Norfork Conservation: Is this as good as it will ever be

Conservation Corner: Regulation strategies that should make most everyone happy (Part Two – The Norfork Tailwater)

The Norfork Tailwater is the stretch of trout stream that starts below Norfork Dam and ends with its confluence with the White River. At just under 5 miles, the Norfork is the shortest piece of coldwater habitat below any of the Ozark dams, but what it lacks in length, it more than makes up for in prolific habitat. The river is literally loaded with scuds, which are freshwater shrimp that have been dubbed by trout biologists as the “perfect” trout food, and this strong forage base coupled with healthy populations of sow bugs, midges, sculpins, minnows, crayfish and a myriad of aquatic-born insects, it is easy to see why the ‘Fork may be ‘tops’ in the country when it comes to trout growth rates. Besides being home to primarily rainbows and browns, the Norfork also boasts significant numbers of brook and cutthroat trout, so the angling experience on this stream is unique in comparison to its sister tailwaters with respect to both the large average size of the fish coupled with the fact that it is common to catch four species of trout (actually, just ‘3’ because brookies are considered a char) in a single day. This feat is commonly referred to as an “Ozark Grand Slam”. So what are the problems facing this seemingly incredible river?

Don’t get me wrong, when the Norfork is ‘on’, there may be no finer fishing in the country with respect to catching both high numbers of trout and trout exceeding 18-inches, but as many of the region’s veteran anglers will tell you, “the ‘Fork is nothing like it used to be.” From the 1950’s through the 1990’s, the Norfork was considered by many as a ‘backup’ to the White because it is a logistically challenging river to navigate by boat and wading wasn’t all that popular until somewhat recently. This lack of recognition definitely helped keep the fishing pressure low, and for many folks, the Norfork almost seemed like a secret honey-hole. Of course, when it comes to exceptional trout habitat coupled with amazing fishing, secrets only stay that way for so long, and by the early ‘90’s, the Norfork was the most popular spot in the region for fly anglers. Because most of the river’s users at this time were conservation-minded, the ‘Fork experienced a “hey-day” during this period, but as the word spread amongst the bait-fishing and harvest contingencies regarding the amazing fishing, the number of angler hours almost quadrupled overnight, and many very large fish were harvested; this has caused the fishing to be far more inconsistent than it used to be. Such a small river can only take so much abuse, and now you hear more complaints than accolades, and the White River, once again, has regained its position as the Mountain Home area’s biggest trout draw for both fly and bait fishermen.

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) has taken notice of the decline in the quality of the overall fishing experience on the Norfork over the last ten years, but no one can agree on what the best course of action is when it comes to restoring this river to its past glory. There have been several attempts by the AGFC to make trophy trout fishing a larger component of the ‘Fork (once in the early 2000’s and again in 2009). In both cases, backdoor meetings, favoritism and political clout ended up clouding what should be a relatively simple process. The bottom line is that the majority of fishermen would prefer to catch bigger fish, even if it means giving up the use of natural and scented baits, and they are also willing to curtail some of their harvest. But like with any type of public appeal that makes perfect sense, the desires of a few have had the ability to keep this treasured resource from once again reaching its potential.

The first attempt at sweeping regulations were stalled by a Commissioner who has made a name for himself in the bass fishing industry (which is ironically dominated by catch and release practices) – in this particular case, ‘he’ was going to vote against certain waterfowl regulations if the Commissioners who favored these regulations went along with making the entire Norfork a slot-limit river. Last year’s (2009) attempt to lengthen the current catch and release area was mysteriously shot down after overwhelming support at public meetings coupled with favorable data collected via angler and creel surveys. It turned out that several Commissioners and other high-ranking AGFC employees met “off the record” with a group opposed to this approximately one-mile extension because they thought it would hurt their businesses. The public was never informed of the gathering(s). Not only does this violate state “Sunshine Laws” and the Freedom of Information Act, it also clearly displays that the biggest hurdle confronting the ‘Fork is the way in which regulations are made and voted on. It is clearly wrong that commercial interests and our governor appointed Commissioners, who are supposed to represent the best-interests of the state’s sportsmen, have been successfully able to thwart what Arkansas has felt is the best course of action when it comes to the management of a popular (but declining) public resource, and until the corruption and “inside deals” come to an end, anglers in search of the best trophy fishing in the region will have to look somewhere besides the Norfork.

After years of collecting and extrapolating data, it is clear that the hook-mortality that accompanies the use of natural and scented baits is inadvertently a detriment to trout fisheries everywhere, and these effects are worse during low to moderate water flows. Conversely, artificial lures and flies, both barbed and de-barbed, have significantly less of a negative impact. Since it would be impossible to make it a rule that the dams have to release heavy water at all times to protect the trout, most regulations supported and proposed by AGFC Trout Biologists who are concerned about the entire Norfork’s trophy fish potential focus on reducing hook-mortality and limiting the number of fish that can be harvested. “Slot-limits” have proved to work exceedingly well on other stretches of Ozark tailwaters because they allow for the harvest of a few small fish for consumption and one large trophy fish; trout in the “slot” (for example, between 14 to 22 inches) have to be released immediately. Of course, there is no point of protecting a significant piece of water if good numbers of the protected fish are going to die as a result of improper handling or because of swallowing of a hook with a piece of bait affixed to it, so in order for a slot-limit to be as effective as possible, artificial lures and fly rules must be implemented. The other option that has been considered is to make the entire tailwater “catch and release only”, but I feel that a slot-limit would work just as well, while allowing a larger number of anglers the opportunity to enjoy this remarkable tailwater.

 If a slot-limit was instituted, most agree that the Norfork would rival any trout destination in the country with respect to both the numbers and size of the fish. High-water cycles would help protect the river from excessive pressure, and avid anglers would travel from all around to take part in the incredible fishing. As a result, the area would generate more revenue, and there would still be plenty of water on the White River for those who prefer to use bait and keep a stringer of fish. This all makes perfect sense to the majority of those who have a stake in the Norfork Tailwater, but no battle worth fighting is ever going to come easy. If you think that a slot-limit on the entire Norfork would be a good idea, be vigilant by writing to the Commissioners, attending public meetings and educating others who do not fully understand the significance of what these regulations would mean. A slot-limit will only work if it starts at the dam and eliminate the use of bait. Feel free to call or email me anytime if you would like to discuss this issue further or want to know how to get involved. It is always a shame when a man-made or natural event causes a decline in a fishery, but luckily for those who care about this special river, the Norfork’s biggest problem is a broken regulation process and unscrupulous Commissioners. Those issues can be mended, and I feel it is only a matter of time before there is an overhaul of the entire system and the ‘Fork will once again prosper. Remember, with the abundance of food sources in place and the very fast growth rates of trout on the Norfork, it’s never too late to save this one of a kind fishery.


~ by troutdoctor101 on December 14, 2010.

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