Arkansas Fly Fishing Memories

The path to a perfect White River trout fishing experience below Bull Shoals Dam

By Gabe Cross

When I first moved to Arkansas to follow my dreams of becoming a full-time fly fishing guide, I found the catch and release area below Bull Shoals Dam to be quite intimidating. The water up there is made up of predominantly slow pools that are extremely shallow. Just walking along the bank will cause countless fish to scatter, and I have seen trout run from the shadow of half a Palsa indicator before it hits the water. My first few outings to this section of the river were spent catching some fish in the shoal area while convincing myself that there are no trout to be found in the expansive pools right below the dam or below the shoal. Ignorance is bliss – at least it is for a little while.

One day early in the spring of 2000, I ran into another fly fisherman while I was fishing the shoal. He had fished the Top Pool that morning (and the day before), and his results were [apparently] very impressive – especially with respect to his first day. This guy did not appear to be overly experienced, but he had fished with a guide for some of the time, so he did have a bit of coaching under his belt. He showed me a small Chuck’s Emerger that had caught most of the fish on, and immediately I felt that I needed to be swinging and stripping soft hackles. While this technique did produce a few “follows” on subsequent outings, it was not the Holy Grail for this challenging slow water that I thought it might be. Still, I was intrigued at how this method could produce so well for that one guy and not for me; all the answers would come over the next month as I learned about the benefits of wind during low water.

During my “training period” (first year) as I guide, I read anything and everything I could about the White River and Norfork Tailwater. Here and there I would come across talk of nymph fishing in slow water, and occasionally someone would mention the wind chop being very important. Since 2000 was a drought year, there was low water available pretty much all day every day, and one fateful afternoon everything came together on a slow pool below Norfork Dam. The wind chop gave the water’s surface texture, and dangling a weighted fly such as a scud below a Palsa was resulting in a nice fish on virtually every cast. That night I had an epiphany; what if I tried fishing the Top Pool at Bull Shoals Dam on a windy day? Since the water is so shallow up there, I would have to set the strike-indicator very close to the fly, but it was worth trying out.

The very next day I met a friend up by the dam, and after nailing a few in the shoal, I decided to head up top. The wind chop was sporadic, and conditions would switch from ideal to slick with the bat of an eye. Since I did not really know the best spots, I was fishing blind, but during the brief periods of perfect chop, I was able to hook and land a few big rainbows. The wind died quickly after my brief successes, and all I could think about was fishing that stretch on a really windy day.

My day came before long, and I landed over twenty fish in water that just weeks before had perplexed me to no end. The wind was critical in hiding my flaws from the fish, and the wave action on the surface gave my weighted fly a very seductive action near the bottom. Eventually, I learned where and how to fish up by the dam during low and calm conditions, but I always hope for a steady breeze to this day.

A year later in 2001, we had another low-water year, and I was able to put everything I had learned about fishing below Bull Shoals Dam to the test. I will probably never be lucky enough to experience another season of fishing like I did that year, as the size of the fish I caught coupled with the fact that I often fished in solitude made it a true once-in-a-lifetime experience. There were many great days that spring, but one in particular sticks out as being the best of the best.

The wind and the hot fishing it brings does not usually start up by Bull Shoals Dam until mid-morning, and sunny days are the absolute best for some reason. I got to the dam around 11am, and like usual, there was no one else fishing. Back then, most fly anglers did not bother with this area because there were so many easier places to go that had nice fish; only a few local guides even took the time to intimately learn this prolific stretch of water for trophy rainbows.

The conditions were spot-on perfect from the start on this day with both wind and sun, and my first drift resulted in a 20-inch, brightly-colored rainbow. For the next hour or so, I hooked and landed a trout on almost every cast. While this, in and of itself, is not that unusual, the fact that I was only hooking big fish was. In the first spot I tried, I landed eight fish, and seven were over 20-inches.

I decided to give that water a break and try another section for awhile. The action was the same over there, and I landed another five trophy fish on less than ten casts. A few of these fish were browns which really made my day. While fighting one more big fish, the horn blew, and it was time to go. I looked at my watch and realized that I had not even fished for three hours. During that time, I landed at least a dozen large trout up to 24-inches and no small ones. If fishing was always this easy, it would take the fun out of it, but there sure were bunches of banner days in 2001 that I wouldn’t mind repeating. The river has changed quite a bit since that time, and the new addition of habitat in the Top Pool and shoal has forced everyone to relearn these areas. There are still plenty of big fish in the catch and release zone below Bull Shoals Dam, and if the water is low, the wind is up and the sun is out, there is no better place to fly fish in the Ozarks.


~ by troutdoctor101 on March 31, 2010.

One Response to “Arkansas Fly Fishing Memories”

  1. Jeremy,

    Nice story. Some day I’ll fish the White. My new book, It’s Not about the Fish is out. Check it out on my website at You should come take a shot at some steelhead sometime.


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