never set foot in this river without planning an escape route. And don't rely on what appears to be an island as a refuge - high water frequently covers areas exposed during low water.

Good as the North Fork is, it can't live up to the even shorter and still sweeter Dry Run Creek - a spectacular fishery reserved for the handicapped and anglers under 16. When Norfork National Fish Hatchery opened in 1957, the half-mile waterway, originally a wet-weather creek, proved a perfect outlet for water that had flowed through 96 raceways full of trout. The creek opened in 1995 to special anglers. "In an average day," Todd asserted, "even a young, inexperienced fisherman can catch dozens of trout. And he's probably going to catch a fish that weighs 5 pounds."

The creek, only 20 feet wide in spots, teems with rainbow, brown, cutthroat and brook trout. In the fall, you may see 10-pound browns leaping a waterfall, salmonlike, as they go on a spawning run. Tourists frequently crowd a walkway that overlooks a short section of the creek; schoolchildren often fish there. Todd fondly recalls parents telling him that because fishing is something that everyone can do, it's brought their families closer together. "It's a great place to expose kids to better things to do than some of the things they get into these days," he said.

Parts of Dry Run Creek arguably hold more fish per unit of space than any other trout fishery in the world. In November 1999, an electrofishing survey of a 200-foot stretch of the upper creek revealed its incredible capacity, tallying 450 fish. Calculate a density per mile using the standard measure for trout per mile, and you get 11,300 fish. "Most people would be tickled to death with that density," Todd said with a laugh. "And this was the poor section of the creek!"

The survey was related to a project to improve the section's fish-holding habitat. In the spring of 2000, the North Arkansas Fly Fishers, Twin Lakes Rod and Reel Club and White River chapter of Trout Unlimited joined forced with the AGFC and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to make that 200-foot section even better. They built log dams and

a deflector to slow the water, deepen the creek and provide shelter and resting places for trout. The volunteers and agencies cleared trails and built a new parking lot; future work will add benches and more structure. A year after the first survey, Todd and his team repeated the process and found a stunning 1,400 fish in the same 200 feet of creek - an unheard-of density-per-mile figure of 36,000 trout!

Only licensed disabled adults and anglers under 16 may fish at Dry Run Creek. Enforcement officers aren't fooled by parents or caregivers who pretend to be helping but are actually fishing. Fishing is legal only from sunrise to sunset, and with barbless single-hook artificial lures only; all bait is outlawed. You must immediately release all fish unharmed.

Light spinning or spincasting gear with 2- or 4-pound line delivers bait (where legal on the North Fork) and modest-sized spinners, spoons, crankbaits and miniature jigs. A typical fly-fisher's outfit includes a 3- to 5-weight rod with a weight-forward floating line and leaders of 7 1/2 to 12 feet or more. Woolly Buggers in sizes 6-12 and scuds and sowbugs in the 14-20 range are standard. A locally celebrated pattern, the Chuck's Emerger, in size 18, elicits smashing strikes when swung downstream on a tight line during a midge hatch.

On the North Fork - outside the C&R area - effective baits include crawfish, salmon eggs, prepared paste baits, worms, wax worms and canned corn, often tipped with a miniature marshmallow. To attract big browns in high water, cast rattling jerkbaits next to the shore as you float downstream. When the water's low, anglers who wade enjoy the best fishing; boaters sometime have difficulty navigating shoals. About 20-30 percent of the anglers on the North Fork fly-fish - a higher percentage than is found on the White.

For recorded information about power generation at Norfork and Bulls Shoals dams, call (870) 431-5311. Local outfitters also provide information and advice. Several special rules apply to the North Fork River, so always carry a copy of the AGFC's latest fishing regulations, booklet; it's available at tackle shops and sporting goods stores.

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