Norfork Fly Fishing Outlook: recent flooding has drastically changed this one-time trophy trout river
I spent two days on the Norfork last weekend, and I must admit that I was expecting more. The flow was low for the first time in months. Unfortunately, there were literally hundreds of other anglers on the water. This made finding open water a challenge, even with my crowd-escaping drift boat. But seeing rampant numbers of fishermen is nothing new on the Norfork, so I was more frustrated with the situation than I was surprised by it. What really caught my attention throughout my time over there was how much the Norfork has changed since the record flooding of March and April of 2008.
The practice of armchair-prognosticating is widespread on the Internet, and I have read that many of the Norfork Tailwater stakeholders feel that the Corp of Engineers made a mistake when they let loose 80,000 cubic feet per second of water through the flood-gates at the dam. My thoughts are that the Corp had no idea that the lakes would continue to rise – if they acted prematurely by making flood releases before they were absolutely necessary, a slew of lawsuits and complaints would have surely followed; especially if preventative actions ended up causing unnecessary damage. So, the Corp waited until they had no other choice but to “let ‘er rip” and the results were devastating in both the short and long term.
Norfork Dam’s 2008 flood-release caused excessive damage to structures and land along the river and this torrent also moved tons of gravel and sediment around. Natural high-water cycles serve the important purpose of ‘cleansing’ a river’s habitat, but in this case, there was far too much water flowing far too fast to do much of any good. Once the water settled down after the deluge, it was clear that the Norfork was forever-changed. Sections of the river that used to be slow and deep were now shallow and fast – and vice-versa. Gravel has piled up along every bend.
If the record flooding of 2008 was not enough, constant precipitation has kept the high-water cycle going for a subsequent two years. This has caused even more habitat displacement. Because there has been so little in the way of low water since the floods, low-water boat channels have filled in; navigating the Norfork is now tougher than ever if the water is down. This became painfully apparent as I got downstream of Gene’s Hole last Saturday in my drift boat. I had to get out and drag my vessel in many places where this type of effort used to not be necessary.
The far upper stretches of the Norfork still fish basically the same as they always have, but drastic changes are first noticed around the islands in the Quarry Park section. These gravel islands have been reduced in size by 50%, and the channels on both sides have become much slower. The tiny shoal where the channels converge is now a slow pool, and the river really gets deep once you get to Charlie’s Rainbow Resort. At this point, the Norfork is much like a lake with deep water adjacent to both banks. Wading spots in Gene’s Hole have been reduced significantly by high water, and the numbers of boats stacked up in this popular area clearly displayed the access issues confronting the Norfork. As we moved down towards the first major bend in the river below Gene’s Hole, there was gravel piled 6-feet high on both sides of the river. The nice shoal that used to be there is now a shallow, gravel run.
After I worked my way down to the Long Hole, I was hoping to see a break in the humanity, but the boats were stacked up there, as well. I became briefly curious about how the inexperienced boat-handlers would get back upstream if the water did not come up during the afternoon, but I had bigger concerns to worry about: finding a spot where my clients would not feel cramped. We finally found some good water around McClellen’s old boat dock. This small, family-run campground used to grant anglers access to the river from their property for a fee, but there has been no public access available since the property sold several years ago. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission must address this issue because the McClellen’s access was utilized by so many people. Those wanting to fish this part of the river must now either drag a boat down from the dam or walk upstream from the Ackerman Access – and yes, I noticed people making this dangerous trek. It never ceases to amaze me when I see the crazy things people do because they think they will catch more fish.
A major disappointment was seeing how much the spot below Gulley’s Island had changed in the middle of the catch and release area. Gravel was everywhere, and my favorite midge dry fly run was literally solid land. There are still some nice features to fish, but it is much more difficult to spread out than it used to be. Because it was getting dark by the time we got this far down, I did not get a lot of time to really look at the water above the Ackerman Access, but I could see enough to tell that it was radically different, as well.
Although I may have painted a bleak picture of the Norfork, there is still some good news to report. The river is loaded with chunky fish, and the habitat does look strong with respect to an abundance of scuds. I did not see very many big fish over the course of two days, and reports of trophy catches on the Norfork have been falling every year. In the early 2000’s, this river was one of the best big-trout fisheries in the country, and now, it is only slightly above average. Ironically, the White is currently faring better than the Norfork, and it has regained its reputation as the preeminent fishing destination in the region. The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is keenly aware of this decline, but they continue to drag their feet, while epitomizing the outdated “Good old boy System”. Just last fall, the AGFC made last-second changes to a regulation proposal endorsed by their trout biologist and the general public. A costly research project confirmed that this regulation was the right way to go, as well. In classic form, several AGFC Commissioners and officers met with private business owners behind closed doors, and a new regulation was devised – all of this went on [illegally] without a whimper to the public. If the Norfork is going to recover, the agency in charge of managing this resource [to its utmost potential] needs to start looking at science along with the facts.
I’m sure that I will fish the Norfork off and on this year, but I am disappointed that this river is not the ace-in-the-hole that it once was for guides. The fishery is not poor by any stretch, but it is just a mere shell of what it used to be and that is alarming. It all comes down to habitat, flows and resource management, and on the Norfork, all three are heavily influenced by man. This scares me more than it gives me hope. Still, as long as those concerned continue to bring attention to the neglect that the Norfork continues to suffer, there is the chance that the right person will hear the cries. The Norfork is the perfect example of a fishery under political hostage. This much change if this river is ever going to reclaim its world-class distinction.