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Big Streamers, Even Bigger Brown Trout
by Tom McGraw
Editor note: In this report, Tom McGraw provides a firsthand look at the White and Norfork Rivers of Arkansas. Tom has compiled his notes from years spent chasing large brown trout on these waters. His experience and respect for the region’s fishing opportunities are abundantly clear, and should provide useful tips for those looking to experience successful fishing on some of the most productive brown trout waters in the United States.
About five years ago, I started visiting the White River and its tributary the North Fork, or Norfork, in Arkansas to throw streamers for big brown trout. I kept hearing stories from the guys who are famous for throwing “junk,” such as Kelly Galloup, Johnny McClure, Tommy Lynch, and others. If they thought that this river was worthy of their time every year, then it was certainly worthy of mine.
The shop that has focused on catching these fish on a fly rod is Dally’s Ozark Flyfisher in Cotter, Arkansas (https://theozarkflyfisher.com). They have a number of guides available there, and they also work with independent guides. I have had the opportunity to fish with Steve Dally, Chad Johnson, Alex Lafkas, and Jason Loyd out of Dally’s, and Brock Dixon who owns North Arkansas Troutfitters (http://www.northarkansastroutfitters.com). These are all high-quality guides and people who have every inch of the White and the Norfork Rivers dialed in.
This report focuses on throwing streamers for big browns. There are many other options on the White and Norfork. There are plenty of browns available throughout the year on dries, hoppers, and nymphs. There are also countless planted rainbows and cutthroats. Some grow pretty large. But you could easily nymph up 50+ rainbows per day if that’s your game. And, because they are planters, they are okay for the grill! And those rainbow carcasses . . . the browns eat them like tarpon eat a snapper carcass.
The White and Norfork Rivers are probably responsible for more 10-pound, river-dwelling (as opposed to sea-run) brown trout than anywhere in the world. These rivers, as well as most other rivers in this part of Arkansas, are tail waters. They flow out of the enormous, deep reservoirs. They flow through bottom-draw dams that assure near constant cold-water temperatures 365 days a year. The water from the bottom draw is also filled with trout food of epic proportions. If you happen to be there during a shad kill, well it’s even more than epic, and you should throw on something White!
The fishing depends in large part on the amount of flow from these dams. When the dams are operating, even at a moderate level, the feed is on. When the dams are at minimum flow, the feed is not generally on, absent some options discussed below. In some states, the bite goes on or off depending on sun, clouds, barometric pressure, flow, hatches, and countless other factors. On the White and the Norfork, I’ve learned that it’s pretty much just the flow. Rain, snow, sun, and baro be damned.
My visits have been in February, but I hear that the trout fishing is extremely reliable year-round, due to the consistent cold water, constant hatches, and an incredible hopper bite.
Most of the fishing occurs near the town of Cotter, Arkansas. This is not the nightlife capital of the world, or even the early-evening capital. You should not plan on significant evening entertainment. Mountain Home, Arkansas, is not far away and maybe has one or two options, but I have not had the opportunity to check them out. Bring your fly-tying materials and plenty of drinks or whatever else floats your boat.
There are a number of lodging options, from very cheap motels, a few very nice lodges, and pretty much everything in between. I have found that they are not big on commercial advertising, so other than what I list here, you will want to check with your guides.
In the town of Cotter itself, which is very close to where you will likely put in, there is the Cotter Trout Lodge, which is a healthy two-star motel, walking distance to great fishing, for $60–$80 per night; certainly fine for the hard-core fisherman and woman (http://www.cottertroutlodge.com). Most of the times I’ve visited I was with a group of five, and we rented a remodeled firehouse right in Cotter. It was very nice, fairly priced, and certainly met all of our needs.
On the other end of the spectrum, about 10 miles away, is Rim Shoals. They have about 10 or so nice homes, even a couple that could be considered lodges. They are located right on the river in what is considered the trophy area. They are moderately expensive but will satisfy just about anyone (http://www.rimshoals.com).
For food, the “can’t miss” place is K.T.’s Smokehouse. There’s also Gaston’s for the fine-dining crew. We generally cooked our own meals. If you need some meat, try Twin Lakes Smokehouse & Meat Market.
Did I mention that the river is beautiful, and full of eagles and just about every type of wildlife you would want, including enormous trout? The river is very wide and surrounded by beautiful forest and hills. Even the dams and bridges are an incredible sight. After all of the hours I have spent on the river, I still cannot get over the clarity and beauty of this water. There are times when you can watch a shadow snake out of the boulders toward your streamer.
Over the last three years, we have had very different conditions. In 2015, it was very cold, which apparently results in significant power usage, so the dams were pushing water and the fishing was consistent every day. In 2016, the waters were all at historic flood stages, and you would think it would be impossible to catch a fish. The opposite was true, as countless large fish over 24 inches were caught, including a 36½-incher caught on a streamer. We were throwing streamers at areas that are normally 10 feet above the high-water mark, sometimes even casting into the tops of trees and literally fishing to tops of swing sets in flooded local parks.
In 2017 it was warm and the dams were pushing very little water and only for a few hours per day. While this resulted in fewer fish being caught than the previous two years, each of us still had successful days. While I did not go fishing at night, I am very aware that you can walk many areas of the river at night in the low flows and catch some incredible fish on mouse patterns. So if you’re not happy with your daytime conditions, just cut it short and take a nap. Find someone who knows the river, head out at night, and find a safe place to throw a mouse; you will be rewarded. Or just stay back and have a bourbon and enjoy your night.
With respect to the brown trout that are being caught on the White and Norfork, many are of the belief that they are probably the largest river-dwelling brown trout in the world. Just looking at the last three years, there were probably 10 brown trout in the 10-pound class, all caught on streamers. I am also aware of a 15-pound brown trout caught on a streamer not long ago by Gabe at Dally’s. In 2016, during the very high flows, I was fortunate enough to land a 36½-inch, brown trout with a 24-inch girth, which the guides estimate at 27 pounds. I was fishing with Brock Dixon at the time. That could be the largest fish of the season even on many sea-run rivers.
While 10-pound fish are the usual giants, you simply cannot count on going down to the White, hooking a 10-pounder and going home. It’s simply not going to happen, certainly not without intense preparation and a significant number of hours on the water. A typical day on the white throwing giant streamers would likely see 10 or 12 follows, and four to five fish caught.
When throwing large streamers, you are much more likely to catch a 20-inch fish than a 16-inch fish. I had a day during the low flows of 2017 where I was able to land 13 brown trout, only two of which were under 20 inches. The brown trout here are much fatter than any place that I have seen. A 23-inch brown trout on the White or Norfork is likely to be in the five- to six-pound range.
I will say this. If you’re simply going to Arkansas to catch a 10-pound brown trout, then you need to set your priorities right, and focus on enjoying the incredible fishery full of beauty and 20-plus-inch fish. And if you fish well and hard five days per year at the right times and put in your time with the right people for four or five years, it is very possible to catch that fish.
Gear and tips: Bring a 9-foot, 9-weight fly rod and a backup rod or two. I have used the same one year after year without a problem. Also, bring a reel with some guts. If you get a true giant, you will need it.
Depending on flow, you could use anything from a 250-grain sink to a 350-grain sinking line. I have generally used the Airflo Galloup Streamer Max long in the 250-grain. But in the high-water or flood-stage flows, you will need to go deeper. People rave about the Airflo 40+ and its ability to throw the long ball. I’ve also had plenty of success with Scientific Anglers former Coastal Express line, but am not familiar with the current equivalent.
Depending on clarity, there are guys that throw on 12-pound maxima, which works fine. You will want a strong butt section and maybe taper the leader to throw the big streamers. A total of 5- to 7 -foot leader will work in most conditions.
For clothing, just check your conditions ahead of time. Last year I needed flip flops, but am usually wearing my cold-weather gear and heavily insulated muck boots. Waders are obviously fine, but not always warm enough.
In closing, if you think that casting in the salt is difficult, you may just find throwing streamers on the White more difficult. You can’t just show up and expect to have the necessary game. You should be able to accurately double haul 60 to 70 feet with one or two back casts. This enables you to fish the bank and the trench all the way to the boat. Too long, or off the mark, and you’re in the trees or on a log, and the guide has to start the engine and go back up while your fishing partner makes fun of you.
All in all, it’s a great time with great people and I will definitely continue my trips down there in the future.