Where are all the Norfork Brook Trout?

Over the last ten years, both numbers and fish size have plummeted

By Gabe Cross

It’s kind of fun to look back on my early days as a White River and Norfork Tailwater fly fishing guide. I was so eager to try everything, and I spent over 300 days on the water each of my first two years living in Arkansas. Most of those outings were not for guided trips, so I spent a ton of time learning on my own before I got really busy with work.
I moved to the Mountain Home area at the beginning of October in 1999. At the time, the region was in the grip of a terrible drought that had been building for the two previous years. By the time March came along, all the Lakes in the White River System were unusually low for spring. Water releases were few and far between over the first half of 2000, but there was a brief high-water period on the Norfork during March that really opened up my eyes.

There is no way to say for sure why Norfork Dam generated power for the entire month of March back in 2000, but perhaps it had something to do with presold power and the fact that Norfork Lake was the least low of the bunch. I was gung-ho to learn all I could about fly fishing during high water, so I spent the good part of that month learning the ropes with some friends. The general consensus amongst area anglers is that big fish are usually caught on big water, and I was more than ready to put this to the test.

My first real high-water fly fishing experiences were amazing during March of 2001, but not because of all the huge fish we caught. We primarily drifted the first mile below Norfork Dam, and 95% of the fish we caught were brook trout that averaged 14-inches in length. It seemed like every time out we would catch a few brookies in the 16 to 17-inch range, as well. The action was insane, and it was very rare to land anything but a brook trout – they were feeding voraciously. Sixty fish afternoons were common, and like with all good things fishing related, we were sure this hey-day would never end.

It took me a little while to figure out why there were so many nice brookies in the Norfork around the turn of the century, so I did a little bit of investigating. I learned that brook trout prefer the coldest water that they can find, and that is why they all tend to hang out near Norfork Dam. High water really stimulates brook trout feeding behavior, but since low water had been the norm for several years, there had been very few chances for fishermen to go after brookies during optimal feeding conditions. The population exploded after two or three stocking cycles with negligible harvest. By 2000, the river was choked with brook trout just itching to get caught. At that time, all I could think about was the bright future of this prolific southern brook trout fishery.

For the next few years, we could count on hammering brookies near Norfork Dam anytime the water was running, but both the size and quantities of fish started to drop off as the drought broke and higher flows returned. This made sense because anglers finally had the chance to fish to feeding brook trout, but what happened next was tragic. All of a sudden, the high concentrations of fish were decimated seemingly overnight. How could this happen? No one reported any sort of fish kill, so there was a mystery to be solved.

The answers came quickly when another guide overheard some chatter at one of the commercial trout docks right below Norfork Dam. Apparently, these two “sportsmen” were bragging about how easy it had been to harvest 30 to 40 brookies a day, every day! The case was closed and the cause of the downfall of the Norfork brook trout fishery was blatant poaching by local guides. Wildlife officers to this day know who these offenders are, but they seem to be unwilling or powerless to do anything about the problem.

This is just another sad tale of mismanagement of a world-class resource by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission. They failed to recognize the value of this emerging brook trout fishery and they refused to act on numerous tips from those that witnessed these egregious violations. Is one man’s right to kill and eat fish greater than another man’s right to catch large fish? The bottom line is that the agencies in charge of protecting our resources have done just the opposite over the last ten years. It is sad to read about people who are thrilled to catch an 8-inch stocker brook trout just so they can say they caught a “Grand Slam” when just ten years ago brook trout were the most abundant species near the dam. These fisheries have no chance to survive far into the future until there is a massive shift in attitude. Although this battle can get disheartening, I will fight for the Norfork until the bitter end. It’s just too good of a resource for me to stand by while it is dismantled from within. What a disgusting thought that is.


~ by troutdoctor101 on April 3, 2010.

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