Musings From A
Recent Trip to the White River
Those who know trout fishing, know, or have heard of the White River in Arkansas. With trophy waters starting at the Bull Shoals dam and flowing around 100 miles South, anglers gather here in pursuit of the flourishing trout population and oftentimes to specifically target monster brown trout. These are not your typical Western brown trout either – measuring 18”-24” on average and producing two world record browns (38lbs 9oz and 40lbs 4oz) – the White is unlike any river you’ve seen out West. In addition to these massive browns, anglers also have shots at catching rainbows, the rare cutthroat, and brook trout. The White is a wonderful year-round fishery, moreover, fishing can be on fire at certain times of the year, and needless to say we were lucky enough to experience some white-hot fishing on the tailend of a Sulphur mayfly hatch in July.
For three Texas fly fishermen with limited to no trout experience, it wasn’t the troutiest bunch of guys testing the fabled waters of the White River in weathered rental boats looking for trophy trout. Chase, who fishes Colorado each summer and hands-down has the most experience out of all of us, Lawson, who has fished for trout once in Colorado prior to his summer stint at on the White, and myself, who didn’t know the difference between a dry fly and a dropper. With the majority of our experience taking place on the flats of the Texas Coast, we couldn’t think of a better way to escape the dog days of the Texas summer than a cool seventy-degree morning on the White River. While Chase and Lawson were able to apply some of their Western trout knowledge to Arkansas, all I brought to the table was the ability to see fish and cast with distance and accuracy. Nevertheless, the odds were stacked against us as we made our first run upriver through the morning fog that had yet to rise. Just a bunch of Texas fishermen trying to stick a trout…
It was a learning experience as much as it was an adventure. Perfecting a reach cast, a good mend, and feeding line, led to getting some great drifts and ultimately paying off with some solid fish brought to the boat.
In the heart of summer, the terrestrials become active, as well as a big Sulphur mayfly hatch, which we were lucky enough to catch. This called for size #8 and #10 hoppers imitating ants, grasshoppers and other terrestrials then transitioning into dry flies in the late afternoons and evenings when the Sulphurs began to fill the sky. Besides being one of the bigger rivers in the US, the White’s flows can change drastically from day-to-day or even hour-to-hour. David Burgher, a local guide, was telling us that he’s seen flows vary from a roaring 24,000 cfs (cubic feet per second) to a slow-moving 700 cfs in one day – equating to roughly an eight-foot drop in the water level. With extreme flow changes such as this, it acts more like a tidal system one would experience in the ocean, requiring anglers to be cognizant of the current water conditions and flexible in their techniques.
The water was running high, around 20,000 cfs, so we elected to pound the bank with hoppers for our first drift. With 4, 5, and 6 weight rods in the boat, we tied on some army ants and some hippie stompers and tried our luck. We fished as close to the bank as possible and managed to land a few small rainbows and some browns in the first two hours, including a couple new species checked off the bucket list for one of us. We were stoked to have just caught trout in Arkansas, but Lawson gave the impression that the White had more to offer.
Chase and Lawson continued to stress the importance of a “good drift” which basically meant that the fly needed to float as naturally as possible with the surrounding bugs and sediments without getting dragged by the fly line. This maneuver can sometimes be difficult because of the varying currents between the rod tip and the fly. Some techniques I learned to remedy “drag” included reach casting, mending, and feeding line. By no means were these techniques perfected during this trip, but I was able to learn the basics after several drifts.
On our second to last day we ran up to the Bull Shoals Dam. After messing with a couple fish that seemed interested in our hoppers, we found a pod of fish over a grass flat sipping sulfur mayflies. With hoppers already rigged, Lawson made a long cast towards the pod of fish, and as it drifted through the heart of the strike zone, a pair of jaws appeared and sucked down the fly off the surface. As soon as the hook was set, the fish gave a big body shake and took off for deep water. That’s when we knew it was big. The boat went silent besides the piercing sound of the peeling drag, revealing the backing to Lawson’s Ross Animas.
I was fishing in the front of the boat, and shortly after Lawson’s hookup, a smaller trout subtly sipped his hopper. It was hard to describe the chaos that ensued and the adrenaline that was running throughout those next several minutes – the pure emotions of a double up. I managed to horse in what turned out to be a stud 19” cutthroat trout and quickly released it to man the motor as the brown meandered into netting range. After five minutes of Lawson fighting the fish, what felt like an hour, Chase swiftly scooped the net into the river, reining in a fish of a lifetime. To say we all lost it is an understatement — with the fish filling the whole net (30 inches), we all went from hollering and yelling to dead quiet. We couldn’t believe it. We let the fish get a drink and admired the hook-shaped kype, indicating its mature age, as we snapped a few pictures and released it from shore.
The sight of a brown trout sipping a tiny dry fly or chasing after a dragging hopper was more than enough to keep us coming back for more. Being a year-round fishery, this river welcomes everyone from streamer junkies to euro nymphers. For a greenhorn trout angler, I definitely feel spoiled for the quantity and quality of fish that I laid eyes on throughout the four days of fishing this beautiful part of the United States, just a short 7 hours from Dallas.