Dry Fly Patterns for the White River Tailwaters

A guide should never reveal all his secrets, but dry fly fishing on the White is one thing I like to talk about—with reservations! With the sudden and drastic changes in water levels on the tailwaters and prolific scud and sow bug populations, many are surprised to learn the White River offers excellent dry fly fishing. There are midge hatches on the White every day on the year. Of course, the good dry fly fishing comes with lower water levels. Low water can occur in the spring during the major caddis and mayfly hatches, but more reliably in the late summer and fall when grasshoppers, crane fly and other insects are a factor. Water conditions often allow dry fly fishing in the winter and summer too. However, there are times when dry fly fishing in high water is possible and quite good, too. High water generally demands larger patterns.

Anytime the fish are rising and "looking up" is a time to try a dry fly. Sometimes attractors in the #8-10 size range work, and sometimes you have to match the midges, caddis, or mayfly hatches in sizes 14 or smaller. If the fish are keyed on midge emergers, they will often refuse a dry but readily take an emerger just under or in the surface film.

Here are some of my favorite dry fly patterns to fish on the White. Most of these are attractor patterns that work well elsewhere too. The midge dries will be discussed on the midge pattern page.

Crackleback (#10-14)

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The Crackleback

Ed Story of St. Louis is the creator of the crackleback. This is a pattern that is is amazingly effective at times. Simple to tie--dubbed body, 2-3 peacock herls pulled over for a shellback, and palmered saddle hackle as in a woolly worm. Hackle can be grizzly, olive, dun, brown, or anything. I like to use a contrasting color dubbing (yellow or light olive) from the peacock herl. Use a standard dry fly hook. Fish them as a dry or strip under the surface and fish like a bugger at the end of the drift. Subsurface often produces better than on top.

Quill Gordon (#12)

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This Quill Gordon mayfly spinner has just emerged from its dun form. Notice there is not a lot of change in the color. The spinner is almost as dark as the dun.

Epeorus mayflies are among the earliest hatches in the Ozarks and can usually be seen in the spring creeks by late March or early April. These Quills and Irons are all very similar and can be noted by their larger size and dark, almost black, color. The fly patterns should be fished in the riffles.

Elk Hair Caddis (#12-18)

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Elk Hair Caddis are good low water riffle flies.

Tied in light tan, or natural, these are effective year round in low water riffles. Bull Shoals tailwater and the Norfork tailwater are blessed with a very heavy spring time #14 tan caddis hatch (March-April). Pupae patterns are effective early in the day with emerger and dry fly patterns becoming the choice in the afternoon. Egg laying adults are often found active early in the morning. As the hatch progresses over several weeks, adults hatch more toward evening. A great variety of soft hackled wet flies are good to try also at this time.

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The components of a dozen elk hair caddis tied for White River caddis are: #14 barbless hooks, a Hoffman #2 saddle, coarse bleached elk hair, and light green beaver dubbing.

Before the main hatch of bigger caddisflies is over in April, small microcaddis (#18-20) begin to come off and continue through the summer months in the early morning and late afternoon. Splashy takes are usually an indication the fish are on caddis. One will often find these along the edges and banks of the stream in shady areas.

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An X-Caddis pattern is another great caddis pattern. It is a versatile pattern that can be fished dry or wet as an emerger.

Tie the Elk Hair pattern in a variety of sizes. I use deer hair, bleached tan in the spring (sizes 12-18), and switch to natural as the summer progresses and into the fall. If you need a pattern that skates well on the surface, leave off the under hackle. An X-Caddis is a great skater.

Adam's (#14-24)

Effective year long, especially in the midge sizes. The brown-gray hackle mix of the Adams is an effective imitation of many mayflies as well as many caddis flies. If you know your getting a good drag-free drift over fish, and they are still refusing the pattern, try cutting a v-notch out of the hackle on the under side of the hook eye (base of the v at the hook shank). This will make the fly float flush in the surface film, and will entice those finicky fish. I'm never without Adam's parachutes either.

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Parachute Adams are great in flat water and the tailout of riffles.

For my own use, I tie the smaller standard pattern sizes without the wings. On this pattern, they simply don't matter when you get down so small. Parachutes are great for the slower waters, especially the edges. Leiser's Book of Fly Patterns has some helpful hints on tying parachutes.

Sulphur and Light Cahill (#12-24)

Effective late spring into fall. In mid May-early June there is a Sulphur hatch (Genus Ephemerella) the eastern equivalent of the western Pale Evening Dun, and a Light Cahill (Genus Stenacron) hatch on Bull Shoals tailwater. Cahills may occasionally be found into August. These are afternoon hatches in moderately fast riffles. A Light Cahill pattern (#14-18) can imitate these as well as the many light colored midge hatches (#20 and smaller). In September, one can sometimes find white mayflies (Ephoron size 16-18) on Bull Shoals tailwater, for which the Light Cahill is also an acceptable pattern.

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A Sulphur emerger like this one must lay low in the surface film. If tying with a normal hackle, trim the hackle off the bottom of the fly or notch a "v" shape to it.

Blue Winged Olive (#14-24)

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Another general and good year round pattern. Good rainy day pattern. Blue wing olive hatches are rare on the White, but that doesn't stop the fish from being interested in BWO pattern. Localized Tiny Blue Winged Olive hatches (#24) are quite frequent however, especially from November through March, and are often mistaken for Tricos (a hatch I have never witnessed on the White River tailwaters). This simple version uses a grizzly tail, olive quill body, and dun hackle.


Late spring and summer months are great for fishing terrestrial imitations on the trout tailwaters. Local terrestrials can include everything from grasshoppers to ants to inchworms. But one bug has become a favorite with me—the "May" or "June" beetle, commonly called the "June Bug." These beetles are native to North America. There are over 200 species. They belong to the white grub family know as Scarabs and are in the genus Phyllophaga. They are the little oval shaped brown (sometimes black) beetles that are attracted to summer porch lights and buzz clumsily around doors and windows at night.

As adults, "May" or "June" beetles spend their time munching on broadleaf plants in woods and fields. This is how they end up next to, and sometimes in, bodies of water such as the tailwaters. Because these beetles are klutzes, they often fall off leaves into the water where they make a resounding "plop," attracting the attention of trout. The result is an easy and succulent meal for the fish.

The most successful way I've found to fish them is at high water in the afternoons. Once the afternoon heat causes the powerhouse to crank "on" the generators, water rises into weeds and grasses along the bank washing insects off flooded vegetation and into the back eddies that are created. Trees also overhang many an eddy, and bulky beetle bodies can't help but lose their footing and plummet to the eddies below. Anchoring a boat out near the current seam of an eddy will allow you to cast towards the bank. Allow your beetle pattern to land with the elegance of an acorn falling into a teacup, and you are on your way to some summer fun. Takes will range from a subtle sip to a swash!

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Scott's June Bug
Hook Standard dry fly size 14 (debarbed)
Thread Brown
Body Brown or ginger squirrel dubbing
Back Two strips of craft foam cut wide enough to cover the top of the dubbed body, top strip (yellow) about an 1/8 of an inch narrower than bottom strip (brown)
Legs Krystal Flash or other synthetic flash fibers

Directions: Wrap thread to bend of hook. Tie in two strips of foam (narrower yellow strip on bottom). Allow strips to extend past bend of hook. These will be folded over to the eye later. Wrap over foam snugly so that it compresses on hook shank.

Dub squirrel dubbing onto shank, building up a thick, bulbous body. Fold foam strips over top of dubbing to the eye. Yellow foam will now be on top. Securely wrap and tie in foam with 5-6 turns of thread. Throw in a half hitch or two and trim foam squarely for a head. Leave about a 1/8-inch of foam over the eye. Tie in a few Krystal Flash fibers for legs. Flare them around the outsides. Whip finish and trim legs short. Go fish.

Note: Trout love these little bugs and often swallow them deeper than other nymphs in their eagerness to snatch them up. Carry a pair of hemostats with you. This is the easiest and gentlest way to unhook the fish. If the hook is well inside the mouth, 1) leave the fish in the water, 2) holding the leader, clamp the hemostat to the bend of the barbless hook in the trout's mouth, 3) gently back the hook out without touching the fish.

Grasshopper patterns are also very effective, usually later in the late summer and early fall. The real insects come in a variety of sizes and colors, but generally by the end of the summer and early fall they are darker in color. Generally I'll tie and fish sizes 6-12. Early in the season I will use light green and brown colors. Late fall hoppers are usually dark olive or dark brown. Hoppers generally do not start to become a big factor to the fish until they mature in numbers by the middle of August.

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Some White River hoppers show a lot of contrast with light and dark markings on them. Some are entirely plain and pale except in flight when they show a bright yellow color and black banding on their spread wings. Colors range from brown with black markings to pale green.

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A Scott's Hopper—see the Scott's Cicada tutorial on the tying menu for instructions. I use elk hair for the top wing and tan squirrel fur for the body. I cut the foam blank narrower for this pattern (1/4 inch wide).

Probably every hopper pattern will work at some time on the White. But effective patterns I use are bullethead hoppers (or Madam-X style patterns) and parahoppers.

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The parahopper rides flush in the water and is a great producer.

About Stoneflies

Contrary to general impressions, there are a variety of stone flies in the White River and area streams. I have observed everything from small nymphs the size of a number 22 hook to the Giant Black Stonefly adults which are the largest of the stonefly species. The nature of these creatures makes it rare that you ever see them in large numbers. The nymphs hatch often unobserved nocturnally. Giant black stoneflies do not hatch in large numbers like the western version of the species known as salmonflies. Winter stones hatch often during winter storm events or when there is ice forming around the edges of the stream.

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A little yellow stonefly hatch (size 10-12) can be found in June on streams like Crooked Creek.

On Ozark spring creeks, little winter and summer stonefiles also occur. Smallmouth and panfish also eat these in the cool water streams like Crooked Creek or the Buffalo River.


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