White River Arkansas Trout Fishing:
A Guide’s Insight
If you’ve ever wondered why people are flocking to the Natural State to go White River trout fishing, this article should surely help answer your questions. Today we will talk about flies, methods, water conditions, and all the information you could ever want to know about White River fly fishing. Over the next several months, we are going to tackle several topics that you may be curious about and help try to answer all of your questions. You can also find our video responses on our YouTube channel. We’re really shooting to help improve your knowledge about all things fly fishing in Arkansas. So jump in and enjoy getting to learn more about the White River below!
What makes White River Arkansas Trout Fishing So Special?
The White has something for everyone and that’s what makes it a truly special fishery. The White River below Bull Shoals Lake, is specifically the section I am talking about. Below Bull Shoals Dam, we have roughly 100 miles of trout water. I think the official count, the game and fish says, is 95 miles or something like that. It’s a pretty big trout fishery, but we also have White River below Table Rock, Taneycomo, and Beaver, so there’s a whole lot of White River.
It starts in Arkansas, flows north into Missouri, and then flows back south into Arkansas through a series of chain lakes and dams. We are the last one in the system. The thing that really stands out to me most about the White River is truly its diversity.
I mean, from the time it leaves Bull Shoals Dam to the time the trout fishing ends, it’s really like 10 different rivers. It changes a lot. The biomass, the feed, the river bottom, and the scenery. It all changes a lot. It truly has something for everyone. If you’re new to fly fishing and you just want to go out and catch some fish. The White River is the place for you. If you’ve been fly fishing your whole life and you are trying to catch a new personal best, then the White River is the place for you. If you just want to go out and enjoy a day of fishing and catch a bunch of fish and hope you bump into a good one, the White River is the place for you.
It truly has a lot of different types of structure and river bottom and ways you can fish it as well. The White River is a diverse habitat too. It is home to rainbow trout, brown trout, cutthroat trout, Brook trout, and tiger trout. The variety is endless. Whether you’re going after the size of fish or the number of fish, you’ve got a huge selection to pull from here.
We have great dry fly fishing. We have great nymph fishing. We have great streamer fishing. All though techniques are often dictated by flows. Because we are dependent on the flows from a dam. Just because you want to come streamer fishing doesn’t mean it always works out that way, If the dam isn’t releasing water then your way better off nymphing. Like I said earlier, the White River has something for everyone and that’s what makes it so special. Sometimes you just have to be flexible and fish the conditions you are given.
The White River, A Destination For All Anglers
The White River is truly a year-round fishery, and there really aren’t a ton of true year-round fisheries in this country, especially when you think about the fisheries out West. The Green River in Utah, the San Juan in New Mexico and the SOHO in Tennessee are a few other year-round fisheries that come to mind as well. So many people dream of fishing those wild, western waters, and it’s an experience for sure that everyone should see, but as time goes on they struggle more with changing weather patterns and increasing temps. Our big Southern tail waters offer cold, clear water year-round for our fish.
People often ask me, “When should I come?” And usually, I reply with, “When the weather suits your clothes.” I mean, if you don’t mind being hot, come in summer. If you like being cold, come in the winter. I mean it really. We can fish it 365 days a year here. No matter how cold it gets, the White River is not going to freeze. The boat ramps may ice over, but the river is not going to freeze. So if there’s a will, there’s a way, and you can get in the water and do some fishing.
The other thing I think that stands out is a lot of rivers out west, they’re not very forgiving, right? If you’re new to the sport and you want to go fish the South Fork of the Snake, but you can’t cast a dry fly 40 feet and put it within a shoe box of the bank, then you may not have a super successful trip. But, if you come to the White River and you don’t even know that the reel is supposed to go down, I can still put you on fish.
You’re still going to leave with a handful of fish tugging on the line and you’re going to make some progress. You’re going to feel like you’ve accomplished something and gained some confidence in your technique because you gained experience. There’s no substitution for experience, right? So, I think that’s another big thing that the White River has to offer is just the ability for everyone to be able to catch fish all the time. I consider a bad day on the White River a good day on lots of rivers.
Do we have tough days? Absolutely. But a bad day, for me, on the White River is 10 or 15 fish. I’m going home thinking the trout got the best of me if we only caught 10 or 15 fish. We really are in a lucky position here. In a lot of places out west, 10 or 15 fish is a banner day.
The other thing that draws people to the White is the fact that there are trophy trout in there as well. We have no shortage of 25 -30 inch fish in the White River. But that doesn’t mean they’re easy to catch. Just because you want to catch one, doesn’t mean you will, but they’re there and they do get caught frequently. If you get lucky and draw the white water conditions your chances go way up wrangling a hog.
I probably caught 3 – 4 fish in the 24-inch range in the last four or five days. So that’s something special. There are not a lot of rivers where I think you are seeing numbers like that, with frequency like that.
There are a lot of fisheries where there are no 24-inch trout or 30-inch trout. So I think that’s one of the things that pulls people to the White River. The thought of, “Hey, there’s gigantic browns there. Let’s go try it out”. The allure of knowing every cast could have the fish of a lifetime attached to the end of it keeps people coming back that’s for sure.
The other thing that we have going for the White is the fact that we’re smack dab in the middle of the country. We have seven or eight major metropolitan cities within a seven-hour drive. We have several really nice airports within a two-hour drive. It’s really not that hard to get here. We’re right in the middle of the country and we’re accessible from people in the south, people in the east, people in the west, and people in the northeast. We really are centrally located and it just kind of makes for a perfect experience for people, in my opinion.
Is The White River Good For Just Trout Fishing?
Trout certainly are the most dominant fish in the system, especially as far as sportfish go. There are an array of suckers, redhorse, northern hog snares, and several other different types of drum, you might see occasionally in the water.
I’ve seen a paddlefish or two in the white that’s swam up from maybe the Mississippi or the lower white or somewhere and they’ve worked their way up. But, overall, it’s a trout fishery (one of the best trout fisheries in the nation I might add). We have a couple of really remarkable smallmouth tributaries that dump into the white river as well. So occasionally, if you are fishing below those tributaries, you can find some smallmouth. Or, if you’re willing to go down on the lower end of the river, then you can strictly target smallmouth and largemouth.
Even at the last access they stock Rainbow Trout, Gion, it’s great smallmouth fishing down there. Our river smallmouths are a little smaller maybe than some of the smallmouth that live in the creeks or the tributaries, but they’re still hardy, they’re still fun, and absolutely they can be targeted.
But, traditionally, if someone says to me, “Matt, I want to go smallmouth bass fishing.”, I’m going to take them into Crooked Creek, Sylamore Creek, or somewhere that’s truly a smallmouth fishery. Every now and then on the Norfork River (North Fork of the White River), stripers will come over the top of the dam when they run the floodgates. Or walleye will come over as well. There certainly are some old dudes who like to troll for walleye below the dams and stuff after the floodgates have been open.
So, when they close those, you can bet there will be men out there looking for walleye.
Same with on Bull Shoals. There are guys out there looking for walleye. Very rarely do we have folks that are coming to the White to target another species. It’s traditionally bycatch, or you’re a local that likes to eat walleye or striper.
Where are the best places to fish on the White River
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission have done really a great job with providing access to the White river. The White splits Baxter and Marion County. Roughly every five miles, give or take a mile or two, there’s a boat ramp on the White River or an access point where you could come in and wade fish.
Starting at Bull Shoals Dam, on the Baxter County side you have the Jim Griffin access. Just below it, you have Bull Shoals State Park. Just below it you have Gaston’s. Just below there, you have the Narrows walk-in access and wildcat shoals, and so on and so on.
And so this makes it really easy for people to be able to stay in front of the water since it is often big flows or bigger water like it is currently. Right now they’re running low water in the morning, and high water in the afternoon to meet the demand of the summer heat.
As the temperatures rise, so does the demand for power, which increases the flow of generation. So a guy could start below Bull Shoals Dam at the Jim Griffin access and go in and wade right there and catch fish. But at ten o’clock, when they blow the horn, he may want to skip the state park and Gastons and jump down to the Narrows.
That way he buys himself an hour or two. The narrows is a really great walk-in access. There’s no boat ramp there. You’re not in anybody’s way. There are two islands where you can go out and wade both sides of the island, and it’s just a really great spot for someone to go on foot if the water’s low. Within a couple of hours, that water starts to rise there so you can pack up and run down to rim shoals. Rim Shoals has a remarkable trail that goes down about two miles away with accesses, you can pull off and walk down in the river and fish. Again, they have a couple of islands there.
The guys at Rim Shoals Resort will run a taxi so you can get in the boat with them and they’ll ferry you out to the islands. You can wade fish and tell them to, “Pick me up in three hours”, and they’ll come back and get you.
We have a lot of really great access points depending on water flow. Wildcat Shoals is a remarkable access because, even in high water, the access is positioned on the inside bend of a river. So the flows on the outside, across from it, are much faster than they are at Wildcat and there’s a nice sloping grass bank. So, a guy could get in at Wildcat and, even in considerably higher water than he could wade in at the Narrows, he has access there. He can fish the flooded grass, he can fish the softer currents. The boat ramp creates a kind of jetty, if you will, that blocks current on the downstream side of it.
It produces a wonderful eddy. I’ve seen some of the largest trout I’ve ever seen in the White River in that eddy, eating guts from where the bait guides come in and fillet them and leave the guts in that eddy, which is illegal, but they do it anyway. But, it’s trout food, right? It feeds the big boys and it’s tradition in Arkansas. So you learn to coexist, I guess.
We have no shortage of access points though. It just depends on what a person’s trying to do. What they’re trying to accomplish, as to what access is the best. We really are lucky in the fact that about every five miles up and down the river, there’s an access, whether it’s on the Baxter or the Marion County side. You can check out our other article about the best White River fishing spots to get a better understanding of where you can fish.
When Are The Best Times to Fish the White River
The White River truly is a year-round fishery. The best time to fish the White River is kind of a loaded question. Some of that depends on what you’re into. If you have never been fly fishing before and you’re signing up and want to go on your first fly fishing experience, February or January may not be the trip for you. It’s going to be cold. Traditionally, the water is going to be high. But, if you are a streamer junkie and you love ripping big streamers off the banks and you’re looking for that brown trout willing to chase it, then it’s the perfect time for you.
Really and truly, there’s something magical or different about every season. In the wintertime, we have a shad kill, which is this phenomenon where they’re generating lots of water to meet the power demand of the cold temperatures. The shad on the lake end up going deep into the water looking for the thermocline and they get pulled through the generators. The trout below the dam will eat these with reckless abandon at times.
So that’s a really great time for guys to target large fish. To catch some big fish with some really different techniques like with floating minnows or with streamers or with sinking minnows as well.
Spring is a really cool time for people to come fish. Probably for the beginner the easiest time to catch a big fish. As March rolls around, and we start getting warmer days, the temperatures usually rise and the flows drop and we start seeing the early bugs. Some caddis will pop out in late March or at least the rockworms start moving around. Then all of a sudden it happens one day, the caddis will explode and brown trout will act a fool.
The nymphing starts to get really good, the weather starts to break, and it’s a wonderful time to be on the water. When the caddis hatch gets full-blown it’s like something you have never seen. For a lot of people, that is the best time to fish the White River. It’s a great time when you can catch big trout without necessarily having to be a super-skilled angler.
Certainly, you have to learn the basics of having to fight a big fish and play a big fish and all that. The techniques we use to fool them aren’t necessarily all that tricky with a nymph. Our dry-fly fishing that time of year is also really incredible and a little bit more of a challenge for our better fishermen.
Then we traditionally slide into early summer and our sulfurs start hatching and it’s kind of more of the same. It’s pretty easy nymphing and pretty challenging dry-fly fishing. The sulphur hatch is probably my favorite hatch. I enjoy the bugs, the times they hatch and just how much more picky the fish get as the summer goes on.
In the summertime, we also start to fish a lot of hoppers, which is kind of one of my favorite ways to fish. The hopper dropper works well when our water’s a little lower. That still puts you in play for opportunities for big fish and for numbers.
Fall rolls around. The trees start to change colors; the leaves become beautiful. The water is usually really low in the fall as they drain the lakes in the summer for power. I will often tell my beginner fishermen to come in the fall. It’s a beautiful time. The water’s low. There are high numbers, but it’s also a great time for experienced fishermen as you’re starting to look for those pre-spawn browns that are starting to put on a little weight and might be able to be fooled.
So I hate to just give this generic answer, but truthfully, the White River fishes great year round and it is fun to fish year-round.
You should come when the weather suits your clothes. If you like being cold, come in the winter. Can’t stand being cold, come in the summer. You like it when it’s beautiful, come in the spring or the fall, but truly we can fish you year round and have a great experience and a different experience all four seasons of the year.
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