White River reports
Larry Babin (Hogs on the Fly)
1 - Excellent
Life on a tailwater can be filled with peaks and valleys; a term I have often used during transitional periods such as Spring and Fall. Contrary to procedures conducted in years' past by the Corp of Engineers to reduce high lake levels, flows that occurred in the past recent reflect a high sense of urgency to purge these levels back to a power pool range. This directly contradicts the actions by the same organization in previous years associated with heavy rains and flooding resulting in many months of high river levels and little wading opportunities.
As of this writing, both lakes are within inches of power pool and the flows have lowered significantly as a result. Very little precipitation took place during the month of March and with the heavy releases in the range of 25K cfs, the lakes dropped as much as a foot per day in some instances. This made for boat fishing only during this time but that's a small price to pay as opposed to watching the lake levels only slowly drop over the course of many consecutive months. In fact, the next few months should equate to plentiful low flows and wading opportunites.
The caddis hatch has not quite run its course and dry fly opportunities should be abundant in the near future. Pupa and dry flies continue to produce a multitude of fish including chunky bows, browns, and cutthroats given how you approach the current river flows and time of day. We've even had success with a few varieties of foam hoppers in the right color scheme although a bit early. The warm temperatures this early in the year will certainly encourage more terrestrial activity.
For those clients that prefer targeting big browns, streamer fishing can be the ticket. The essentials associated with successful streamer techniques revolve around a few key ingredients such as higher flows, which push big fish to the banks, and gloomy, overcast skies. However, the past few weeks of the opposite conditions have really been the exception to the rule. Dialing in the right size and color may take time with trial and error but can be productive.
The Norfork is also offering wadable conditions and is producing quality fish. The catch is usually directly related to the choice of fly size. Black and rusty zebra midges in the range of #18 - #22 with a black tungsten bead combined with 6 or 7X tippet and choppy water can result in a multitude of fish with an opportunity at a grand slam. A slight wind chop is also conducive for an array of dry flies such as black griffith's gnats and soft hackles. The completion of minimum flow should really be an asset to this wonderful tailwater.
Consider planning a summer time trip our home waters; especially for those of you who prefer to fish long stretches of river with dries! Some weekend dates and prime week day availability remain for the moment. Should you plan on a walk and wade strategy, don't hesitate to give me a call as I'd be happy to direct you in the right direction. (05/01/12)
Larry Babin (cookie)
2 - Good
Fly Fishing Report for Early June
The rivers are in great shape as the flood releases subside, and the surface fishing for browns has been unbelievably good
There has been much written over the last month both in print (primarily by people who were speculating and not wetting a line) and on the Web regarding how the fishing on the White River and Norfork Tailwater are going to suffer indefinitely because of all the water coming through the spillway gates at the dams, and there has also been some mention of the fact that water temperatures were approaching lethal levels for productive trout fishing on the Norfork because both generators were being repaired, which meant that all the water in the river was coming from the top of the lake. It's easy to believe this type of hype and drama, especially considering that neither fishery had ever been subjected to the conditions that prevailed over most of May, but no one ever knows how the fish are going to react to radical changes unless they actually get out there and go fishing. Well, the guides at Blue Ribbon Fly Shop took out scores of clients throughout the last month on both the White and Norfork, and what they found was truly remarkable and somewhat unexpected...in a good way.
To get an idea of what we were dealing with, it's important to understand exactly what was happening at the dams. Bull Shoals ran six units for the first week or so of May until the reservoir could no longer hold all the runoff and inflow from the Table Rock and Beaver Tailwaters. At that point, the gates were opened, and flows held at unprecedented levels (@ 60,000 cubic feet per second, or the equivalent of sixteen to twenty generators) until just a few days ago when flows were reduced significantly. As touched on in the first paragraph, both of the powerhouses at Bull Shoals and Norfork are doing extensive repairs on the wicket gates; these are the fan-like structures on the units that utilize hydraulics to control how much water flows into the power-producing part of each generator and then on into the river. When major hardware is in need of fixing, it takes the Corp of Engineers quite a while to retrofit each part because every aspect of the generator must be custom manufactured due to the fact that the specifications are different at each dam's powerhouse. Norfork only has two units, so when the rain started falling like arrows in April, the dam was forced to open all twelve floodgates a foot and a half, which brought the river up to levels just over what they would be with both generators running. This is where all the concern came from with respect to water temperatures, as the surface of Norfork Lake started warming up because air temperatures rose quickly in mid May. As of this writing, one of the units is fixed at Norfork Dam with six gates still open, and this should make the great fishing of May even better in June.
Now that the logistical information is out of the way, it's time to talk about the amazing angling experiences that we had on both rivers. The 'Thirteen-Year' cicadas that everyone has been talking about finally started hatching along the banks of the lakes and rivers. We didn't see a lot of these critters on the riverbanks (but we did see some and so did the fish), but these big bugs must have been coming through the floodgates by the million. Every big trout on both rivers was looking up, and if you could find a slower seam and hold your boat there, it was one bite after another on a myriad of large dry flies. Our guides primarily focused on the Norfork because there was less current to deal with over there, and the warm water really turned on the browns, a species that does better from a feeding and survival perspective during warm water conditions than the brook trout and rainbows. We also caught some gorgeous cutthroats, and it was unusually rare to even catch a 'bow. It's hard to stress how critical it is hold the boat in the right spots for as long as possible when fishing dries on high water, but when you found the fish, eighteen to twenty-inch trout were common, and everything we landed was fat due to the ongoing feeding frenzy. The entire tailwater fished well, and the cicadas are still thick. For those of you who had an early-season trip planned to fish the stonefly hatch on the Madison River in Montana, only to have your plans ruined due to the very high runoff in the Rocky Mountain Region, this fishing in the Ozarks is even better, and it's probable that the surface action will continue through the summer and into the fall, as our trout have exceptional memories (no joking). It is such a thrill to catch so many nice fish on top when the water is high, and you never really know what size of trout that you may hook into- a thirty-inch brown or 22-inch cutthroat is not out of the question on any given cast. Sometimes, the worst case scenario seems to turn into a hey-day, and this is exactly what has been happening on both rivers for the last three (plus) weeks.
There has also been some productive fishing on the White, as well, and with almost 60,000 cubic feet per second running, the eddies and slack-water resembled ponds. These areas are absolutely loaded with fish of all sizes that are seeking out current breaks in order to escape the heavy flows in the main channel, but it can be difficult to sneak up on these hoards of fish without spooking the entire pod. A paddle can work, but it is difficult to put a Jon boat exactly where it needs to be with just one 'stick', especially if the wind is blowing. Rarely is the fly fishing on the White or Norfork easy for those who are unfamiliar with these rivers and this is even truer during heavy flow periods. Utilizing a guide who is on the water virtually every day is worth it, if you want to be in the right place at the right time and make the most out of your trip; spending a day or two frustrated because of the fickle nature of the river's flows teaches an angler nothing, and any respectable guide in this area knows plenty of tricks for getting into the proper position to catch as many fish as possible... and they should also place an emphasis on teaching their clients how to become better fishermen for the times when they are out on their own. There is no doubt that the constantly changing conditions force those who frequently fish the Ozark tailwaters to learn fast and get better every day, and if you can get a decent grasp on how to become steadily productive on the White or Norfork during high and low water flows, there will be very few other rivers in the country that you will not be able to figure out relatively expediently. The gates are starting to close up on the White, so expect the river to clear up and regular high-water to resume. This record flood will end up being a great thing for both rivers, but it was difficult to look at it from that perspective when in the midst of a one- and a half-month period where almost twenty inches of rain fell. The lakes are still high, but as long as we don't see another string of one deluge after another, water conditions will be stable through the summer months - fishing gets exceptionally good and somewhat predictable when flows don't waver for extended periods of time, and high water is better for the fisheries and for catching large trout.
On a different note, we're pleased to offer a clients another way to fish these rivers as Larry just acquired a new drift boat by Adipose boat works out of Helena, MT. Similar to resident guide Forrest Smith's drift boat, this skiff is unlike any "typical" drift boat on the market which is lower than the "wind catching" LPs or high rocker boats. A stealthy and efficient rig for all types of water. Of course, guys have been using many different styles of drifters for almost twenty years on the White and Norfork, but this vessel by Adipose is truly a fishing machine like no other. The seats and safety bars are fully adjustable, so each angler gets the opportunity to have their fishing station customized for comfort, safety and ease of fishing. All the bells and whistles on this drift boat make is a blast to fish out of it, but its best attributes are not going to be overtly visible to the eyes of the average fly fisherman. What makes the Adipose stand out is how easy it is to control during all water conditions, and the "man on the sticks" has no problem with indefinitely holding the boat in the right spot, whether fishing with dries, streamers or nymphs. Also, it makes it much easier to sneak up on fish in slow or shallow water, and this craft opens up the river to many new and unpressured areas during all water conditions. Anyone can claim hot laps in a motorized jon boat dragging San Juan worms is "productive", but we can prove it's not the only way to capitalize on these fluctuating rivers.
Blue Ribbon Fly Shop has the most versatile guide team in the Ozarks, and now we have another deadly tool in our arsenal with respect to being able to adapt to whatever the Corp of Engineers throws at us. From all the floodgates open to dead-low water, Blue Ribbon is ready to put our clients on fish based on what type of vessel is going to be the most productive and also based on what our clients desires may be. Fishing the White and Norfork is all about being prepared, and we are the only shop in Arkansas that 'weathered' the storm over the last month and a half by having superb days on the water while almost everyone else was wondering what to do. We pride ourselves on thinking outside the box, so when you either fish with us or utilize our shop for flies or information, you can be assured that you will be privy to being able to pick the brains of guys who have a passionate, laid back and patient approach to the sport of fly fishing. Never hesitate to stop by or give us a call/email if you are interested in how the fishing with HUGE dry flies is progressing, if you just want to fish out of the new drift boat or if you are just interested in checking in on what the flows and fishing are doing during these extremely dynamic times on the rivers.
Larry Babin (cookie)
2 - Good
While many tailwater trout fisheries around the country are just starting to thaw out and fish well, things have already been going strong on the year-round White River and Norfork Tailwater for two solid months. This is one of the many unique features of these two rivers where water temperatures vary little throughout the year. For this reason, it may seem like the quality of the fishing wouldn't change much from month to month, but this couldn't be further from the truth. Factors like air temperature, the length of the days, barometric pressure and precipitation can all make a difference, and April is the first month of the year where the dynamics to become extremely favorable for both anglers and the trout they are trying to catch.
The steady and strong winds of March start to dissipate in April, which makes the fishing experience more comfortable, and for the first time all year, temperatures start to become steadily warmer with highs typically in the upper 60's to the upper 70's. Couple this with longer days due to daylight's savings time, and for the first time since the previous fall, long and warm days begin to become predominant. Some potential visitors to the area are put off by increased chances for rain, possibly because of the old adage that April showers bring May showers, but because of the geography of northern Arkansas and the typical positioning of the jet stream this time of year, May and especially June are statistically wetter months. This does not mean that April is dry, but when it does rain, it is srarely an all day event is likely y occue. Of course, precipitation varies from year to year, but April in theatisuvaalh Ozarks is not typically as wet as what is experienced in other parts of the country.
From a fishing perspective, April is perhaps the best overall month of the year. Wherein March is usually "condition dependant" as far as fish activity goes with low-water and breezy days being the best; in April, the bite shifts, and the trout seem to be consistently active no matter what the water conditions are. If the rivers are low, expect a phenomenal experience, but high water is also usually excellent, as well. With slightly warmer river temperatures, the White and Norfork's aquatic biomass seems to really come to life, especially with respect to minnows, crayfish and sculpins, and with all this 'big' food becoming available, many of the larger fish that have spent the winter and early spring spawning become very active. Therefore, April is also a great month to hook into one of the river's famous predators, and the overall quality of the fish seems to spike during this month.
March is one of the two busiest months on the White and Norfork as far as crowds are concerned (October being the other) because of the combination of spring break and the fact that a March fishing trip to the Ozarks is the perfect cure for cabin fever. Although April is far more favorable with respect to conditions than March, it is common to see surprisingly few people out on the water, especially during the week. This decrease in pressure also bodes well for finding active fish, thus making April the perfect month to sneak away from work for a few days during the week and get into some of the best fishing of the year anywhere in the country.
Tailwater fisheries are typically known for their nymph fishing, but as April wears on, there can be some great hatches of caddis and sulphurs (PMDs). This activity will be strongest on the White, and there will be days when the surface of the water will literally be a carpet of insects. So, if you feel that you missed out by not getting to the White or Norfork so far this year, think again. The lakes are still a few feet low, so there will almost always be some good wading conditions somewhere unless heavy rains start to fall. If you are an opportunistic angler who keeps an eye on the weather, you'll take notice that now is the perfect time to take a trip to the Ozarks for some fly fishing. If (or when) the lakes do get high, the number of low-water opportunities will drop of significantly, but in April, that is of little consequence because the fish are most likely going to be active on all water conditions.
If you only have one chance a year to trout fish in Arkansas, April is a safe bet. Still, as you will see in next month's newsletter, May is not too shabby, either, but April definitely takes the cake.
Larry Babin (cookie)
2 - Good
There has been quite a mix of flows on the White River for the first part of March - the river has been off for days at a time, sometimes a few units just surge in the mornings and at other times, the water has been at the one to three-unit levels for the majority of the day. There hasn't been much rhyme or reason for this mode of operation except that the water is primarily off on the weekends and seems to run heaviest at the beginning of the week. Bull Shoals Lake is still below power pool, but by just four feet now, and since it is barely spring, the Corp of Engineers have been starting to release water more aggressively. Still, with the reservoir low, look for the water to be off over the next few days for the Sow Bug Roundup. This event gets going on Thursday (the 17th through the 20th of March).
Pretty much the entire White is on fire if you do catch the water low, and there have been days when we've been catching as many fish as we possibly could on nymphs. Smaller flies like midges dropped from bead head patterns have been producing from the dam down to Wildcat Shoals. Flies such as Garret's Purple Death, ribbed midges, red psycho midges and purple Zebra Midges in sizes #18 to #20 are working well below BH Hare's Ears, Copper Johns and bh pheasant tails (sizes #14 and #16). These combos are the perfect way to imitate the scuds, sow bugs, and small midges that are the main food sources of the upper river. As you move down towards Cotter and Rim Shoals, the water has a chance to warm, so there are quite a few bigger bugs in the water. When we've been down in that section of river, we drop a bigger midge or a sow bug from a bead head caddis pupa; at times, the caddis is the most productive fly, even as "the point". When drift fishing, San Juan Worms, bigger caddis pupas and pretty much any bead head in a size #10 through #14 will do the trick. The fish are not very selective right now, and this trend should continue, unless we start seeing significantly higher water.
The Norfork is really fishing well as the trout get used to a primarily low water flow pattern - as of this writing, the water has been low over there for at least five consecutive days, and look for this trend to continue through the weekend. We have been having some success on the river's bigger fish down in the catch and release area using Purple Sparkle Wooly Buggers and Rainbow Flash Buggers, especially in the slow pools if there is some wind chop on the water. The riffles from the dam to the confluence are all producing some very healthy browns, cutthroats and rainbows, and standard weighted nymphs like scuds, sow bugs and Zebra/ribbed midges - as usual - are catching fish. Don't underestimate the effect of a green soft hackle during periods of surface activity.
There may never be a better time in 2011 to come fish either the White or Norfork if you want to see how it is when both rivers are fishing really well - basically, because of the low water and warming weather, it doesn't get much better than this, especially as far as hammering numbers of fish is concerned. As long as there are some wading opportunities on either river, unbelievable fishing will continue over the next month and into April. Dry fly action is still a few weeks away, and the craziness of the weather in March is not exactly conducive to major hatch activity. If you are in town for the Sow Bug Roundup, please stop by our booth or come to the shop - we are here to answer all your questions and make fishing the White River and Norfork Tailwater as good an experience as it can possibly can. (03/16/11)
Larry Babin (cookie)
2 - Good
Lake levels remain low as we head into one of the year's most productive months for big browns...
February was an up and down month with respect to flows, wind and fishing conditions on the White River and Norfork Tailwater, but overall, most anglers who ventured out on the water had excellent experiences with respect to catching lots of good fish. There were several snow events followed by periods of cold temperatures and heavy generation over first few weeks of the month, but after that, low-water conditions became more and more prevalent. Those high-water days at the beginning of February may have been it for shad kill fishing in 2011, but if you do find yourself near Bull Shoals Dam at a time when flows are at or above the three-unit level, it is still worth trying various white streamer patterns either stripped on sinking lines or dead-drifted below a strike-indicator and a split-shot.
Sunny days have offered up the most consistent fishing, and if the water is low, drifting weighted nymphs beneath small indicators has been hard to beat. Cloudy and blustery days have been quite a bit tougher, especially if fishing from a boat with the water running. Visible patterns like San Juan Worms and large bead head nymphs (sizes #12 down to #8) have been the ticket if you are stuck fishing these conditions, and keep in mind that while the overall bite may be slow on cloudy and windy days, this is the type of weather that gets many of the river's biggest browns feeding heavily, so patience can pay off by sticking to the deepest water you can find and keeping a fly near the bottom. Sunny conditions -windy or calm - have been comfortable from a weather perspective, and the bite has been 'on'. If the water is low, a nice bit of wind chop on the surface can make for banner days, especially in the slow pool sections, but if the surface is glassy in these areas, try to find riffles and runs to fish until later in the day when both the browns and rainbows are typically very active.
As long as the lakes remain low and we continue to experience consecutive days of low-water conditions, dry fly fishing should be out of this world as we move into April, May and June. There are already loads of caddis shucks on the water, but not too many bugs are actually starting to hatch. This particular emergence has been off with respect to timing over the last few years during the brief and rare low-water periods in between the steady high water releases that were the norm, but when flows are consistently light, the fishing becomes a whole different ballgame. Smaller caddis (size #18's to #22's) should start coming off by the end of March, and look for these insects to get bigger and bigger as spring progresses. Dropping a Zebra or other simple styles of midge below a caddis pupa has been the most productive nymph rig of late, and it is not uncommon to see trout with caddis coming out of their throats; so they are definitely taking advantage of this abundant food source and gorging themselves. Scuds and sow bugs are also working very well in shades of gray, tan, brown and olive, and if you have been reading our reports or newsletters for any amount of time at all, it should be clear that these crustaceans and isopods are the primary subsurface food source on both the White and Norfork. This is why it is imperative to stock up on a wide selection of patterns that imitate these critters before hitting the water.
Most of our recent trips have been on the White between Bull Shoals Dam and Cotter, but the fishing has been reportedly good all the way from Bull Shoals Dam down to the White's confluence with the Norfork. This gives anglers plenty of room to spread out, so very seldom do the rivers seem crowded, even on busy weekends. We primarily use a boat to escape the masses, and it's clear that the public access points are by far receiving the most fishing pressure. Although getting a vessel down both rivers when the dams are shut off takes some know-how and a bit of work, it is worth the effort. Our fish are not immune to pressure, and the shot of hooking into a trophy trout is exponentially higher in sections where very few people can get to on foot.
During the past few days of guided trips, our clients have done well on a wide assortment of flies like Henry's RS Zebra Midge (brown and black variations), Psycho Midges (red), bead head hare's ears in "natural" ("natural", for those of you that don't tie flies, is actually a color in the fly fishing world, and it is usually a light to dark shade of gray) and olive Zebra Midges. With so many patterns producing, it's safe to say that a myriad of different flies will work at any given time. When the fishing is this good, anglers should focus on making sure that their presentations are dead on before getting overly worried about the pattern they are using; White River Basin Trout are used to many different types of flows, so they make a point of feeding on nymphs that are drifting at the same speed as the current. Make sure that you have plenty of slack in your line when dead-drifting (but not so much that you can't set the hook effectively), as this will allow your fly to sink quickly and look as natural as possible.
The Norfork is also fishing very well according to the reports we are receiving at the shop. Currently, the fish are partial to tiny nymphs (size #20 and smaller). Midges are the way to go (black, olive, gray), especially in moving water, but a variety of subsurface flies will work in the slow stretches when fished just off the bottom. Even though the 'Fork is a fly fisherman's dream with respect to its perfect size, beautiful layout and large variety of water types, it can be tough when the water stays low for multiple days in a row. Windy and sunny days will typically offer up the most active fish, but as was stressed above, cloudy days are when more big ones are looking to feed.
Even though both Bull Shoals and Norfork Lakes have been low for quite some time, don't get lulled into thinking that the water will stay perfect for wading indefinitely. There have been several occasions over the last six years when reservoir levels were identical to what they are now in early March when a couple of big storms quickly pushed the lakes back above power pool. This means that it is a good idea to take advantage of the wonderful conditions that we are currently experiencing while also understanding that the Ozarks are located in a moist region, so large influxes of moisture can show up at any moment. Always have a back-up plan when coming to the area to wade fish, and it's critical to be prepared for anything. The staff at Blue Ribbon Fly Shop is always here to help you get the most out of your White River and Norfork Tailwater fly fishing experience, and we welcome you to stop in or call us if you have any questions whatsoever. As it looks at the time of this writing, it will take a ton of rain for the Norfork to get up above power pool, but with Bull Shoals Lake only seven feet low, a couple of strong "gulley washers" is all that it will take to change the dynamics on that river drastically. An angler never knows what to expect when they go fly fishing on any river, and this is especially true in the Ozarks. Also, February is most always an above average month for productive fishing, but if the water is primarily low, March is even better; especially since so many big brows start to feed with reckless abandonment to regain any weight they may have lost during the spawn.
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Larry Babin (cookie)
2 - Good
How is the Shad Kill Bite going to be During a Dry 2011?
Learning to target the right conditions for using shad imitations if there is a low-water cycle on the White and Norfork this winter and early spring
Normally, the prospect of a shad kill is the talk of the Ozarks this time of year, but considering the fact that 2011 has been a dry and somewhat mild so far, many local fly anglers and guides have all but given up on the chance at going after large trout with gaudy white streamers below Norfork and Bull Shoals Dams. For those of you not familiar with this annual event, a shad kill occurs when a series of lake dynamics come together that cause millions of shad (a white and silver baitfish that primarily provides forage on the reservoirs) to get sucked into the rivers; when the conditions are right, every big brown and rainbow will key-in on this rarely-seen food source, and being out on the White River or Norfork Tailwater during a shad feeding frenzy is one of the great experiences in the world of fly fishing.
We are in the midst of the first extended period of low water to hit the region in over four years, and if air temperatures do not get cold enough for long enough, the warm-water oriented shad will congregate in shallow water in the lakes where they are not very susceptible to getting pulled into the tailwaters through the generators at the dams. Fishermen who have become used to fishing the shad kill virtually every year since 2002 have been spoiled by prolonged 'kills and hot high water fishing in the late winter, but the one thing that must be remembered is that the water and weather conditions often change rapidly in the Ozarks, and it's not too late for a decent shad kill to take place in 2011. In fact, sometimes low-water years offer up the best fishing for a myriad of reasons, but anglers must take an opportunistic approach and work diligently to be at the right place at the right time to take advantage of the shad bite.
As long as the fish in the rivers see at least a few shad, which is likely, there are going to be times when the trout will be looking to feed heavily - in fact, too many shad on the water can be a detriment to the fishing because the bigger fish become full after gorging themselves and everyone on the water is throwing white patterns. Our trout get wise and picky very quickly when the 'real thing' is easy to find. There have been many times in the recent past where the only way to catch anything during a heavy shad kill was to use normal high-water flies like San Juan Worms and big nymphs because there was just so much 'big' food available. The shad kill should be considered a hatch for all intents and purposes, and fly anglers who are used to seeking out small windows of opportunity on other rivers know all too well that there is a happy medium between no insects emerging and too many bugs coming off. It's the same way during the 'kill, and more likely than not, there will be some prime opportunities to fish white streamers for huge trout over the next three months in the Ozarks; it just may not be an all-day affair.
Searching out shad kill opportunities during low-water cycles
Since there is no way to accurately predict exactly what is going to happen with respect to the weather and water conditions over the next three months, the odds are that the lakes are going to stay below power pool into April barring several significant, back to back flooding events across the region. This is a good and a bad thing for fishing the 'kill. The upside is that water flows will be relatively predictable, so it will be somewhat easier to figure out when the best opportunities for high water are likely to occur. Power demand will primarily dictate when releases will take place in February and early March based on air temperatures to the south and west of Mountain Home, Arkansas. The higher the water is on the rivers, the better the shad bite will be, so getting in on the action will most often involve being on the water up near Bull Shoals and Norfork Dams at the crack of dawn on cooler mornings. Even if there are no shad visibly floating by, it is still a good idea to fish a shad pattern anytime that the water is higher than two units on the White during the winter and into early spring. The shad bite can happen on the Norfork, as well, whenever there is any water coming through the dam, but that stretch will fish best when there is at least one or two generators running at 50% (or higher).
If the lakes remain low like they are right now, releases due to cold-weather power demand will be rare occurrences once we get into mid March. At that point, flows that are high enough to get the big boys looking for shad will be random events, and low water will dominate, unless the lakes start rising. Since consistent mild weather is still a month and a half away, there will likely be some very good shad kill fishing between now and then. To have the best shot of finding high water and a shad bite, try and fish during the week, as power demand is much lower on weekends. Whether or not any scores of shad will start coming through the dams is anyone's guess at this point in time, but keep in mind that many of the river's really big trout remember shad from past 'kills. This is why fishing shad patterns can result in reaction strikes any month of the year.
The most significant downside to finding productive shad kill fishing during a prolonged low-water cycle is that good conditions will be fleeting. It is important to diligently keep up with exactly what the release patterns are before you plan on fishing so that you can have a decent shot of getting at least a few hours on the water during prime conditions. Typically, on very cold mornings in February, flows will start vamping up between 5am and 7am. If this is the case, try and be rigged and ready to go at first light, and head towards the dam as soon as there is enough water and light to safely do so. If you are lucky and catch flows in the four-unit (or higher) range at Bull Shoals, seek out the most turbulent water as possible and make short drifts to help maximize your time in the most productive zones. By 9am, flows will usually start backing off, and there will be days when the water will shut down completely by 10am to 11am. If this doesn't happen, expect to contend with light flows from mid morning through the afternoon. If you want to keep fishing shad imitations after the generation stops, it's possible to follow the high-water surge downstream for many miles.
On the Norfork, finding fish looking to feed on shad can be trickier because less shad come through Norfork Dam than Bull Shoals Dam. The same strategy utilized below Bull Shoals of getting on the water as soon as you can safely navigate the river is also a good plan on the 'Fork, but anglers must decide whether to fish the dam area or the middle section before launching their boat. Do not hesitate to ask us here at the fly shop which stretch is fishing well, and if you do put in at the dam, it's a good idea to just fish within a mile or so of the ramp, as the water will likely shut down sometime during the mid morning, and you don't want to get stuck dragging a boat back upstream on a rapidly dropping or dead-low river. A shuttle service can eliminate this issue, but it can still be a challenge getting a heavy vessel down to the confluence (where the only other take-out is located) once the water drops out completely. If you are going to fish the catch and release area (the middle section of the river), putting a boat in at the confluence and motoring upstream into the catch and release area before starting to fish is the way to go. The catch and release section is loaded with choppy water and big-fish structure during high water. On days when it is likely that the water will only run for a few hours, motoring up from the confluence gives anglers at least two extra hours of drifting time after the dam shuts down, and once the river starts to get really low, it's easy to slowly float back to the confluence and go on with the rest of your day, which usually means finding a good spot to wade fish.
Fly fishing out of a drift boat is the perfect way to fish all day on the Norfork when releases are only occurring first thing in the morning - the only drawback is that it is difficult and time consuming to repeatedly hit productive areas during high flow periods. Still, utilizing a drift boat is the easiest way to fish high and low water on the 'Fork. Try and stay above the field at McClellens before the water starts to really drop; this way, you will have a plethora of great places to get out and wade before getting into the often-crowded lower part of the catch and release area. Since the upper stretch of the catch and release section is very difficult and potentially dangerous to access by walking in to due to the fact that the only public parking area is located at the very lower end, a drift boat can get you into some wonderful water that sees less low-water pressure than anywhere else on the river. Plus, there always seems to be lots of big fish that hang out in the upper half of the catch and release area. It's easy to make an afternoon out of wading between McClellen's Shoal down to to the islands at the Handicapped/Ackerman Access, and there will be very few other anglers to contend with, which is always a bonus.
On the coldest of days, there will be occasions when the dams will start generating power again an hour or two before dark, and if you can quickly get your boat back on the water (if you took it out after releases ceased), it's possible to take advantage of a second chance to fish the rise on either river. A drift boat is impractical for fishing the area right below Bull Shoals Dam, but on the Norfork, it can be a real stroke of luck if you are wading the upper or middle part of the catch and release area when the water comes back up. Don't expect to get in on an evening high-water session every day, but if the opportunity presents itself, be ready to take action.
Although finding ideal shad kill conditions will be a game of hit or miss this winter, keep in mind that low-water fly fishing is going to be excellent this February and March. You can truly get the best of both worlds if flows are only high in the morning, and this type of scenario gives anglers the chance to experience several different dynamics in one day. When the water is running hard and heavy most of the time, like was the case the last few years, in all honesty, the shad kill fishing was tough more often than it was good. The White and Norfork tend to be at their best when there is a mix of high and low water, as this keeps the fish fresh and feeding steadily.
Tactics and flies for fishing the shad kill
Anglers must decide whether they want to target big trout or numbers of trout when they rig up with shad patterns. Large flies (sizes #2 down to 4/0) fished right near the bottom when the water is high will increase your odds of getting into a huge brown or rainbow, but considering that the shad kill opportunities will be limited to a few hours here and there, it is sometimes best to take the 'action approach' using smaller patterns fished throughout the water column. Since real shad range from 6-inches long down to an inch or two in length, using diminutive flies will still work on trophy trout. It is only necessary to exclusively use large patterns if you are chasing after a big boy.
The most productive patterns will be white, silver, grey or a combination of the three. It's best to ask the locals or the guys at the fly shop what is working for them before you get out on the water. Although weighted flies fished on floating lines can work well, especially during falling water or light-flow periods, when the water is running relatively hard, unweighted flies move seductively through the water and do an excellent job of imitating a wounded or lethargic shad.
There are basically three ways to present unweighted shad patterns during high water: either use a sink-tip, a full-sinking line or a floating line setup rigged with a split-shot and a strike-indicator - this method works exceptionally well if the fish are looking for something dead-drifted. In general, when the trout on the White and Norfork first start keying-in on shad, stripping patterns without an indicator will get a lot of attention, but once the fish start seeing quite a few shad flies, a more subtle approach involving dead-drifting smaller flies will get the most strikes. Many of the area's experienced fly anglers will switch between patterns and techniques frequently until they figure out what is working best for that particular day, and it's common for fishermen to rig up a heavy rod (7 or 8-weight) for stripping flies and a lighter setup (5 or 6-weight) for drifting so they can easily switch back and forth between techniques.
Even though the most consistent shad kill action takes places during high water, there are times when the trout will hit shad imitations with vigor during falling or low water. If some shad actually come through the dam on the day you are fishing, the best bite can actually occur on lower water once the food source disappears and the trout start looking for shad. Don't hesitate to try a top-water shad pattern like a popper during falling water or periods of light generation, especially right below Bull Shoals Dam. On low water, tiny, white jigs suspended below an indicator can do the trick, and stripping small, unweighted marabou shad flies through the slow pools is worth trying if there is some decent wind-chop on the water.
Ironically, the shad kill fishing this year may end up being more productive than what was experienced during the recent high-water years, and savvy fishermen will be able to catch nice trout all day long, no matter what the water is doing. Fishing the 'kill can be tricky, especially because a boat is often needed, but it only takes one big bite to make all the effort worth your while. Be sure to ask plenty of questions before getting out on the water, and if you end up fishing at a time when the right conditions for a shad bite don't materialize, do not fret. The fishing is going to be excellent this winter and spring on high and low water because both rivers are chock full of big browns and rainbows. As always, those anglers who keep a positive attitude and make sure their fly in front of fish as often as possible will end up having the most success.
White River descriptions
Larry Babin (cookie)
Blue Ribbon Fly Shop & Professional Guide Service
March 15th, 2010
White River and Norfork Tailwater Dry Fly Fishing: Is this top-water bite as good as it gets?
The answer to the title question is highly subjective, and if you asked nine different anglers their thoughts, you would get nine different answers regarding favorite spots around the country for surface action. The allure of the White River and Norfork Tailwater is how easy it is to find absolutely perfect dry fly water when the flows are low. There are plenty of areas where a well-presented dry fly will catch fish most of the day throughout the year, but spring is the season where bigger bugs can make for easier and ultra-productive dry fly fishing.
The most frustrating aspect of approaching these rivers from a dry fly perspective is that the most effective flies are going to have to be very small to consistently produce rises during the fall, winter and very early spring. Stalking wary trout with microscopic midges is not for everyone, but it is a great way to see just how good you are.
Mid-spring through early summer is the time of year when White River guides and regulars can put away their tiny midges for awhile and focus on throwing bigger flies. Of course, low water and the hatches that accompany minimum flows are dictated by Bull Shoals (White River) and Norfork (Norfork Tailwater) Dams. Almost all of the best dry fly fishing occurs when the rivers are dead low, so be sure to take advantage of those uncommon years where dry weather patterns and spring coincide. It can be pure magic, as full days can be spent matching the hatch and coaxing rises in a setting that is comfortable and splendidly unique. Nymphs will usually catch the most fish, even during a good hatch, but there are times when only a dry fly will produce the desired results.
How effectively an angler reads and approaches the skinny water of the White and Norfork is going to play a major role in whether they fail miserably or have the time of their life with their dry fly pursuits. Fly selection is also important, but Ozark trout are not quite as "snobby" as their counterparts found on other famous shallow-water fisheries like the Henry's Fork in far eastern Idaho. This is because hatches do not occur often enough for the fish to get overly selective, and the majority of anglers predominantly fish with weighted flies under a strike-indicator. Still, do not expect to find totally receptive quarry, as your dry fly must compete with natural insects on the surface during a hatch while also contending with trout that have access to all the nymphs they could care to eat near the bottom. That said, there are magical times when favorable conditions, perfect weather and decent hatches combine to offer up once-in-a-lifetime dry fly fishing. What makes it so special is that the river's big fish become very susceptible to surface presentations, and the setting is like nothing else - this water could not be more perfect for dry fly fishing when the dams are shut down.
Matching the season
In a perfect world, fish would rise to large caddis and mayflies all year long, but unfortunately, that type of activity is usually only witnessed in the spring if the water is low. Typical spring weather patterns severely limit wading opportunities on the White River and Norfork Tailwater because lake and river levels will often be high this time of year. Keep your eye on generation patterns and reservoir levels - the Blue Ribbon Fly Shop Web site also lets anglers know if prime dry fly fishing is a possibility at any given time. If low water becomes common during the day on either river from late March through early June, jump on the chance to get in on some great top-water fishing. The best dry fly action will usually start in the middle of April on the White, with the Norfork usually running a week or two behind. Low water in May is what dry fly dreams are made of and the hatches tend to peak sometime around Memorial Day.
Summer can seem like a letdown from a dry fly perspective, but in reality, this season is a great time to hook into a large fish on the surface. Hatches are lighter than they were in the spring, so summer trout can become very opportunistic when it comes to taking advantage of a light insect emergence. The downside to the summer season is that low water is highly unlikely to be found after mid-afternoon, and forget about an idyllic evening spent analyzing the hatch and casting to rising trout; by dusk, both rivers will be high and fast. Anglers and fish alike must make the most of their efforts during the summer.
Fall and winter offer up some great dry fly fishing and plenty of wading, but small midge and caddis patterns fished on 6x or 7x tippet will often be necessary to fool the fish. Large terrestrials can work very well in early fall, but that action drops off quickly through October. Spring is hands down the best time of year to fish dries on the White and Norfork, and a trip diligently planned with the help of a local expert can result in the dry fly fishing experience that dreams are made of.
Matching the Spots
Because the water found within a couple of miles of the dams is very cold, hatch activity is somewhat limited in the upper reaches. For the best chance at finding active surface feeders, fish below Wildcat Shoals on the White and the Long Hole on the Norfork. There can be decent action closer to the dams, but the bugs will almost always be smaller than what is found just a few miles downstream.
On the Norfork, the best water for dries will be shallow riffles and flat runs along rock or rip-rap banks. In general, the deep and slow water of the Norfork are home to trout that are too lazy to steadily rise to the top for a beefy bug, but these same trout will eagerly eat a tiny midge emerger right below the surface. It pays to stick to moving water when dry fly fishing the Norfork.
The same types of water that fish well with dries on the Norfork will also produce over on the White, but slow, deep pools can also be good spots on that river. Who knows why there is such a difference between what constitutes a good spot on these two sibling fisheries, but the fish are the ones in charge of telling us where and how to fish. The slow and deep waters of the White are the most productive if the wind is blowing upstream and there is chop on the surface. Look for areas where the bottom is dark and not overly deep - it also helps to fish near structure like submerged boulders and exposed root wads.
Matching the hatch
Over the years, the hatches on the White River and Norfork Tailwater have become more abundant and diverse. Now, the annual caddis hatch during the spring (water flows permitting) is an area draw unto itself. Caddis are not the only insects on the water; sulphur mayflies add some variety most days. Crane flies can also be found in decent numbers on the Norfork and there are a few showing up here and there on the White. Midge hatches will often coincide with the emergence bigger bugs, so it never hurts to carry some small midge dries for when the bite gets tough on caddis and mayflies.
Fly selection is relatively simple when matching White River and Norfork hatches, and this simplicity makes this particular dry fly opportunity appealing to beginners and intermediate fly anglers. There have been many times where trout will literally eat anything floating - including white, fluorescent green or orange Palsa strike-indicators. If your indicator is getting more attention than your nymph, it is definitely a signal to switch to a dry.
For matching the caddis hatches, standard elk hair patterns in #14 and #16 will suffice, but it never hurts to mix things up with respect to conventional sizes and colors. Basic grays and olives will work throughout the spring, and there is a micro-caddis hatch in the fall on both rivers that can be cinnamon in color. Make frequent casts, short drifts and never be afraid to add a little extra movement to the fly by delicately raising your rod tip. These fish are suckers for a skittering caddis pattern.
Sulphur mayflies, which resemble PMD's, can actually be the dominant spring insect hatch on the White and Norfork, but it all depends on the individual year. Basic Cahill or parachute-style dries in #14 and #16 will work - for those who do not know; adult sulphurs are yellow to yellowish-orange in color. When fish are keying in on this hatch, the rises will resemble a toilet bowl flushing and every trout will look huge. Long dead drifts will produce better results than imparting movement to the fly like with a caddis. Because the little crane flies of the Norfork are similar in color and size to the sulphurs, if you find yourself in the midst of this particular emergence, then it does work to fish a sulphur pattern with some action.
Sulphur and crane fly activity is pretty much limited to the spring and early summer, but caddis have a much longer presence. The best way to take advantage of the White River and Norfork Tailwater dry fly experience is to utilize a drift boat to get to difficult to access stretches of water, but there are plenty of good walk-in areas where excellent fishing opportunities are available. If you plan on fishing early in the morning before the hatches are really coming off, try nymphs that imitate both caddis and sulphurs. For caddis, soft hackles along with many other popular patterns will do the trick. A big mistake many new anglers make is that they assume that sulphur nymphs are yellow. This is not the case - sulphur nymphs are dark brown, so weighted pheasant-tails are always a good choice.
Getting to the right place at the right time to experience the incredible dry fly fishing available on the White River and Norfork Tailwater will take some luck and effort. Because perfect conditions do not occur every spring, many anglers will forget about the rewards and will get their dry fly fix on more predictable rivers. This means that fly fishermen who understand all of the variables on the White and Norfork can often have insane dry fly fishing all to themselves. Be prepared for anything on a trip to these rivers, and do not plan on having a solid dry fly bite all day long. This year (2010) is looking like everything may come together for optimal dry fly conditions to develop, but we will not know anything regarding this situation until the first of April at the earliest. It has been several years since there has been a steady and long dry fly fishing window during the spring on the White and Norfork. Hopefully, this will be the spring when we can trade outboards and indicators for dry fly dressing and upward-looking trophy trout.
Blue Ribbon Fly Shop & Professional Guide Service
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Andy Idema (aidema)
The famed White River starts as tailwater from the Bull Shoals Dam between the towns of Lakeview and Bull Shoals. It is a coldwater fishery that offers both rainbows and browns. Anglers travel to fish the White in search of the trophy fish that inhabit these waters. (06/12/08
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Peter Maul (petemaul)
My brother and I have fished the White for the past ten years with alot of success. Our most recent trip was the last week in February. We caught browns in the 1-3 pound range on spinning gear and rapalas and many 12-16 inch rainbows on flyrods, dead-drifting midges and stripping wolly buggers. For some great winter fishing try the Rim Shoals area on the White. The Rim Shoals Resort has great cabins a stones throw from big, big browns. (1/19/13)
Ken Morrow (phwffsouth)
this is a large tailwater river w/a few serious tributaries. i believe...and many experts would agree...that the best chance 2 catch a truly large river-born, river-raised (not lake-run) brown trout n north america is right here on the white river system of northern ark (which also includes the norfork tailwater and little red river tailwater). best guide = davy wotton. best resort = rim shoals. 2 great fly shops. excellent fishing community. inexpensive destination, but remote from airports. yearround fishery. fall is best. (1/19/13)
Larry Babin (cookie)
The brown trout regulation which now prohibits harvesting browns >24" vs. >16" is evident in the rapid growth of these wonderful fish. (1/19/13)
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