The Trout of Arkansas' Headwaters

In the Natural State, fishing for trout just below tailwater dams is the coolest way to enjoy some hot summertime fishing. Here's where to go and how to do it.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

By Steve Taylor

At any time of year, you'll find four species of trout thriving in Arkansas' world-famous tailwaters, but in the summer, these rivers offer the extra attraction of cool water to go with the hot fishing action. Even when it takes three digits to measure air temperatures, the water that flows from the Beaver, Bull Shoals, Norfork, and Greers Ferry dams seldom climbs out of the 70s, and some of the best fishing occurs in the coldest water nearest the dams.

Fortunately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and state parks department make prime camping and fishing sites available just below the dams, where it's impossible to find a cooler hotspot for trout fishing at this time of year. Here's a guide to the parks just below our major tailwaters and some hints for making the most of your summertime camping trips there.

Fishing and camping below Beaver Dam in northwest Arkansas's Carroll County seem to grow more popular every year. Consistent trout stocking and management programs and a successful habitat improvement project have turned this section of the upper White River system into a bona fide destination of its own instead of an afterthought to a trip to nearby Eureka Springs or Branson, Mo. While this tailwater isn't quite in the same class as those below Norfork or Bull Shoals dams, it has plenty to offer any trout angler.

Dam Site Park lies nine miles west of Eureka Springs. Take U.S. Highway 62 to its intersection with state Highway 187; then, turn south and follow the state highway (and signs) for about two and a half miles. You'll cross Beaver Dam and then look for an access road down to the river to your right.

The park's features are strung along the river, accessed by a main road that parallels the water. The first walk-in access at Dam Site Park gets you within about 100 yards of Beaver Dam. There, you'll find well-worn paths to large rocks that overlook the river and provide comfortable spots for shoreline fishing. A little farther downstream (and down the access road), you'll find more parking and a serviceable boat ramp along a gravelly stretch of river that local anglers frequent. At this time of year, you're almost guaranteed to find plenty of folks casting worms, salmon eggs, corn, marshmallows, waxworms and other baits from folding chairs at this easy access point. It's a relaxing, comfortable way to fish, and you'll often see couples or families sharing picnic lunches from coolers there.

The next stop downstream is a small Corps of Engineers campground known as Riverview, with eight Class A sites with electricity. The Trophy Area portion of the campground provides the walk-in access to the river's trophy fishing area. Here, trout fishing is strictly a catch-and-release proposition. Fly-fishers do most of their work on the upper river here, but sidewalks that were part of a shoreline improvement project in recent years provide excellent fishing for those who prefer to keep their feet on dry land while releasing their catch.

The Parker Bottoms campground is the last stop in the park. It features shady and cool sites - the perfect retreat from the wide-open spaces upstream. Always bring a hat with a brim, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen when you fish the Beaver Tailwater. When the water is low enough for enjoyable shoreline- or wade-fishing, there's not much shade available on this stretch of river. All campsites can be reserved for $16 per night through the end of November this year and during the 2005 season of March 1 through Nov. 30.

Rainbows are the dominant species, but this tailwater is enjoying a growing reputation for brown trout. The installation of so-called "lunker bunkers" and other structures during a habitat improvement project seems to have suited the browns just fine.

Thanks to a flood event in 1990, a few giant striped bass still reportedly roam the river, ravaging the trout. It was one of those rogue fish that accounted for the state record - a 64-pounder - a few years ago. Don't count on hooking one of those rare lunkers, though. Instead, figure on light spinning or spincasting gear with 4-pound line, and you'll fool your share of trout here.

The tailwater below Bull Shoals Dam just outside the north-central Arkansas community of Lakeview forms one of the country's most storied and richest trout fisheries. After the dam was completed in 1951, clever guides began evolving specialized boats and techniques that have made float-fishing on the White River a national tourist attraction. Bull Shoals-White River State Park, immediately below the dam, is among the state parks department's most popular destinations. Access to the park is off state Highway 178 in Marion County about 10 miles north of Flippin.

This 663-acre park features excellent shoreline access for anglers who like to wade with fly-fishing gear or cast worms and other baits with light spinning gear from the comfort of a folding chair. More important, it's the uppermost spot on the river where you can launch a drift boat for a day of float-fishing, the most common and productive method for tangling with the river's famed rainbow, brown, cutthroat and brook trout.

Camping options include 20 primitive campsites and 85 improved sites with electricity and water. The most luxurious accommodations are in a fully-equipped RV that's been permanently installed near the shore with a deck and ramp that accommodates wheelchairs. The two rent-a-camp sites entitle you to a tent, two cots, a camp stove, cooler and lantern - the perfect way to try overnight camping without investing in a lot of gear. Playgrounds, hiking trails, and picnicking under shade trees will occupy any non-anglers in your party, and you can rent boats and motors and stock up on fishing gear and supplies at the trout dock and store in the park.

Regardless of where you stay, in the park or nearby Mountain Home, you'll enjoy launching a boat from the well-maintained public ramp in the park. Here, as at our other tailwaters, some of the best fishing during hot weather occurs in the first few miles of water below the dam, where trout often congregate in the cooler water. At this time of year, they fall to all the usual temptations: red worms, corn, salmon eggs, marshmallows, inline spinners and flashy spoons. Fly-anglers can experience excellent midge fishing throughout the day, and sowbugs, soft-hackle flies and Woolly Buggers are always in style on the White.

If you hire a local guide, he'll keep the boat straight as you drift downstream, bait your hooks and clean your catch - which amounts to doing all the work

while leaving you with responsibility only for having fun and catching the fish. If you're a do-it-yourselfer, be wary of the sudden changes in water levels that occur frequently on the White. When you're near the dam and the Corps of Engineers begins releasing water through some (or all) of the eight generators, the increases in the water's depth and velocity are dramatic. Because the water rises so rapidly, especially in the uppermost reaches of the river, resist the temptation to anchor your boat. The rising river can swamp it in seconds.

For information about campsite rates, boat rental fees, educational programs in the park and more, call the park office at (870) 431-5521. For up-to-the-minute reports on fishing conditions and water levels, call the trout dock at (870) 431-5557.

The North Fork flows about 4 1/2 miles from its source, Norfork Dam, to its confluence with the White River about 44 miles below Bull Shoals State Park. Many fly-fishers choose this fishery, also known as the Norfork Tailwater, as the Natural State's best trout-fishing destination due to its reputation for dense numbers of large fish, including brown trout up to 38 pounds. As a result, the Corps of Engineers' Quarry Park, off state Highway 177 immediately below the dam in Baxter County, is another summertime hotspot for trout anglers.

As in Bull Shoals State Park, wading anglers won't have any trouble getting into the cold, clear waters of the North Fork. Here, switch from sowbugs to scud patterns (they're similar, but scuds are more narrow), and if you like to fish tiny flies on light tippets, there are prolific midge hatches almost year 'round. A bright-colored local pattern, the Chuck's Emerger, is deadly when you fish it in the surface film and swing it downstream like a soft-hackle fly. If you're adventurous enough to wade into the North Fork at night, rig up a 2X or 3X leader and tippet, tie on a No. 8 black Woolly Bugger and test your nerves against the bruiser brown trout that roam the river after dark. You can sometimes hear them slashing through the shallows, chasing stocker-sized rainbow trout, which they swallow like a hungry man snacking on sardines.

The North Fork is also a fine float-fishing river. When the water's high, use baitcasting gear and 4- to 6-inch jerkbaits to pound the shoreline as you drift downstream. If the large lures draw a big brown trout out of hiding in a particular stretch of river, you might consider motoring back up and repeating that drift. Otherwise, some anglers use the ramp at Quarry Park and float the length of the river or even venture on into the White River. When the water's low, switch to light fishing gear and the usual live and grocery-store baits that appeal to trout.

Of the 68 campsites in Quarry Park, those with electricity are $13 and $16 per night (the higher price is for premium sites with the best views and river access), and those with electricity and water go for $18. For more information about Quarry Park and the North Fork River, call the Corps of Engineers project office at (870) 499-7216.

While you're in the area, take a look at nearby Dry Run Creek - it's a special fishery that the AGFC created from the water that flows through the Norfork National Fish Hatchery. About a half-mile long, the creek is reserved for anglers who are either under 16 or disabled. As youngsters routinely catch trout there that weigh 5 pounds or more on single-hook artificial lures, Dry Run Creek may be the best place on earth for introducing young people to trout fishing. Of course, the hatchery itself - which produces more than a half-million pounds of trout annually - is a fascinating destination on its own. Be sure to check out the huge broodstock trout, along with the tens of thousands of smaller fish there.

John F. Kennedy Park (affectionately known to most folks simply as "JFK") is among the state's best-known and most heavily-used parks. Off state Highway 25 four miles north of Heber Springs in Cleburne County, JFK offers fishing opportunities that can be crowded - but consistent. It lies a short distance below Greers Ferry Dam, well within earshot of the warning sirens that indicate the Corps of Engineers is preparing to release water through the dam.

With 74 campsites with electricity ($15 nightly for standard sites, $17 for premium sites next to the river), bathhouses, a playground, concrete boat ramp and handicapped-accessible fishing pier, JFK often fills to capacity on summer weekends. The 13 sites with electricity and water will cost you $18 per night. Those who arrive during the week or on Friday morning are most likely to occupy choice spots, or you can make online reservations (see the "More Information" section of this article for details).

The cool water, scenic setting and outstanding campsites at JFK mean that you'll have plenty of company when you fish there. But thanks to the nearby Greers Ferry National Fish Hatchery (you'll pass it on the one-mile, paved road between Highway 25 and the park), there are plenty of trout there, too. With its self-guided tours and dozens of raceways filled with brook or rainbow trout in various sizes, the hatchery is an interesting destination if you need a break from fishing. It produces more than a million rainbows a year for anglers in Arkansas and Oklahoma and another 40,000 brook trout for Arkansas fisheries.

While rainbows are the most common trout in all our tailwaters, it's the colorful brook trout that you're most likely to spot around JFK Park. Even if you can't pick out the entire fish while looking into the clear waters, it's easy to spot the bright, white edges of a brook trout's fins, especially if you wear polarized sunglasses. After stocking from the hatchery, it's typical to see pods of trout numbering in the hundreds. These fish are easy pickings for a shore lunch, because they're accustomed to gulping anything that lands on the surface of the water, thanks to life in the hatchery. Live or grocery-store baits, inline spinners and tiny crankbaits will fool freshly-stocked trout. However, fish that have spent months or years on the river will challenge you to go after them with more subtle techniques, such as the use of fly-fishing gear.

Shoreline access is excellent, with trails behind each campsite near the river and well-established trails on the bank above and below the campground. The best fishing, regardless of the time of year, is always near the two huge outlet tubes that deliver water that has flowed through the hatchery. Even when the Little Red is dead low, the motion generated by these outlets typically concentrates large numbers of trout. Because so many anglers are familiar with the outlet tubes, these fish can be tough to fool. Avoid wading into them, cast to the edges of the pods of fish and avoid splashy presentations and you'll do fine.

To reserve selected campsites at any Corps of Engineers project in the country, including those mentioned here, call 1-877-444-6777, or use the Web site. The site explains all the procedures for reserving a site up to 240 days in advance. Each tailwater has its own sets of regulations, so it's always wise to pick up a current copy

of the AGFC's fishing regulations or the special trout fishing booklet, available at fly shops and boat docks near any of the rivers mentioned here.

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