You’ll marvel at the number of freshwater trout under your boat during a journey on these Arkansas rivers.
After several hours of driving from West Monroe, I finally reached my fishing hole. Conditions were perfect — calm wind, clear water and just enough current to keep bait moving. Just yards from the boat ramp, I used my fly rod to flip out a small jig and let the current take it past a patch of grass. Immediately, a trout hammered the jig and then made a spectacular run, stripping off line and making several jumps before I finally netted it.
Before the day was done, the scene was repeated 62 times, with dozens more missed strikes and lost fish.
It was pure trout heaven, but not where you think. There wasn’t a blade of marsh grass for hundreds of miles.
I was deep in the mountains of northern Arkansas in search of chunky rainbow trout. And anyone living in North Louisiana can enjoy the same exciting action in less time than it takes to drive to the marsh.
One of the neat things about trout fishing is that you can pursue these beautiful fish about any way you want. I was introduced to the sport by my brother Larry, who is a purest. He strictly fly fishes, donning his chest waders and working the ripples below shallow shoals.
“I prefer wading over fishing out of a boat, and I’d rather catch one trout on a small three-weight fly rod than five on a spinning rig.” he said. “Wading allows you to work the flies better. It’s harder to get a good presentation while sitting in a boat.”
Each stream has specific flies that work best, but sow bugs, wooly boogers, marabou jigs and assorted scuds work well in all of them. Any of the many fly shops in the region can tell you what flies the trout are biting at any given time.
For me, however, I just want to catch trout. If they’re biting flies, I’ll use a fly rod. If they’re biting lures, I’ll use an ultralight spinning rig with 4-pound line and toss small Rapala diving minnows or Rooster Tails. Any number of colors will work, but some type of gold, white or rainbow do particularly well.
Fishing baits on the bottom is also very productive. Once, Larry and I stopped at a trout dock (a floating dock that serves fishermen) on the North Fork River to rent a boat.
“What do you recommend we try first?” Larry asked the owner, thinking he’d recommend some exotic fly, but instead, the man reached up on a shelf and pulled down a couple of cans of Del Monte whole kernel corn.
“Anchor at the first island you see, and start throwing out handfuls of this corn,” he suggested. “The chum will attract the fish, and then you put kernels on your hook and fish on the bottom just like you would for catfish.”
Larry, of course, was horrified at being labeled a “corn chucker,” but I gave it a try. Red wigglers, Berkley Power Baits or even marshmallows can also be fished the same way.
An effective trick is to combine these different methods. Once while fishing the North Fork, I noticed a young man wading around a deeper pool hauling out trout after trout. He had a 7 1/2-foot, three-weight fly rod but was using an ultralight reel and fishing worms on the bottom.
“I only use this one rod,” the man explained, “but I always carry both the spinning reel and fly reel. If the water is up, I’ll put on the spinning reel and fish baits. When the water goes down, I’ll switch to the fly reel and use flies.”
All of these methods can be employed from the bank, but a small boat greatly increases your catch. Bass boats are generally too large for the trout streams, but aluminum johnboats and outboards are perfect. A trolling motor is also a plus.
I’ve also had great luck with my Bobcat electric pirogue when the water’s down, and the current is rather slack. If you don’t have a boat, one can be rented at the numerous trout docks scattered along the rivers.
Larry is right in that wading in ripples is the most enjoyable way to fish, but boats give you a distinct advantage over waders. For one thing, you can still fish even when the water is high. For another, you can cover much more territory.
Waders basically cast to the same fish all day long, and have to wait until one of them decides to bite. By drifting along with the current, however, you are much more likely to run across a trout eager for a meal.
Trout and Limits
There are four species of trout in Arkansas waters. Rainbows are the most common, and are preferred for eating. Average size runs about 1 pound, but 3-pounders are not uncommon, and the state record is just over 19 pounds. Rainbows can be identified by a pinkish strip running down their side, and they are covered in black spots. Daily limit is five of any size.
Brown trout are golden brown to silver, and usually have a yellow abdomen and haloed orange or red spots on the sides. Two to 4 pounds is typical, but the state (and world) record is a 40-pound, 9-ounce monster horsed out of the Little Red. The limit on brown trout is two per day (16-inch minimum length), except on the Little Red. Rules there involve a slot limit, and anglers should check regulations before fishing the river.
Cutthroat trout get their name from a reddish orange strip that runs along the underside of the jaw. They generally need colder water than the other species, and are most often found close to the dams. Cutthroats usually run smaller than the other trout, but the state record is just over 9 pounds. The daily limit on cutthroats is two, with a 16-inch minimum length.
The brook trout is considered by many anglers to be the most beautiful of the four species. It has a dark green upper body and a reddish orange underbelly. The body is also covered with crimson spots with blue halos and yellow spots. Brook trout are the most rarely caught of the four species, and average size runs just under a pound. The state record is 5 pounds. The daily limit for brook trout is two, with a 14-inch minimum length.
There are about a dozen places to catch trout in Arkansas, but four areas are particularly productive and popular.
White and North Fork
The White River is the largest of the streams with nearly 100 miles of trout water beginning at the Bull Shoals dam. The river’s North Fork flows four miles from Norfork Lake to the main river at Norfork.
Jim Lipscomb, owner of the Two Rivers Fly Shop in Norfork (870-499-3060), is the man to see for tips on fishing these streams. He guides only for fly fishermen, but carries spinning tackle and baits, and can set a fisherman up with guides who cater to that type of fishing.
For a beginner, Lipscomb suggests starting at any of the many public access points on the rivers.
“These are really good despite the high fishing pressure,” he said. “On the White River, Rim Shoals and Shipps Ferry are good, and the handicap area on the North Fork is very productive.
“For larger fish, try the trophy catch-and-release access areas. The largest rainbow a client of mine has ever caught was a huge 30-incher caught right off the Rim Shoals boat ramp.”
If the dams are generating water, don’t despair, for Lipscomb says you can still catch fish.
“You just have to use a boat,” he said. “The North Fork is best when they have one generator on, and the White is best with two to four generators. Drifting during high water lets you cover lots of water, and it’s when we catch the largest fish.
“When using flies, the rule of thumb is ‘the higher the water, the brighter the color.’ White and pink marabou jigs drifted under a strike indicator are very good in high-water conditions. Change to darker colors like olive, green or brown when the water goes down.”
Sylamore Creek is a beautiful stream that empties into the White River just outside Mountain View. It actually is better known for its smallmouth bass fishing in the spring, but the creek holds thousands of trout during the winter time. It can be fished even when the dam is generating water on the White River, so Sylamore Creek often can be a trip saver.
There is a public boat ramp at the mouth of the creek, but for a couple of dollars you can fish from the bank or rent a canoe at the Sylamore Creek Camp.
Bob Rhodey, host of the campground, notes there are times when the fishing at Sylamore is better than others.
“The fishing here is actually best when the Bull Shoals dam is running all out,” he said. “When the White River is high and muddy, the trout naturally move into the Sylamore to find clean water.”
Camp owner Guy Harris agrees, but points out a couple of tips for catching trout in the creek.
“The trout are only in the Sylamore from about mid-October to mid-March,” he explains. “When the water starts cooling down in the fall, the trout will move in and the smallmouth bass will head out to the White. When it starts to warm up in the spring, they switch.”
Because its water level is affected by both the White River and rain in the mountains, Sylamore Creek can fluctuate quite a bit.
“When they turn on the generators at Bull Shoals and the White rises high, or if there’s been a lot of rain upstream on the Sylamore, you have to let the water settle a bit before the trout will bite,” he said. “Sometimes we get a rise of several feet. The trout tend to shut down for four or five days until they get acclimated to the fresh water, and then they go on a feeding binge.”
The Sylamore has actually become one of my favorite spots. My introduction to the creek came one day while on the way home from a trip farther north to the North Fork. On an impulse, I pulled into the Sylamore Creek Camp, paid my $2 and launched my pirogue.
After moving upstream a couple hundred yards, I rigged my fly rod with a small marabou jig and strike indicator, and started fishing where the North Sylamore empties into the main creek. The rainbow trout immediately pounced on it.
Over the next couple of hours, I wrestled 33 trout from an area about 100 feet long. I later mentioned this spot to Rhodey, and he explained why the mouth of the North Sylamore is so productive.
“The water in the North Sylamore comes out of the mountains, and is about five degrees colder than the rest of the creek,” he said. “The trout like to bunch up right there in that deep hole.”
I made another trip to the creek when the temperature was bitterly cold. The morning temperature was 18 degrees, and a light snow was falling. Once again, the rainbow jumped all over small green/white marabou jigs and a small Rapala I used on an ultralight rig. Over a weekend of fishing, I caught about 100 trout.
Little Red River
According to Ronny Richardson of The Ozark Angler in Heber Springs (501-362-3597), fishing on the Little Red can be outstanding.
“We have 37 miles of trout water on the Little Red, and fishing is good all year round,” he said. “However, the best time is the winter. When it starts getting hot, the lower part of the river slacks off, particularly if the dam is not generating water.”
Richardson guides and caters strictly to fly fishermen.
“Prices depend on the number of people on the trip, but we supply nearly everything — the boat, flies, tippet and a lunch. However, our guides practice catch and release only.”
Choosing which fly to use on the Little Red is simple, according to Richardson.
“The best thing to put on is a sow bug,” he said. “That’s what people first tie on, and it usually works well. But wooly buggers also can be good. Use olive if the water is clear, black if it’s cloudy.”
If you want to try the Little Red without a guide, Richardson suggests putting a boat in at the John F. Kennedy Park near the dam and fish between the landing and the dam, or put in at the Swinging Bridge or Lobo access and go upstream to drift fish the deeper water.
“But be careful,” he warned. “There’s going to be shallow shoals, particularly if the water is low, and you don’t want to hit any rocks with your motor.
“If you have waders, you can walk in at the Swinging Bridge access and go downstream to some good shallow areas. Or you can try wading at the Libby Access and Cow Shoals.”
The Little Red is literally filled with trout. On one trip, I put my boat in at the Swinging Bridge and noticed the deep pool there was crawling with bank fishermen. I left the crowd and went upstream to fish, but had no luck.
When I drifted back to the ramp, I was reluctant to fish the pool, figuring there couldn’t possibly be any trout left in it with so much fishing pressure.
Then I noticed that at any given moment, at least one of the bank fishermen was hauling in a nice trout. Drifting over a patch of sandy bottom, I looked down and my jaw dropped. There were dozens of trout up to 3 pounds swarming under my boat. There must have been hundreds of them in the one-acre pool.
After a bit of experimenting, I finally found the right combination of bait and depth, and landed fifteen nice rainbows and browns.
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