Decoding the White River

Decoding the White River

How to fish this highly productive-and complex-Ozark Mountain river system

  • By: Chad Mason
EDITOR'S NOTE: Information about seven more top-notch Southern tailwaters will appear in FR&R's upcoming July/October issue. Over the past five decades the White River system in Arkansas and Missouri has become a top destination for trophy trout anglers. The sheer numbers and size of trout in this river system are mind-boggling. However, after several seasons on the White, I have come to understand why the legendary Dave Whitlock, a longtime resident of the White River basin, confesses to "a love-hate relationship" with this river.Although there are big fish in these waters, it can be a headache to figure out the esoteric release schedules and flow rates of the dams. First-time visitors can be overwhelmed by the complexities (as well as the crowds on some stretches), and can quickly (and literally) get in over their heads without knowing the ins-and-outs of this tailwater system. Prior to World War II there were no trout in the White River system. In those days the river was known for its warmwater fishery. Local river guides treated their clients to long, drooping stringers of trophy largemouth bass. Then, between 1944 and 1965, five hydroelectric dams were completed on the White and its major tributaries, the North Fork and Little Red rivers, in northern Arkansas and southern Missouri. These dams produced five reservoirs (or "projects" as they are called locally): Beaver, Table Rock and Bull Shoals, all on the main stem of the White; Norfork, on the North Fork River; and Greers Ferry, on the Little Red River. These dams impound deep, clear reservoirs in the Ozark hill country. Cold water is discharged through turbines to generate electricity. Because the discharges come from great depth, the tailwaters remain cold enough to support trout year round. Many of the natural rhythms that fly fishers love and depend on are simply unobservable on the White River. They are obscured by power generation and flood control, both of which are sometimes complicated by unseen politics. Reservoir managers have the unenviable job of utilizing all the reservoirs in concert to satisfy diverse and sometimes competing demands. In other words, the very same dams that create the White's trout fishery also make it one of the strangest you'll find anywhere. With other streams we can time our visits on the basis of natural phenomena-insect hatches, runoff, spawning runs, etc.-which, despite occasional vagaries, revolve predictably. We know, for instance, that April spreads a blanket of Brachycentrus on Colorado's Arkansas River, and September pushes steelhead up Oregon's Willamette as far as Eugene. But on the White River we know very little, because nature's predictable patterns do not play the decisive role-the dams do. Learning the Lingo Despite the complexities, it is possible to adapt and become an effective angler on the White River. To fish the White successfully, you first need to be familiar with local terminology relating to hydroelectric generation. Here's a breakdown of the most important terms: Units: Each dam has an array of turbines (or "units" in local parlance) that generate electricity when water runs through them. So, you may hear at a local fly shop that "they're running one unit at Table Rock." Generally, one unit produces conditions conducive to fishing on foot, while two or more units will severely restrict your ability to fish by any means except drifting in a boat. Note that fishing "on foot" does not necessarily mean wading. Also note that I said generally. Because each unit has a wide range of flow capacity, the number of operating units doesn't really tell all you need to know. Megawatts: A better measure of the river's condition is the actual power output of the units, measured in megawatts. I've had decent success fishing on foot at generation levels up to about 60-80 megawatts. At anything above this range, I recommend fishing from a boat. CFS: Occasionally you will see the river's flow reported in cubic feet per second (cfs). At zero (or very low) power generation, the river's flow may be in the range of 100 to 300 cfs. Each unit is capable of passing approximately 3,000 cfs at its maximum setting, but units are more commonly operated at some reduced fraction of their peak capacity. Regardless of how many units are in operation, flows above 4,000 cfs will make fishing from shore difficult. In my experience, effective patterns and tactics for the White River are more a function of power generation than time of year. That's not to say seasons are completely irrelevant; it only means power generation is a bigger factor. Moreover, the generation patterns themselves do not necessarily follow a seasonal rhyme or reason. You cannot be guaranteed, for example, that spring means high flows and late summer brings low flows. That's freestone logic. Quite the opposite may be true on the White: The collective hum of several million air conditioners may spell torrential generation levels in August, while cool weather translates into low river levels despite a soaking March rain. But even that is not guaranteed at any particular dam. Because dam managers must simultaneously satisfy power demands and a myriad of water release requirements at multiple reservoirs, it can be extremely difficult to predict the power generation patterns. Welcome to the White River puzzle. However, I've generally found spring and fall-especially fall-to have mostly reliable generation patterns. During these seasons of pleasant temperatures (thus low electrical demand) you will usually enjoy wadable water in the mornings, and perhaps some generation in the afternoon that might require a boat. I've fished the White River successfully in all four seasons by adapting to whatever conditions I find. But if I could pick any time of year for one trip to the White River, I'd go in October. That said, other periods that are good bets for flows suitable for wading are late winter and early spring. However, if water levels in the reservoirs are high, they'll be releasing a lot of water in anticipation of later spring rain. This rules out most wading, but you can still have a decent float trip. Because of the river's dramatic fluctuations, aquatic insect hatches are rare and sparse. Important food items include midges, scuds, sowbugs, crawfish, aquatic worms, terrestrial insects and bait fish. Throughout the year, I've found the following patterns and tactics effective at various times and levels of generation: Low or zero generation (<20 megawatts): Very low generation levels, or even zero generation, may occur at any time of year on any given tailwater. Although wading will be safe, low generation produces some of the most challenging fishing you will encounter on the White, especially if it coincides with bright, clear skies. During these periods you will often see trout rising to midge hatches, and they will be extraordinarily selective. A midge pupa pattern, presented on a dead drift, works well in this circumstance. Use a very fine tippet and make long casts. Grease your leader to detect strikes and to keep the fly from sinking too deeply. Midge larva patterns can also work well when fished deep beneath a small strike indicator. The White River is also loaded with scuds and sowbugs. During low generation periods, I've found it best to fish a scud pattern with a brisk hand-twist retrieve. Tan and olive are favorite colors. Another excellent fly for scant generation is the Foxhair Clouser Minnow, which seems to suggest a small sculpin or darter, or perhaps even a crawfish. Allow this pattern to sink to the bottom and then retrieve it painstakingly slowly. Literally crawl it over the bottom, mixing in occasional pauses and quick jerks of three or four inches. This pattern works especially well in the Table Rock tailwater at the upper end of Lake Taneycomo. Low to moderate generation (1-2 units, 20-80 megawatts): At the lower end of this range, fishing on foot can still be productive. At the higher end, a very pleasant float trip can be enjoyed. In either case you'll continue to find San Juan Worms, scuds and sowbugs to be very effective. In summer, trout lying in bankside snags will also rise for grasshopper patterns or attractors like the locally popular Crackleback or Bulbous Bivisible. Streamers can also be effective. Woolly Buggers in olive, brown or white produce well at times. High generation (2 units, >80 megawatts): During periods of high flow, drifting in a boat is the best way to fish the White River system. Fly patterns can be a bit more garish under such conditions. A peach egg pattern or the locally popular Pink Beadhead will draw hurried strikes, especially from active rainbows. The San Juan Worm remains effective. All these patterns should be fished on a dead drift near the bottom. In my experience, fly-fishing becomes more work than fun whenever generation exceeds 120 megawatts (typically three or more units). Spin-fishers begin to take the upper hand at extremely high generation levels. The Rise On most rivers "the rise" refers to trout feeding on a surface hatch. But on the White I mean something different by this term. Let's say you've been fishing during zero generation, and then the horn sounds. When a hydroelectric unit is turned on, the water level will begin to rise. Although you should get out of the river, you should not quit fishing. A brief but memorable feeding frenzy is about to commence. During "the rise" that coincides with the onset of generation, my favorite pattern is a San Juan Worm. Best colors are bright red or earthworm brown, and this pattern produces best when a gold or copper bead is included. The Flashback Hare's Ear is also quite good when water levels begin to rise. Fish these patterns on a dead drift with split-shot and a strike indicator. Wading Use extreme caution when wading the White River, as the river is more powerful than it looks. And if you're in the water when the alarm horn sounds, indicating the impending start-up of a generation unit, immediately wade ashore. You may still be able to fish effectively from shore if generation levels remain moderate. You can obtain power generation schedules for each tailwater "project" by calling Southwestern Power Administration (SWPA) at 918-595-6779 or by searching their Web site at www.swpa.gov. Call after 4:00 pm and you'll get the estimated generation schedule for the following day. Although still no guarantee of actual conditions, these schedules are crucial for helping you plan. For example, you may discover that Bull Shoals will run six units and 200 megawatts of generation tomorrow, but Table Rock will run only one unit at 15 megawatts. You have a choice: either drift Bull Shoals or wade at Table Rock. The Shad "Hatch" In late winter and early spring, massive shad mortality can occur in the Ozark reservoirs. When this happens, dead shad by the millions can be washed into the tailwaters below. Trout will feast on this moving glut, which can provide some of the year's hottest action for fly casters. The Shad Fly, weighted or unweighted, will bring savage strikes. Fish the Shad Fly on a dead drift to mimic a dead shad. If you must get by with a single rod for the White River, make it a 9-foot, 6-weight with a relatively fast action, since nymphing across strong currents is the bread-and-butter angling technique on the White. A two-rod system is even better. A 3- or 4-weight rod, at least eight feet in length, is ideal for low-water midging. For tossing streamers at bankside snags, a 9-foot, 6- or 7-weight rod wins the day, and also works well for nymphing. I have never desired anything but a floating line when fishing the White River. However, if you're the type to jerk streamers through deep pools at dawn and dusk for trophy browns, you may benefit from a sinking shooting-head. When wading, dress your lower body warmly even in summer. The White River runs very cold year round. Go ashore periodically to warm up and restore circulation to your legs. Even when fishing from a drift boat, remember that the air temperature down on the river will be considerably cooler than the outside temperature at your hotel. And you'll likely have thick fog in the early mornings, lending dampness to the cool air. Bring chest waders, because hip boots are virtually useless on the White. Felt soles will help you keep traction on slippery rocks. If you feel the need for a wading staff, then you probably shouldn't be in the water anyway. Don't flirt with disaster on this river. Although the promise of a leg-length brown trout draws anglers to the White, it's rare to connect with such a fish on fly-fishing tackle. With some obvious exceptions, the true behemoths are largely the province of patient good ol' boys dunking live crawfish by lantern light. Yes, it's possible to catch a 25-inch brown on a size 22 midge here. But a more reasonable expectation is to catch good numbers of vividly colored rainbows between 14 and 18 inches, with an occasional fish (brown or rainbow) over 20 inches. The two-pound 'bow is the backbone of this fishery, far outnumbering the browns. Finally, don't expect to have the river to yourself. To say the White River system is popular would be an extreme understatement. Angling pressure peaks on weekends, but may be noticeable at any time. Fish on weekdays if possible. Cracking the code: White River Flies Pink Beadhead HOOK: Mustad 94840, size 10 THREAD: 6/0, hot pink HEAD: Hot pink bead TAIL: Hot pink marabou, short Bulbous Bivisible HOOK: Mustad 94840, size 10-12 THREAD: 6/0 black BODY: Black foam, cut to shape and tied extended-body style HACKLE: White in front of black, covering front two-thirds of shank Crackleback HOOK: Mustad 94840, size14 THREAD: 8/0 UNI, yellow BODY: Yellow poly dubbing BACK: Peacock herl HACKLE: Brown, palmered over body and back Beadhead San Juan Worm HOOK: TMC 2487, size 12 THREAD: 6/0, red HEAD: Small copper bead BODY: Ultrachenille (vernille), lashed to top of hook and burned on the ends with a cigarette lighter. Midge Pupa HOOK: Mustad 94840, size 18; or 94859, size 20-22 THREAD: 8/0 UNI-thread, olive ABDOMEN: Olive goose biot THORAX: Tiny strip of black foam, wound around shank WING: White poly yarn Midge Larva HOOK: TMC 200R, size 22 BODY: Red 8/0 UNI-thread spun tightly, then wound forward in segments. Coat with cement. Shad Fly HOOK: Mustad 9672, size 6 THREAD: 3/0 Monocord, white TAIL: White marabou BODY: Medium chenille, white SIDES: Several strips of Pearl Flashabou, tied in at rear and pulled forward along sides to make "racing stripes." HACKLE: White saddle, palmered over body and sides Foxhair Clouser Minnow HOOK: TMC 200R, size 8 THREAD: 3/0 Monocord, olive EYES: Spirit River "Bright Eyes," chartreuse. Secure with figure-8 wraps and cement. BODY: Tied Clouser-style (upside-down) with arctic fox tail hair. Cream on belly; olive on top, with a few strands of gold Krystal Flash. Another winning combination is black over light gray, with silver Krystal Flash.