The White River Fly Fishing History Series

Part One: The record Ozark drought of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s

For White River Basin fly fishermen, the drought that gripped the Ozarks in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s was, in a sense, a paradox. The initial phase of this incessantly dry period was welcomed by local anglers eager for a change from the high water of the early parts of the ‘90’s. Fishing was excellent for many months after the Corp of Engineers started shutting the water down regularly during the spring of 1997. At that point, no one could foresee the crisis that would slowly develop over the next five to seven years. During its peak, this drought threatened the very fabric of the quality tailwater fisheries in the Ozarks, but it all started out with wade-fishermen rejoicing because conditions were turning in their favor for the first time in quite awhile.

From 1997 until the fall of 1999, anglers enjoyed many low-water weekends, and during the milder times of year when power demand was limited, the water would be low for weeks on end. Wading became “the norm”, and over these two years, fishermen could usually expect good fishing and manageable water most of the time. Even though lake levels were usually at or below normal levels throughout this period, the situation was not so dire that water releases were curtailed altogether – rather, everything pretty much operated normally. Power would be generated as needed, and the fisheries were never really in danger of collapse due to prolonged low water. Rains were still able to recharge the lakes during the winters, and this allowed the Corp to keep the rivers watered. Still, flooding was non-existent for quite a long time.

Towards the end of 1999, the Corp started to press their luck. Although the Ozark region was dry, there had been enough precipitation over the previous two years to keep the fisheries in good shape; but the lake levels started to freefall just a few months before the turn of the century, especially on Bull Shoals. During the mild fall and early winter season, power was generated nearly every day, and this caused the lake to drop several more feet during a time when recharge usually starts to occur. By New Years Day 2000, Bull Shoals Lake was close to ten-foot low and Norfork Lake was nearly five-feet low. These types of deficits are common around Christmastime, as winter and spring rains almost always fill the lakes back up by early spring. In fact, there were no stories floating around that told of what actually happens if the reservoirs stay significantly low well into the spring, so it appeared that such a scenario was not something taken seriously by the Corp and other water management agencies – in their minds, a drought like this was virtually impossible. Unfortunately, we were about to find out just how quickly a drought can take hold and threaten strong coldwater fisheries, and the situation would deteriorate until a few last-minute miracles saved these rivers from a total loss. Read more


~ by troutdoctor101 on April 24, 2010.

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