Understanding Fly Fishing the Ozark Region for Trout

When fly fishermen think of the angling available in the Ozark Mountain region of southwest Missouri and northern Arkansas, visions of huge brown trout come to mind. Countless record fish have been caught on the White River and its coldwater tributaries. There are five rivers that originate below dams and support trout in the Ozarks. From a fly fishing perspective, the waters below Table Rock, Norfork and Bull Shoals Dams offer up the most prime conditions and the highest concentrations of fish. These “tailwater” trout fisheries are often misunderstood because water flows are extremely unpredictable, but the fact remains that there are no better trout rivers in the country with respect to offering up the chance to catch lots of fish – along with the occasional trophy.

A basic explanation
The trout fisheries below Table Rock Dam (Lake Taneycomo), Bull Shoals Dam (the White River) and Norfork Dam (the Norfork) are subject to wild fluctuations in water flow. This can make wading impossible when the rivers get really high. When the dams are not generating electricity, a minimum flow of 40cfs is all that squeaks through the dams. These periods are characterized by perfect fly fishing conditions, as the rivers will settle into quiet pools and soft riffles. The trout are virtually everywhere, and it is common for experienced fly fishermen to have days where they catch numbers of fish in the “high double-digits” during low water. When the warning horn blows at one of the dams, it means that the water is about to come up. Within minutes, the river can become a roaring torrent, and once power generation commences, the safest and most productive fly fishing is done out of a boat.

Nobody wants to plan a trip to an Ozark trout fishery only to be faced with a high and fast river the entire time, but this is the risk that every fisherman must take when choosing this destination. Typically, the most consistent low water is to be found in the fall and winter. The number-one purpose of these dams is flood-control, so heavy rains can significantly affect generation patterns. A sensible strategy to making the most out of a White River Basin trip is to hire a guide for several days. This way, anglers will be able to fish effectively all day, no matter what the water conditions are.

The White River
This is the famous stretch of water located below Bull Shoals Dam in Arkansas. The White is a large river and it can be too deep to cross in many places, even during low flow conditions. Bull Shoals is the largest dam in the Basin, and conditions below this facility can change radically every hour. Because the trout habitat extends for almost 100 miles below the dam, it is possible to drive to different spots downriver in search of the right water conditions. From a wading fly fisherman’s perspective, the best stretch of water would be from Bull Shoals Dam downstream to where the Norfork Tailwater flows into the White. The White is a great place for beginners to learn because of the high number of eager rainbows, and experienced fly fishermen will relish the challenge of pursuing the many large brown trout. There are plenty of riverfront lodging entities located on the White below Bull Shoals Dam, and there is great fishing to be had on this river every day of the year.

The Norfork Tailwater
“The Norfork”, as the locals refer to this stretch of river, boasts the best 4.8 miles of trout habitat in the South. This river produced a world-record brown trout in the 1980’s, and there is no better place to enjoy fly fishing. In fact, it seems like Norfork’s smaller size lends itself to those who like to fly fish. Access can be an issue, but there are plenty of good spots to get to the water right below Norfork Dam. There is also a catch and release area and access in the middle section of the river where the water is characterized by small pools perfect for sight-fishing. During low water periods, the Norfork is no place to be stuck with a boat. When the fishing is “on” here, the action on nice fish is non-stop.

Lake Taneycomo
The tailwater trout fishery located below Table Rock Dam outside of Branson, Missouri is technically a lake because of a small dam on its lower end. Most of this section of the White River is deep and slow, but the upper three miles offer a similar feel to what is experienced on the White or the Norfork. Special regulations enacted on the first three miles of Lake Taneycomo were intended to increase both the size and numbers of rainbow trout in that zone. The strategy has worked, and there are extremely dense populations of big rainbows up near the dam. Lake Taneycomo is known as the easiest place to go after for trout in the Ozarks, and the fish here are unusually aggressive.

The Ozarks are centrally-located and the trout fishing in this region is known for being very productive. When searching for that perfect fly fishing destination, consider the White River, the Norfork or Lake Taneycomo. These are beautiful rivers that can be a lot of fun. Although water flows can make things tricky, the White River Basin is still one of the premiere trout fishing spots in the country. Anglers must be open-minded and flexible in order to take full advantage of this productive trout fishing region.