Arkansas' Superb White River
The White River tailwaters have earned a reputation for their trophy brown trout fishing, producing some trout into the 20-40 pound range. In a Trout Unlimited member survey (Trout magazine, Summer, 1998), the White River rated in the top 20 of 101 Best Trout Streams in the country by more than 1,200 respondents. Ranked as eleventh, among such streams as the Henry's Fork, San Juan, Upper Yellowstone, and the Bighorn, the White was noted for its big browns. An easy drive from Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Texas, Illinois, Tennessee, and other neighboring states, the White River provides excellent drift boat fly-fishing opportunities for trout in the mid-south.
Four dams in Arkansas and one in Missouri make for about 150 miles of cold water environment for trout. Brown and rainbow trout are stocked below all five dams. Three tailwaters in Arkansas also have cutthroat and brook trout.
Still a natural coolwater fishery, the upper White River begins its journey near St. Paul, Arkansas.
By the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, American Indians and European trappers used the river as a highway. Cherokees called it "Unica" while French traders called it "La Riviere au Blanc." Both mean "White River" and refer to its crystal clear waters.
The White was once a free flowing river of approximately 720 miles in length. An ambitious Corps of Engineers building project constructed five high-head dams for flood control and hydropower purposes beginning in 1941 and concluding in 1966.
The huge reservoirs created by the dams are multi-use facilities and provide for flood control, hydroelectric power, municipal water supply, and recreation and fish and wildlife uses. Coldwater habitats for trout fisheries now exist below tons of concrete.
The White River Lakes Area of the Ozarks
Three coldwater trout fisheries are on the main White River. They are found below Beaver, Table Rock (Lake Taneycomo in Missouri), and Bull Shoals dams and are known as "tailwaters." Two tributary tailwaters—Greers Ferry (Little Red River) and Norfork (North Fork River)—complete the system. Public river accesses are available and are well-maintained by state and federal agencies.
Safety on the river is an issue of which anglers need to be aware. Because of widely fluctuating currents created by hydropower releases, wade anglers as well as boaters can find themselves in trouble quickly. The White River has been listed as one of "The Six Deadliest Fishing Waters" in the country (Outdoor Life, February 2004). For this reason, many anglers choose to hire a reputable guide to help them safely experience and learn the river. Read about wade safety. Read how the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates the White River reservoirs and dams in its White River FAQ.
Beaver Dam, near Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is the first dam in the tailwater chain to provide a cold water fishery along the White. It is my home water and has a quaint character about it.
Beaver tailwater during a rare flood gate release in 2004
Easily overlooked as a part of the White River system, Beaver Tailwater is a model experimental tailwater. It was the first fishery in Arkansas subject to special brown trout regulations, and it is also the site of the first cooperative federal, state, and private trout habitat restoration project in the nation. This tailwater is a great fishery for beginners, offering rainbow and brown trout.
The seven mile long Beaver tailwater is under a new trout management plan begun in January 2006, which includes a river wide 13-16" slot limit. Habitat and access improvements have been made, and these include J-vane dams.
With the highest water quality of all the tailwaters, Beaver has not been without environmental problems. Beaver Lake is a residential lake with a small, old industrial area where the West Fork of the White River flows into its upper end. Polution has been a concern in the West Fork branch. Since Beaver is used as a water supply, the lake is monitored carefully and efforts are underway to improve water quality on the West Fork.
In 2003, didymo, an invasive nuisance algae affecting watesheds with somewhat sterile environments, was first discovered in Arkansas in Beaver tailwater after a large outbreak. It has since spread to Bull Shoals tailwater, and is a reoccurring problem in both tailwaters. Since the other tailwaters have fish hatcheries, didymo has not been a problem there, probably because the richer nutrient water keeps it at bay.
A fall morning below Beaver dam
Beaver tailwater offers the most diverse fishing in the tailwater system. In addition to rainbow and brown trout, there are regular spring runs of white bass, walleye and occasional striper and hybrid bass pods. The state record striped bass (64 lbs., 8 oz.) was caught in the tailwater in 2000. Stripers have been introduced into the tailwater during flood events when they come over the open spillway gates.
Table Rock Tailwater (Lake Taneycomo)
The tailwater from Table Rock Dam is actually Lake Taneycomo at Branson, Missouri—a major tourist destination. Regulations that include a 12-20" slot limit on rainbows have increased the numbers of trout in this size range. Brown trout are also stocked.
The Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery at Table Rock Dam supplies the tailwater with an abundance of trout.
Extremely clear water flows from the dam and Shepherd of the Hills Hatchery providing good wade angling at the dam during non-generation. The first mile below the dam to Fall Creek is also great for fly-fishing from a boat at high water, although traffic can be heavy. The tailwater extends twenty-two miles down to Ozark Beach Dam (also called Powersite Dam), which forms Lake Taneycomo. Ozark Beach Dam was the first dam constructed on the White. It became operational in 1913. It is a privately owned low head dam, but has produced hydro-power over the years.
Located also within an hour's drive of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, both it and Branson are great places to bring non-fishing family members.
Bull Shoals Tailwater
Bull Shoals Dam near Mountain Home provides the largest stretch of tailwater where over 90 miles of trout habitat is found. When trout fishers refer to the White River, they usually mean this productive water.
This stretch of river has virtually everything a fly-fisher could want. Shoals provide runs and pocket water. There is plenty of flat water and deep pools too.
Mr. Bill Henderson with a fine Bull Shoals tailwater fall brown trout
Trout in the 16-20 inch range are common here, and fish that are more easily measured in pounds than inches lurk beneath the shadows of many a pool. Three catch and release areas are established on this tailwater. Natural reproduction of brown trout and limited rainbow trout reproduction also occurs here. This is a big tailwater.
A four-and-a-half pound cutthroat trout caught by client William Cunningham at Rim Shoals on Bull Shoals tailwater.
Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is currently developing a new trout management plan for Bull Shoals and Norfork tailwaters. An initial plan was presented in the spring of 2008 and mainly focuses upon management of brown trout. A 24-inch minimum length limit went into effect January 1, 2009. The management plan for other trout species is continuing to be developed and will include future implementation plans.
Norfork Tailwater (North Fork River)
In 1988 a 38 lb., 9 oz. brown trout was caught in this tributary tailwater of the White River. The North Fork River in Missouri is the source of Lake Norfork in Arkansas. The tailwater below Norfork Dam is a short 4.8 miles, but includes the nation's largest federal fish hatchery and very productive trout water. The tailwater is referred to as "Norfork" after the dam, which bears the name of the town located at the confluence of the tailwater and the White River.
The cold water coming out of the dam provides temperature reduction in the White for another forty-five miles. This is what enables Bull Shoals tailwater to offer over 90 miles of trout fishing opportunities.
Dry Run Creek provides great fly-fishing opportunities for youth. It is also a great place to observe trout behavior.
The outflow from the Norfork hatchery feeds the one-half-mile long Dry Run Creek—one of the nation's premier trout streams for youth under 16 years of age. Mobility impaired access is also available. This catch and release stream holds many large fish. It is a great place for parents to introduce children to the sport of fly-fishing (Special regulations apply. See the current AGFC Trout Guide).
Norfork Dam was the first Corps of Engineers dam to be built on the White River system. Its tailwater is a favorite with wade anglers during periods of low water.
Norfork tailwater is a major destination for many wade anglers.
Although a short tailwater, Norfork offers anglers a reasonable chance to catch all four species of trout for an Arkansas Trout Grand Slam. Trout Unlimited and AGFC partnered in 2012 to introduce Bonneville Cutthroat eggs in the Norfork tailwater.
Greers Ferry Tailwater (Little Red River)
The previous all-tackle world record brown trout (40 pounds, 4 ounces) was taken from yet another tributary tailwater—the Little Red River—in 1992 by H. “Rip” Collins. [This record was eclipsed by a 41 pound, 7.25 ounce brown trout caught in 2009 by an angler on the Manistee River in Michigan] The Little Red is within an hour's drive of the state capitol in Little Rock and is located near Heber Springs, Arkansas.
The character of this tailwater differs from the others. There is also a national fish hatchery here, and the nutrients from the hatchery provide plenty of fertilizer for moss and vegetation. The river bottom also contains more sediment and silt; but, because of its vegetation and sowbug population, it has historically produced big fish.
The Little Red tailwater below Greers Ferry Dam is a world class brown trout fishery.
The brown trout here are entirely wild and self-sustaining. Browns were first planted as eggs in the late 1970s by the Arkansas Fly Fishers (AFF) and Green Country Fly Fishers. Brooks, cutthroats and rainbows are also present.
Collins Creek is another youth only fishing stream in JFK Park near Greers Ferry Dam. A habitat improvement project by AGFC and AFF has aimed at trying to establish it as a refuge for wild rainbows and brook trout.
While big trout have focused much attention on the river system, there are additional reasons why the White River is a great place to fish. These superb tailwater fisheries are located in the midst of the Ozark Mountains, one of the prime tourist attractions of the Mid-South. Relatively mild winters make for excellent year-round fishing.
Flowering dogwood and redbud trees sprinkle the hills and ravines in the spring. Post-oak and hickory forests provide a canopy of green in the summer. An array of autumn browns, reds, and golden yellows transforms the hillsides into pictorial monuments in the fall. Dramatic cliffs and bluffs line many parts of the river.
Wildlife is abundant. Both wintering and resident bald eagles and migrating ospreys provide pleasant distractions from fishing.
The tailwaters of the White provide the fly fisherman with a wide range of fishing opportunities—from easily caught stocked fish to the wily ole' browns; from streamer fishing to the tiniest of dries; from wade fishing to high water drift boat fly-fishing at its best. The White is the place to come in the mid-south!