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Huge Trout Await in Arkansas' White River

Set against a beautiful backdrop, the fabled river offers spectacular cold-season trout fishing.

Huge Trout Await in Arkansas' White River

Many of the fish in the White River are wild and naturally reproducing, offering anglers a trophy trout fishery. (Shutterstock image)

Arkansas may be the only state in the U.S. that produces diamonds, and diamonds may very well be a girl’s best friend, but that’s not why you’ll find me crossing the state line.

Open any map and the conspicuous ribbon of blue just below the northern border is what captures my attention.

Running roughly 720 miles through the great Ozark Mountains and down into the state’s lower delta region is the fabled White River. As you’d expect from a river of this size, the water between its banks is home to many varieties of fish, including catfish, bass, walleyes and sunfish.

But it’s the four species of trout, and especially the monster predatory browns, that dwell beneath its surface that draw me in.


THE HISTORY

Trout are not native to Arkansas, and the White River wasn’t always a world-class trout fishery. In 1941, Life magazine featured the White River as one of the Ozark’s top tourist attractions, highlighting a 65-mile float trip in a wooden longboat complete with overnight camping on gravel bars (also known as shoals) and some of the finest smallmouth bass fishing in the world. Fast forward two decades and five hydropower dams later, and hundreds of miles of bass habitat had been all but destroyed.

But, as they say, when life gives you lemons—in this case, when dams give you cold water—you stock trout, and that’s exactly what the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission began to do in the 1950s. Just like that, 168 miles of cold tailwater trout streams were born, and soon the White River was one of the country’s finest trophy-trout fisheries. Today, many of the trout are wild and naturally reproducing, and anglers from across the country come to the White to land one of these gems.


THE STRETCH

When anglers mention the White, most of the time they’re talking about the 40 miles from Bull Shoals Dam to the city of Norfork where the White and Norfork rivers meet. For the sake of this article, we’ll also focus on this section, which I find to be pure gold. This stretch has many areas of wadable water, innumerable boat ramps and a lot of public access. Many of the lodges, hotels and rentals offer river frontage with fishing right outside your back door.

Gaston’s White River Resort (gastons.com) just below Bull Shoals State Park is what many describe as the finest getaway in the region and the perfect setting if you’re bringing the family.

If you’re on a budget, you can easily find a nice place that won’t break the bank. Gene’s Trout Fishing Resort (genestroutfishingresort.com) on the Norfork River offers cozy and affordable cabins and excellent access to wade fishing on the Norfork.

If you like to camp, the Army Corps of Engineers has created a beautiful campground at the base of Bull Shoals Dam with all the amenities for those hardy enough to rough it in winter.

Arkansas White River
Big brown trout crowd the waters of the White River. (Shutterstock image)

COME WHILE IT’S COLD

While I’m not normally a winter-weather, cold-water-fishery type of gal, the White in the cold makes sense to me. Winters in the Ozark mountains are generally mild. In November, the fish start their migration toward the dams to spawn. There is no closed season on the river, but fishing during the spawn is highly discouraged.

I fish in February because the spawn is over, the fish are just beginning to move and they are hungry and eager to eat. There are also fewer anglers on the water compared to the summer months, which means less fishing pressure. Plus, it’s easier to find a great place to stay, an open guide day and excellent fishing in late winter.




GO-TO TECHNIQUE

There are many ways to catch trout on the White at this time of year. Of course, indicator fly fishing is always productive and offers an opportunity to catch the fish of a lifetime, but I’m a streamer junkie. I’ve caught my largest browns by stripping articulated streamers on sinking lines with a technique I was introduced to by renowned guide and professional fly tier Steve Dally 
(theozarkflyfisher.com).

Dally has dedicated his life to mastering this stretch of water and knows the runs by name. He has put me on more big browns than any other guide I’ve ever fished with. I was a bit skeptical of his unusual technique at first, but I’m now a believer.

Browns live in deep holes. If you don’t get the fly to where they live, your chances of catching them are zilch. Dally’s technique is to cast a fast-sinking line at a 45-degree angle to the bank. Once the fly lands, plunge the rod tip straight down into the water as far as you can to push the fly deep and create a straight connection between the fly and rod tip. Then, strip with reckless abandon. I have put more big browns in the net than I can count using Dally’s technique. Yes, you need to be aware of the depth. Yes, it’s physical. Yes, it sounds crazy. Yes, it works.

Often, we fall into the habit of strip-strip-strip no matter what fly we have on the end of our tippet. Always remember to “be the bait.” If you have an articulated streamer on, remember that a dying baitfish will pause for a brief second, so adjust your strip to match that hatch.

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THINGS TO DO

If you’ve been bingeing Ozark on Netflix, you know the family will have a lot to do in this area while you’re fishing. Branson, Mo., with more than 100 live shows, numerous museums and great shopping, is a short drive away.

Even if you’re not staying at Gaston’s, its restaurant offers culinary excellence not normally found in fishing towns. Meals are prepared by Executive Chef Rick Gollinger and paired perfectly with wine offerings sure to please any palate.

If you want to take the kids fishing, Dry Creek, located next to the Norfork National Fish Hatchery, is a catch-and-release area for kids 16 and under that will be sure to get them hooked on fishing for years to come.

VISIT THE FLY SHOP

Fly anglers love fly shops, and this area has a couple of good ones. I love Dally’s Ozark Fly Shop because of its great women’s area, guide-tied flies and even a section with art from local artist Duane Hada.

I distinctly remember one February trip to the White. It was 73 degrees the day before we arrived. That night, a freak snowstorm rolled in behind us. We woke to temperatures in the 20s and what seemed like more snow than I had seen in a lifetime. That day, at the end of the float, we had to use a blowtorch to free our fly rods from the rod holders in the drift boat.

It was miserably cold that day, but I caught a giant brown 10 feet from the launch ramp and the rest of the day was one for the scrap book. Maybe Arkansas isn’t on many people’s list for a winter getaway, but fly anglers in search of giant trout need to consider this diamond in the rough.

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