KW Morrow, White River

April 19th, 2004

The Cold-water Fisheries of the Ozarks
By KW Morrow (silvermallard)

The trout species found in the Ozarks fisheries are mostly Rainbows and Browns, but there are limited numbers of Brook Trout, Cutthroats, and Cutbows to be found in some waters...mostly on the Arkansas side of the border. A typical Rainbow will measure between 11 and 15 inches, while a common Brown trout landed on the fly will measure around 15 inches. Trophy fish are generally considered anything over 20 inches. Browns are the more popular trophy species, and have been landed and recorded with great frequency in excess of 20 pounds from the North Fork, the White River below Bull Shoals dam, and on Taneycomo below Table Rock dam. The North Fork produced the current IGFA record Brown Trout, the Little Red River is well known for producing large Brown and Rainbow Trout as well.

The communities which tend to serve as the hubs for fly anglers in the region are Mountain Home and Flippin, Arkansas, and Branson, Missouri. But these are by no means the only three destinations worth visiting. One of the nicest features of the Ozarks region for fly anglers is the shear menagerie of locales and variety of options available that are fairly densely packed into an area roughly 100 miles East-to-West by 50 miles North-to-South. Anglers can fish a spring-fed stream like the Spring River for Rainbows and Cutthroat one day and chase trophy Browns on the White River the next. Follow that with a float down the North Fork the following day. Then drive over to wade the Little Red River the day after. The next day, drive up to Beaver or Taneycomo and fish for Rainbows on the Missouri side of the border. The Ozarks offers a virtual smorgasbord of trout angling opportunities with some of the lowest non-resident license prices, lodging rates, and guide rates in the country.

Each of the Ozarks' cold-water fisheries is unique and has its own variety of nymphs, streamers, wet, and dry flies that produce well under specific conditions. The majority of the fly-fishing takes place on various tailwaters of the White River system of dams. Beaver Dam, Table Rock Dam, Powersite Dam, Bull Shoals Dam, Greer's Ferry Dam, and Norfork Dam all form quality tailwater fisheries along the Arkansas and Missouri border. Like most tailwater fisheries, power generation at the dams impacts fishing tactics more than any other single factor. But each fishery also changes with the seasons, the weather, and the fishing pressure. The angler who wants to catch good numbers of quality fish year-round on these fisheries must develop a varied arsenal of tactics and fly patterns to address these changing conditions. The conventional wisdom among fly anglers in the Ozarks is that the heart and soul of fly-fishing the region's cold-water fisheries are the sowbug and scud. Yet another group seems devoted to a relatively narrow assortment of small streamers. But many of the top fly anglers in the region agree that at the core of this arsenal lie the tiny midges, which hatch daily throughout the year on every one of these fisheries. I fall into step with the latter group of anglers.

The preference for midge fishing is probably not born of any demonstrable advantage in numbers or size of fish landed. The same could be said of a preference for the bottom-dwelling sowbug/scud crowd or the streamer devotees. Rather, it is most likely the product of personal preference and individual proficiency with the tactics of fishing that particular category of flies, and perhaps even a penchant for tying specific flies. All three methods produce good numbers of quality fish when done well. And each group of anglers must also acquire proficiency in the other two disciplines if one is to become successful in most places and at most times. While my fly boxes are predominantly filled with Midge Pupae, Zebra Midges, Partridge Soft Hackle Emergers, and Mosquito Midge dry flies in various colors and sizes, I must also carry and be proficient with an assortment of scuds and Wooly Buggers. The wise Ozark fly-fisherman will also equip himself with a few proven dry flies of the region such as the Crackleback and the Elk Hair Caddis.

For leaders and tippets, the successful Ozark angler will need to carry an assortment of 5x, 6x, and 7x tippet along with at least one 12-foot 6x leader for casting dry flies and soft hackles. Line weights basically range from 4-weight for this type of delicate work to 7-weight for the heavy streamers cast to cover-hugging Brown trout. Recommended tippet and leader lengths generally run from 10 to 15 feet, with 12 feet being considered "ideal" by most. In the Ozarks, most proficient anglers don't bother using a tapered leader when nymphing. Instead, they tend to use straight tippet material attached directly to the fly line. The same can be said for fishing with streamers like the Wooly Bugger. This is by no means universal, but a clearly evident phenomenon among resident fly anglers. Some even prefer 2-4 lb. test monofilament fishing line mostly due to economics and the fact that it still works.

Buoyant foam strike indicators seem to be preferred for nymph fishing over the yarn or putty type. Positive buoyancy of these "bobber" type indicators makes controlling depth much easier. Size of the indicator is important, however, and you want to use the smallest indicator that will float above your terminal tackle. Achieving and maintaining the proper depth in the water column…the one where fish are feeding...is at least fifty percent of the battle of good nymphing technique. The next most important factor is maintaining a good, drag-free drift. The first is accomplished by a combination of proper casting technique and the right amount of weight below the indicator, while the latter is the product of casting and mending which can be accomplished using a variety of upstream casting strategies. I see more and more anglers as time goes on fishing nymphs using a true upstream cast and drift method, but the most productive anglers use the up-and-across approach with an upstream mend as the indicator comes parallel to their position in the stream.

The soft hackle emergers are presented using an up-and-across cast similar to that used for nymphs, but the fly is allowed to swing in the current creating a bow in the line until it comes to rest directly downstream of the caster, when it is twitch-stripped a few feet and then cast again. The most popular soft hackle patterns are the Partridge and Orange and Partridge and Insect Green Soft Hackle Emergers. They can also be "drowned" and fished shallow under a small indicator if conditions warrant. Most soft hackle anglers carry an assortment of soft hackle flies tied on both emerger and dry fly hooks in sizes 16 through 24. When the fish are feeding very near the surface film, the dry fly versions are used, while the nymph/emerger versions are used when the fish are feeding a few inches to a foot or so beneath the surface.

Both in the early morning and late afternoon/evening hours, Ozark fisheries produce limited opportunities to catch trout on dry flies. The best patterns seem to be the Mosquito Midge, Crackleback, and Elk Hair Caddis. Hoppers and beetles of various sorts can also be productive when conditions are right. But I would estimate that roughly ten percent of the trout landed in the Ozarks cold-water fisheries are taken on dry flies. The vast majority are hooked below the surface.

Fly anglers will also find the Ozark region to be very hospitable and "tourism-friendly." Tourism has been one of the major industries of the region for nearly 100 years, and the people and culture of the Ozarks is largely centered around vacationers. Eating establishments, lodging, camping facilities, and evening entertainment options abound. So if you are looking for "new waters" to explore, or if you haven't been here for a while, consider the Ozarks for your next fly-fishing adventure. Centrally located in the United States, the Ozarks lie within a 10-hour drive of nearly 60-percent of the population of the country. From Chicago to Cincinnati, from Alabama to Texas, and from Denver to Cedar Rapids, residents can drive to the Ozarks in a day. If you live further away, the airports in Memphis, Little Rock, Springfield, and even St. Louis and Kansas City put you within easy striking distance of the great fishing that awaits. ~ Ken

About Ken:

Ken graduated from Southern Methodist University in 1988, and spent the next several years serving in the United States Navy as an intelligence analyst and Russian Language translator. He is a veteran of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Leaving the nation's service in 1993.

Ken is also a published outdoor writer and historian, having penned articles and stories that have appeared in several national hunting publications like North American Hunter magazine, on GunMuse.com, in regional and local newspapers, and historical and literary journals. He also provides hunting and dog training seminars for Bass Pro Shops and other sporting goods retailers nationwide and works with other outdoors businesses and conservation organizations in the fields of public relations, promotional marketing, fund-raising, and advertising. He also is a partner in Silver Mallard Properties, LLC. He currently resides with his wife, Wilma, their Weimaraner, Smoky Joe, and their Labrador Retriever, Jake, in Branson, Missouri, where he founded the Branson/Tri-Lakes Chapter of Ducks Unlimited in 1998.


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