THE FOG WAS INCREDIBLE.
I could hear the river, but not see it, as I rolled out of my tent on the second day of our float down the North Fork of the White River, in the southern Missouri Ozarks. My fishing companions lolled around the camp, sipping coffee as they waited for Dutch oven biscuits and gravy. I stretched and began to pack up my gear, with the trout already rising in the mist.
Bob Ranney, commissary man
We were attempting something like the outdoor equivalent of performance art. Three weeks before, I had received a call from Kyle Kosovich, a boat-builder and guide out of Dora, Missouri, a town so small a stoplight would be a novelty. Kosovich made an interesting proposal. See, as long as there have been anglers in the Ozarks, there have also been multiday float trips using the region’s peculiar original watercraft: the Ozarks johnboat. An authentic Ozarks johnboat is long, low and lean: 20 feet, made of wood, and capable of bearing an enormous burden without drafting more than a hand’s-breadth. The boats were created for the logging industry in the 1880s, then adapted by fishermen. Kosovich—a trained scientist and amateur historian—built his first wooden johnboat out of plans scribbled into a 1940s journal, now well out of publication. Then he did it a second time, incorporating modern building techniques to make a craft that would have been the envy of every river guide in the 1920s. Kosovich’s idea was pretty simple. We would re-create a historic multi-day float down the North Fork, literally doing it the old-fashioned way.
An Unusual Fishery
The North Fork of the White is one of the most eccentric fisheries in the country. First off, one mustn’t confuse the “North Fork of the White” with Norfork Tailwater down in Arkansas. (Run the words together and you’ll get corrected). Though technically these fisheries are on the same river, they are separated by miles and miles of Norfork Lake, and they could not be more disparate in character. Norfork Tailwater is justifiably famous for pig trout in clear, gravelly water—a gorgeous, but artificial environment. The North Fork of the White, on the other hand, begins life as a freestone smallmouth bass stream.
Indeed, where we launched for the weekend, at a Mark Twain National Forest campsite called Hammond Camp (off Missouri Highway CC), the water was warm enough to swim comfortably (and locals on a hot summer day were doing just that). The first 30 miles or so of the North Fork are classic Ozarks smallie water: limestone bluffs rise on either side of the gravelly, teal-stained river. Crayfish and large caddis and mayfly nymphs are abundant, and the smallmouth are aggressive.
A North Fork smallmouth upon release
The best technique in the smallmouth section requires a 5- or 6-weight rod and a sinking-tip line (but you can also get away with a standard floating line). Crayfish patterns like Whitlock’s Near ‘Nuff Crayfish or a rust-colored Woolly Bugger are de rigueur. The main challenge is in presenting the fly where smallmouth live. In deeper, slower pools, cast behind and around submerged rocks. In riffle water, cast along the edges behind overhanging brush or into pockets behind any rock bigger than a basketball. Smallmouth are ambush predators, like most bass. You are trying to trigger the fish’s aggressive murderous nature, but it will only work if the fly acts like a startled baitfish and not like a dead piece of fluff. Begin animating the fly as soon as it touches water and avoid slack in your line.
The river is clear enough to watch for strikes, which will either be missile-launch style off the bottom, or a pedestrian inspection and subtle sip. The quick takes are easier to handle because the fish often hook themselves, but the bigger bass are more likely to take their time. As with any sight-fishing, you want to avoid snatching the fly away from the fish (admittedly, a problem I fought for most of the trip). Wait for the fly to disappear; smallmouth gulp with a peculiar out-then-back motion, so when you see the telltale movement of the head, set the hook.
As night fell and the bass-drum beat of thunder crashed around us, a gobbler turkey began calling back to the skies.
While the North Fork certainly boasts some smallmouth between 3 and 5 pounds, anything over 12 inches should be considered a quality fish. Our float began near the end of the smallmouth water, so after only a half day, we reached the dividing line, and the feature that makes the North Fork so unusual. Dubbed “Rainbow Spring,” it is a gurgling natural fountain, bubbling continuously out of a gravel bar in the middle of the river. Kosovich explained: “The Ozarks are blessed with many cold-water aquifers, which seep up at various points along the river.” The groundwater temperature in that area is around 50 degrees. The transition at the spring was so abrupt, I could literally put one foot in bathwater and the other in icewater. From this point until Patrick Bridge access approximately 10 miles downriver, the North Fork converts to a blue-ribbon trout stream—one of the last all-natural, undammed coldwater fisheries in the Ozarks. (Below Patrick Bridge, still more miles are “red ribbon,” or mixed trout-and-smallmouth water with minimal stocking). Many rivers begin as trout streams in their headwaters, then turn into warmwater fisheries in their lower reaches. This reversal of the norm—due to natural coldwater influences—is the only one of its kind I know of.
Shortly before the end of our first day on the water, midnight blue storm clouds rolled over the headwaters of the river. As night fell and the bass-drum beat of thunder crashed around us, a gobbler turkey began calling back to the skies: “boom rumble grumble.” A long moment. “Gobble gobble gobble!” Stillness, and the stroke of the paddle. “Boom rumba crumba.” A beat. “Gobble robble gobble!” Kosovich looked worried, and explained that he was concerned about tomorrow’s flows, but I simply took it in: a legitimately untouched wilderness area, and sounds as old as time.
Anglers from All Walks
In order to really demonstrate the river’s potential, Kosovich had put together something of a regional Dream Team of anglers, each of whom brought a different unique skill to the table. Bryan Yates, for instance, was a former Keys permit guide with liquid-smooth casts. He preferred (and was effective with) larger streamer patterns, continuously crashing the banks to draw out bigger browns and rainbows. His diametric opposite was Randy Hanner, a former Colorado trout guide, who specialized in highstick European nymphing techniques, which he had picked up while competing on behalf of Team USA. Brian Wise was a well-known Ozarks trout guide; in his Clacka, he proved the North Fork is also perfect for Western-style drift boat angling. Like many native Ozarks fishermen, he was a generalist. Finally Kyle Kosovich himself brought an inquisitive streak to the party, kick-netting bugs along the way and displaying a very impressive entomological knowledge, not to mention his obvious fishing and river-running skill.
Camp on the morning of Day Two
Having these very different anglers on hand highlighted one of the North Fork’s best traits: as a freestone, it truly offers something for everyone. Unlike the monolithic tailwaters just a few miles away, the coldwater sections of the North Fork support a truly bountiful and very diverse forage base. Large stoneflies swarm the rocks, clinging to rich beds of moss, which also host mayfly and caddisfly larvae. Baitfish sip in the edges, sometimes looking exactly like a rising trout. As a result, there really is no wrong way to fish the North Fork. Kosovich is a proponent of the upstream nymphing technique, frequently without any indicator whatsoever. He ties a heavy stonefly or mayfly nymph to a long, 10- to 15-foot leader. He makes a short cast upriver, often no longer than the length of the leader itself. Then, as the fly ticks along on bottom, he raises his rod slowly, just keeping enough tension on the fly to detect a strike (the leader will tense or straighten slightly). Kosovich uses both ordinary fly rods and a Tenkara setup for this style of fishing.
The Euro-nymphing specialist Randy Hanner added a “sighter” to the butt of his leader when fishing this way, and also used a longer, 10-foot rod. The sighter’s short sections of different-colored monofilament serve as an aerial strike indicator (but they don’t float on the water and thus don’t spook fish). Both Hanner and Kosovich waded through rock gardens—carefully working around and behind each rock to blanket them with casts—and they caught high numbers of quality trout. (Indeed, despite water stained by those storms in the headwaters, Hanner still landed around 50 fish a day). Wise and Yates stuck mostly to the boats, throwing streamers at the banks and catching not only trout, but also larger smallmouth as a result.
Contacts & Information
Brian Wise & Rusty Doughty
River of Life Farm
Shawn and Christina Taylor
Taylor Made River Treks
Regional Fly Shops:
Dally’s Ozark Fly Fisher
Blue Ribbon Flies
Mountain Home, Arkansas
River Run Outfitters
St. Louis, Missouri
T. Hargrove Fly Fishing
St. Louis, Missouri
When searching trout water for larger fish, dispense with the Woolly Buggers and switch to something more meaty. The North Fork is rich in sculpins, shad, and chub, so olive and black Raghead Sculpin patterns are effective, as are Kelly Galloup’s articulated baitfish patterns like the Zoo Cougar and the Sex Dungeon. The key here is to get the fly down in the column to where the bigger fish hang out. Type VI sinking-tips, which plummet at nearly a foot per second, allow you to use less-weighted flies that cast easier and do not crash onto the water. A short leader of only 4 to 6 feet is plenty, and it can be made of level 12- or 15-pound monofilament.
In order to improve your big streamer’s action in the water, it’s best to use a non-slip mono loop knot. Before you thread your tippet through the fly, tie an overhand knot in it about six inches from the end, and leave the knot open. Then thread the hook eye, and wrap the tag back up the leader five or six times, exactly like a standard clinch knot. Instead of putting the tag through the loop to finish the knot, insert it instead into the open overhand knot you tied to start (which should now be resting by the hook eye). Wet and tighten; you should leave a small loop about the size of a pea for your fly to slide around on. Because the bank-bashing flies tend to be on the larger side, it’s okay to go up to a 7- or even 8-weight rod. If you stick a quality fish, you may want all the rod you can get!
As the North Fork rolls on through its blue-ribbon trout section, it picks up additional springs along the way, which both contribute to the flow and also cause the water to improve in clarity. Six or eight miles into this lower stretch, starting at Blair Bridge access, we began to reach more challenging water from a rowing perspective. Deeper plunge pools and narrower runs between rocks make this section popular with the canoe and kayak crowd. In the summer, it’s better to avoid the weekends, when the crowds can put the fish down. Of course, from a fishing perspective these deep runs also represent an opportunity. Brown trout are occasionally stocked in the North Fork, but they also reproduce naturally. Rainbow trout are not stocked; they have done so well with natural reproduction that it is no longer necessary. A wild, North Fork rainbow is characterized by deep greens on his back and bright red streaks on his flanks. Their fins are unscarred and whole, and their heads have the mature characteristics of a trout that has never eaten pellets, even when the fish is only 8 inches long. Some of the largest of these fish hang out in the plunge pool section below Blair Bridge.
From Memphis: Take I-55 west to Jonesboro, Arkansas, then continue on surface roads
north to Dora, Missouri. Three hours, forty minutes.
From St. Louis: Take I-44 west to Rolla, Missouri, then continue on US Hwy. 63 and surface roads south to Dora, Missouri. Four hours, ten minutes.
From Mountain Home, Arkansas: Take AR Hwy. 201/Mo. Hwy. J to US. Hwy. 160,
then turn right and continue east to Mo. Hwy. PP. Turn left and travel north to Mo. Hwy. H. Turn right and continue to Patrick Bridge Access. Fifty minutes.
Thanks to the storms on the first day of our float, we had not managed to boat any of the larger denizens of the North Fork, though we had certainly caught a lot of fish. With the take-out at Patrick Bridge access almost in sight, Randy Hanner came through with a gorgeous, mature buck brown trout, taken from yet another rock garden just above one of the deepest plunge pools. The fish’s teal cheekplates and healthy butter color spoke better than anything else of its nutrient-rich diet and clean, as-yet-unpolluted environment. In the lower sections of the North Fork, it helps to have a wheel of splitshot somewhere in your pack. While Hanner proved that his technique works anywhere, I took advantage of the stained water to dangle a multi-fly system of San Juan Worms and stonefly nymphs deep in the biggest cut in the river. I had the time of my life landing average trout in water concentrated to many thousands of cubic feet per second, each one pulling with the force of that current like a bull redfish.
Randy Hanner comes through
As we beached our boats—two authentic Ozarks johnboats and a wayward Clackacraft—I reflected on what a special opportunity the “historic recreation” had been. So many of our waters are now chopped into sections by dams, with fisheries managers required to do everything they can to generate just a touch of natural reproduction, a hint of the fish’s real behavior. On the North Fork, one can still reach back in time to experience a float that our grandfathers would have taken for granted. Very few rivers can offer native smallmouth, wild rainbows and trophy browns all on the same day. None can give a more authentic experience than the North Fork.
This article originally ran in the March/April 2012 issue of Fly Fisherman magazine.