White River, Missouri and Arkansas

Winkley Shoals from Swinging Bridge
The White River offers approximately 130 miles of tailwater trout habitat: eight downstream from Beaver Dam, 22 below Table Rock Cam, several beyond Powersite Dam, and 100 downriver from Bull Shoals. Marginal to good trout habitat exists in numerous spring-fed tributaries and portions of Table Rock and Bull Shoals lakes, but that's another story.

Two tributaries, the North Fork and Little Red rivers, add 35 more miles of prime tailwater trout fishing to the system. The Norfolk Tailwater meets the White at the town of Norfolk, Arkansas, 44 miles downstream from Bull Shoals Dam. Norfolk and White River trout are known to move between rivers. Little Red and White River trout do not mix. Both rivers have long since lost their chill when they meet. [For a MAP of the White River, click here.]

Author on Norfolk Tailwater with brookie

Norfolk was the Ozarks' first high dam and tailwater trout fishery. In 1948, 600 four-to six-inch rainbows were stocked in the tailwater. Two years later they exceeded six pounds. Presently, cutthroat and brook, some of which are big, and brown trout, some of which are huge (the river record is 35 pounds 9 ounces), also live in the Norfolk tailwater. Upstream from Norfolk Lake is Missouri, the spring-fed North Fork River holds wild rainbows and stocked browns.

The Little Red River has rainbow, brook, and cutthroat trout but is famous for big browns - one in particular. That fish, taken in May of 1992 by Howard (Rip) Collins weighted 40 pounds 4 ounces, and is the all tackle world record brown trout.

State and federal governments have never stocked the Little Red with browns. The Arkansas Fly Fishers of Little Rock placed Vibert boxes of fertilized eggs in Cow Shoals in 1975. In 1979 they and the Mid-South Fly Fishers of Memphis, stocked 5000 fingerlings. The planted browns spawned successfully and the rest is angling history.

The White River brown trout record is 33 pounds, 8 ounces (although a 35-pounder was found floating near Gaston's Resort, where it is on display), but it has produced two 19-pound rainbows, and a nine-pound nine-ounce cutthroat - all state records. The current Arkansas brook trout record, a Little Red River fish, is four pounds six ounces. Brook trout can reach three pounds in two years, and all the Arkansas tailwaters (Missouri does not stock brook or cutthoats) hold the promise of much bigger brookies.

Frank Saksa with Rim Shoals Brown Nature intended the White River's long clear pools and sparkling shoals for smallmouth bass and float fishing, for which it became internationally famous during the first half of this century. Now the White is a series of huge impoundments, known for bass, interspersed with cold tailwaters and trophy trout.

The White River System's cold tailwaters are a by-product of five giant hydroelectric dams: Bull Shoals, Table Rock, and Beaver on the White, Greers Ferry on the Little Red, and Norfolks on the North Folk. The dams draw cold lake water from near their bases and discharge that water into their tailwaters. Tailwater temperatures vary between the mid-40s and low 60s, and stay in the mid-50s most of the year.

White River System trout know no winter. They aggressively feed on scuds, sow bugs, sculpins, aquatic insects and worms, and a variety of baitfish throughout the year. When the weather warms, crawfish, hatching insects, and terrestrials are plentiful. Abundant food and ideal water temperatures enable the System's tailwater trout to grow one half to one inch a month - year round.

In the early years, it was thought that Ozark tailwater trout would not take flies. Guides, whose reputations depended on delivering hefty strings of fish to customers, were unwilling to have their clients waste time fly fishing. Today, fly fishermen come from everywhere to fish the White River System, providing many guides with a living. These fly fishermen don't leave disappointed - often they don't leave at all. [For the FLIES for the White River, click here.]

A Little History

Fall on the White
Float fishing was invented, and reached its peak on the White River and its tributaries. Long before the turn of the century, natives were known to float down rivers for days in crude boats then laboriously ple them back upstream. One of the first and certainly most peculiar float-fishing techniques was developed in the 1880s.

Giant softwood mills on the Current River (a tributary of the White via the Black River) floated railroad ties bound together in joined rafts down the river to rail heads. Fishermen rode along, standing at the raft's head until it came to a good hole, then they began casting while lifting their feet up and down at the same time - like marching in place. The raft slif under then as they fished and the hole could be worked till they came to the raft's stern. Some of these rafts were a half mile long, allowing anglers to fish a hole for a half hour.

In 1904, the Missouri Pacific Railroad laid tract to Branson, Missouri, ending the area's isolation and bringing "furriners" (tourists) to the Ozarks. Charlie Barnes of Galenea, Missouri on the James River, sensed opportunity - in the form of tourist dollars. Charlie shortened and widened the traditional Ozark sucker gigging craft, the "redhorse runner," to accomodate caming gear and fishermen, inventing the jonboat. The boats were often called "jackboats" for the iron baskets of burning "jack pine" they carried to illuminate the water for nitetime sucker gigging. Eventually jack became john, the boats allegedly named by the sports writers, Robert Page Lincoln, who fished with Charlie.

Charlie, Herb, and John Barnes estabilished the region's first commericial float-fishing operation taking customers from Galena down the James to Branson on the White River. The 125-mile trips was said to take five days and cost two dollars for a boat and a dollar fifty for the guide per day. Charlies boats were loaded on special railroad cars in Branson and hauled back to Galena when the float trip was concluded.

In the early 30s, Jim Owen of Branson began outfitting floats on the James, White and other Ozark rivers. A gifted promoter and businessman, Jim gained vital publicity for the region and is business by inviting Outdoor Life fishing editor, Ray Bergman to the Ozarks for a float. At his peak, Jim had 40 boats and 35 guides - including the Barnes brothers.

Modern fiberglass jonboat on the White

The Owen operation attracted the rich and famous, and could accomodate practically any indulgence - for a price (by 1955 the base price has soared for $22 a day per person. Celebrities, including Thomas Hart Benson, Forrest Tucker, Smiley Burnette, and Gene Autry (who distinguished himself by falling out of a boat), floated with Jim.

The Water

You will hear the terms "high" and "low" water regularly on the White River System's tailwaters. Low water is the flow coming through the dams when they are not generating power; roughly comparable to the rivers' low natural flow. "Dead low" means generators have been shut down long enough for all the tailwater to have gone downstream.

Guide Jim Lipscome, intermediate flow below
Bull Shoals Dam

"Highwater" means most or all of a dam's generators are running. Between maximum and minimum flows there are intermediate levels defined by how many generators are on. Accoring to an engineer at Table Rock Dam, generators can be operated between 15 and 110 percent capacity, so flow does not necessarily correspond with numbers of generators running. The dams also have floodgates at the top that can be opened in emergencies.


It is a matter of life and death that fishermen understand that power generation can begin at anytime. The dams sound a blaring horn when generation or increased generation is imminent. You can hear the horn if you are near the dams, but otherwise you must be ever watchful for rising water and always have an escape route in mind and sight. Experienced tailwater fishermen monitor the water level on upstream rocks and snags, watch for debris to appear, feel for increased current, and listen for a change in the river's sound. At the first sign of a rise they get out fast.

Wading through and beyond deep water at the low stage is asking to become as statistic. If the water rises, you will not be able to wade back through that deep spot. Standing in heavy current above deep water, and wading downstream into ever-deepening water with unwadable water on both side, are similarly suicidal.

Diane Hicks rigging tackle at Rim Shoals


Each of these fisheries includes significant to vast stretches of water accessible only by boat, and you cannot effectively fish high water from shore. Traveling to the White River System and fishing only the water you can reach from shore is not the best use of your time and resources.

Ups and Downs

The tailwaters' pools and riffles are a joy to fly-fish at low water. With good technique, you can catch all the 10- to 15-inch trout you want, and perhaps some two- to four-pounders dead-drifting sowbug/scud/nymph patterns or working Woolly Buggers and soft-hackle flies, but don't expect a bigger one (except during the spawn when large fish are in shallow water). At low water, big trout are inclined to sulk in deep pools and not actively feed during the day. Three-to five-pound fish cruise the shallows and sometimes enter the riffles at dusk, but the really big ones normally feed at night or in deeper water.

The frequency and duration of power generation has increased dramatically over the years. In the past, fly fishermen fished when the water was low and went home when it came up. Guides with paying customers don't have this luxury.

Sculpin patterns fished deep sometimes produce big brown trout in high water. Heavy generation may draw some shad through the generators and shad patterns can be good near dams.

From Goat Bluff C and R section and
River Ridge Access Tailwater trout are inclined to feed when the water is coming up, but rising water is often cloudy and carrying debris. The rise fishes best near the dams where debris is minimal.

Large brown trout are known for feeding at night, and the other species will also. During summer, when the rivers are pounded by day and temperatures are severe, night fishing is both comfortable and exciting. Pick a sale and familiar place to wade, go out when the water is down (which it usually is on summer nights), and tie on a big black or olive Wooly Bugger. Trout often cruise at night. Position yourself in a fishy spot and let them some to you. If that doesn't work, move.

Other Ozark Possibilities

There are many trout streams and rivers in the Ozarks, including the spring-fed Current, Eleven Point, Meramec, Niangua, and Spring rivers. Nearly all Ozark streams provide excellent fly fishing for smallmouth bass fishing, most have largemouth and spotted bass as well. The Ozarks' big lakes, including those in the White River System, are famous for bass, walleyes, stripers, hybrid stripers, white bass, catfish, and panfish.

People in the Ozarks reflect their low-stress environment. They are inclined toward fishing when they get a notion and visiting with strangers. You'll find them to be friendly, straight forward, and quick to laugh. ~ Scott Richmond

For a MAP of the White River, click here.
For the FLIES for the White River, click here.
To ORDER White River direct from the publisher, click HERE.

Credits: From White River, part of the River Journal series, published by Frank Amato Publications. We greatly appreciate use permission.

Back to Index

[ HOME ]

[ Search ] [ Contact FAOL ] [ Media Kit ]

FlyAnglersOnline.com © Notice