Siblings of the White
by Zach Matthews
First Published October
20, 2003 | Travel
This is not a giveaway article. Quite rightly, many anglers become
upset when some
online or published magazine starts selling out the secrets that locals
spent years developing and shared with only a few. The streams I am
about to dissect are known, even well known. Many hundreds of anglers
fish them each week of the year, with marginal to excellent success.
However, somehow these streams have managed to be passed over as
“last years’ water.” There’s a
prevailing myth here that these streams are overfished, that the fish
are undersized, and that attempting an outing means wrangling with
Bubba. This doesn’t have to be true.
Right off the bat, I know you are going to say,
“Wait a minute! The Little Red is what he considers
passed-over water? Isn’t that where they caught the world
record brown?!” If you are saying this, let me explain. Yes,
it is true that the world record brown trout, a 40 lb., 4 oz. behemoth
caught by the late Howard “Rip” Collins in 1992, came out of the Little
river enjoyed an instantaneous flash of popularity as anglers pummeled
its depths in search of something, anything comparable. The mighty
White River was for once passed over by the hordes of out of state
anglers who paraded their way to the Little Red. Yet slowly, that
torrent diminished to a trickle, and the Little Red went back to what
it always was, a trout stream convenient to Little Rock and not much
more. Electroshocking boats still dredge up the silent monsters between
the moss, and occasionally an angler will land a 20 pounder night
fishing off a dock, but the media frenzy has died.
In the fall the Little Red yields up some of its biggest
secrets, but there’s a catch here. In order to fish to some
of the true monsters, you are going to have to decide whether, and to
what extent, you want to interfere with the
spawn. No matter your fishing ethic, you must consider that the Little
Red is not stocked with brown trout. Every trout in the river was born
in the river. Fish the spawn now and you will take home some incredible
pictures and memories. But you may pay the price down the road. Some
anglers argue that the spawn can be fished safely, that the fish are
not really harmed by being dragged off the redd. In the past I refused
to accept this. I felt that no one could effectively fish the spawning shoals
without damaging the fish and their chances of reproduction.
Since then, I have revised my views to accept the reality
that spawning fish have been legitimate targets in flyfishing for
hundreds of years. I continue to impose heighted limitations
on my fishing: I refuse to strip flies through spawning shoals; I avoid
targeting fish obviously on the redd; and I conscientiously avoid
foulhooking. My decision to fish the spawn wasn’t an easy one
to make, but in the end I weighed the evidence and decided I was being
a bit too prim. Most importantly, I realized that, given game
biologists’ current recommendations that some of the smaller brown
trout be removed from the Little Red River, whatever impact anglers have on the
spawn is not significant enough to really damage the recruitment
counts. I keep an eagle eye on those numbers and I am ready
to hang up my rod once more if I see a real detriment to the fish; for
the time being I am comfortable with limited spawn fishing.
Enough about that. This is not an article about the spawn
fishing debate. Plenty of the horde in lawnchairs that line the river
each November can tell you all about the majority view in the state,
and they would no doubt laugh themselves silly at our flyfishing
quibbles about hurting fish. The problem with the Little Red is not
catching big fish during the spawn; it is finding them the rest of the
year. The majority of the rest of the year fishermen are content to
take eleven inch rainbows thirty yards from their stocking point.
They complain that they journeyed fourteen hours to catch something
special, only to find the same trout they could buy at Kroger back home.
Many anglers, particularly out of staters, but some locals too, never
leave the known locations. On the Little Red, the most popular
destinations are JFK Park, Winkley Shoal, and Cow Shoals. Cow Shoals is
where the browns spawn and is famous for that. Winkley and the Park are
simply easy to access.
These locations get pounded. The average fish there in the bulk of the
year is eleven inches long, the stocking size. If fooling trout that
have been in the river thirty six hours is your thing, check these
You will miss out on the translucence of a natural born brown and the
fight of a feral rainbow, but you’ll catch fish. Keep working
the same pod and you can rack up dozens and dozens of the same trout.
Impress your friends and scare your enemies.
If you are interested in
the wilder side of the apparently tame Red, read on. There are other
shoals on the river too — shoals not accessible by paved roads and
public access points. For some, to legally reach them you will need a
boat. Others are only as far away as water conditions and your
endurance allow. Fortunately boat shuttles are cheap at any of the
trout docks in the area. Abe’s Lobo Landing rents jonboats
for $50 a day, which will hold three anglers, or they will shuttle you
anywhere in range for $10.
If you don’t want to settle for supermarket fish, you have
other options. Worthwhile experiences will take a little more effort,
but then worthwhile things usually do. You can start by exploring the
lower river. Lobo Access, Mossy Shoal, Dripping Springs Shoal near
Pangburn, and Pangburn Bridge Shoal are all elegant, frequently empty
places to ply the water. Or, try the lower reaches of the known areas.
If you fancy a hike and a wade, try walking all the way out the back
door of Winkley Shoal; there are islands and eddies there where
Fly selection on the Little Red is fairly simple. The standard of
choice is the Little Red Sowbug, one of the simplest of all flies. Drop
a sowbug or a humpback scud beneath an indicator and search the pools,
runs, and riffles of the lower river. You might be surprised at what
you find. If you go the boat route, rig deep and fish slow, and watch
your indicator like a hawk. Eight feet down is a long way to pull
slack, and your yarn may only twitch.
When the day ends, don’t pack it in. Stay on until 9 or 10
o’clock. If nothing else the ominous weight of the river at
night by yourself is worth the experience. You are much smaller than
you think. Trout leap clear at night for bugs so small you
couldn’t spot them with the light on. The sound of their
bodies hitting the water like lead footballs, over and over and over,
will drive you into a frenzy that makes your worst case of buck fever
you drank one too many espressos at Starbucks on a Tuesday
morning. Do be careful, however, and always check generation tables
before heading out. I like to stick to the lower river at night because
then I know what water’s coming and when. Mind the docks as
well, I have been threatened with bodily harm just for being near one
at night. Some of the locals are a mite jumpy.
Crisp mornings in the fall are wonderful times to fish away from the
spawning shoals. These hotspots act like magnets, drawing the flotsam
of the rest of the river and leaving the watery lanes open and
unobstructed. I have been face to face with deer flushed from the
forest, their brick dust fur blending into the autumn backdrop. A
deer’s hooves on the slippery rocks of a dry shoal in the fog
is something to hear. Herons will eye you like sedate
housecats, and occasionally you may spot an eagle or a
horned owl. The Little Red is worth far more than its trophy potential.
The first time you hold a Little Red brown in your hands, you will know
what trout are meant to look like. A natural brown bleeds color like a
Van Gogh beside the harsh, Wal-Mart-ish light dulling the scales of a
hatchery rainbow. Six inches or thirty, trout fishing is rarely better.
“Now,” you are saying, “he’s
moving on to Beaver!?” That’s right, Beaver
Tailwater, the red-headed stepchild of the White River system. In 1990,
Beaver Lake saw one of its worst floods ever, with all the overflow
gates open for days on end. The river bottom ecosystem was scoured away
like sandpaper on a fine work of art. All that remained was rock and
Beaver now sports scars from its wounds. But Beaver has fought back.
Thanks in large part to the work and dedication of the Trout Unlimited
chapters of North Arkansas, the river is fishable again. The
riverbank was largely destroyed, so the Corps of Engineers and TU
replaced it with iron-and-wood bandages eight feet high, walls which
back the water and protect the canyon’s flanks. The bottom
was ripped clean down to the bare limestone, but gravel and moss pods
and Great Blue Herons are a common sight
on all Arkansas tailwaters.
Plans are on hold for a
fish hatchery beneath Beaver Dam, and the effluent from that hatchery
could do much to aid the future development of this small stretch of
trout water. Triage is complete and the river is going to make it, but
it may be a long time to a complete recovery.
That does not mean, however, that Beaver isn’t worth a visit.
When you go to a place like this, you have to keep in mind why you
started flyfishing in the first place. Beaver Tailwater yields up maybe
one eight pound trout a year, usually to a local. The average size of
the fish is small, and holdovers are few and far between. Nonetheless
there is magic here.
Crane Roost Bluff is an eyrie for a wide variety
of birds, from scissortailed swallows to Great Blue Herons, which live
here in abundance. Two great horned owls have recently made it their
home, and they will watch you from the branches of the sycamores
towering high over the clifftop. This stretch of river is your best
chance for seeing the national bird while fishing, and in the fall,
squadrons of geese dive bomb so low you have to avoid hitting them in
your backcast. (A hat is definitely recommended when fishing during the
migration.) Fields of wildflowers melt into the river opposite the
bluff, and aside from the occasional canoe hatch, the catch-and-release
area is all yours for the taking any day except Saturday.
patterns on Beaver Tailwater include a vast array of tiny midges, a
sprinkling of sowbugs and other crustaceans, and the ubiquitous Y2K
bug, a Frankenstein creation blended from beadhead nymphs and egg
patterns that resembles a Harlem Globetrotters basketball in yellow and
orange. This is the only serious candidate fly in recent years for
banning from the water. It is so effective that some anglers,
myself, have given up using it. Midge fishing in winter is excellent,
though tricky, as at low water Beaver has effectively no flow.
This is a river that is worth the trip for more than the fishing. It is
beginner water, a place where the trout are easy to spot and easy to
fool, and it deserves its place as the minor league ballpark of the
White River association. Nonetheless it is beautiful, and in the
evenings elegant, with the light bouncing off the canyon walls as your
line slowly unrolls across mirror-smooth water. Whether you
choose the Little Red or Beaver tailwaters, don’t limit yourself to the
Arkansas streams you see in the magazines. Next time you make
the trip, branch out — there’s far more to this state than meets the
For more information on Arkansas flyfishing or any of the topics you’ve encountered in this article, visit The Itinerant Angler Bulletin Board.