Dry Fly Fishing on the White River, Norfork Tailwater and Lake Taneycomo


During the right conditions, the top-water action is as good as it gets

When most fly anglers think about fishing the White River Basin and its legendary trout fisheries, images of dredging the bottom with heavy nymphs or working a streamer along bank structure come to mind. An extremely rich habitat, coupled with a prolific forage-base, make these rivers very productive from a sub-surface standpoint, but there are still plenty of opportunities during the course of a normal year to coax big fish to the surface with a dry fly. Unlike on many Western waterways where fishermen must possess a PHD is insect-identification to match the prevailing hatches; the situations a dry fly angler will encounter in the Ozarks are quite simplistic. Over the years, the variety of insects present on the waters of the White River, Norfork Tailwater and Lake Taneycomo have increased in scope, and during low water conditions, savvy anglers can get in on dry fly fishing that rivals what is available on any other fishery in the country with respect to action and big fish opportunities.

Understanding the dynamics at play

The dams that control the river levels on the White, Norfork and Lake Taneycomo are operated in such a way that flows can increase and decrease at a moment’s notice. Most fly anglers seek out low-water conditions, as these big rivers will settle into an approachable series of quiet pools and shallow riffles when there is no power being generated. Because water levels change so frequently, these trout will hardly ever exhibit consistent feeding behavior. Anglers – especially those eager to fish dry flies – must pay close attention to fish activity, if they want to be successful. When flows are low, there is always some degree of activity on top, but it is easy to mistake a fish taking midge pupa in the surface-film for one eating an adult insect. If the trout’s mouth is easily in view during the rise, the fish is likely slurping a floating bug. When the rise resembles a toilet bowl flushing or fins are visible but the mouth is not, the fish is probably feeding in the surface-film on midge pupas and emergers.

Even though the best dry fly fishing typically occurs when the dams are quiet, there can be decent surface action during light to moderate flows. These are particularly good times to fish with terrestrial patterns like hoppers and beetles, but there will often be fish sipping away along slack-water banks and near the edges of strong riffles. The main reason that dry fly fishing has not caught on as a go-to method for Ozark tailwater trout is that nymph fishing and throwing streamers just works so well. It is hard for me to be surrounded by boiling trout without at least trying a dry, even if I’m tearing them up on scuds or Zebra Midges. Still, many people are hesitant to try dries because they have ‘heard’ that they do not work. They would be surprised at how many times a surface presentation will out-produce the heralded local nymph techniques.

Timing is everything

If Table Rock, Bull Shoals or Norfork Lakes are at or below normal (power pool) levels in late April through mid June, conditions should be prime for some good hatches to occur in certain areas. The trout on these rivers are voracious feeders that quickly recognize the presence of insects on the surface. They will key-in on any readily-available food source. Perhaps, the fish like to eat something different every once in awhile. There is no truth to the rumors that dry flies will not catch trout in the Ozarks. The best hatches will start to occur on the White and Lake Taneycomo in the beginning to middle of April, where the Norfork will not usually heat up until the early part of May. During low water, there will be steady periods of insect activity through the summer and fall, but the best of the fishing will be during the spring. Falling water, which occurs after the dams stop generating electricity, can really help get the hatches rolling – this is especially true on the Norfork. If the water shuts off between 9am and noon, I know that great dry fly conditions will emerge within two to three hours after the initial shutdown in the stretch of water from McClellen’s to the Ackerman Access. This little piece of advice is meant to help anglers recognize a desirable scenario so that they may find themselves at the right place at the right time.

Just because the best hatches of big bugs occurs during the spring, trout on the White, Norfork and Lake Taneycomo will rise to dry flies throughout the year. What makes the spring so appealing is the relatively large size of the bugs on the water and that the weather is usually quite comfortable. Insect size decreases as the season progresses. By the colder months of the year, the only bugs left hatching consistently will be tiny midges, with the occasional Blue Winged Olive or micro caddis. Fine tippet and small flies – size #18 to #24 – are often required to catch fish on dries during the winter.

The insect ‘players’

As mentioned, the hatch situations one is likely to encounter while fishing an Ozark trout fishery are not extremely complicated. These fish do not get the chance to feed on adult insects often enough to get overly selective of dry fly offerings – basically, anglers just need to try and match the size and color of their fly as closely as they possibly can to the natural insect. Rarely does everything have to be ‘perfect’ to coax a rise. If the water has been low fairly regularly, the fish will often feed on emergers and nymphs in the morning, but they will quickly change over to taking bugs off the surface once the hatch gets steady.

Midges hatch on the White, Norfork and Lake Taneycomo 365-days a year, and part of the fun of the spring is the chance to put the little, technical flies away for awhile. I only start to worry about midges later in the summer. The main players with respect to spring dry fly fishing in the Ozarks are caddis and sulphur mayflies. Craneflies are also out in significant numbers on the Norfork. Imitations can be basic. Cahill-type flies work well for the sulphurs, and standard elk hair designs are fine for caddis imitations.

Colors and sizes are relatively straightforward. Size #14, #16 and #18 will effectively cover the sulphurs on these rivers, and any sort of yellow dubbing will do the trick. The caddis present can get big – up to a size #12. Drab colors like gray and smoky olive seem to work well for matching this bug. An interesting thing to consider about these fisheries is their relatively young age. Natural rivers develop their insect base over the course of thousands of years. The White and Norfork have only been coldwater resources for just over 60 years. New hatches seem to come along quite frequently, so it does pay to be observant. Still, for springtime dry fly success in the Ozarks, a selection caddis and sulfur patterns will get the job done nine out of ten times.

River breakdown:
The White

Out of the three fisheries mentioned in this article, the White River below Bull Shoals Dam offers up the most consistent dry fly fishing of the bunch – if the water is low. But therein is the dilemma: Bull Shoals is the least likely dam to shut the water off. In order to take full advantage of limited opportunities, anglers must constantly stay abreast of current water conditions. The best dry fly fishing will occur from the Narrows down through Buffalo Shoals, and the trick is to find the areas where the water is still barely dropping, if this is at all possible. Another hot bite will occur during the hour before the water starts to rise. Popular walk-in areas to fish dries are: Round House Shoals, Wildcat Shoals and Rim Shoals, but there is more decent dry fly water on the White than most people could fish in a lifetime. It is possible to catch some big fish on the surface in the catch and release area below Bull Shoals Dam, but offerings must be kept as subtle as possible because of the skinny and pressured nature of the water up there.

The hatches will start really popping in early April, and the bugs will get bigger as you move downstream from the dam. Look for the tail-outs of riffles to provide the steadiest fishing, but the slow-water areas can turn on if a little wind chop graces the calm surface of the water. Bugs will sometimes hatch in force during high water in the spring, but the dry fly experience that most people are after is really only possible when the river is at, or very near, dead-low levels. After the heavy water releases of summer, there are some smaller caddis that can be found, especially in the sections between Cotter and the confluence with the Norfork. The fish on the White seem to be more aggressive towards dry flies than the trout on the Norfork and Lake Taneycomo. Perhaps, this is a reflection of the fact that food sources on the White are more scattered and diverse. There is never a bad time to try the surface on this river if the water is low. A small nymph dropped from a high-floating dry is an effective rig almost any time of year when steady hatches are not coming off.

Lake Taneycomo

When there is no power being generated at Table Rock Dam, the Lake Taneycomo section of the White River is characterized by long, slow and deep pools. This is not the type of water that most people consider ideal for dry fly fishing. Fishing flat water with dries does take some patience. One key to successful dry fly fishing on upper Lake Taneycomo is to pick the right depth of water to fish. Since there are trout literally everywhere on this tailwater, a good strategy is to locate shallow areas where the fish will be forced to look at a fly on the surface. There are some nice runs below the upper outlets, and dry fly fishing can be fantastic up here in the afternoons.

The hatches on upper Lake Taneycomo are very limited, as midges are the primary insect found near the dam. For this reason, small and simple flies will do the trick. I like to use a thread midge pattern in yellow, black, olive or red in sizes #20 through #24. A little bit of wind chop on the surface really helps by covering up presentation flaws, but if the water gets too turbulent, little dries often get submerged by small waves. It is a lot of fun to stalk trout along with bank with tiny dries on Lake Taneycomo, and big fish will slurp tiny midges all day long. In my opinion, since most people are not fishing with dry flies here, the bigger fish feel comfortable and safe eating something small off of the surface. Since there is no significant spring hatch period on upper Lake Taneycomo, the success of fishing on top will vary each day. I have experienced some great action with dry flies during the fall and winter by ‘skating’ a midge across “nervous” water – this can be a productive technique throughout the year.

The Norfork Tailwater

This relatively short tailwater is truly the best in the Ozarks with respect to overall fly fishing. The habitat is supersaturated with aquatic life, so the fish here grow big very quickly. Compared to the White, there are significantly more low-water days on the Norfork, which makes this river an appealing hangout for fly anglers. With respect to dry fly fishing, the Norfork offers up diverse hatches and plenty of “dream” water for drifting small to medium-size dries. Spring and summer are the best months, but there are hundreds of good spots for fishing on top any time of year, as long as the water is low.

The caddis and sulphurs typically start being recognized by the fish on the Norfork in late April. This action will often peak in mid June, right around the time that heavy water is released daily in the afternoons for power demand due to hot weather. After that generation pattern takes hold, dry fly fishing opportunities will be curtailed. Significant numbers of crane flies can be found in the middle sections of the river – from McClellen’s down to the Ackerman Access. This insect’s emergence is not a true aquatic hatch because the nymphs crawl out of the mud along the banks. It only takes a slight breeze to cause the poor-flying adults to get stranded on the water. Sulphur patterns function as a decent imitation for the very small Norfork crane flies. In order to create the proper illusion, the fly should be fished with a lot of movement to effectively imitate a crane fly that is trying to fly after getting blown onto the water.

The absolute best hatches occur on days when the water runs in the morning and then shuts down before noon. The middle zone of the river will fish very well for the last half of the falling water period, and the bite will usually continue all afternoon after the water falls out completely. In the summer, there can be a window of late-morning hatch activity, from when the fog burns off, until the water comes up. At best, anglers can expect a couple of hours of good dry fly action, but the dog-days of summer can be challenging on the Norfork. Fall is a great dry fly fishing season, as well, and BWOs, along with midges can provide some surface action on colder, cloudy days during the winter. There is always decent midge activity near the dam, but during the spring hatch season, the bigger bugs will be found from McClellens Shoal down to the Norfork’s confluence with the White. It seems as though the larger insects prefer slightly warmer water. Terrestrial fishing can be insane in September and October.

Planning a fly fishing trip to the White River, Norfork Tailwater and Lake Taneycomo specifically to fish dry flies may leave an angler disappointed due the unpredictability of these fisheries. The best way to take advantage of this special bite is to study the prevailing release trends and then hit the river if there is consistent low water at some point during the spring. If this is not possible, just come prepared to fish dry flies so that you will be ready to act when the proper conditions present themselves. Each day on these quirky rivers will offer up unique and challenging dry fly fishing, and those who observe while they fish will recognize when the timing is right to catch lots of nice fish on dries. There is nothing like that feeling of ‘knowing’ that a rise is highly likely on each cast. This type of hey-day fishing does occur when favorable conditions coincide with a little bit of luck. A low water spring in the Ozarks presents a version of dry fly fishing nirvana that will cause a euphoric rush in any dry fly enthusiast.

***Please sign up for our subscription version of the newsletter in the boxes located on every page of http://www.taneycomotrout.com, as we will be delving deeper into the dry fly fishing topic in our March edition’s “Guide Secrets” section. Over the course of the next three months, I will be releasing similar articles to the one above that feature nymph, streamer and emerger fishing on the White River, Norfork Tailwater and Lake Taneycomo. There will be exclusive follow-ups to each piece in subsequent newsletters.

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~ by troutdoctor101 on February 8, 2010.

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