Savvy guides and veteran White River Basin fly fishermen have known a little 'secret' for years: every late summer and early fall season offers up some of the best terrestrial fishing to be found anywhere in the country. Part of the reason that this bite doesn't receive more notoriety is the fact that it normally just gets going in the Ozarks at a time when most other rivers are well past having significant hopper activity.
The White River and Norfork Tailwater often run heavy water to meet power needs all summer long during the afternoons, and these conditions are not normally conducive for finding fish that are keyed-in on surface food sources. Once flows start to decrease with the cooler weather of September and early October, many of the river's bigger fish start to aggressively feed on big, floating flies, even though it may have been several months since they have actually seen the real thing. This year has been different, and hopper fishing has been exceptional since mid-July. Sometimes, there is no rhyme or reason with respect to tailwater trout behavior, and perhaps there are more terrestrial insects making their way into the rivers than normal. The Farmer's Almanac states that MO and is poised to be wet while AR is supposed to be dry which leads to your typical Arkansas summer. In addition, the forecast of NOAA and other organizations have predicted hopper infestations pretty much everywhere west of the Mississippi.
Approaching the White and Norfork can be a challenge upon itself, and there are two distinct ways to fish hoppers on these waterways. When flows on the White are running at the one to three-unit level, a boat allows anglers to cover the most amount of water possible. Drifting is a plus if finding really big browns is the goal, but anglers must be prepared to make long casts in order to get far enough away from the obtrusiveness of a vessel when attempting to fool spooky fish. Working the riffles and shoals can produce explosive results, and to target the larger trout, diligently work structure and tailouts that are adjacent to deep water. Most of the hopper fishing done by the Blue Ribbon Fly Shop guide staff this summer has been from out of a boat, but as low water starts to get more common and extended, wading will offer up an effective strategy for sneaking up on fish that are looking upward to feed.
Many fishermen who are wading the White and Norfork for the first time typically focus their efforts on the most "fishy-looking" areas like riffles, runs and deep pools. These zones are good places to start, but it's important to also work over the abundant slow-water areas, especially if there is some wind chop disrupting the surface. Look for submerged moss beds or trees/rootwads to help narrow down where the best pools are. The trout on the Norfork are not usually as eager to smash a hopper as the fish on the White are, so one of the most efficient ways to present big dry flies on the 'Fork is to focus on very shallow riffles where you can actually see fish cruising around. Keep in mind that the trout within a couple miles of Norfork Dam prefer to feed on nymphs, no matter what type of bugs are available, so it pays to primarily fish on top from McClellen's downstream to the Handicap/Ackerman access, as this section is loaded with the types of water that are ideal for coaxing a surface strike.
Fly selection for fishing the "hopper hatch" is somewhat simple; the best patterns are going to be big, bulky and easy to see. Dave's Hoppers are a good place to start, while ants, stimulators and other standard terrestrial flies are also good choices. The fish can get somewhat picky, so be sure to try something different if what you are using is not producing. Huge patterns in the size #2 to the size #4 range are perfect for targeting really big fish, and smaller offerings (sizes #6 to #12) are just right for fooling trout of all sizes. With respect to gear, a five or six-weight will work fine, and floating lines in drab colors (greens, grays, etc.) help with making a stealth approach when the fish get wary. Whether wading or fishing out of a boat, long rods are the way to go on the White and Norfork because the layout is so open and such rods make it easier to pick up bulky flies. Eight and a half to ten-footers are just right for hopper fishing in the Ozarks.
Photo courtesy of resident Blue Ribbon Guide, Forrest Smith.
As mentioned above, the hopper fishing in 2010 has started up earlier than normal due to a variety of factors, so the action in September and October should be spectacular. The White and Norfork have the reputation for just being nymph rivers, but in reality, all types of dry flies can work exceptionally well when the water is low or running lightly. Please do not hesitate to give Blue Ribbon Fly Shop a call if you have any questions about the current and future hopper prognosis - and we would love to hear how you are doing when visiting the area, so never hesitate to drop by and say 'hi'. It is very possible to catch some really nice fish -including trophies that are over 20-inches - when our trout are in the mood for a big meal, and when the hopper bite comes together, there may be no more of an exciting way to fish any of the Ozark Tailwater coldwater fisheries.
Blue Ribbon stocks hoppers from Idlewilde, Montana Fly, Umpqua, and locally tied patterns produced exclusively for BR bins.