Wade Fishing Safety on the White River Tailwaters

Everybody enjoys wade fishing for trout, but the tailwaters on Arkansas' White River make for some of the most dangerous wading conditions to be found anywhere in the United States. Even experienced wade anglers have drown after getting caught in a high water situation and being swept off their feet by rising waters. There are risks. Here's some facts you should know.

A General Understanding of the Forces Involved

According to Art Hobson, Professor Emeritus of Physics at the University of Arkansas, there are four forces that affect the wade angler. Here is a summary of an email reply he sent to my question about the effect of gravity and buoyancy on wading.

The dangerous thing about the tailwaters, or any stream where water is rising, is an angler can be standing still in one place while the last two of these forces are increasing as the water comes up and the flow becomes stronger. Wading out or back across then becomes much more difficult than it was wading into the stream.

Simple Questions

Anglers, however, do not have to be physics students to wade safely. They can ask themselves three simple questions:

1) Should I even be wading here? There are places where it is just crazy to try to wade at certain times with daily fluctuations in the river stages occurring. Water releases often occur daily—sometimes even multiple times in a day.

Water levels on short tailwaters or right below the dams can rise and fall rapidly, and anglers may easily be able to hit low water during the off times. A long tailwater such as Bull Shoals, however, can be hard to guesstimate because the crest (the highest point to which the tailwater rises on any given occasion) may take hours to get downstream.

Take a visual survey of the area when you enter the stream and keep an eye on a landmark at the river's edge to determine if water is rising or not. Be observant of subtle changing conditions and get to a point of safety at the first sign of rising water. Don't delay.

Pay attention to warning horns if you are near the dam. Get out immediately if you hear the horn sound.

2) Am I wading beyond the limit of my ability? The simple rule of thumb is: If I can't comfortably wade without aid, I am in trouble. A wading staff can help, but don’t rely on it to help you wade beyond your ability. In rising water, at some point even a wading staff will be useless. Get out while it is easy. Wading in rising water can become quickly treacherous.

3) Can I return safely across if the water level comes up faster than I expect? Or, what will I do if I cannot return or fall in? A little forethought may help keep you out of trouble. Have a backup plan. Consider wearing a personal floatation device.

What Is CFS?

Cubic feet per second (cfs) is a measurement of flow. The formula for figuring cfs is:

area (ft2) x velocity (ft/s) = flow (cfs or ft3/s )

To figure it, one must know the area cross section (width x average depth) of the flow and the speed of the current (in feet per second).

The Corps of Engineers uses this measurement below the dams at its gauging stations. It is a more precise measurement than the number of generators that may be on-line.

Ways to Get Information

There are three sources of information for wade anglers on the White River tailwaters:

1) Current Status Telephone Number - Three numbers will give the current generating status at the Corps of Engineers dams. The recording format at each number is different.

Beaver and Table Rock Powerhouses (417) 336-5083. Computer generated message that gives lake level, number of generators on-line, and river stage. Normal low water stage for Taneycomo is 701.5 (msl) and 916.3 (msl) for Beaver. Very reliable. Difficult to get through at times.
Bull Shoals and Norfork Powerhouses (870) 431-5311. Voice recorded message, which may or may not be up-to-date. Gives lake level, number of generators running, and the time generation changed and often when previous generation ended. Easy to get through, but often not reliably updated, especially at night.
Greers Ferry Powerhouse (501) 362-5150. Computer generated message, which gives lake level and number of generators on-line.

2) Southwestern Power Administration Generation Schedules - These are available on-line or over the telephone via an automated, voice activated system at (866) 494-1993. The on-line version gives the number of megawatts scheduled per hour. Using the chart at the bottom of the page, you can divide total plant capacity by the number of units. This will give you a rough idea of the number of megawatts possible for each unit. The equivalent of full discharge in cfs is also given. The voice activated system will give an equivalent in the number of generators expected to be on-line. This is a predicted schedule and will probably not be reliable with changes in the weather and especially if rainfall occurs. The schedules are generally available for the following day after about 5:00 p.m. The schedule for Saturday, Sunday and Monday is usually posted on Friday evening. If "000" is given in an hour slot on the Internet schedule, this means maintenance is scheduled and generation will not be on during this time.

3) Corps of Engineers Real-time Data - Users can choose graphic or tabular under the "Reservoirs" category to find a history of previous releases. The most recent data is about 4 hours old, so it is not truly "real time" but close. The graphic will give almost a week's worth of data. The tabular gives the previous 36-hours or so.

Using all these tools, anglers can get an idea of what has previously occurred, what current generation is on-line, and what is potentially expected to occur in the next 24 hours or so. Again, take the predicted generation schedule with a grain of salt.

Remember these tools are generally good for trying to see trends over several days of generation and for learning what the river looks like under these different gauged situations. They are generally useless for the casual angler wanting to know whether or not he can safely wade fish at any particular time. Actual river observations then are more useful in this case.

I Just Want to Find Some Wade Water. Where Can I Go?

Sometimes wade fishing is just not going to be possible or practical as the safe wading window on any given stretch of tailwater may only last a matter of minutes or a few hours. You have to know the areas and the options and where to run to if water is high or about to be high at one locale and low at another. Keeping up with the generation schedules and what the Corps is actually doing can be complicated, but a must. Assumptions can get you into trouble fast. Most anglers start out wade fishing close to the dams where they can tell more easily if water conditions are changing.

To gain the knowledge necessary to know how to work the system requires knowing where the accesses are and their characteristics and seeing the river under a vast variety of conditions. Most of us guides have had to learn the system by trial and error, and it is not easily explained to newcomers; so be patient and don't figure on becoming an expert on the tailwater without investing some serious time in learning the river and the times and the seasons per the Army Corps of Engineers.

These caveats are why a lot of anglers hire guides who have boats, so they do not have to be running around the countryside looking for a place to fish. They can safely wade fish until water does come up and then fish high water and/or enjoy a leisurely float the rest of the day.

Wade safely and retreat wisely!

Wade Safety Tips
  • Be aware the river bottom is constantly changing with the rise and fall of water from generation. Gravel bars rearrange and debris from snags and downed trees can be submerged in new areas after prolonged high water.

Constructive comments welcome.