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Article: Siblings of the White

Flowers line Arkansas' Little Red River's
banks in spring.

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.

Little Red River

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 Red. The 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.

The author's personal map of the Little Red,
annotated with shoals. (Click to enlarge.)

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 shoals out. 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 monsters lurk. 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 feel like
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.

Beaver Tailwater

“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 stripers.

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 hold back the water and protect the canyon’s flanks. The bottom was ripped clean down to the bare limestone, but gravel and moss pods have reemerged.
Canada Geese 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.

Local favorite 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, including 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 eye.

The author's wedding party crosses Beaver Tailwater on the morning of his wedding

For more information on Arkansas flyfishing or any of the topics you've encountered in this article, visit The Itinerant Angler Bulletin Board.

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