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Phil Lilley
Phil Lilley

North Fork of the White River

Missouri is blessed to have several free-floating rivers classified as top trout and smallmouth bass fisheries and the North Fork of the White is one of the finest.  If most resembles a mountain stream in Colorado with little visible interference from the outside world along it’s banks.  It’s nice to float and it’s even nicer to fish!

The river starts near Mountain Grove and Cabool and ends at Tecumseh when it joins Bryant Creek to form the head of Norfork Lake.  The upper 50 miles of river is smallmouth bass country but as the cold water of Rainbow Springs hits the river, it’s transformed into one of the best trout streams anywhere.

north-fork-white-rainbow-fryThe next 15 miles of river is deemed trout water as several other springs add more and more good, clean, cold water year-round.  Most anglers float the river, starting and finishing from several public accesses named later in this article.  But there are a couple of accesses one can enter the river and wade but tow things to remember:  First is to respect private property.  You can wade the river but cannot step out on the bank.  Second, the river’s bottom is mostly slick bedrock so felt-sole shoes are recommended.

Rainbow Springs dumps an average of 137,000,000 gallons of water each day.  This spring and other springs make it possible for trout to thrive in the North Fork.

Rainbows were last stocked in the North Fork in 1964.  They have survived drought and floods and have reached incredible trophy size for the adversity they’ve seen.  Brown trout on the other hand are stocked each year but they too have flourished to become a sought after trophy trout.

brian wise

River Map Link

Both species of trout are a challenge to conquer.  The water is clear and fish leery.  They don’t call these rainbows “wild” for nothing.  Don’t expect to drop in the river, present a good-looking fly and see a rainbow take it like a dumb stocker rainbow.  You have to be at the top of your game or learn how to “match the hatch” as they say.  Pretty flies are for selling . . . big ugly leeches and bead head midges are for catching trout on the North Fork.  Check with the guides on this river and see what they tell you.

North-Fork-of-the-White4.jpgNymphing is the name of the game on the North Fork.  Running a bead head through big white water rapids is an art and you have to learn it well to catch these trout.  That’s where they are—in the biggest, fastest water.  Pay close attention to the “seams”, where the fast water meets the slower, eddied water after the rapids.  Another hiding place for rainbows.

The deep holes are reserved for brown trout.  They are nocturnal, coming out mainly at night to feed on forage fish, crawfish, sculpins and even a rainbow trout.  But they will bite during the daytime.  Best times are on dark, cloudy days, rainy and windier the better.  They’re the ones who like the big, ugly flies.

Spin fishing isn’t out of the question on the North Fork.  Casting a small crawfish crank bait through the pools will hook a few rainbows and an occasional brown trout but marabou jigs, when worked in the right areas off the bottom can catch some incredible trout too.  Eighth-ounce marabou in earth colors like black, brown, olive and sculpin are deadly on these wild rainbows and the browns like them too.


River Levels


River Level - the only USGS station on the North Fork of the White

Missouri Department of Conservation Links

Missouri Watershed Inventory and Assessment Report

Fishing Regulations

Blue, Red & White Ribbon Special Trout Areas

8.6 miles Ozark County Upper outlet of Rainbow Springs to Patrick At least 18 inches

Daily Limit 1

Artificial lures and flies only
7.0 miles Ozark County The unimpounded portion of the river and its tributaries from Patrick Bridge to Norfork Lake At least 15 inches

Daily Limit 2

No bait restrictions
No White Ribbon Area on the North Fork of the White

Brown trout state-wide limit is 15 inches.

Bass, black (largemouth), smallmouth and spotted bass (kentuckies)- 15-inch length limit, 6 daily, 12 possession.

Statewide season on bass in rivers and streams is open from the 4th Saturday of May till the last day in February annually.

Rock bass (goggleye) - no length limit, 15 daily, 30 possession.

Crappie, white or black - no length limit, 15 daily, 30 possession.

Bluegill - no limit

Catfish - no length limit, 10 daily (only 5 can be flatheads in a daily limit), 20 possession.

Gigging, bowfishing and hand fishing are prohibited, and fish taken by these methods may not be possessed on these waters or their banks.

Trout Lure Definitions


an artificial lure constructed on a single point hook, using any material except soft plastic bait and natural and scented baits as defined below, that is tied, glued or otherwise permanently attached.

Artificial Lure

a lure constructed of any material excluding soft plastic bait and natural and scented bait as defined below.

Soft Plastic Bait

synthetic eggs, synthetic worms, synthetic grubs and soft plastic lures.

Natural and Scented Baits

a natural fish food such as bait fish, crayfish, frogs permitted as bait, grubs, insects, larvae, worms, salmon eggs, cheese, corn and other food substances not containing any ingredient to stupefy, injure or kill fish. This does not include flies or artificial lures. It does include dough bait, putty or paste-type bait, any substance designed to attract fish by taste or smell and any fly, lure or bait containing or used with such substances.

Fishing Licenses -

Residents - those fishing of the ages of 16 and older and 65 are required to have on their person a valid Missouri fishing license. Those 65 and older do not need a fishing license.

Proof of residency - Valid Missouri Drivers License.

Non-residents - those fishing of the ages of 16 and older are required to have on their person a valid Missouri fishing license.

For Missouri & Arkansas residents only - a special border permit can be purchased to allow fishing in both Missouri and Arkansas without purchasing an out-of-state license.

A Missouri TROUT STAMP is required for ANYONE who fishes the trophy or Blue Ribbon area on the Current River, regardless if the angler is keeping or releasing their catch. (New March 1, 2005)

Costs -

Resident - $12 annual
Non-resident - $42
Daily - $7
Trout Stamp - $7

Buy Missouri Fishing Licenses Online!

Missouri Wildlife Code

Report Violations - Poachers

In cooperation with the Missouri Department of Conservation, Operation Game Theft works to stop the illegal taking of fish and wildlife that includes trophy animals and rare and endangered species.

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