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Phil Lilley
Phil Lilley

Norfork Tailwater Dry Fly Fishing

White River and Norfork Tailwater Dry Fly Fishing: Is this top-water bite as good as it gets? 

Author Unknown ~ The answer to the title question is highly subjective, and if you asked nine different anglers their thoughts, you would get nine different answers regarding favorite spots around the country for surface action. The allure of the White River and Norfork Tailwater is how easy it is to find absolutely perfect dry fly water when the flows are low. There are plenty of areas where a well-presented dry fly will catch fish most of the day throughout the year, but spring is the season where bigger bugs can make for easier and ultra-productive dry fly fishing.

The most frustrating aspect of approaching these rivers from a dry fly perspective is that the most effective flies are going to have to be very small to consistently produce rises during the fall, winter and very early spring. Stalking wary trout with microscopic midges is not for everyone, but it is a great way to see just how good you are.

Mid-spring through early summer is the time of year when White River guides and regulars can put away their tiny midges for awhile and focus on throwing bigger flies. Of course, low water and the hatches that accompany minimum flows are dictated by Bull Shoals (White River) and Norfork (Norfork Tailwater) Dams. Almost all of the best dry fly fishing occurs when the rivers are dead low, so be sure to take advantage of those uncommon years where dry weather patterns and spring coincide. It can be pure magic, as full days can be spent matching the hatch and coaxing rises in a setting that is comfortable and splendidly unique. Nymphs will usually catch the most fish, even during a good hatch, but there are times when only a dry fly will produce the desired results.


How effectively an angler reads and approaches the skinny water of the White and Norfork is going to play a major role in whether they fail miserably or have the time of their life with their dry fly pursuits. Fly selection is also important, but Ozark trout are not quite as "snobby" as their counterparts found on other famous shallow-water fisheries like the Henry's Fork in far eastern Idaho. This is because hatches do not occur often enough for the fish to get overly selective, and the majority of anglers predominantly fish with weighted flies under a strike-indicator. Still, do not expect to find totally receptive quarry, as your dry fly must compete with natural insects on the surface during a hatch while also contending with trout that have access to all the nymphs they could care to eat near the bottom. That said, there are magical times when favorable conditions, perfect weather and decent hatches combine to offer up once-in-a-lifetime dry fly fishing. What makes it so special is that the river's big fish become very susceptible to surface presentations, and the setting is like nothing else - this water could not be more perfect for dry fly fishing when the dams are shut down.

Matching the season

In a perfect world, fish would rise to large caddis and mayflies all year long, but unfortunately, that type of activity is usually only witnessed in the spring if the water is low. Typical spring weather patterns severely limit wading opportunities on the White River and Norfork Tailwater because lake and river levels will often be high this time of year. Keep your eye on generation patterns and reservoir levels - the Blue Ribbon Fly Shop Web site also lets anglers know if prime dry fly fishing is a possibility at any given time. If low water becomes common during the day on either river from late March through early June, jump on the chance to get in on some great top-water fishing. The best dry fly action will usually start in the middle of April on the White, with the Norfork usually running a week or two behind. Low water in May is what dry fly dreams are made of and the hatches tend to peak sometime around Memorial Day.

Summer can seem like a letdown from a dry fly perspective, but in reality, this season is a great time to hook into a large fish on the surface. Hatches are lighter than they were in the spring, so summer trout can become very opportunistic when it comes to taking advantage of a light insect emergence. The downside to the summer season is that low water is highly unlikely to be found after mid-afternoon, and forget about an idyllic evening spent analyzing the hatch and casting to rising trout; by dusk, both rivers will be high and fast. Anglers and fish alike must make the most of their efforts during the summer.

Fall and winter offer up some great dry fly fishing and plenty of wading, but small midge and caddis patterns fished on 6x or 7x tippet will often be necessary to fool the fish. Large terrestrials can work very well in early fall, but that action drops off quickly through October. Spring is hands down the best time of year to fish dries on the White and Norfork, and a trip diligently planned with the help of a local expert can result in the dry fly fishing experience that dreams are made of.

Matching the Spots

Because the water found within a couple of miles of the dams is very cold, hatch activity is somewhat limited in the upper reaches. For the best chance at finding active surface feeders, fish below Wildcat Shoals on the White and the Long Hole on the Norfork. There can be decent action closer to the dams, but the bugs will almost always be smaller than what is found just a few miles downstream.

On the Norfork, the best water for dries will be shallow riffles and flat runs along rock or rip-rap banks. In general, the deep and slow water of the Norfork are home to trout that are too lazy to steadily rise to the top for a beefy bug, but these same trout will eagerly eat a tiny midge emerger right below the surface. It pays to stick to moving water when dry fly fishing the Norfork.

The same types of water that fish well with dries on the Norfork will also produce over on the White, but slow, deep pools can also be good spots on that river. Who knows why there is such a difference between what constitutes a good spot on these two sibling fisheries, but the fish are the ones in charge of telling us where and how to fish. The slow and deep waters of the White are the most productive if the wind is blowing upstream and there is chop on the surface. Look for areas where the bottom is dark and not overly deep - it also helps to fish near structure like submerged boulders and exposed root wads.

Matching the hatch

Over the years, the hatches on the White River and Norfork Tailwater have become more abundant and diverse. Now, the annual caddis hatch during the spring (water flows permitting) is an area draw unto itself. Caddis are not the only insects on the water; sulphur mayflies add some variety most days. Crane flies can also be found in decent numbers on the Norfork and there are a few showing up here and there on the White. Midge hatches will often coincide with the emergence bigger bugs, so it never hurts to carry some small midge dries for when the bite gets tough on caddis and mayflies.

Fly selection is relatively simple when matching White River and Norfork hatches, and this simplicity makes this particular dry fly opportunity appealing to beginners and intermediate fly anglers. There have been many times where trout will literally eat anything floating - including white, fluorescent green or orange Palsa strike-indicators. If your indicator is getting more attention than your nymph, it is definitely a signal to switch to a dry.

For matching the caddis hatches, standard elk hair patterns in #14 and #16 will suffice, but it never hurts to mix things up with respect to conventional sizes and colors. Basic grays and olives will work throughout the spring, and there is a micro-caddis hatch in the fall on both rivers that can be cinnamon in color. Make frequent casts, short drifts and never be afraid to add a little extra movement to the fly by delicately raising your rod tip. These fish are suckers for a skittering caddis pattern.

Sulphur mayflies, which resemble PMD's, can actually be the dominant spring insect hatch on the White and Norfork, but it all depends on the individual year. Basic Cahill or parachute-style dries in #14 and #16 will work - for those who do not know; adult sulphurs are yellow to yellowish-orange in color. When fish are keying in on this hatch, the rises will resemble a toilet bowl flushing and every trout will look huge. Long dead drifts will produce better results than imparting movement to the fly like with a caddis. Because the little crane flies of the Norfork are similar in color and size to the sulphurs, if you find yourself in the midst of this particular emergence, then it does work to fish a sulphur pattern with some action.

Sulphur and crane fly activity is pretty much limited to the spring and early summer, but caddis have a much longer presence. The best way to take advantage of the White River and Norfork Tailwater dry fly experience is to utilize a drift boat to get to difficult to access stretches of water, but there are plenty of good walk-in areas where excellent fishing opportunities are available. If you plan on fishing early in the morning before the hatches are really coming off, try nymphs that imitate both caddis and sulphurs. For caddis, soft hackles along with many other popular patterns will do the trick. A big mistake many new anglers make is that they assume that sulphur nymphs are yellow. This is not the case - sulphur nymphs are dark brown, so weighted pheasant-tails are always a good choice.

Langdon's misson during our three day guide trip excursion was to land a 20" brown. Check!
 Photo taken March 15th, 2010.

Getting to the right place at the right time to experience the incredible dry fly fishing available on the White River and Norfork Tailwater will take some luck and effort. Because perfect conditions do not occur every spring, many anglers will forget about the rewards and will get their dry fly fix on more predictable rivers. This means that fly fishermen who understand all of the variables on the White and Norfork can often have insane dry fly fishing all to themselves. Be prepared for anything on a trip to these rivers, and do not plan on having a solid dry fly bite all day long. This year (2010) is looking like everything may come together for optimal dry fly conditions to develop, but we will not know anything regarding this situation until the first of April at the earliest. It has been several years since there has been a steady and long dry fly fishing window during the spring on the White and Norfork. Hopefully, this will be the spring when we can trade outboards and indicators for dry fly dressing and upward-looking trophy trout.

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