An incredible biomass on the White River
This page explains, in detail, the dynamic and prolific aquatic food sources imitated by White River and Norfork Tailwater fly fishing guides and local fly fishermen. Our trout have a virtual smorgasbord of food options available including: scuds, sow bugs, minnows, crayfish, shad, trout eggs, San Juan worms, and so much more. Because of the sheer amount of food in the White River Basin trout fisheries, trout are able to grow to trophy size very quickly. Plus, ample food sources allow the White River and Norfork Tailwater in Arkansas to hold extremely high concentrations of fish. By learning all the bugs and morsels available, you will be able to tie or buy effective trout flies for your next Ozark fly fishing trip. – Jeremy Hunt
This is a scud that got trapped on terra firma under a rock when the water dropped after power generation ceased on the Norfork. Notice the legs starting to get orangish. Eventually the scud will be totally orange. Dead scuds are an easy meal for trout and they will often key in on them when available.
Sowbugs and Scuds
Not all “hatches” are necessarily of the insect variety on the Norfork and White Rivers. If there is a cold winter, shad come through the dams, creating a feeding frenzy. Worms get washed into the rivers by the million during high water, and trout will “key in” on this easy meal. But perhaps the most overlooked “hatch” is that of the dead scud. The Norfork, and to some extent the White, are loaded with freshwater shrimp (scuds), and they will die during certain weather and water conditions. Summer is dead-scud time on the Norfork, and these patterns also work very well during the rise in water. These flies very rarely produce as well as dark olive scuds if there are no dead scuds in the water, so it’s important to watch for clues. If there are trout aggressively hitting something on the surface, and there is very little bug activity, chances are they are on dead scuds. Also, look for dead scuds in the water or along the moist banks. Every Ozark fly fisher should have these dead scud patterns in his/her box.
Crawfish are an important part of our trout’s diet. This picture was taken at the Cotter Boat Ramp and during the warmer months of spring and summer, these crustaceans are very active. Keep in mind that crayfish hibernate in the winter, so the use of patterns that imitate these critters should be limited to the times of year when the trout are seeing them most often. The best way to fish crayfish patterns is by using a strip technique with a full-sinking line that has a slow sink rate.
Family of dead Sculpins
When the water runs for long periods of time, the river’s creatures move into areas that would normally get dry quite frequently. This picture shows what happened to some sculpins that got caught on a gravel bar below Bull Shoals Dam when the water became low for the first time in months. Later that day the water came up four feet and we smoked them on a floating pale-bellied sculpin fly. Food sources become available on a whim here.
On the left is a picture I took after gently pumping a trout’s stomach. It’s easy to see worms (red/brown), and natural scuds and sow bugs. There is also midge larva and pupas, but they are too small to see. The point of all this is that trout are opportunistic and will feed on all available food sources simultaneously. Of course, the preferred fly changes daily depending on conditions, but our fish feed on the same foods 99% of the time. As a general rule, fish worm and midge larva imitations in faster water, and try weighted sow bugs, scuds, and midge pupas (zebra) in the slow pools. There is never a shortage of meals for our trout, so a good presentation is often the “deal breaker” when it comes to fooling a fish.
Washed Out Trout Eggs
Here is a picture of a two-colored ant that is orange and black. These insects find their way into the river throughout the year and tiny ant nymphs can work surprisingly well when fished with a dead-drift technique. Ants do not get enough respect from Ozark fly fishermen, but big trout love them, so it pays to carry a few dry and wet ant imitations in your box.
When temperatures get cold in the winter, shad can come through the dam creating a feeding frenzy on the rivers. In this picture you can see quite a few shad on the surface, if you really look. The best action is from a boat in high water and large, white streamers are the fly of choice.
Mottled hoppers are quite abundant on the banks of the White River Basin trout fisheries from late June through early October. Although hopper imitations work well in the early to mid summer, the action on this type of fly picks up when the winds of late summer/early fall blow many of these critters into the water. Even after the last hopper has disappeared by early October, flies that imitate these insects will be effective on BIG trout through early November. This is because the larger fish that had earlier keyed-in on this food source will remember what an easy and satisfying meal a hopper provides.
Underwater Swimming Scuds
Click on the image and you will see a swarm of scuds at the Wildcat Shoals boat ramp on the White. This pic was taken when the water got low for the first time in months. The White has always had scuds, but numbers like this are somewhat unprecedented. There are also sow bugs in the picture if you look hard enough. They resemble an aquatic roly poly. Of course flies imitating these creatures are area staples. Be aware that when a food source becomes abundant the trout can get pretty pick about flies and presentation.
Schools of Sowbugs and Scuds
There is a big sow bug in the lower left hand corner of the image. These isopods are a major food source for trout on both rivers. Sow bugs are not good swimmers like scuds so they are dead ducks when they get washed into the current. Often, trout will hit sow bug flies better than scud imitations. Why is anyone’s guess.
A swarm of midges in the afternoon. Trout feed on midges all day, every day. There are so many that trout can’t open their mouths without swallowing a mess of this tiny insect. Our fish primarily feed on subsurface midge larva and pupa, but adults are also sipped on at times. Basic pupa patterns in black and brown are a good place to start. Flies should be small…size #18 to #26. If you see trout sipping on the surface, it can be a fun challenge to fool these fish on tiny dries.
Abundance of Midges
This can give you an idea on how many midges there are. And it’s like this on every leave up by the dam. The midges are quite a bit smaller than the typical midge you see at other tailwaters, but around here you better fish smaller, in the 18-24 hook size. They’re real dark in color so I usually only fish them in black up at the dam.
Typical patch of Didymo
Okay, this isn’t a picture of a food source…it’s a picture of something that smothers habitat: didymo. This invasive parasite started showing up over the last five years and it did really stifle some of our best water like the upper Bull Shoals catch and release area. Didymo ultimately causes trout growth to stagnate. Prolonged high water in 2008 seems to have scoured this stuff out of the rivers, and the habitat is very healthy. But this can change. Be sure to wash your waders thoroughly when switching from river to river.
Over the years, more and more White River Basin anglers are beginning to recognize that the caddis hatch is worth marking on their calendars. The primary emergence of the larger species (pictured) happens in April through August. A micro-caddis can be found on the White from September through November. It seems like sunny days produce the best caddis hatches, but this is not always the case. Fishing a standard size #14 elk hair caddis pattern during falling water conditions on the White can produce explosive results.
Taneycomo and the White are not really known for dry fly fishing, and we’d like to keep it all to ourselves. Dry fly fishing can be excellent, but it is not consistent. Hatches are important, but with so many subsurface morsels for the trout, at times insect emergence is flat out ignored. In the spring, big caddis will come off midday (on lighter flows) and spikes in the evening. If a caddis dry is getting ignored, try a pupa pattern drifted along the bottom. And it never hurts to let it swing at the end. This technique seems best in the mornings when hatch activity is light but existent. There are lots of good pupa patterns out there. Soft hackles, lime-green thread flies, and sparkle pupas are all local favorites. Once you see fish aggressively feeding on the surface, it’s time to try a caddis dry.
Adult Caddis Hatch
There is nothing more fun than fishing dries in a caddis hatch. Because these bugs “bounce” on the surface when laying their eggs, trout recognize that they must be quick if they want to get in on this meal. Splashy, loud rises are the signature of caddis being on the surface. Fly selection is easy: Elk Hair Caddis patterns in brown, grey and olive. In the spring, size 12 to 16 are the standards. The micro caddis of the fall requires much smaller offerings in cinnamon color.