July 30, 2019
By Marshall Ford
In summer, when the thermometer tops 90 and humidity drips, anglers seek relief in an ice-cold Arkansas trout stream.
Besides thermal refuge, our trout streams are in beautiful places and are loaded with fish.
A little traveling might be required to enjoy them, but the experience is worth the drive.
NATURAL STATE TROUT MAP
Except for the Spring River, all of Arkansas’s year-round trout streams are in the tailwaters of major reservoirs. The most famous are in the White River below Bull Shoals Lake, in the White River below Beaver Lake, in the North Fork of the White River below Lake Norfork and in the Little Red River below Greers Ferry Lake.
Anglers have recorded dozens of line-class world record brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout from the Bull Shoals and Norfork tailwaters.
The grand champion is, of course, the Little Red River, which stamped its place in fly fishing lore in 1991 when it surrendered a 40-pound, 4-ounce brown trout to the late Howard “Rip” Collins. That fish held the all-tackle world record until 2009 when Tom Healy broke it with a 41 pound, 7 ounce brute from Michigan’s Manistee River.
The Little Red has the state’s only self-sustaining brown trout population, but browns spawn with limited success in the Bull Shoals and Beaver tailwaters.
Beginning in November, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission stocks several other waters with rainbow trout during the winter to create additional fishing opportunities. Many are small lakes in the Game and Fish Commission’s community fishing program, but several tailwaters in west-central Arkansas mimic the White River experience.
Three of the best are near Hot Springs below lakes Ouachita, Hamilton and Catherine. Another is in southwest Arkansas near Murfreesboro in the Little Missouri River below Lake Greeson Dam.
A charming but obscure stream-fishing opportunity is in the upper Little Missouri River at the Albert Pike Recreation Area near Athens.
In March, the Game and Fish Commission ends trout stockings in the seasonal tailwaters. Tailwaters south of the Ozarks become too warm to sustain large trout concentrations in the summer but a fair number of trout elude anglers during the put-and-take period and they survive in deep holes. Some grow to be surprisingly large. I’ve caught some big rainbows in the Ouachita River below Lake Catherine in June in the riffles downstream of the dam. The key is to fish early in the morning before Entergy starts running the hydropower turbines at Remmel Dam.
During generation periods, the water is too high and too swift to fish. In the lake Hamilton and Ouachita tailwaters, giant stripers eat most of the trout that anglers don’t catch.
PICK YOUR MAGIC
Because of the onset of hot summer weather, I get serious about trout fishing in June. I’ve had some epic trips in the winter and early spring, but June combines the best of everything. You can fish in short sleeves, if you want, or in a lightweight, long-sleeve shirt. Shed the base layers as needed and soak up the warmth from above while cool updraft from the water below acts as a natural air conditioner.
The beauty of the White River and Little Red River tailwaters is that they are the same temperature year round: a constant 50-ish degrees.
LITTLE RED RIVER
Although it’s only an hour from Little Rock, the Little Red River is an afterthought for anglers in central Arkansas that bypass it on their way to the Bull Shoals and Norfork tailwaters. Instead, it draws more attention from anglers in Memphis, north Louisiana and east Texas.
That’s because anglers in central Arkansas take the Little Red for granted.
When the hydropower generators are idle at Greers Ferry Dam, the Little Red River looks like a typical highland stream. From Greers Ferry Dam to Richey Shoal, it is narrow and rocky with steep banks. The water is clear with a limestone tint. The bottom contains thick beds of coontail moss and elodea. The vegetation supports a dense forage base of scuds, sowbugs and various insect larva that produce spectacular hatches.
Downstream from Richey Shoal, the river widens and deepens, but constrictions at Libby Shoal, Barnett (Swinging Bridge), Dripping Spring, Pangburn and Ramsey offer productive wade-fishing opportunities.
Above Richey Shoal is Cow Shoal Access, the most famous area on the river for trophy brown trout.
Of course, the most popular spot is John F. Kennedy Park, below Greers Ferry Dam. It has a well-appointed campground adjacent to a national fish hatchery where the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service grows all of the millions of trout that it stocks in the river.
One popular spot at the park is at the drainage pipes coming out of the hatchery. Water flows constantly from the pipes into the river. The nutrient-rich water is cold and highly oxygenated, so it attracts massive concentrations of rainbows.
I’ve caught rainbows up to 4 pounds along the grassbeds farther downstream but fishing small nymphs on fly fishing gear is especially effective in low water.Giant browns hunt these waters at night and a starlight foray can put you in touch with a world-record class fish. The Game and Fish Commission says that fish bigger than 42 pounds are here and it’s only a matter of time until somebody catches one.
In high water, I catch my biggest trout with stickbaits. A heavy rain always stains the river with muddy runoff, so I look for pockets of clear water along the bank that meet stained water. The fish are always in that zone.
Another great area is accessible only by boat. It’s the Mossy Shoal Special Regulations Area, about a mile or so downstream from Lobo Access. Anglers can beach a boat on the bank and wade fish the entire area for big browns and rainbows with a weighted flashback nymph.
From Bull Shoals Dam to the town of Guion, the White River covers nearly 80 miles of trout water that offers a little something for everybody.
White River State Park near Bull Shoals Dam is a public alternative to world famous trout fishing resorts like Gaston’s White River Resort, Stetson’s and others. In low water, anglers wade-fish with fly gear or drift-fish for rainbows, browns and cutthroats.
From there, it’s easy to fish White Hole and Wildcat Shoal before you reach Cotter, self-proclaimed Trout Capital of the World.
Farther down is Rim Shoal, whose special regulations make it the best place on the river for trophy brown trout. Below that is Ranchette, Buffalo Shoals and Buffalo City, which comprise my favorite stretch. From Ranchette, drift to Buffalo Shoals, anchor behind a rock and fly fish for rainbows in the shoal.
Keep going until reaching the town of Norfork, where anglers might be tempted to take a right turn into the North Fork River.
The Norfork tailwater is a very short stretch of water with a huge reputation for giant brown trout. It cemented its reputation in 1988 when Michael Manley caught a 38-pound, 9-ounce brown trout that held the world record until Rip Collins broke it on the Little Red River.
Wade-fish at Norfork Dam in low water or fish from a boat during hydropower generation.
Though best known for its party culture, the Spring River is an outstanding trout fishing destination in the summertime. With a constant temperature of 58 degrees, it is cold enough to support trout year round and the Game and Fish Commission stocks them in great numbers.
Since it is not a tailrace, the Spring River maintains a constant flow year round and rises only during heavy rains. That makes it perfect for fly fishing, and access is generous along Highway 63, which parallels most of the upper Spring.
The 17-mile stretch between Mammoth Spring and Hardy is the main trout water and it is very popular for canoeing.
In June, before the day’s hydropower generation starts, I often launch a canoe at the public access below Remmel Dam and fish the first half mile or so downstream to below the first major set of riffles. Rainbows, which have grown all winter and spring, are in prime condition and will readily take flies. They’ve been in the water long enough and dodged enough predators that they no longer act like stupid stockers. They are wary, and they fight hard and acrobatically the way rainbows should.
It’s a low-volume trout fishery by now, but it’s a lot of fun for those in the Benton, Malvern and Hot Springs areas.
WHAT YOU NEED
Resident need a resident annual fishing license ($10.50) or a three-day trip license ($6.50) and a resident trout fishing permit ($5).
Non-residents need a non-resident annual fishing license ($50), a three-day trip license ($16) or a seven-day trip license ($25), as well as a non-resident trout permit ($12).
No need for it to be roasting to visit an Arkansas trout stream, but when June’s heat descends like a hammer, it is as good an excuse as any.