White River Basin – Updated Fly Fishing Report for 4/28/11
Unbelievable flooding hits the White River Basin, but the outlook for May fly fishing is surprisingly good
Flooding is common in the Ozarks, but there have been several major events in 2008 and 2011 that have brought new meaning to the designation of what a “100-year flood” actually means. The hardest hit areas over the last few weeks have been in northwest Arkansas and south/central Missouri, but the entire White River Basin got hammered with up to ten inches of rain over the course of just a few days. On most river systems across the country, serious flooding would mean that fishing would be all but impossible for a month or more, but the dams on the White and its tributaries are doing their jobs. This is not to say that perfect conditions will prevail everywhere, but more than likely, the White and Norfork will fish very well through May.
Fly fishing the White River basin, more specifically, Bull Shoals Lake has 45 feet of flood control space, and it still has 15 feet of storage left. This means that once Beaver and Table Rock Dams shut down their flood gates, there should still be some storage left at Bull Shoals Dam. Flood stage releases at Norfork and Bull Shoals are dictated by water levels 130 miles downstream of Bull Shoals Dam, and as long as the gauge height is above 12 feet, flows will be as minimal as possible to allow the White River to recede in an area where farming interests are a major concern. What this basically means is that until levels at Newport drop below the 12-foot level, the fishing conditions on the upper White will be excellent. Look for two to four units to run most days, and the water will be crystal clear. This is ideal streamer water for hooking up with big browns, and the nymph fishing conditions will also be excellent. I know that some of you are a little intimidated about the prospect of throwing big streamers on a nine-weight rod, but it is not as difficult as one would think. I make my living teaching anglers a variety of techniques that will give them the best shot at hooking into a trophy trout, and I’ve seen many neophytes have no problems doing what needs to be done to fish streamers effectively. Of course, if it’s just a bit too much to grasp, we can always go back to using nymphs and catching plenty of good fish.
The Norfork drainage is in a bit more precarious shape than the lower White River drainage, and currently the reservoir can only hold four more feet of water. Since there is no dam upstream of Norfork Lake to control flows, another good shot of rain will force the Corp of Engineers to open the flood gates in order to lower the lake in a hurry. Hopefully, this will not happen, and if flood releases do occur as a reactionary measure to a deluge, there is a chance that river-changing flows in the 40,000 (plus) cubic feet per second could happen. Still, pretty much every free-flowing river in the world is subjected to yearly flooding, and this process does not typically hurt the fish or the river. What heavy floods do accomplish is that they clean out loose gravel which improves spawning habitat and reestablishes the river channel. Of course, floodgate releases will make the river unfishable for a week or so, but with respect to this current flood scenario took place in 2008, the fishing bounced back in a hurry. Plus, the White’s unique dynamics allow us to fish wherever flows are likely to be the most productive on any given and offer up plenty of spots that almost always offer anglers excellent conditions…somewhere in the chain.
At the moment, it appears that fishing below Table Rock Dam on Lake Taneycomo is going to be a no-go for quite awhile. When the gates were opened wide this week, the water inundated the parking lot near the outlets, and the river made its way all the way to the fence at the hatchery. This is probably the highest the river has ever been (or at least in recent memory) – only the top of the picnic pavilion below outlet number two was out of the water. Once the gates do close, the generators will still be kicking out the maximum amount of water that they can, and this will go on until the reservoir drops to 917 or 918 feet. This will be good for trout growth rates, but it will make for tricky fishing, perhaps all through the summer. Again, thank goodness for the White River below Bull Shoals Dam.
Another negative aspect of all the flooding is that it is unlikely that we will see any significant dead-low flow periods for quite awhile. This will put a dent in the plans of those who are restricted to wading only, but those with a boat will do just fine on the White and the Norfork. The fisheries will emerge in even better shape than they were when all the rain started, and by late summer when the water is likely to finally be low again, the fishing will be insane. This is something to think about as far as long-term planning. September and October will likely offer up some of the best wade fishing we’ve seen in years, and 2011 has already been remarkably good in that respect.
Even though Bull Shoals Lake is still in relatively good shape with respect to storage, and all the generators are in working order, the Norfork is potentially facing quite a predicament. Both generators are out of service over there, and all twelve flood gates are being used to mimic the releases that would be occurring if this was not the case. At the moment, water temperatures are relatively good (high 50’s to low 60’s), but the lake is warming up by the day. If the generators are not fixed soon, the river could face an influx of warm and poorly-oxygenated water, which could end up stressing out the fish. It’s not time to worry yet, but if we encounter a situation where flood releases are necessary three weeks to a month down the road, it could be a different story. Let’s all hope that the generators get fixed as quickly as possible, as it seems very unlikely that flood releases will not be needed at some point in the near future at the ‘Fork.
Another scenario that could put a damper on late spring and summer fishing is if Bull Shoals Lake fills to capacity when the surface temperatures on the reservoir get into the 80’s. The generators will keep the water on the river cool near the dam, but it will warm up quickly, and the stretch from Cotter to Buffalo City could be compromised. This potential situation is not as dire as what could happen on the Norfork, but it is worth monitoring. Browns should do fine, as they tend to prefer warmer water temperatures, but the rainbows and cutthroats could suffer.
A Silver Lining…
There is absolutely no reason to panic if you have a trip planned to visit the White River Basin at any time over the next few months. You may have to be a bit more flexible with your plans, but there should always be many good options worth exploring. Please give me a call if you have any specific questions or concerns.
Also, the didymo (aka ‘rocks snot’) had returned to the upper end of the White, and this invasive type of algae is both hard on the fish and the subsurface foods that they feed on. After the unprecedented flooding of 2008, didymo was becoming an annoying issue for anglers, and fishing rising water meant motoring (or driving) far upstream to get away from trashy flows. After the gates were opened at Bull Shoals, which was followed by months of maximum releases through the dam’s turbines, the didymo all but disappeared, and we experienced several years where the trout on the upper White grew fat and strong. As mentioned above, free-flowing rivers go through flood cycles virtually every year, as this is part of nature’s plan, but when dams are built for flood-control, it changes the downstream waterways forever. We are lucky that man’s interference in this cycle has created a world-class trout fishery like no other, but there are other places around the world where such activities have not ended up working out so well.
It’s been a pretty wet spring from the east coast to the west coast, and there are very few places where the outlook for quality fishing in the near future is good. We have been through all of this before, and I, along with my guides, know exactly what to do and where to go when such situations arise. I will be doing video and written reports as often as possible to keep everyone abreast of this fluid situation, and I welcome any and all questions. The next month is looking good, and the early fall should be excellent. Both rivers that I fish in Arkansas are choked with browns in the 18- to 26-inch range, and there are bigger ones out there. Sometimes, what seems like a bad situation can turn good in a hurry, and I think that this is the case with respect to what the Ozarks have been going through over the last couple of weeks. Look for a detailed newsletter in the near future.
Well…it feels good to get feedback about what the Miracle Fly is doing out there from some of my clientele who have fished with me before. I’m glad Eric had a good time! Here’s what he had to say.
Hey man hope things are going well with you. Just got back from my big guys trip and conditions were fairly tough on Norfork big time wind, huge rain Thursday night and all sorts of different water on Saturday. The White was a no go since we were below the blown out Buffalo. The Miracle Fly stole the show. Never have we caught the quality of fish we did over these two days (many more browns and nice bows). Spending a day with you learning how to fish this fly is key to the success users would be wise to do that.
Can you get me 50 of them in different colors and I will get you paid via Paypal?
We caught another 3 or 4 like the top one but the one on the bottom was the big’en for the couple days. All returned to fight again.
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