The Best white river fishing spots: A guide's insight
People often ask me about where the best White River fishing spots are, and to be honest, it’s a loaded question. With almost 100 miles of trout fishing water, and even more if you include the Norfork, choosing a favorite spot would be hard. While I primarily fish the upper 50 miles, I occasionally venture to the lower parts as well. The waters on the upper and lower sections are vastly different when it comes to the tactics and types of fishing you can expect.
I’ve done my best to outline the different places to fish, best flies to use and the type of fishing you can expect from each section. While there are a lot of details that go into an article like this, remember that the nature of catching fish changes daily. The things that work today, may not work tomorrow. Even as full time fishing guides we have to be aware of the changing nature of…well….nature.
With that being said, my hope is that this guide can help give you the best information possible in order to enhance your next fishing trip on the White River here in good ole’ Cotter, Arkansas.
The Bull Shoals Tailwaters
The Bull Shoals Tailwaters, particularly the upper 10 miles of this system, are renowned for their dense population of big fish. The behavior of the fish in this area differs from those downstream, and they have the added advantage of access to shad, which contributes to their size and weight. However, it’s no secret that the upper White River can get crowded at times. In fact, just yesterday, I witnessed a busy scene with 15 boats working a mere 3/4 mile stretch of water below Bull Shoals Dam. But by exploring downstream, I found a much more serene environment, encountering only four boats in a 4-mile stretch during the afternoon. Everyone wants a piece of the pie, especially with the enormous brown trout we have here and the beautiful cutthroat trout that are present as well.
Understanding the White River is crucial for a successful day of fly fishing. It is a complex river with eight generators, ranging from a minimum flow of approximately 6-700 CFs to about 25k CFs. In certain circumstances, such as the opening of flood gates or sluice gates, the river can grow even larger. Factors such as flow rates, weather conditions, and the time of year, as well as an angler’s experience and goals, dictate where I choose to fish each day. Each angler has their own aspirations, whether it’s seeking solitude, chasing a personal best fish, or simply enjoying the thrill of catching any fish, and these factors play a significant role in selecting the fishing spot.
Access to the White River below Bull Shoals Dam is abundant, thanks to the efforts of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. They have built ramps roughly every 5 miles, and these concrete ramps are well-maintained. Moreover, they have thoughtfully provided access points on both sides of the river, enhancing convenience for anglers.
Winter Fishing Spots
During the winter months, an interesting phenomenon occurs known as the shad kill, which attracts my attention closer to the dam. I find launching at Bull Shoals State Park and motoring upstream to be a favorite approach. When I used to operate a drift boat more frequently, I would opt for the Jim Griffin Ramp due to its proximity to the dam.
For wade fishermen, the Forest and Nina Wood ramp offers excellent access to the upper river. Even with a few generators running, there are safe areas to wade out into the grass and enjoy some productive fishing.
Spring & Summer Fishing Spots
Spring is undoubtedly one of the most exciting times to be on the water. Early spring brings the caddis hatch, which offers a thrilling experience from Rim Shoals all the way to the dam.
Although caddis hatches occur below Rim Shoals as well, I find the upper 16 miles or so to be the most action-packed. Rim Shoals itself boasts a fantastic walk-in access trail, extending approximately a mile downstream to White Shoals. When the flows are just right, this stretch provides some of the finest wade fishing opportunities on the river. During this time of year, launching from Wildcat is also a personal favorite. Being approximately 11 miles downstream from the dam, it allows for the flexibility to explore both upstream and downstream locations.
Summer is an excellent season for fishing on the White River, as it offers a chance for everyone to spread out.
Flow rates on the river are highly variable, and there is no such thing as a “normal” flow. Typically, spring rains result in water being held back until summer, and then the flows stabilize around 10-13 CFs during this time. This controlled flow provides anglers with the opportunity to disperse along the river, making it feel less crowded. It is during summer that I truly begin to focus my fishing efforts from Rim Shoals down to Buffalo City.
One of the most picturesque launch ramps in Arkansas is the Buffalo City ramp. The majestic bluffs that overlook the ramp, resembling a stair-step mountain, create a stunning backdrop. The shoals just above the ramp exude the essence of Western riffle water that I grew to love while guiding in that region. Launching from Buffalo City allows me to explore both upstream and downstream sections of the river, depending on the day’s fishing goals.
Fall Fishing Spots
As early fall arrives, we typically experience lower water levels on the White River. Cooler temperatures bring about the emergence of a few bugs, such as micro caddis or BWOs (Blue-Winged Olives). This time of year is ideal for anglers who enjoy the numbers game or those who are beginners looking to improve their skills. I find myself drawn to the lower river during this season, as it offers a more wild and scenic atmosphere.
With fewer anglers competing for spots, I can fully immerse myself in the beauty of nature. Observing eagles soaring above and glimpsing minks along the riverbanks adds an extra element of excitement. Shipp’s Ferry is a favored access point for me during this time. For wade fishermen, a leisurely walk down the railroad tracks from Shipp’s Ferry leads to several fantastic fishing holes.
The White River offers amazing resources beyond the different trout species everyone goes after. From the different wildlife you can encounter to the views of the Ozarks, it truly offers something for every angler’s preferences. Whether you’re a nymph guy, you fish streamers or you love the dry fly action, we have something for anyone and everyone! We can also accommodate those that love fishing spinners as well! It is an incredibly diverse fishery with browns and cutthroats to rainbow trout and brook trout. It does an amazing job at accommodating a variety of fishing tactics. While there are a few small “special regulations” areas that enforce catch-and-release and barbless hooks, the majority of the river is fair game.
It’s important to note that my personal favorites may not necessarily be the best spots for everyone. We all have different fishing styles and preferences. I encourage fellow anglers to venture out and explore the river, discovering what appeals to them and honing their own fishing techniques. The White River is a vast and bountiful waterway, home to magnificent fish. So, enjoy the adventure of exploring and have fun on the water!
If you’re looking the best way to enjoy the White River, give us a call today to book your next trip! Our guides will provide all the equipment, terminal tackle and knowledge you need to have a successful White River fly fishing trip! We can also point you to different lodging options you may need while visiting our part of the world. There are plenty of cabins, lodges and hotels to choose from, so let us help you point you in the right direction.